I have a dear, beautiful friend whom I shall leave nameless here, the better to protect her from unwelcome attention and from any adverse consequences for public exposure of an act of quiet subversion that she recently perpetrated at her place of employment, Powell's Books. A passionate admirer of Frozen, she saw that someone had placed the tie-in coloring books in a princess-themed display, and this struck her as a gross misidentification of the story's central content. She took it upon herself to move the books where they more properly belonged, to action/adventure.
Of course, these two categories should not be mutually exclusive. The Frozen songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, were recently interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air (a good time and a good listen), and Kristen spoke openly about her ambivalence around the princess genre as commonly mass-manufactured and about her own determination to spin it in new directions. Referring to her collaboration with the movie's writer and co-director, Jennifer Lee, she said, "we're both Park Slope moms, we both went through the '90s, we took the women's-studies courses, and I knew I wouldn't be able to push my kids on the swing at the playground if I had written a movie where the girl wore the puffy dress and was saved not by anything active she did, but by being beautiful enough to be kissed by a prince." When Terry asked whether the couple's two daughters ever played princess, they confessed to owning a full rack (!) of princess dresses, but Kristen went on to say that "our princesses, you know, they shoot arrows, and they do math. And I was always like - we can be like Snow White, the doctor to the African orphans!"
I love that. I love that feminism is getting more supple, less careful, less reverent, more ball- and breast-busting with every generation. Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed a few days ago in response to the Boko Haram kidnapping of nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls entitled "What's So Scary About Smart Girls?" and answered his own question by reflecting that educated women are beginning to have more power than they know what to do with, but they're quickly learning how to use it. Those men who define their own sense of power in terms of dominance and subjugation rather than in terms of influence and (pro)creation tend to find this shift violently disorienting and deeply terrifying. Insanely but also predictably, they conceive even enslavement as an act of self-defense - though they just as predictably articulate it as a defense of tradition, principle, God's intent, etc. Much the same dynamic underlies conservative "defense of marriage" acts (verbal, physical, and legal).
I get it - I feel the fear on all sides when listening to my sister Meg describe my four-year-old niece Maya flying on the scooter we gave her at heart-stopping speeds over the course of a Mother's Day run they did last weekend. The rule has always been that she needs to remain in range of sight, and she got a serious talking to at course's end. (It would have been a much more serious talking to if it hadn't been a neighborhood run organized by friends who were waiting at the finish line to corral our runaway action princess. A recent episode of Louie - episode 4 of the new season - gives a beautiful depiction of how little girls' capacity for independent thought and action can traumatize their parents.) When Megan sternly reminded her of the limits she needed to respect for her own safety, Maya took it all in and "got a little sad," as she often does when corrected. Maybe fifteen minutes later, she came back to offer her defense: "Mom, I just really wanted to win." Look out, guys. She could be ruling the world by age eleven.
Generally speaking, women still have a much stronger claim than men to self-defensive postures, but the fact that we're trying not to stay "frozen" in the particular postures adopted by earlier generations should not be perceived as a betrayal of the feminist cause. We're making this up as we go, finding new forms, new attitudes, new languages all the time. Many are awkward hybrids of what's come before, and many are outright failures, but we can't let fear of failure stop us trying. Samuel Beckett still has the best advice for every creative mind and body, female and male: "Fail again. Fail better."
I did some fun failing of my own over the weekend, at an encaustic (hot wax!) painting class with Kelly Williams. She's a terrific teacher for the not-so-timid beginner - if you arrive timid, you won't leave that way. Here's one semi-pleasing result. Who knew I'd develop such a fondness for pink (at least in its power shades)? Maybe Maya.
p.s. Ha! Over the course of writing this post, I "somehow" forgot all about the fail that inspired it. I learned Thursday that Oregon Humanities will not be including "Living with Wolves, Real and Imagined" in the next catalog for their Conversation Project. The news dealt a moderately crushing blow to my ego but more centrally to my enthusiasm, as I still think it could have been a really good addition. At the same time, the "sorry, not a good fit" didn't arrive as a great surprise given my state of mind at the interview - that rough week had frayed my nerves and scattered my thoughts pretty violently, and my "cannon" must have appeared totally untethered. (When possible, avoid high-stakes encounters on the day following a blood transfusion!) But here's the victory salvaged from disappointment: whereas my typical response in the past would have been to retreat to my den for a protracted bout of wound-licking, I devoted a couple of hours in the days following my rejection to polishing a short piece for consideration in the June issue of their magazine. I sent it in on Monday, and I'll let you know what I hear. Fail again. Fail better.