08 September 2012

Is A Princess An Anti-Feminist Icon?

The Denver Post, spurred by Britains royal wedding, noticed, when that happened, that Disney's media empire has strong anti-feminist (and monarchist) tendencies that are also diffused in many other parts of American culture. The Princess memes clearly sell, although I have some doubts about the timing of this trend which they report as being merely a decade old.

The contemporary craze for queens-in-waiting finds roots in Disney's introduction, in 2001, of its Princess line, which offered a small pantheon of Disney princess dolls — like Cinderella and Snow White — along with dress-up clothes, makeup and more. The line has taken in as much as $4 billion. . . . For some, the current princess- mania seems a royal, anti-feminist pain. . . . Roswitha Burwick, who teaches classes on fairy tales at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., analyze princess fairy tales, showing students how, among other things, the stories portray women — even princesses — as passive, polite and without professional ambition. But the fascination persists, even through adulthood. Proms and weddings, Burwick notes, are laden with princess imagery and messages. The popularity of the princess troubles Burwick's colleague Judy LeMaster, who also teaches the class.

"I have a granddaughter and she likes to dress up as a princess, and it's not a good career goal," she said. Though she sees it as an opportunity "to tell little girls, no matter what you do in life, it doesn't matter if you aren't beautiful and don't marry a prince."

As one of the newspaper comic strips observed that week, there are far more children's stories with kings and queens and princesses than there are about Presidents and Governors and Mayors.

Of course, nobody has a monopoly on the term "feminism" which means different things to different people and sometimes different things to the same person at different times. It is a diffuse ideological movement that encompasses both an embrace of feminity, but with a someone different line of logic to arrive there, and a rejection of stereotypes about women, which between the two can encompass a multitude of sins.

Commoners marry princes about as often as young women earn medals for military bravery and gallantry. Both happen, but both are count examples on your fingers in your lifetime in the entire world rare.

The contradictions of feminism, to some extent, reflect the contradictions of day to day life. For a great many women, probably a plurality, the princess model of solving one's problems in life and finding social status from marriage, and the old school feminist model of working for a living in fields not historically open to women co-exist. The vast majority of non-African-American women will marry, and the vast majority of women of every ethnicity will become mothers at some point and will pay a steep economic price for doing so. But, the vast majority of women, both with children and without children, have paid work for most of their adult lives. The rising labor force participation rate of women has been one of the major long run economic stories of the last forty or fifty years.

The critique of the narrowness of the princess persona for young women needs to be rivaled by a critique of the unrealistic pervasiveness in fiction of the anti-stereotypical warrior woman persona (e.g. in The Hunger Games  or Scott Westerfield's Behemoth series). There are women today in what were historically hypermasculine roles in society now, but they remain a decided minority. Something on the order of 95% of serious violent crimes are committed by men, and in the military, women are disproportionately concentrated in occupational specialties that show continuity with historical roles for women in war like medics.

Today's college educated woman is more likely to marry and stay married than a woman in her mother's generation. Prolonged breast feeding has become normative again, despite the way it interferes with roles other than that of homemaker mother for new moms (a debate that has gone in surges back and forth since at least the days of Balzac in France, when the alternative to breast feeding for the affluent was a wet nurse instead of formula).

The ranks of women who are physicians, engineers and have careers in the "hard" sciences is an order of magnitude greater than it was in the early 1970s, but unlike non-STEM professions like law, are still nowhere near a 50-50 gender balance, which biological sciences and IT professions have come much closer to reaching. It is hard to tell if we've approached a "natural" equilibrium due to inherent gender differences in ability or inclination to enter professions that require very long training regimes or call for post-calculus mathematical study.  It could instead be that cultural and sociological barriers to women in some of these professions have been more resistant to change than others.  A Harvard President was soundly criticized for suggesting the former possibility.

But, at the very least, while securing gender balance in fields like law school graduates has been largely a matter of simply taking down the "no girls allowed" sign at the front door, in some other fields, overcoming barriers that are keeping women out may require a fairly deep rethink of how we go about preparing people to enter these professions.

For example, to become a physician, one typically needs to go to college until about age twenty-two, go to med school until about age twenty-six, spend at least four years in a residency putting you at age thirty, and often to spend several years after that in all consuming training in a medical specialty as well. A profession that has a training regimes that is for practical purposes incompatable with being a good mother of young children in the time range from puberty until age thirty-two is not surprisingly going to drive away women who want both careers and families, because of the decidedly medical human reality of the biological fertility clock.

There are a variety of ways that those issues could be addressed, but so far, our society's choice by default has been, "none of the above."  So, before we criticize Disney from promoting anti-feminist icons, we should first examine the ambivalence reflected in what we do as opposed to what we say.


Michael Malak said...

Star Wars resolved this conflict in a libertarian way. Princess Leia was strong and independent, and had no need to spend 12 years in medical school to realize her vocation.

The AMA is a cartel that, through government regulation, artificially reduces the supply of doctors by not certifying new medical schools and by insisting on its continued torture and sleep deprivation of interns.

Princess Leia was then still a good mother in the 1990's award-winning 13-book Jedi Twins series, where she also then had a peacetime career as Secretary of State.

denizenofgoo said...

"The rising labor force participation rate of women has been one of the major long run economic stories of the last forty or fifty years."

The decrease/stagnation in males wages other one.

"still nowhere near a 50-50 gender balance"

maths is

" A Harvard President was soundly criticized for suggesting the former possibility."

nothing sound about that.

"overcoming barriers that are keeping women out may require a fairly deep rethink "

the solution is easier than that

"because of the decidedly medical human reality of the biological fertility clock."

which NOW doesn't want women to know, and apparently the college women themselves don't know.