(This is particularly for the “guilty liberals” among you/us… that is those of us who have privilege, know we have privilege, but feel awkward about it and aren’t quite sure what to do with/about it. There are some things we need to talk about, and we need to do it before “our” culture completely destroys the planet. If you aren’t a member of this group, but you still wish to see what I have to say, you’re welcome/encouraged to join in the conversation. If you keep reading you’ll find that this is about “us” taking more responsibility by learning to listen and see better, even though I’m struggling with the very concept of “us”. I will additionally say that I am working at the very edge of what I’m able to think about here. Feeling around in the dark… literally at this moment.)
I learned something important from my daughter about justice, ethics, and what constitutes fairness. Unfortunately, it seems to be intrinsic to our culture, and once I started thinking about it, it had nothing to do with justice, fairness, or ethics. It is this: The great injustice in Cinderella is not that she is poor. There are poor people everywhere in fairy tales, and at the end of it all, only one is ever lifted up out of the bounds of poverty. The injustice in Cinderella is that she is poor when she rightly should be rich. Really, she always was a princess, and the end of the story is just a confirmation of the right order of things. As my daughter put it, “Cinderella is actually the person who owns the house, and she has to do all the chores and cleaning.”
There is so much complexity in here that I have been unpacking this conversation for several months already. I’m not done, but I don’t think I can do the rest of it on my own. Cooler/differently educated heads may need to prevail.
Key assumptions seem to be:
- Essentialism: That there is an essence to the princess. She IS a princess by right of birth. In rare circumstances, the main character can become a princess by right of her extreme beauty or goodness, but then you know that really, she was meant to be a princess all along.
- Entitlement: the fact of having been born to a king and queen, or into wealthy circumstances is an indication that she has the right to such wealth.
- That somehow these facts are tied up in her being good, kind, and beautiful, thus proving that the world is a good, kind, and beautiful place.
This is one of the great myths of our society. This is what my daughter thinks the world is like, because these myths are what we use to make sense of it all, and I (all so innocently) aided and abetted, allowing and even encouraging the princess play, the different versions of Cinderella (I think there are three in our movie collection), only concerned about what it would do to my feminist ideals. It never occurred to me that our society is founded on these princess ethics. Well, obviously it did, but a little too late, we might say.
What do I do with this now? It no longer seems like the lovely play of dreams, but the very foundation of the hierarchy, abuses, and social structures. “We” who have been born into privilege are struggling… how do we maintain this comfort, this amusement? Can we do so without giving anything up? Must we learn to share, and if so, how do we make sure that we still stay at the top of the heap? And how do we simultaneously maintain the belief that the world is fair, just, and beautiful in the face of all evidence to the contrary?
She just wants to play at power, controlling the world around her, and having access to endless wealth, jewels, and beautiful flouncy dresses. How is that so different from my continual reading of decorating magazines? (You can imagine me putting my head down on the desk at this point.)
In the process of this rambling, I happened upon the metaphor of the game. We hear this frequently. Life is a game, and money is how we keep score. He who dies with the most toys wins. It occurred to me, though, that when we play a board game, eventually a winner is declared, and we start again. There is no reset on this game, and we come into it with completely different starting conditions. The game metaphor sucks! Not to mention that as an idea, it lets us out of all the responsibilities, and we cheat. Play against people who don’t know the rules, stack the deck, give ourselves more money to start with, change the rules in mid-stream to make sure that we continue to benefit, make up new rules, steal the bank… Wait a minute! Forget the metaphor. The game sucks.
This game does not make the world it pretends to. I don’t like this game any more, and I’m one of the winners, or at least one of the people who hasn’t yet been wiped out by landing on Boardwalk with a hotel. This is not a world where good triumphs, and true beauty and kindness are rewarded. It is a world in which the villain knocks the tops off entire mountains, creates Isengard in West Virginia, and then retires to a nice home in a different part of the country. Where we can be horrified by the situation, struggle with it, grow some vegetables and chickens, and then drive to town because that’s where the next part of today’s story is, all princess-like.
We’re adrift. We’ve carried our myths, but lost their ties to place. European myths moved around, everywhere in the world, lost track of and obliterated the local storylines, and our ancestors became wanderers, children, ever-seeking never-finding agents of destruction and loss.
Don’t hunt the kangaroo during breeding season! This is how you make sure the salmon come back every year! Don’t lose the stories, or you will lose your way. Don’t carry the stories across an ocean, and only bring part of them! You will never find your way back and you will completely alter the place you went to trying to reconstruct the place you came from.
Breadcrumbs, we have nothing but breadcrumbs, and most of those have been eaten. If we happen upon them, nobody can remember why they were there in the first place. There is no home to go to, and there is no home where we are. We are placeless, and lonely, and we secretly think that we are really the lost princess in disguise and that if only we had that new iPhone everything would work out.
Experiments in Agency
The reason I keep running into the myths, the stories, and the structures as I try to make sense of this all is that they don’t just limit what we can do. They limit what we can think of to do. They also limit how much impact any one of us can have. I could give up everything and it wouldn’t benefit the world. Not significantly. This is the position of privilege: I can hand it back, but only to a certain extent. I can call it for what it is, but I can’t change the way that other people perceive me when I simply walk down the street. There are millions of years written on my body. I can’t unlearn my stories, although I can learn to hold them up to examination. And I can’t erase a thousand years of injustice; there is nowhere for me to go back to. This is not guilt. It is frustration. I’m angry.
I’ve been watching and reading across a wide range of radical education recently. We educated white European-descended people are disproportionately represented on these screens. Of course we are. We come from the tradition that wrote the story. But it is coming to a rather nasty conclusion, and many of us are starting to realize that. It is our job to do something about it, AND it is our job to learn the stories which have been lost… not as anthropologists, not as curious outsiders, not as colonizers, and not as princesses or knights riding in to the rescue, but as co-inhabitants of this world that is in desperate need for us to stop wandering as lost, destructive, and well-armed children, looking for our castles in the sky.
What else? What else is possible, if the princesses don’t always prevail? What if, at the end, the whole kingdom is liberated? What other ethic could be?