Labyrinth – Prince Charming as Abusive Control Freak

I fear I’m not quite smart or well-versed enough to quite wrap my mind around the layers that bellatrys is unpacking in this essay (partially) on Labyrinth. But as I’ve been thinking more and more about some of the things I loved when I was young, how well they hold up now, and the ways my personal experiences have affected my reading of them, this is as good a place to start as any.

Labyrinth was also brought up in the comments to Revena’s A Quest of One’s Own post at Hathor (by the same author, but with a somewhat condensed angle):

Sarah is both the Princess to be rescued and the Knight Who Rescues, she rescues herself from (again imo) the myth of Prince Charming, and the comforting illusions of traditional romance, without, and this is key, giving up her rich fantasy life or love of the heroic: she chooses to walk as a hero in the waking world, which is why it’s become an almost unsung cult classic among a whole generation of younger women

I love this reading. I’d already been going over and over in my head the climactic scene on the Escher staircase (quoted at length in bellatrys’ essay) culminating in Sarah saying “You have no power over me” and seeing the whole complex of destructive illusions come smashing apart with this simple statement. She says it with a mixture of assurance and awe at realizing that it is actually true, and that it’s true because she says it is.

I had an experience a couple of months ago that has left me traumatized. Without going into too much personal detail, I was victimized by a Prince Charming–in some ways, by the myth itself. Offering me everything I wanted, but only at a cost, only in so far as it fed his mythic impressions of himself, only if, as bellatrys quotes, I would ultimately let him “rule over me”. He was the hero is his story; in all honesty, I wasn’t part of the story at all, in his eyes.

It’s tough to describe without the specifics, but when I say that I’ve been left traumatized, I mean that I was experiencing symptoms often associated with PTSD and on every list of trauma-reactions I’ve seen. Numbness, feeling displaced in time, actually dissociating from my body, not being “present” in any given situation. I was wandering through a maze, feeling trapped, not seeing any possible way out of this mind-loop I was in, even though this particular Goblin King/Prince Charming is, in physical terms, long gone.

I want to insist that in talking about my own experience, and what’s helping me feel like I’ve escaped, I would in no way project that on to anyone else that may have experienced any kind of trauma. But I suddenly realized how much I was continuing to buy into the inescapable structure set up for me, seeing myself on the terms defined by my Prince Charming, still somehow needing that Prince Charming salvation imagery and therefore not being able to find the way out.

Until “You have no power over me”. And the illusions shatter, and I embrace the waking world, and I take up the quest. The fact that our Henson-heroine is named Sarah is convenient. 🙂

The Goblin King sees himself as a Prince Charming. He doesn’t fully realize he’s an abusive control freak because he thinks he’s the hero of the story, and he can’t possibly imagine the story in any other way. Labyrinth as a feminist treatise does, of course, have it’s serious flaws, but the way that these themes and images resonate with me is putting this one in the category of “childhood loves that actually get better now that I have a brain”.

Fellow Language Lover Does Not Find This Appreciable

This link was posted by somebody on my Facebook friends list with the comment “Appreciable by my fellow language lovers”. I would consider myself quite the language lover, and would cite the letters after my name accompanying the word “Linguistics” as evidence of that. I would also note that as a language lover, I find the phrase “appreciable by” pretty flipping stupid, actually, especially since it doesn’t actually mean what you think it means, fellow language-lover

But that phrase is pretty much in the same vein as this “Ebonics translation competition” link–“love of language” equated with a bullshit condescending attitude of superiority and praise of big words, convoluted phrasing and prescriptive grammar. More of the same trite “What’s the world coming to” and “Kids these days” except with a nice, racist bow on top. Not new. Not funny. Not “appreciable” (well, actually, totally “appreciable” just not in any way something I appreciate).
If there really is a high school including this question on the curriculum, complete with the use of the blatantly racist term “Ebonics”, then I’m again saddened by the state of this world we live in. Even if it’s just some moron on the internet getting a kick out of saying, yet again, in oh-so-humourous fashion, that black people are too stupid to use the right words and gee, doesn’t this make it obvious that the kinds of things they talk about are silly and vapid, then it pisses me off.

Disclaimer: I think the lyrics of that song are horrifying and misogynistic. That doesn’t mean we have to resort to racist bullshit to deconstruct it (if, in fact, that were even being done here on any level).

Disclaimer #2: I’m particular about language. I know that. I’m downright pedantic, in fact. This is different. Actually, I must admit, nothing pleases me more than the opportunity to get pedantic on some asshole who is being condescendingly pedantic himself. I kind of wish I were enough of a bitch to bother posting a link to this as a comment on that Facebook entry, but…I’m not.

Work Ethics

Meryl Streep makes a speech in The Devil Wears Prada tearing apart the young, naive, recently hired Anne Hathaway for looking down on the fashion industry. In it, she outlines the trail between the presumed department store/bargain bin sweater Hathaway is wearing and the fashion industry decision three years earlier to market the colour “cerulean”. She snootily refers to the way Hathaway assumes she’s just picking up a sweater, and has no idea that the colour was chosen for her by the people in that room and that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are generated within this industry, so how dare she say it’s not important?

I wasn’t expecting The Devil Wears Prada to be a revolutionary movie, but Hathaway’s character is supposed to be this anti-corporate, idealistic, journalism student type. Not only does she never really question the beauty standards projected by the fashion industry, she misses the much deeper point (to me) that somehow, an industry that makes money has by definition become important.

I know this is corporate culture. What’s bugging me is just how pervasive it is. I was watching this movie with two girls aged nine and ten, and I have no idea how I would begin to unpack the assumptions in there. To be fair, if I were in Anne Hathaway’s place, I would have said “…and you think if you hadn’t picked cerulean, I somehow wouldn’t be wearing any sweater at all, so you’re right, the fact that you did all that has made a huge impact on my life. I’m completely humbled. I’ll be leaving now”. And then it would have been a really short and boring movie.

Money isn’t a means to an end in this speech. It’s not good because you can use it to buy stuff, it’s not important because it improves lives, and it certainly doesn’t matter whether anyone is being hurt by it. Money is important because it’s money. It’s the end, it’s the goal, it’s the definition of important, full stop.

Since I’m generally blessed enough not to know many corporate types, the conversations I don’t quite know how to opt out of are the work-for-work’s sake ones. The ones that tout “hard-working” as a virtue in and of itself, not because it accomplishes anything. My parents do this all the time (sidebar: how did we come to talk about “Protestant” work ethic? They’re Catholic, and damn, are they full of it). I have nothing against the idea of gardening and doing home improvement projects in order to relax, but within the work-for-work’s sake model, it can’t be about relaxing. My relaxing–reading, writing, chatting with friends etc–is not okay because it doesn’t really produce anything.

Simone de Beauvoir writes about the existentialist idea of transcending the base animal state by producing and creating, focusing on how women’s reproductive role has been turned around on them so that they live-to-create rather than create-to-exist. Socially, men create and produce things–or now, eventually, pure money–and accomplish stuff, and this allows them to be beyond the cycles of life and death. She’s writing to a large extent about how women have consistently been prevented from participating in this activity, how ideas about reproduction and reproductive roles have been used to lock women in to position as mere replicators (and I know her ideas have their significant shortcomings), but I’m wondering how much it’s possible to opt out of the entire system.

I’m not advocating laziness and uselessness, and I can’t imagine not wanting to take satisfaction from a sense of accomplishment. But it’s like we’ve substituted the sense of accomplishment for any actual accomplishment. The fact that I’m wearing cerulean instead of indigo because you decided it was in fashion is not the same as actually doing anything, no matter how much somebody paid you to do it.

But then, I’m crazy like that.

200 lashes

This whole story out of Saudi Arabia about a rape victim who was sentenced to 200 lashes for being out in public without a male escort (the original sentence of 90 lashes was raised when she appealed, because, of course, the message that it is not okay to protest this kind of horrifying treatment must be loud and clear) is raising outrage all over the place. I have little to add to the specifics, since it’s immediately apparent to anyone with half a brain what the problem with this is.

…or is it?

I was at an activist discussion group a few months ago–I can’t remember the exact topic of focus at this one–that drifted around in such a way that led me to offhandedly toss off a reference to the (biblical times) stoning of adulteresses. A guy who was present added “Or stone the rapist”. I didn’t know this guy well, but there was a defensiveness to his tone that suggested he was a ‘men’s rights’ type of guy, so I called him on it, saying “More likely, stone the rape victim”. He challenged me and I had to argue that not only does this literally happen in these kinds of situations, we also see it locally in a social sense, in the gauntlet of victim-blaming, the scouring and public airing of one’s sexual history, the silencing attempts that often go as far as death threats leveled against survivors who wish to press charges, the consolidation of community around the accused…

So I was basically arguing that rape victims face far more socially sanctioned punishment, sometimes from actual institutions of law and government, than rapists do. Which is true. His responses to my arguments proved that he wasn’t going to listen to what I was saying about the way victims are treated, and I ended up getting pretty upset. But given the context, I realized later that I missed the boat. I accepted his framing of the situation from the outset, his creation of a terrifying false equivalence–I said they once stoned adulteresses (I used the gendered term, and many are well aware that rape victims are often miscast with this term). He added that they also stoned rapists. As if there is any reason to talk about those two concepts within the same conversation–whether it’s okay or not okay to “stone” anybody is a debate I will legitimately have, but that’s a different discussion from whether or not it’s even remotely okay to punish female sexuality in all its forms of expression, up to and including whatever act by/characteristic of a rape victim that is being targeted as the cause of her assault–which often comes down to simply existing publicly outside of male control. I’m not capable of having a debate on that topic.

I have no idea what that guy would say about this story. I feel this weight knowing that this kind of thing really does happen, and people like that guy are all over the place denying, dismissing and allowing it over and over and over again, and I feel completely powerless to even begin to get at the kind of base assumptions that drive the attitude forward.

Electoral Structures and Media Narratives

In an abstract academic sense, I’m fascinated by the election process in the US (in a human sense, I’m horrified and depressed by it, so I suspect that the academic distance aspect is a defense mechanism). Leading up to the Ontario election, I realized how the whole show seemed somewhat diminished to me. Part of that, I think, is simply the way we tend to think of “bigger” as “more important”, meaning that national elections manage to capture the imagination more than provincial ones, even though most of the issues that affect our lives most directly (health care, education, welfare) are within the provincial jurisdiction. I remember finding myself taken aback, however, to actually recognize that there was far more attention being paid–even considering the proportional populations–to the US presidential election, which is still over a year from taking place, than there was to a local election even weeks before the event.

A question an American friend asked recently about the workings of the British electoral system got me wondering about a couple of things. First, I’m not sure just how unfamiliar most Americans are with parliamentary structures and elections, so trying to explain the system often forces me to recognize just how different it actually is from the US version, because I try to really get at the basics, including the kinds of things I completely take for granted. And then in turn I question whether the system itself, not just our relatively small population and world relevance, makes it a hell of a lot more difficult to construct these sweeping narratives of heroism or falling from grace. There are certainly cultural elements at work, but I’m wondering about the chicken-or-egg aspects of those cultural ideals as well. It’s getting to be more and more the case that people vote because they believe in and trust certain parties (and by extension, party leaders) rather than individual candidates in local ridings, but the system is premised on a much more localized, bottom-up model. It’s tough to create mythologies of lone heroism, of individual leaders who single-handedly steer the country through major challenges, with that kind of political basis.

I’m not saying there’s no space for leadership, and we certainly have a couple of historical larger-than-life figures (Trudeau comes immediately to mind), but for the most part, we seem to see movements and events as almost autonomous cultural forces. Preston Manning was among the major driving forces behind the creation of the current political right-wing in Canada, and he actually was quite visionary about it, but the way we talk about it has a great deal more to do with “Western alienation” as a concept. I suspect if the US actually assumes any kind of universal health care model, the name of the president who pushes it through will be etched in the memories of the American public and, by extension, the world, ignoring the multitudes of politicians and activists who have been laying the foundation for decades. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who don’t recognize the name “Tommy Douglas” even after he was selected as CBC’s “Greatest Canadian” (and, incidentally, after I’ve in the process discovered that he was Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather).

We’ve had a female prime minister. For about twenty minutes, granted, but the process by which she became PM–getting the leadership of the Conservative party when Brian Mulroney retired while in office–is inherently way less dramatic than what’s happening with Hillary Clinton right now (whether she manages to win even the nomination or not). Maybe it would have been different if Campbell had been chosen in a situation in which it wasn’t already apparent that the party was going to be decimated in the election no matter how she ran her campaign, but I can’t imagine it would have been quite like this.

I’m kind of tossing a bunch of ideas together here, and I don’t really have a good way to wrap it up. Sometimes I forget I’m Canadian, so much does the American process consume me via the blogs I read/TV I watch, and sometimes that becomes incredibly disempowering, but having this basic outside-looking-in perspective is admittedly kind of fun at times.

Wherefore Art Thou…

Feministing tells me that Sarah Michelle Gellar has announced that she’s changing her last name to Prinze after five years of marriage to Freddie Prinze, Jr. As an anniversary gift.

Sigh. Name changing. This is an issue that a lot of people want to simplify in order to dismiss it. They tell us that it’s an irrelevant symbol, a hollow statement, a silly shibboleth for determining at a glance who is and is not in the feminist club. And in telling us how hollow it is, what they show me is why it matters.

Okay, so a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I was paying attention during the 60 billion times we talked about the arbitrariness of linguistic symbols way back in first year linguistics. And believe me, I do recognize that the name with which I was born came to me via a line of male ancestors, and that choosing to keep it does not mean I’m entering into some beautiful circle of matriarchy and feminine sharing or whatever clichĂ© people may choose to project onto the statement they are hearing from me.

When I got married, I chose to keep my surname for very specific personal reasons, partially because my name is relatively unusual, and also tied to a particular community, and my now ex-husband’s is quite common in general. I talked a lot about questions of my personal identity and how it was wrapped up in *this* name. My feelings on my home community and my family of origin have changed rather radically from that time, but that doesn’t really negate the basic principle of identity in naming. Yes, I can be reductive and make it a pure linguistic principle and try to just say that the signifier-signified relationship is not the source of my identity, which is kind of what people are doing when they try to dismiss the idea as one that matters.

But we accept name-as-identity on so many levels. There’s a reason Rumpelstiltskin has power as a fairy tale. There’s a reason most quotations, books, thoughts, ideas have names attached to them, and we evaluate them including contextual information based on what else we know of what comes from that source. Leaving aside the whole question of whether or not name-changing is a symbol of shifting ownership (it is), I have one fundamental question: What is it about the act of marriage that marks a change in identity, a change in the fundamental “self” of a woman so significant as to require a change in name? In changing the label by which people know me, I am suddenly announcing a shift in my way of being seen. I say “I’m Purtek”. I am. And by getting married, apparently I’m supposed to have transmogrified into something different.

And then, I guess, changed back into the person I was originally by leaving that marriage. I am, in fact, very different from the person I was before I was married, and different still from the person I was in deciding to leave that marriage, but not because of the marriage. Other changes in my life have been bigger, more significant, more radically identity-defining, yet it’s marriage that is the one that is supposed to alter me just enough to warrant a new name. Except then, when it’s over after however many years, I haven’t become something new again, I’ve just reverted back into my old self, doing the opposite of growing and in fact eradicating any sense of change that had occurred. But I’m still occupying the same body, still living the same life, still being the same person in existential terms, and I don’t think it makes sense to say otherwise philosophically.

I know this is getting on the esoteric side, but the very thought that my name should ever change is nonsensical to me now. The concept that it should be given to another as a gift, a statement that I am changing myself, being something different for you, in fact becoming more like you…well, that just makes me feel icky.

Action Barriers Part 4: The Good Person

Part 1: Defensiveness
Part 2: Guilt
Part 3: Blame

All of the barriers to action I’ve talked about so far—defensiveness, guilt, blame—hinge on the essential idea that P is a Good Person and that P’s Good Person-ness is the central fact that needs to be discussed. P can’t be Racist/Sexist/Classist/participate in the patriarchy/oppression because P is a Good Person. I’ve perpetuated that discussion to some extent with my image of St Peter at the gates of heaven and the scorecards he may or may not be using in order to evaluate one’s application for entry.

First of all, as I started to suggest in my post on guilt, this type of Good Person depends on a binary version of the scorecard, and on some idea of an ‘essential self’. At some point on a scale of good vs. evil, we do the Right Thing or avoid the Wrong Thing enough times or in enough standardized ways that we become Good and no longer Evil and then we get to stop.

It also depends on people spending a whole bunch of time doing things not simply because they are good things to do, but because we need to be Good People. Christians are often approached to discuss the notion of heaven and hell, both in philosophical and practical terms. One of the ways that it becomes a practical question is in the idea that maybe we practice our religion in order to get into heaven and avoid hell. Many thinking Christians have a well-rehearsed response to these kinds of questions that runs along the lines of “It’s not my place to judge whether or not you’re going to hell. I’m just doing what I feel I need to do and God will sort it out in the end”. That’s an important response in a lot of situations, but I’ve never felt quite comfortable with it, because it doesn’t reflect my personal theology very accurately. (Note that the overall idea applies whether we’re actually talking about heaven and hell or speaking in entirely secular terms to someone who is using the simple expressions of striving to be a Good Person—in fact, those exact words are frequently used by individuals who are defending their non-Christianity by saying that whether they believe in Jesus or not is irrelevant, as long as they are Good People)

I’ve tried to explain to people before that the threat of hell and the promise of heaven are ideas that do not play a role in my day-to-day spirituality, but it goes deeper than that. Whether or not I’m a Good Person is a meaningless question, not only because it depends on the kind of binary that anyone who thinks for thirty seconds can recognize as ridiculous, but also because it ultimately defeats its own purpose. It’s easier to simplify moral action down to what is essentially an economic transaction—if I do x, if I sacrifice y, if I pay the cost of z, I will get a, b and c in return—but if we buy into the concept that unselfishness is good, than this viewpoint is merely doing “unselfish” things for selfish reasons. More importantly to my theology, it represents one of the core examples of my experience of what the Buddhists call craving—grasping and trying to pin down morality/God in ways that can only cause suffering because they are premised on transitory things in the world and in myself. In Christian terms, it’s really a manifestation of pride. If I’m constantly trying to distinguish myself, to figure out how I’m different/better/exceptional, then I’m missing the point, even if I’m doing it in all the right ways.

The only binary that’s ever made sense to me is the quotation that “Saints are the sinners that go on trying”. If we’re going to have any discussion about trying to improve anything, the overall point can never be abstract ideas of how to be a Good Person. I don’t care whether P is a Good Person. I don’t care for practical reasons, and I don’t care for theological reasons. That’s not intended to be heartless or unsympathetic towards P—I don’t actually care whether or not I’m a Good Person either, for all of the reasons listed above.

If the point is how to make a Good World, then looking inward about whether or not I am or you are a Good Person is only hindering us from looking outward at what is or is not happening. To me, this is the difference between the conversation I’m trying to have and the conversation P is trying to have, which is where the barriers are tracing back to.