THE ECOLOGY OF FEMINISM; THE PRINCESS MYTH

           (A Personal Account from an Alligator Hunter)

In the social sciences, when wanting change, we often talk of a choice between “draining the swamp” and “shooting the alligators”.  I have usually sided with the drainers.  But it has just occurred to me that each of these solutions to the threats posed by alligator infested swamps is unacceptable from an ecological perspective.  What damage is going to be done to the whole eco-system by holus bolus swamp drainage and what other predators may rise if alligators are taken out of the animal chain?

When talking specifically of the feminist movement, I have been on the side of both the drainers and the shooters. I have admired all of those who have led the quest for equality of opportunity for women in all fields.

I have supported advocates in their successful draining the swamps by the means of education of both men and women and by social equality including specifically in politics, under the law, in work, in family matters and with regard to financial matters.  In terms of alligator shooting, I have also supported the direct challenges to the authority of men over women in any areas, including challenges to the traditions and ideas that lay behind that domination and challenges to the men (and some women) who propounded and espoused them.

Sadly, I think the eco-system of male – female interaction became damaged and is now taking its revenge. We have been left with a toxic balance and new predators.

History  A short autobiographic aside to set the scene for the general feminist position as I saw it in 1950s and 60s seems necessary at this point.  In 1958 as a young Arts/Law student, starry eyed and buoyed with the conviction (gently imbued in me by my parents) that I could do anything to which I put my mind, I set out to enact such a vision.  My mother had graduated from University in 1935.  She graduated in Arts with a Diploma in Education, as befitted a young woman, even though her majors were Zoology and Botany. As soon as she married she had to resign from her position as a schoolteacher because of the philosophy of the time that married woman should not take positions which men could occupy. My father (and his two siblings) on the other hand, were brought up and supported by his very competent and suddenly independent mother after she had been widowed when my father was ten.

At University I met like-minded, ambitious young women. We worked hard and did as well as our male counterparts. Not many of us fitted the conventional picture of “blue stocking” feminists but most of us felt strongly that we would ultimately have the professions for which we were each then training. There were some hiccups along the way (some very minor and quite amusing such as a decommissioned urinal remaining in a newly dedicated women’s common room and some more significant ones such as job choices limited by our husbands’ professions) but most of us graduated (I in psychology and law) and worked at our chosen professions. For example I commenced work as a solicitor. The view that we generally held was that equality was just a question of “doing the job” and proving our merit. By 1966 we were married and most had started families. “The Pill” was starting to give us women the confidence that we had some control over production of children, however most of us took time of from work when our children were small.  In the large group of working graduate women I knew, none of the fathers took time out of their work for child care.

Then in 1970 Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch”6 was published. We all read it.  Most agreed with her substantially, but to some interpretations, particularly the need for “liberation” rather than mere “equality”, our eyes were opened for the first time.

We did not burn our bras and dress like men, although a small minority of feminist women at the time did. The majority of my friends had never dressed in extreme fashions but, after having our eyes opened by Germaine, apparel such as corsets, whalebone, uncomfortable brassieres, suspender belts and stiletto heels, in particular, were enthusiastically eschewed. Now we could do this with philosophical backing!

Although many of us altered our professional roles around both husbands’ wishes and their larger incomes, employers’ wishes and the needs of young children, most of us, unlike my mother, were able to combine marriage and children with a career with some success and which provided satisfaction but which was regarded as secondary within the families.

All of us who had children brought them up so that the girls and boys had equal opportunities and responsibilities.  The boys, now men, can all cook and can look after children and take responsibility for their own appearance (whether scruffy or not) and pay at least, and usually very much more than that, lip service to the concept of their partner’s working life.  The girls, who were taught that they could make their own decisions independent of their father’s or husband’s opinions, are all more successful professional women than we were, tend to depression as they cannot quite cope with all they do with careers and children and soccer and homework and ballet and music and netball and a social life etc. etc. – not to mention helping elderly parents.

So far reasonably good and much as would be expected in fifty odd years.

It had to be accepted in our society, and generally was, that women could and would make their own decisions about life, about relationships, about clothing and the attitude they wished to take to work, leisure and having children.

Current Situation  This has certainly worked for a significant number of women and men. But what of the vulnerable in society, both men and women? Those that are not well educated; the poor, the different, those with low self-esteem, and most importantly of all, the children, have not done as well.

Look at the grandchildren, particularly the girls, that these children of ours are producing, and look at the messages that the wider world is giving to them, and that they are then adopting for themselves, about the their worth, their gender and the place of sexuality in their lives.  Look at body image issues.

For many women it is to the end of being attractive to men and noticed by both men and other women in the world, that the worst excesses have appeared. Gone are the days when discomfort was not tolerated in the pursuit of attractiveness.  Stiletto heels breed freely and bras are probably more uncomfortable than they were in the 50s and 60s.  Young woman, untrammelled by the idea of disapproval, dress in clothes that, at the most favourable interpretation, are wholly designed, on sexual lines, to provoke the gaze of, and probably comments of others. And when this is discussed they become angry or bemused at the lack of “freedom” that curbing that type of clothing would mean to them.14

For men in these vulnerable categories things have not worked out as well either.  Those who have sired children and have not been significant income producers have often found themselves not needed.  In some blue-collar societies there has developed a tradition of excluding the father of children and bringing the infant “home to mother” to a matriarchal grouping.

There has been a culture in some parts of the female world that “Feminism” implies men have to be belittled and that they are suitable targets to be made figures of fun wherever possible.  The idea that the only way woman can achieve a better and more equal role in society is to reduce the standards that formerly applied to men, seems to be a foolish but generally accepted notion particularly among these groups. This, by its very nature, would appear to be likely to lead to unfortunate responses from many males.  Indeed I think it has.18

This is particularly so when some men do not know how to respond to the messages given by the above women’s freedom of dress.  They readily absorb the sexual nature of the clothing – that can easily be seen with the naked eye – but the more philosophical concepts about choice, permission and freedom of expression do not, or perhaps for some cannot at those moments, take primary position in the frontal cortex.16

And there is a legitimate question that, in the name of freedom, should either of these groups have to restrain legal behaviour out of mere courtesy towards the other?

When did this level of inequality and subjugation for many women, a significant proportion of men and all female children creep back into almost every area of life except for the workplace?

It is, I think in part, because of the deconstruction of feminism by the widespread adoption of what I call “The Princess Myth”2. And this has happened on our watch. How?

Theory About Reasons  Back to the swamps.  Except as previously illustrated in the area of some employment, swamp draining has been less than completely successful.  All of us burrowed away, mostly silently, draining this employment swamp, that employment swamp, making tunnels and sump holes as we went, adapting sewers, constructing islands of child care and maternity leave and other necessities.  Much railing was done about “glass ceilings” and “child friendly” workplaces without analysis of a legitimate connection between the two. Some women wanted too much of everything, failing to give up their perceived primary role as arbiters of children’s needs while expecting considerable work to be done in this area by the fathers. There was little acknowledgement that the men and women (some childless and some not) who wanted to spend longer hours at work rather than at home would logically go further in that environment than others who chose not to.  There was very little consistency in what was done and how this was acknowledged. In short there were no environmental impact statements drawn up.  The swamps were open for biological infections.

Meanwhile what were the alligator shooters doing?  With unerring and effective aim they had destroyed many of the self styled “protectors” of women in the guise of dictatorial fathers and controlling husbands. The various Family Law Acts made it easier for dominated females to leave impossible situations and also pensions made it easier for women (and some men) to care for their families alone. (These Acts also made it possible for men to ensure that they could not be eliminated from both responsibility for and playing a role in the upbringing of their children merely on the whim of the mothers, which was not as welcomed by some women.) Church and community leaders were no longer able to be as successful in dictating to women rules about morals, behaviour or clothing .  Women were no longer excluded from all-male areas (such as clubs and public bars in pubs). The alligators were defeated.  But were there other predators those alligators had kept at bay?

At the same time philosophers were, as is their role, at odds with one another. A wave of Post Modernism, where the roles of individuals were stressed, had added to the confusion as, in its adaptation to the needs of feminism, the acceptance of multiple feminist approaches split any solidarity among feminists.1,8 Rejecting both the use of formal academic language and the notions of absolutes, whilst stressing the notion of individual freedom of choice for women on each of their terms, had the effect of weakening the whole idea of a female (or other) collective responsibility.

During the post pill period parents began to view planning their families as a reality.  The size of families reduced.  The expectations of a perfect family and perfect children rose with improvements in medical science and fertility techniques.  Education became more widespread.  Children were expected, and later mandated to stay at school for longer.  At the same time it became more common to send children to formal schooling when they were a little older.  In reality childhood and its dependency was extended and the expectations for children to have a more “perfect” childhood grew. In this environment some women, and a few men, have exercised their freedom of choice not to join the workforce but to care for children at home. Some of these have helped elevate this ideal of the status of childhood (perhaps partly for their own needs) to a level not conducive to the future mental health of young children, especially of the female children like their mothers.

So we had a toxic swamp, a vacancy for predators and a whole generation with a sense of entitlement. A heady mix indeed.

The Rise of the Princess Myth  And all this has happened at a prosperous time in our history.  The free market has taken off as an ideology in the western world and people in the western world have never had so much buying power. Communication by telephone, television and now the social media, has grown exponentially. Choice is constantly encouraged.

All this has allowed the evolution of a new predator that can now attack vulnerable women, vulnerable men and can literally swallow children whole.  That predator is the rampant commercial selling of the “princess myth” to all who are discontented or who are aspiring to be someone different from whom they feel they are. That myth says every female can make herself beautiful in a bejewelled and spangled dress, be rescued from her ennui by a handsome and usually gormless prince and will then live happily and beautifully ever after.10

Children, of course are particularly vulnerable because they are all aspiring to be different.  They all want to grow up. So they, particularly girl children, are a market that will go like lemmings towards this predator.

Although this myth is about princesses, Walt Disney is not all to blame.  He died before “Disney Princesses” became a separate entity in its own right.12 (In fact he created some very spunky little male characters in the early cartoon years.) However the rise of the “happy ever after” story which his very successful cartoon network disseminated so well, filled a need and not only reflected, but further developed, a trend in society.

Rampant consumerism, perhaps spurred by the concept of continuing economic growth, has inculcated people with the idea that we can no longer sit still and be happy with life but we must continue to aspire and look forward3. To look forward means to change and we are bombarded with advertising showing us how to do this.

The advertising particularly applies to women (and the tradition that the man in their lives controls or has a significant say in the disposition of their income has long since been put to rest by the alligator hunters). Women have never had so much spending power apart from the traditional detergent and nappy wash, and they have been targeted.  First to trap their prince, and for that the bait of pimple cream, make-up of all descriptions, products to straighten curly hair, to curl straight hair, to change hair colour abound. And while you are there look a bit lower. Your bust shape needs to be changed. What you have as breasts is completely unsuitable. Perhaps you can choose a bra shape from a list of classic master painters16 or something constructed from wire, but you must be prepared to face the fact that you may not be lucky enough to have the ideal shape.

Next be concerned with the weight on thighs and bottoms.  Do not fall into a trap like many celebrities in magazines and develop cellulitis. Wear high stiletto heels to accent the shape of your “butt”  (and make sure you have plenty in each colour) and do not worry about breaking an ankle (now more commonly caused by stilettos than a sport injury) as you have range of Medical Insurance from which you can chose or have chosen already.

After winning the suitable man who has been your prey then arrange the wedding.  Make sure you have it in at least two venues (one of which should be overseas) as after all you are a princess and this is your day. Spend as much as you can.

Return home and make sure that, no matter how many children you have, what work you do at home, what paid work you do to pay for your life style, you stay looking like a princess. In your latter years you can possibly droop into an expensively coiffured queen mother.

Sex and sexually targeted marketing sells the greater percentage of advertising directed toward women.

There are some quite good advertisements directed at men.  Perhaps men have a better sense of humour as some are quite funny, but again these often descend somewhat into buffoonery and are very close to denigrating men.  Some car insurance advertisements and some beer advertisements spring to mind in this regard.13,15

But worst of all are the advertisements, the entertainments and the toy options for young girls (seen also by young boys). From the Disney princesses in all their forms with all their post fairy tale names and all their unnaturally beautiful dresses, thin figures and special effects (including I was amazed to see, although somewhat less beautiful, on the ugly step sisters). These characters do nothing but be unnaturally beautiful and amazingly thin. The climax of their lives is to marry the handsome prince. No further details are given.11  Young boys who see these entertainments are not so enraptured.  They may wish to do the odd spot of dragon killing or hair climbing up a tower, but they do not appear to be much interested in the wedding.  In fact many want to be the baddie and wonder why he does not get the girl or be rehabilitated in some way prior to being the chosen one.

When I try hard to be objective I go back to Lacan,9 Freud4, Foucault5 and other gurus of the swamp and ask myself whether, among the many genuine differences between the male and female makeup, is there one that makes women and young girls more genetically gullible?  My feminism and pride make me deny this.  But as I have worked with many children over these last forty years and have empirically observed how dismissive almost all very young boys are of this myth for themselves, I cannot help but re-ask myself this question.  And why do these educated mothers not intervene? Perchance they feel that they themselves missed out because their own mothers (us) did not indulge in such romances.

Boys have a plethora of on-line games that will allow them to kill dragons, aliens and others and many of these provide a bonding opportunity with other friends. Again this is not in any way a microcosm of real life.

How are the liberated parents of the young children letting some of this happen? I recently witnessed a conversation between a young anti-gun mother, her five year old daughter and her twelve year old son (who had not been prevented from accepting a popular brand of physically harmless guns as presents for his birthday). The twelve year old was explaining very gently to them both that it was possible to buy a similar gun for his sister’s birthday as she was requesting. This was because there was one gun, which was made with excellent features, but much smaller so suitable for a girl, in fact, a “handbag gun”.  Such pressures are too great for individual parents. 

Which brings me to the major eco-system problem for modern feminism.  With the swamp gone there is no real community or “tribe”. We live in a much more global environment.  With the alligators gone there are no powerful male figures to dominate the culture in each community.  As was pointed out in “The Change” by Germaine Greer7, older women have long since lost any status they used to have.  With the rise of feminism and the challenge that women made to men’s roles in the seventies and eighties, the role of the powerful older man was also challenged. When that conventionality was altered by women, it was not difficult for younger men to also successfully challenge it.

So the eco-system of the conventional tribe of the past in which there was a clear line of demarcation of duties between sexes and ages has broken down. During the subsequent negotiations between the sexes, commercialism stepped in, in quite a toxic fashion, and the messages that have been sent by commercial organisations, just wanting a profit and seeing a market, have filled the vacuum left by the disappearance of the tribe.  These messages have been seized by the most vulnerable in society and substituted for the mores of old.17

The answer is for a united movement, and by this I do not mean an attack by women on the possibly out of order reactions of some disadvantaged men, nor an assault by men on the behaviours of vulnerable women. This movement should be for us all to protect the disadvantaged and in particular, our children, from the messages that they are being given in the community by those in the thrall of the Princess Myth.

This must be done by education, by boycotting some entertainments and in particular by agreeing, men and women together, on what we should boycott. When there was a tribe, when there was a swamp and when there were alligators, it was much easier to see where the danger lay.  We could see the alligators, we could smell the swamp but we failed to look beyond the clearing or to build fences and bridges between us all so that we could protect each other in our new roles.

We feminists fell hook line and sinker for the Holy Grail of the “Princess Myth”.  We thought that with liberation or even equality we would live “happily ever after”.

The Future  We have to tell ourselves what we need to tell our children and the others floundering in a community that has undefined roles.  That is that is that we each have to work for our own happiness, no one else can provide it for us, and the only “ever after” ending is death.

We are a social people and we are happier in co-operative situations than alone or in conflict. We also need to respect the right to individual differences – up to a point. That point is where children are commercially targeted, sexualised, have their bodies manipulated, have their minds filled with nothing but princesses and looking for a prince.

And if at the same time we can talk a bit of sense into, and perhaps have a bit of a joke about, those women who choose to torture their bodies again to make themselves look ridiculous, then let us do so.

                                         REFERENCES

1. Butler, Judith       Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity1990

2. Disney, Walter (1901-1966)   Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1937

3. Ettorre, Elizabeth and Ariska Etianne      Engendered Moods 1995 pp65     Advertising as Representative of Gendered Moods.

4,Freud, Sigmond      Civilization and Its Discontents 1930

5.Foucalt, Michael     The Will to Knowledge 1976    Discipline and Punish

6. Greer, Germaine     The Female Eunuch  1970

7. Greer, Germaine,    The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause 1991

8. Irigaray, Luce          This Sex Which Is Not One 1977

9. Lacan, Jacques        The Law and Symbolic Identification

SAMPLE OF AVAILABLE PRINCESS DVDs

10. Mattel Entertainment and Mainframe Entertainment   Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper DVD 2004                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            the .11. !!11.Nine Other DVDs Listed available on Mattel with Barbie playing a Princess.

12. Disney Princesses Cinderella 1950, Sleeping Beauty 1959, 6 others listed  followed by Princess and the Frog 2009, Tangled (Rapunzel) 2010.

RECENT  ADVERTISEMENTS

13. Amee Car Insurance Advertisements

14. Philadelphia Cheese Advertisement

15. Toohey’s Beer  “Mates Rates Advertisements”

16. Triumph Bra Promotion http://www.divaasia.com/media    (2/6/2011)

SOCIAL MEDIA ( Facebook and Twitter )

17.May  2011  Prince William and Katherine Middleton’s Wedding Televised resulting in many Twitters and Blogs and new Facebook Sites.

18.May 2011  The Slut Walk from male and female perspectives.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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