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Laurie Penny on why princess craze is no fairy tale

Young women need different models of femininity.

There is a princess in all our heads. She must be destroyed. As the press continues to glut itself on the Cult of Kate Middleton, businesses are cashing in on young women's insatiable lust for princess paraphernalia: fake tiaras and fashion handbooks play into the collective fantasy that one day, if you are beautiful and good enough, you too can marry a prince.

This saccharine tide of glittery pink kitsch began in the mid-1980s, amplifying a harmless daydream into a terrifying collective hallucination of good behaviour rewarded with royal privilege. Since Disney launched its Princess product line in 2000, aiming to get "three or four" pieces of spangly tat into every girl's bedroom, the tide has become a tsunami. Disney Princess is now worth £4bn, the largest girl's franchise in the world, and the fairytale doesn't stop with little girls: adult women, too, are playing dress-up, holding princess makeover parties and flocking to see Diana's wedding gown as it tours America, as serious female writers devote endless speculative column inches to the minutiae of Middleton's post-nuptial experience. Have we all gone mad?

Kate Middleton is the perfect modern-day princess, in that she appears essentially void of personality; a dress-up dolly for the age of austerity. The new royal facial muscles seem to be fixed with such permanence into that lipglossed rictus of demure compliance that when she opened her mouth to speak during the televised ceremony, I actually jumped. As it transpired, all she eventually said was "I will," as if someone had tugged a cord through the back of that custom McQueen gown to activate a voicebox of ritual acquiescence.

For a fairytale, it's startlingly unimaginative. Middleton's short journey from millionaire's daughter to Duchess of Cambridge has been awkwardly rammed into the rags-to-riches framework, with gushing commentators envisioning her as an everywoman who, by virtue of being pretty, unobtrusive and fashionably underweight, won the loan of a priceless tiara and a lifetime of comparisons to William's dead mother.

Middleton is hardly the girl next door, but the cult of princesshood is, at root, a cult of social mobility, a fantasy of class treachery whereby good little girls grow up to have their own maids and a butler. Popular children's books like Usborne's Princess Handbook have whole chapters on how to deal with the servants. This is the ultimate makeover fantasy, a fairytale of frilly, sequin-encrusted self-improvement that just happens to involve rigid conformity to the rules of contemporary femininity: smile and be silent, be beautiful and rise through the ranks, and you will be rewarded.

The handsome prince himself, as Peggy Orenstein observes in her excellent book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, is "incidental to that fantasy, a regrettable necessity at best". Once the royal ring is on the royal finger, once you've "nabbed" your royal, in the worlds of Sky's unmitigatedly disturbing reality gigglefest How to Marry a Prince his part in the story is over, and the reality of married life figures not at all. This ruthless, mercenary understanding of relationships is hardly a positive model for young people.

Orenstein notes that princess-mania is understood by some parents as a safe haven from 'premature sexualisation': the playboy bunny pencil cases and lolita tshirts for which other children clamour. Princesses are seen as the more innocent fantasy, holding a virtuous edge over lollipop-licking, pole-twirling teeny-whoredom. Am I alone in finding the choice less than inspiring?

Young women are offered two polarised models of submissive, pseudo-empowered femininity: the princess and the pornstar. This is a binary that has existed for centuries: virgin or whore, handsome prince or handsome pimp, which one will you grow up to fuck for fame and fortune?

Today's spectrum of feminine aspiration is a short colour run from sickly, pastel pink to hot, sexy pink, with the occasional detour into bridal white. But there is a whole rainbow of experience out there for girls to choose from.

The princess craze is not just a failure of feminism, but a failure of society as a whole to respect and treasure its young women enough to offer them more than a frothy pink fantasy of Happy Every After. There's nothing wrong with a bit of make-believe, but for little girls everywhere, there are better dreams out there than just wanting to be as pretty as a princess.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.