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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Princesses As Role Models For Girls? Try Shakespeare’s Queens Instead

In an article in The Atlantic (5.22.13) Noah Berlatsky considers the dilemma of princesses as role models for young girls. Should these fairytale icons be girly girls, tomboys, or something else.

It is a fatiguing argument, for every parent knows that little girls like to play dress They usually do not put on Daddy’s Caterpillar hat and work belt but go through Mommy’s closet for her frilliest outfits and high-heeled shoes.  Girls are not playing with dump trucks and He-Man figures, but with Barbie.  However they got this idea of feminine fantasy (many stripped-down neo-Feminists insist that they cannot possibly be responsible), our daughters seem drawn to a very predictable and classic fantasy. Many, too, subscribe to the narrative as well as the image.  Being carried off by a Prince Charming – a wealthy but sensitive corporate lawyer, for example, with a good haircut and a Porsche – still seems like a nice idea.

The argument is particularly fatiguing, however, because most of these same girly girls do not grow up to be bimbos with augmented breasts and dyed blonde hair.  They become take-no-prisoners power lawyers or run roughshod over the male competition on their way up to the glass ceiling.  In other words, most women are smart enough to hold two conflicting ideas in their pretty little heads at the same time – a fantasy dream of considerate wealth, marriage to an attractive, successful husband, and a life of celebrity; and a realistic ambition for personal power and influence.

Berlatsky overlooks one important source for female role models who combine both desires – Shakespeare.  Shakespeare’s queens are strong, defiant, purposeful, and far more canny and resourceful than their husbands.  Margaret, the wife of the weak and pious Henry VI is a good example.  He won’t fight to defend his kingdom, so she will; and she takes to the battlefield against the French in his stead.  The princesses Goneril and Regan, daughters to King Lear, may not be models for filial piety and moral rectitude, but they are strong, determined, and implacably dedicated to the pursuit of power. Eleanor of Aquitaine, not satisfied with being Queen of France, married the future Henry II; and with him had two sons who would become kings – Richard and John. In King John, she was the power behind the throne of her weak and incompetent son.  The powerful Eleanor was once a princess, two times a queen, and twice a queen mother.  She of course led a luxurious courtly life, dressed in finery, strolled through formal gardens, ate sumptuous meals, and was in all ways a fantasy princess. Cleopatra was the embodiment of female beauty, pageantry, style, and power.  She was a woman that no man could refuse; and understood power so completely that she used them for her own political ends.

Berlatsky does a particular disservice to girls and women by limiting his discussion to Wonder Woman, Merida, and Dealing with Dragons. Admittedly Shakespeare is not exactly beauty salon reading, but one does not have to be a literary scholar to find examples of sexy, alluring women with a princess fantasy who are in fact strong, determined, if not calculating women.  Tennessee Williams’ Maggie the Cat has been seduced by the idea of money and power ever since she met her prince – Brick, the son of the wealthiest family in Mississippi – and did everything she could to capture him and have his children.  Christine Mannon in O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra married her prince, a war hero and civilian leader, but soon after took over the reins of the family to rule in as bloody a way as Tamora, Queen of the Amazons in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

It seems trite and menial to address the issue of femininity and female power within such a narrow popular context especially when so many examples of truly evolved women exist in literature. Berlatsky’s closing remarks seem a little silly:

The point isn't to create a single perfect role model, be it Merida or Wonder Woman or Cimorene or Cinderella. The point is to give girls, and for that matter boys, the chance to see femininity not solely as a prison to inhabit or escape, but as a story that can be told in lots of ways. As Cimorene's friend Princess Arabella tells her at the end of the novel, "I wouldn't like being princess for the King of the Dragons, but it will suit you down to the ground."

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