PRESS PLAY HAS A NEW COLUMN.
Having been thrilled and impressed by Arielle Bernstein's previous essays for this publication, on topics ranging from the cinematography of Breaking Bad to Melissa McCarthy to Lana Del Rey, we are excited to announce that she will be beginning an eponymous column here at Press Play, in which she will continue to surprise and awaken readers with insightful, poetically well-composed analyses of cultural and artistic issues. Please welcome--and read--our newest columnist!
In Pitchfork’s review of Janelle Monáe’s latest album, Jayson Greene describes Monáe as an auteur. He argues that “her music has always been about the exhilaration coming from the sensation of total control.” When I saw Monáe perform live recently, I was struck by the same sense of her intensity: Monáe is a tiny wide-eyed powerhouse, strong and savvy. While artists like Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift enjoy playing the princess, Monáe emerged on the music scene completely suited up, and her first single off her new album, The Electric Lady, is regal, rather than docile. "QUEEN" is female power all grown up.
The image of the princess remains a symbol of idealized American female identity. From the oft-lambasted pink toy aisle of the department store, to princess-themed weddings and sweet 16 parties, much of female coming-of-age is still centered around the narrative of a young maiden finding her prince. Certainly the princess myth has been modernized in new stories. Today, princesses are often smart, capable and strong. Sometimes the princess wants a career. Sometimes she rejects marriage. Sometimes she is the one who rescues her prince. Despite these outward changes, the princess figure persists because it resonates with everything our culture expects, loves and hates about girlhood. What defines a princess is not her docile nature, but the fact that her very position is one of subordination. She may have a voice, but she is a child, under the rule of her parents. She is in a state of perpetual adolescence. Warrior princesses like Brave’s Merida, or Mulan, appeal to us because they are adolescents on the verge of realizing their power. Princess Jasmine may claim she is not a prize to be won all she wants, just as Ariel can flex her fins at the notion of discovering a world of her own: In reality, both are still under the lock and key of a father who wants to protect them.
Queens, in contrast, are sinister figures in our culture, much more threatening than the cute female warrior types that our culture has grown accustomed to. We are used to Buffy and Hit-Girl, badass warriors who are often accompanied by a male guardian to ease their transition to adulthood. Likewise, we laud the lone wolf mother narrative: Ellen Ripley and Beatrix Kiddo are seen as strong and powerful, while still staunchly feminine, as their primary objective is about protecting their young.
Queens, in contrast, protect nothing but their personal influence. The queen in fairy tales is fierce and autocratic, heartless and self absorbed. She is a threat to the princess and is also often presented as a threat to the kingdom. She is feared rather than beloved. While Snow White has been given various reboots that render her less passive, the evil queen remains an arch nemesis. Similarly, Cinderella’s various iterations are more outspoken, while her stepmother remains a brute, uncaring force. In Disney’s Tangled, we are given a fiery Rapunzel with another controlling, domineering and repulsive version of mom. In other words, for every Ripley that we praise for being assertive and adventurous, there remains a queen alien that the princess must destroy.
This hero narrative is substantially different from the male hero’s journey. Young Luke Skywalker has many father figures that guide him on his journey. The male rise to power is perceived as multifaceted. The male hero is allowed the agency to choose to become a good, benevolent leader, or a selfish one. The female hero is only allowed tempered bits of power—she gets to flex her little muscles a bit before finding love, but we don’t get to see her exert her influence on the throne.
In today’s culture, power is often synonymous with dominance. We may gently chide Don’s cheating ways, but we are poised to identify and sympathize with his desire for power even more so than redemption. Masculine displays of power and dominance are seen as a force, which is as creative as it is destructive. We rally behind Don Draper, Walter White, and Jax from Sons of Anarchy. Even when they do terrible things, we are fascinated by their decisions and by their gumption. Women, unless they are leaving an abuser or protecting their children, are simply not given the latitude to commit these sorts of actions without consequence. Indeed, women who rupture male narratives of power are seen as threatening. Characters like Breaking Bad’s Skyler White and Mad Men’s Betty Draper are seen as far less sympathetic than their spouses.
This column will be centered on the question of female agency, which I see as being fundamentally tied to positive images of women in power, rather than princesses on the cusp of coming-of-age. Most visions of queens in our culture today buy into male ideas and ideals of power: The dominatrix is a popular figure in music videos for this very reason. We see Britney whip a pretty young collared thing in her video for “Work Bitch,” just as we see Queen Bee Beyonce tell us to bow down. But is the power displayed in these videos substantive or reductive? In this column I’ll consider a range of media—movies, TV shows, music videos, video games—in order to consider how power is constructed in regards to gender, and whether power is a collaborative force, or if it is always necessarily combative, a world of swagger and bared teeth.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate
Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.