Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Princess Diaries

It has become commonplace, from “Toddlers and Tiaras” to “My Super Sweet Sixteen” to “Bridezillas” to hear young ladies declare “I’m a princess!” Since few to none of these creatures seem to actually be either hereditary royalty or the offspring of a monarch, it is left to the viewer to determine from their behavior in exactly what way these charming creatures in some other way fit the definition of “princess.”

Whether it’s “The Prince and Me,” “Princess Diaries 1&2,” “A Cinderella Story, “Ella Enchanted,” “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” or Disney’s long-awaited black princess, princesses are everywhere. Even “Sex and the City” fits the mold in many ways; the princesses were a little long in the tooth, and the knight in shining armor took his sweet time coming to the rescue. But where, other than a fairy tale, could a woman—I mean girl—afford a Manhattan pied-a-terre and a vast wardrobe of Gucci, Prada and Manolo Blahniks on the salary of a freelance sex columnist? So what makes a contemporary American princess?

First of all, princesses (unlike queens) are young. Dewy and unthreatening, princesses do not rule, and neither exercise nor seek power other than over the people in their personal lives. Coincidentally (or not?) princesses are also “beautiful.” They always have long, flowing hair, tiny noses, pouty mouths and large, glowing, innocent- looking eyes. Even, as in “Sex and the City,” where the princesses are not young and not really beautiful, they act young, and everyone else reacts to them as if they are beautiful. A parade of princes fall at their feet week after week, as do a cascade of glass Jimmy Choos with nary a price tag in sight (princesses don’t worry about the price).

Second, and seemingly contradictorily, reality television princesses are also “bitches” and “divas.” They don’t “take sh-t.” They demand respect, but they do not give it. They are spoiled and materialistic; they love and expect expensive cars, clothes, handbags and jewelry, things; but they rarely seem to work to earn these goods themselves. Parents or boyfriends and husbands are to provide them, and if they fail, there is hell to pay. “Selfish” and “self-centered” are the terms that immediately spring to mind when one thinks of the princess.

Third, princesses are not expected to actually do or accomplish much of anything. As part and parcel of the long and gloried history of feminine passivity, princesses simply are. The sole exception to this inertia is the time, effort, and (other people’s) money invested by the princess into her appearance. Hair bleach, extensions, tanning, plastic surgery, diet drugs, cosmetics, mani-pedis, tooth whitening, clothes, shoes—the princess spares no effort or expense when the cost is devoted to her physical person. Even when the princess has children (in order to solidify her financial and emotional hold over her husband and family), their main role is to serve as outward displays of the princess’ own beauty and material achievement (the low-rent version can be seen on “Toddlers and Tiaras”). Their clothes are perfect (and expensive) and they are never mussed.

And why does the princess deserve this worshipful treatment? Because she is so lovely and special. She will bluntly declare that she looks better, IS better than the other girls. She is thinner, she is prettier, she has bigger (or has purchased bigger) breasts. She has the highest standards. Other girls are jealous. They want to be her. They wish they had her Mercedes, her Chanel bag collection, her four-caret canary diamond. If those other girls claim to have different standards, different values, to want something more substantive out of life, they are lying. They’re simply rationalizing their inability to be the princess.

The princess, has arguably become an ideal for a certain kind of young white woman. Informed by feminist concepts of choice and independence, but lacking in any real principles, such women believe strongly that they have the “right” to do whatever they choose; but have no desire to put any effort into working towards such a choice. They want both freedom and dependence, and their dream is a life free of responsibility to others. And, as strange as it may seem, those princesses deemed most attractive (e.g., Paris Hilton) manage to achieve this dream. The crème de la crème get to be famous for nothing, pursued by paparazzi and paid to attend night club openings. The rest marry anonymous rich men for money, men who often grumble about wanting women who “want me for me,” but seem to disproportionately end up with princess trophies.

However, the men who lose the princess lottery often end up bitter and frustrated. They can be found grousing on message boards about the perfidy of “American women,” and perusing mail-order bride websites. They postpone adulthood, growing addicted to an online world of perfect and compliant porn goddesses and physically remote 18 year old Ukranian and Filipina child brides. Oddly, it is not necessarily the expectation of dependence that American men seem to resent most about the princess. After all, who is more dependant than a mail-order bride--a 20-year old who may not speak the language, cannot legally work outside the home, and will be deported if she leaves your “marriage”? No, what these men resent about the princess is her expectation of both equality and entitlement. The mail-order bride, and the Asian geishas (of their fantasies, of course) to whom they now flock, will be grateful. She won’t presume to be an equal decisionmaker in your home. She won’t expect you to come home after a long days work and to help her change diapers or vacuum the living room carpets, and she certainly won’t complain that the Joneses just bought an Escalade—she probably never heard of an Escalade. Just about anything you provide will seem impressive and abundant. She knows how to take care of a man and a family. She has real values, values "American" women seem to have lost.

Certainly, the American men who are fed up with the plethora of blonde princesses sound perfectly awful. Their rage, misogyny, and resentment of women seems unreasonable, disproportionate and just plain scary. And their inclusion of ALL American women in their screeds is particularly unfair—after all, the one thing that BW in particular have NEVER gotten as a group is the opportunity to be spoiled and indulged by our men—frankly, WE have been the ones doing the spoiling. And yet, do we want to distinguish ourselves from the princesses? Don’t we DESERVE to be indulged? That’s certainly what the princesses argue.

I think the problem with this line of thinking is twofold. The first is that there are many ways to get what you deserve, and approaching potential mates with the demand that they “spoil” you is probably not the best way to ensure that they will do so. Men are notorious for preferring to make their own decisions; which is why they will happily shower a woman with diamonds and furs as long as they believe such gifts are their idea. Universally, the attributes that men seek in women (beyond physical beauty) are modesty, gentleness, sincerity, kindness and generosity. The man who actually seeks a bitchy princess is usually so insecure that he needs a glittering trophy to bolstering a sagging sense of manhood. You do not want this poor creature coming home to you every night, even if home is a 7-bedroom townhouse on the Upper Eastside—you will NEVER make him feel like enough. Self-esteem is not the same as self-aggrandizement.

Second, BW are in competition. Maybe we don’t like thinking so, but this is a reality. There are simply more men than women, and the statistics reflect that there are increasingly more women than men who are well-educated, professionally employed, and actively seeking marriage and family—this is in every race. In a competition, you play to your advantages—and if one of our advantages is that we possess many of the traditional feminine qualities that men find attractive, despite the stereotypes that say otherwise, why would we try to adapt to a role that men find distasteful and that is not part of who we really are? I just read an article in this months Marie Claire which expressed alarm about the number of ultra-rich white moguls marrying Asian trophy wives—though reluctant to express it, many WW are running scared. And yet on every reality show, there is always the token BW with a tiara perched on her head proclaiming herself a “princess” or a “diva,” and making a spectacle of herself—and being judged much more harshly for it than the WW doing the exact same thing, of course. You know, just because WW do something doesn’t mean that we have to model it. Their way isn’t always the right way—clearly, even WM don’t think so. We need to learn to recognize what our own advantages are, and work them!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Good Hair?

From etonline.com:

What defines 'Good Hair'? Chris Rock explores this sociological phenomenon from the African-American point of view with hilarious results in his new movie . . . In theaters October 9, 'Good Hair' finds Rock traveling all across America and even to India to find out why we do what we do to look our best -- or stand out from the crowd. Rock visits beauty salons, barbershops, conventions, scientific laboratories and Indian temples to explore the way hairstyles impact the activities, pocketbooks, sexual relationships and self-esteem of the black community.

Ice-T, Nia Long, Paul Mooney, Raven-Symone, Maya Angelou, Salt-n-Pepa, Eve and Reverend Al Sharpton all share their candid points of view for this raucous expose, prompted by Rock’s 5-year old daughter, Lola, who asked him, “Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?”

News of this movie prompted some interesting reflections on my part—first, how Rock, like most conventionally successful black men, married “light with long hair,” and how, like many such men (for some reason, Eddie Murphy is always the first that comes to my mind) he has a daughter(s) who more closely resemble him in color, facial features and hair texture. I’ve often wondered what do such BM say to their daughters? How do they reassure them of their beauty, when their own choices make fairly clear what they consider beautiful? Maybe I think of Rock and Murphy because I’m familiar with the communities that Murphy formerly lived in (and Rock still does) in Northern NJ, and the schools that their children would attend, and it gives me pause to think about their little black daughters with their full lips and not “good” hair in these rigidly materialistic, overwhelmingly white environments, where all the other girls and mommies---including their own—are lighter-skinned and looser-haired than they, and where all the boys—including their own brothers—will likely be pursuing those other girls. There is very little flexibility in what is considered pretty for a young woman in towns like Alpine and Saddle River.

But I’ve also been thinking about the way that BW themselves perpetuate these beliefs about “good” and “bad” hair, as well the way that BW perpetuate colorism more generally. Whether it is the almost worshipful tone with which BW talk about the beauty of performers like Rhianna and Beyonce (I remember my aunts laughing about how my grandparents would argue about who was more beautiful: Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horna—the more things change . . .), to our complete silence as visibly BW are literally blacklisted from black-controlled media, to the genuine self-loathing often found at sites like the longhaircareforum.com, where BW speak with awe about the beauty of white, Asian and Hispanic friends while berating their own hair, BW ourselves have all too often adopted the very color prejudices that are so regularly turned against us. I’m hardly advocating the kind of hostility and bitterness based on color and hair texture so often used to divide BW from each other, since those divisions are so utterly false considering our common interests—consider the “video vixen” conundrum for instance, which first began with the exclusion of darker BW, and now increasingly excludes BW altogether--a circumstance that arose because BW were encouraged to focus on resenting each other instead of challenging the “brothas” doing the casting and, above all, turning off the degrading imagery.

What I argue for instead is that we step back and think a little about the way we ourselves look at color, features and hair. However you choose to wear your hair, how do you feel about it in its natural state? How do feel about other women’s natural hair? How do you feel about your nose, your skin, your eyes, your body shape, everything about yourself that denotes “blackness”? Have you allowed yourself to be manipulated into silence on these issues by others, who’ve encouraged you to believe that neither their, nor your own, colorism is relevant, and that any acknowledgment of such on your part is sign of “jealousy” or “low self-esteem”? Have you ever watched a program like “106 & Park” and saw something wrong with dozens of black girls wildly cheering images of BM romancing white and Latina women, images where they don’t exist accept as an audience? Suppressed your irritation as Will Smith lustily pursues Eva Mendes, while his wife plays a female eunuch on TV? Think about it.