Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Princess Syndrome

I ran across Meanwhile's post about the Disney Princess Syndrome. It's not the first time I've heard of this. I remember when Beauty and the Beast came out, and an acquaintance's daughter wanted to wear her yellow Belle costume everywhere: to bed, to the mall, the playground, school; you name it. And when I was little, I remember fantasizing about being Cinderella. She had lots of talking mice for friends, and I thought that was cool. She also had a pearl necklace, and my parents had recently taken me to Sea World, which had an oyster tank, where you could choose an oyster, open it, and see if there was a pearl inside. I stood by that oyster tank as long as I could, staring at the mollusks and thinking about the time and patience it took to make pearls.

I don't know what attracts little girls to princesses. I liked the pearls, the mice, the puffy blue dress, the magic, and the idea of being significant and sought after, rather than taken for granted and shuffled off to play. I thought it took courage for Cinderella to say YES to the fairy godmother and go on an adventure. I suspected there were probably lots of girls who would pull the covers over their heads, scrunch their eyes closed and yell, "No! Go away! I'll work this out myself, in the real world, without your magic! No ratty footmen or pumpkin coaches for me!"

But I digress. Back to Meanwhile, and the sentence that caught my eye, about Mulan:

"The girl kicks ass, true, but in the original legend, she kicks ass long enough to become a general in the Chinese army, one of six top advisers to the Emperor, while in Disney's version she is found out and marries her commanding officer."

When I read that, I remembered Hillary Clinton once commenting about how she'd chosen to have a career instead of staying home and baking cookies. The comment outraged moms everywhere, who resented the Stepford implication that all moms sweetly smiled and twirled around the kitchen all day. And I wondered about Mulan. By marrying the commanding officer, she lets herself get squeezed into a subservient, traditional female role. In the original legend, however, she proves that women must act like men, play by men's rules, and meet male standards in order to be valued.

I don't find either alternative attractive. However... let's look at the language I've used: laden with interpretation and evaluations. Without my thoughts about what the actions mean:

1. Mulan marries her commanding officer.
2. Mulan becomes an advisor to the Emperor.

It's kind of scary to look at the bare, stripped-down actions, and to realize how much of my own stuff I import in order to make a value judgment about the actions.

Symbols typically associate to a single, dominant idea: Red; stop. Green; go. Fence; boundary. Egg; fertility. We react instantly to the symbol's obvious meaning. We can certainly probe symbols for layers -- most contain depth and complexity -- but exploring those meanings requires a deliberate choice to thoughtfully reflect beyond the knee-jerk assumptions.

When I impose a symbol on a human being, I think I automatically invite conflict. Sure, a person can fulfill many roles, but my own conscious attention has limits. When I hang a symbolic identity on someone -- mom, president, princess, hypnotist -- don't I flatten them out a little? Don't other parts of them become invisible? When I go to my insurance agent, do I think about whether he ate a bad egg at breakfast, if his car is low on gas, if he'll get to his daughter's music recital on time? No. All I see is his job, and I want him to get me the best rate.

Sad. Human, natural, and sad.

Also changeable. If I can notice what I'm doing and refocus my attention, I can see the person and loosen my evaluations and judgments.

So. Exercise:

1. Make a list of the different roles you play. What are the symbols people hang on you? Lover, breadwinner, shopper, board member, parent, driver. (Or maybe you want to list a few people in your life and their roles.)

2. What expectations do you have of someone in that role? What do you expect someone in that role to do or be? What expectations do others have of someone in that role?

3. Are any of these expectation ever in conflict? How do you feel when you review the lists?

4. ERASE THE ROLES. Scratch out every symbol. Get rid of those labels! Now, go through the list of expectations. Using Nonviolent Communication, look for the underlying needs. Translate the expectations into observation language using Nonviolent Communication. What actions or behaviors would express those expectations?

Do you notice a shift in your experience?

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