I have been meaning to write this post for some time, as it sits at the heart of much of my current work (which I am very happy to announce was drafted and entered into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Aware contest), and I’m happy to have the time to sit down and get it out. This post may seem to wander, but at its core are some of the most important reasons I chose to write my dear Sebastian Smith in just the way I did.
I want to talk about Princesses.
Not new modern post-Brave and Frozen Princesses, those great forward thinking young women who give girls such empowering role models to emulate.
I’m also not talking about the Cult of Me that arose for awhile there, not exclusively among teenage girls, but certainly with them as the mascots, wherein every person is reduced to a vapid selfie set to the soundtrack of an engorged sense of self-entitlement.
No, I’m talking about classic Princesses here. Sit in the tower, kidnapped by the Dragon, scream and faint at the site of the evil Wizard, helpless and hopeless Princesses.
To give this Princess a face, lets say Princess Peach, in the classes NES game Super Mario Bros. She is the quintessential Princess I want to discuss here. She is largely free of agency, objectified, and completely powerless. She doesn’t even have a string of pathetic and failed escape attempts to show for her perennial reptilian incarceration. She basically stands where one male places here, until another male tells her to move somewhere else.
She’s the one I want to defend. Hit the jump to find out why.
Let me start off by saying a couple of things I am NOT saying here. Because the argument I am about to make could potentially put me in some very bad company if I don’t take a moment to get my ducks in a row. If you’re just interested in what I AM saying, skip down to the next picture.
I am not saying that Princess Peach is a sufficient role model for girls. I am not saying that the way Princess Peach behaves is healthy or sufficient as a role model for anyone in fact. I’m also not saying that Princess Peach is tapping into something innately female, or that her genitals make her better suited to silent objectification. I am not saying that Princess Peach is showing us what a good woman should be. I am not even saying that Princess Peach is the best example for this article. But she’s easy to find pictures of and lots of people recognize her.
Here is what I am saying: I think Princess Peach, and more broadly, classic princesses overall, are actually a lot more effective than we give them credit for, and model some pretty potent methods of conflict resolution that get highly undervalued by the current standards of female representation in media.
Lets start out with what methods of persuasion Princess Peach teaches. I mean, she’s an almost entirely silent character for much of the classic Mario Bros stories, and is almost always merely a prize to be won, especially in the early days, with no internal motivations or aspirations beyond not being eaten alive. (At least, I’m really hoping Bowser was planning on EATING her…)
Ah, but wait. Is she really just a prize to be won? There is an excellent argument to be made that Bowser, though he takes her body, is never able to break her self-possession. She is never going to MARRY Bowser. She maintains a resilient stoicism, confident in her inevitable rescue. Time and again, through countless tragedies, Peach maintains her sense of identity, and it is she who is in constant conflict with the villain, as opposed to Mario, whose only engagement is a brief climatic battle in which he hardly even bothers to trade one liners with the monster, much less endure his torturous advances.
Which brings me to my second point: Who is Mario without Peach? He’s an overweight plumber with a drug habit. With Peach? Mario becomes one of the classic heroes of our time, whose journey through a strange and perilous world to confront an unspeakable evil and save an innocent life from harm has made him a beloved and some might even say inspiring character for generations of children. It isn’t Mario’s nature to be amazing. He becomes amazing by seeking to be the sort of man Peach believes that he is.
I’m over analyzing the story on an 8 bit video game from the 80s for a reason. I’m looking to bring up a trend I have noticed, most pointedly in Pixar’s Brave (my objections can be read here), but more broadly in the way women are portrayed in media in general. This trend is that women aren’t being portrayed like women anymore.
Whoa! Bring it back. Allow me to explain. What I mean by that is that many times women in currently modern media for various reasons of political, demographic, and maybe even moral origins, are not being portrayed conforming to their historical stereotypes. I think this is an EXCELLENT thing. I think too long girls have been imprisoned in a pink palace, made to settle for the roles of homemakers, sexual objects, or chaste pillars of moral virtue. I think there was a huge need in media to reflect to women, especially girls, a robust and broad set of role models, to send them the powerful message that they are every bit the equals of their male peers.
But here is the problem I see: Now NO ONE is allowed to be portrayed conforming to what are thought of as traditionally female roles. The men in media aren’t picking up the slack. They’re the same as always: hit it, spit on it, have sex with it, or outwit it. These are traditionally male models of problem solving. Now though, what we get, is a world in which everyone solves problems that way, and we talk about whether a piece of media empowers women by showing they can do those things as well (or more often times better) than their male counterparts.
This is a big problem, because actually, turns out, what are traditionally considered “female” models of conflict resolution are actually really important parts of the human psyche, and more than that, there are lots of people, male AND female, who are naturally inclined to go about tackling problems using those methods.
Those methods include conversation, negotiation, peaceful or non-violent resolution, compromise, and consensus building, to name a few. The Princess doesn’t slay the Dragon, but she knows how to support the Dragon slayer, or how to learn to co-exist with the Dragon. She is a good friend, and has a strong will. She is someone who shows us how to maintain the integrity of our being without having to kill or otherwise eradicate whatever force may threaten us.
In short, Princesses are actually enormously effective people, and if nobody gets to be the Princess, my fear has become that those skills will atrophy, and worse than that, it will mean that people are not being valued truly equally no matter who they are. All it means is that women are now simply allowed to become men.
Again, said more rigorously, what I mean is that we aren’t learning to value the members of our society that fit the box we FORCED women into historically, we are merely letting all the members of our society strive to fit into the box we FORCE men into.
It isn’t equality so much as equal opportunity. The opportunity is to smash, and crush, and rough and tough, and fast talk your way to the top.
But what about girls and boys who don’t play that way?
What I am really trying to do here is disentangle a female person or women in general, from the expectations and functions they were made to fulfill historically, and point to those FUNCTIONS and say, “Hey, those have value too.”
Let me say it this third way, just in case you still think I’m talking about girls here. I think the world in which young girls grew up with the female trinity of Nurse, Teacher, and Secretary as their only three educated career options was horrendous. But I sure do respect the hell out of Nurses, Teachers, and Secretaries. There isn’t anything wrong with doing those jobs. They aren’t demeaning in any way. They are VITAL to our society. And I think anyone, male or female, is courageous for taking them on.
I’m saying the same thing about a Princess’ ways of solving problems. There isn’t anything wrong with being the light in the tower the calls out the courage in someone else. In fact, those people are like air in deep space when you find them in real life. The people that matter most to us as human beings are often the ones who believe in us, who call to us to slay the dragons in our paths. Being someone who does that for another person isn’t weak at all.
Let me bring this around to Sebastian now.
It is this thinking which really informs the protagonist of my current novel series, The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith. To me, it was important not only to write a novel which starred an openly gay protagonist, whose sexuality was neither central to nor ignored by the story, but also a protagonist who solved problems in a way that is just a little bit different than might be expected. I wanted to write a story where the Princess gets the credit she deserves, where those methods of resolving conflict which we think of now as weak and girly, were shown to be powerful and effective. At the same time, I didn’t want to make an argument that girls are somehow better or more suited to those methods either.
So I made Sebastian think like a girl. That is to say, I made Sebastian, quite naturally, think in the ways our society has falsely labeled feminine.
Does he pick up a sword from time to time? Yes.
Does he fight his own bad guys and rescue himself from time to time? Eventually.
But the first thing Sebastian does is to show the young man he has fallen in love why he is in love with him, at a time when that young man is in his deepest despair.
I set out to write a hero whose greatest capacity is not just to believe in himself (which is a CRITICAL lesson for all of us to learn) but who has the very unusual power to believe in others. And that belief changes the people around him. The changes he brings are in the end what make the biggest difference to his adventures.
My hero is a Princess, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
My hope is that in striving to separate traditionally female ways of acting from being thought of as intrinsically feminine, I will help my readers to look at themselves as individuals, who may have a whole complicated mess of gender stereotypes floating around inside of them. And that maybe, if they realize they might have a little bit of classic Princess in their heart, they’d feel proud and empowered, and not weak and broken, no matter what genitals they have between their legs.
I hope my point is clear here. Girls need diverse role models, and I think they need to be shown they can be ANYTHING. I just think boy AND girls should also be told that being “girly” is OK too. That feels like equality to me.
David M. Daniel is an author and freelance writer who current work The Marvelous Adventures of Sebastian Smith: To The Dragon’s Lair can be found among the entries to Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award. He is currently seeking representation by interested agents and publishers with a passion to bring groundbreaking young adult and middle grade fiction to the bookshelves.