Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Princess for Jesus

In Biblically conservative Christian culture, I keep running into endless invocations of Princess-hood as a lure for self-esteem and confidence in young girls.  God knows (ha ha) when you're raising daughters and trying to sell them that "man is the head of woman" tradition, the bitter pill needs some kind of sugary coating.

Christian Living and Bible study books with this theme abound.  You are a Daughter of the King.  The King of Heaven. You are therefore a princess.  High ranking, important, wealthy.

The invocation of the wealth is not deceptive, since the authors and leaders make it quite clear that we're talking about the treasures of heaven, not the ephemeral gold and stores of earth.

But from that point on, the Christian Princess Culture is pulling a bait-and-switch.  It tells little girls their worth and excellence but does it to keep females in the subordinate position that so many New Testament passages pound into literalists who consider Paul and other letter writers to be channeling THE very Word of Very God.  Women are to be subject to men.

The misunderstanding held by little girls raised on the adventurous and romantic kid culture, which they're encouraged to act out with tulle and tiaras, is fully exploited with this Daughter Of The King bait. Girls think princesses have power along with that high rank.  That they have privilege and freedom.

In truth, ask any royal or aristocratic renaissance woman just how much power she had.

She was bought and sold.  She was lucky if she got an education, though the wealthiest did.  But she was a bargaining chip for property or political alliance.  She could not choose her husband or her way of life, and if she was to be "given" to the church, she could not marry or become a mother at all.

As recently as 1921, Princess Mary  (the only daughter of George V and Queen Mary) was forbidden to marry the man of her choice.  He was a duke not only of suitable rank, but of no family "difficulties" of suspect inheritable traits.   No, his only dealbreaking quality was that he was not rich enough -- quite rich but not rich enough -- and she was therefore forced to ally with the much wealthier family that was chosen for her.  It's said to have been a major row, after which she finally acquiesced and married the chosen Duke, who was an OK guy and a chance to get out of the house, and this was considered an admirable case of bowing to Duty. Today, the royal ranks would salivate over such a suitable choice as the forbidden duke.  But that was 1921. What princesses went through from time immemorial eroded only that gradually.

As recently as the 1950's, Princess Margaret had to give up the divorced man she loved, or give up her right and that of her children to a place in the succession. As recently as 1981, the pressure was still strong for any woman who married the Prince of Wales to give her virginity to him alone and never "know" another, a requirement that eliminated a couple of the PofW's serious girlfriends and had his parents pressuring him to ally with a 19-year-old.  The results were tragic.

But each was a small sign of progress, in that it was a stage in the slow erosion of using women as chattels.  By Princess Mary's time, she could at least marry an English aristocrat and was not used for political alliance with a foreign prince she'd never met.  By Princess Margaret's time, she could at least choose, even a commoner, if he met the slowly loosening list of requirements. 

In worldly life princesses have more freedom, but fundamentalist culture lures girls with the Princesshood they know from fairy tales, and then switches it for the retrograde form; the true state in which they are expected to live, serene in their certainty of a place in heaven, but expected to embrace rule by men in this life. In heaven there may be equality, but here, you are to follow, obey, submit, and consider it a privilege to do so for your King. Yes, fairy tales in both print and film are loaded with obedience by girls, but once you get your Handsome Prince, your days of serving, sweeping and being locked in towers without freedom to ride away are over.  Restraints will now come from noblesse oblige, not your gender, and your reward comes at your wedding, not at the end of life.

The base problem is a primitive concept that everything on earth is in a linear hierarchy;  that difference can't be equal.  Many smiling Christian conservatives have sincerely and reasonably told me that wifely submission is simple practicality:  "Somebody has to be the boss."

Another favorite is to point to the whole Ephesians 5 passage which certainly makes the role of a man more one of tremendous responsibility than of profligate privilege, and then to say "Hey, look at the demand made on husbands!  Who has the harder job?"  But it's quite clearly assigned to the gender considered more able to do it.  You can say, and you'd be right, that all Christians are called to a difficult and sacrificial life, but there's no escape from the message that males are made of better stuff.

Are we still hanging on to that swill?  We should so have outgrown that need to rank every single shred of Creation, especially when it concerns the human soul.  Isn't US politics alone proof of gender equality in susceptibility to the crassest forms of corruption?

A life well lived by anybody, Believer or Un-, is often about selflessness, and nothing about abandoning the whole genital basis for who bosses whom needs to lead to a self-centered existence.

Personally I'm not a believer in wifely submission, or in the necessity of obeying Paul of Tarsus in order to be a Christian.  I know that's a shock, since I hid it so well.  Maybe I should provide a little break, here, while you recover.

But I'm also not about telling anybody how they should live or what they should believe.  I don't have all, or even many, of life's answers.

My objection here is that this Christian Princess thing is not an honest way to teach the principles. Attracting girls with something they think is about happily-ever-after and freedom, when it's really about lifelong submission and obedience, crosses the line between correcting a misconception and exploiting it.

But further, "prince" and "princess" are about status in society.  They are about some people being higher and others lower. I don't think appealing to the natural craving kids have to be special and superior is the right message for teaching the Christian life.

Sure, you're teaching the Sunday School class that every single kid in it, as a child of the Heavenly King, is equally a prince or princess; smart, cute, dumpy or unpopular, rich or poor.  But a royalty metaphor carries the strong implication that there is an Us and a Them, and that We are superior in some hierarchy.  Royalty is above the common folk in social structure, which is the only context in which the labels have any meaning.

This is so not a right or accurate depiction of the concept of God's love for the humanity that we're claiming is all, every one, made in His image.


Sherwood Harrington said...

I don't think appealing to the natural craving kids have to be special and superior is the right message for teaching the Christian life. Yes, yes, indeed. An excellent piece all around, but that's the sentence that had me smiling, since our family is in the hard process of trying to gently convince a certain young lady that she's not better than the other kids just because she's pretty and can do math better than they can.

BTW, Antony Armstrong-Jones was just barely a commoner. While a title had to be invented for him, his younger half-brother is the Seventh Earl of Rosse and he did most of what growing up he managed to do in Birr Castle. Anne Messel re-married well.

Ronnie said...

I don't know how you so thoroly manage to get inside my head and write my thoughts. Thank you. I guess I'm just too lazy - glad you are not.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

Sherwood - That is one fine line between a wonderful self-confidence and a feeling of superiority -- but if any family can develop it in a healthy direction, i bet it's yours.

And Ronnie, i have trouble believing that laziness has ever been one of your traits!