Monday, May 26, 2014

The Summer of Martin


On Memorial Day last year I finished editing the manuscript of my first novel, The Bluebird of Happiness. My intention at the start of last summer was to write (or at least to begin writing) my follow-up novel, Rainbow. I did indeed make a brilliant start, but, due to struggles with depression, my progress was sporadic. I have done some occasional work on the story since then, having amassed 13,000 words so far, and, as the summer of 2014 arrives, I hope to catch a wave of renewed inspiration and vision and to ride it as far as I can go--perhaps all the way to Rainbow's end, or at least much further along the arc.

I sometimes feel rather like an actor when I write my stories, inhabiting and identifying with my characters, in some sense "becoming" them in my mind. Since my fiction is primarily written in the first person, it perhaps has a greater affinity for dramatic forms than it does the objective style of the omniscient third-person narrator. For the most part, I do not report what he or she did or said as much as I pretend to be him or her, and to speak in their voice. So, in a very real sense, I am acting when I write, although my performance is expressed through the written rather than the spoken word.

I am starting to feel that with my second novel, I will perhaps take my "acting" beyond its usual level, that level where it exists entirely within my head and so is not visible to the outside world. In other words, in order to understand and therefore communicate who Martin is, I will perhaps, to some degree, attempt to "play" him in real life. Call it "method writing".

Of course, just as with any acting, this should not be interpreted to mean that Martin is me (i.e., merely a fictionalized version of his author). Martin is his own person, and even I do not fully know who he is. Rainbow is, in fact, as I have often stated, an attempt to explore (though not definitively answer) that very question. Any impersonation I may do of Martin Lane is a part of my investigation of this singular and compelling character that, for reasons I do not yet fully comprehend, I feel driven to show forth into bodily existence through the magic art of writing.

One thing I cannot readily imitate about Martin at this point is to inhabit his physical environment, which is in my home state of Florida. But lately I have begun asking myself "What would Martin do?" if he were, say, in Missouri? The question has opened up avenues by which I might more closely connect life and art, by thinking creatively about how I might parallel some of Martin's ways in a different regional environment.

In any case, Rainbow is not a regional novel, but an American one, and thinking about all this is helping me to see all the more clearly the common experiences Martin and I may share by virtue of the fact that we both live in the U.S., which in turn helps me to perceive the qualities that make this an American novel and an American story, despite its strong regional flavor.

The theme of home, always central to the story, is becoming ever further developed and elaborated in my mind. I am beginning to understand more fully the philosophical reasons for Martin's strange lifestyle, and to see how it is a physical manifestation of his metaphysical lostness.

The dreamy Aurora Nightingale, already a character of primary importance in Bluebird, is lately growing into an ever fuller and richer personality in my imagination, perhaps not so much a further development of her self in the first book as an entirely different iteration (which is also true of the other major characters that carry over from the first novel, none more so than Martin himself). Intimately linked to the evolution of her character, Martin's ambiguous yet deep relationship with Aurora is becoming all the more compelling, intriguing, and richly suggestive to me.

Lastly, I must confess that, in the year and more that Rainbow has been developing in my mind, I have sometimes "feared" that it might come to surpass Bluebird, in terms of either its actual quality or its reception, or both. I am no longer afraid of that. Not because I doubt the quality of Rainbow, but because of the opposite, as I feel more and more that Rainbow may in fact be, on average, the better novel (just as Huckleberry Finn is widely considered superior to the still classic Tom Sawyer).

But now, instead of fearing that my sophomore novel might overshadow its predecessor, I am beginning to feel that Rainbow will only more greatly illuminate its point of origin. 


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Darkness Clouds


This is one of my early poems, written in late March 1997. This poem was an artistic breakthrough for me, as I devoted far more time and effort to its perfection than I had ever done with any poem before. In this poem I also began to experiment more with imagery and syntax, as well as with alliteration, subtle musical rhythms, and other poetic devices that went well beyond the basic rhyme and meter of song lyrics and other simple poetry I had written up until that time. In many ways, I consider the composition of this poem to mark my transition to becoming a true poet. That is not to say that I was necessarily a great, or even a good, poet (I must leave that judgment for others to make), but it is to say that I had become, objectively speaking, a real poet, and not a mere writer of verse. In hindsight, it is almost as though I had discovered how to use the sorcerer's wand of the magical poetic arts--still just a novice apprentice, but suddenly realizing: Oh! That's how it works! 

Seventeen years later, it surprises me a little to realize that there is still much I like about this little poem (that is not the typical reaction to revisiting one's early, formative artistic works, many others of which I wish I could delete from existence). Other than reciting it at a few poetry readings back in the day, and including it in a self-published (is there any other kind?) chapbook that only a few friends and family ever saw, this is its first publication.


*    *    *

Darkness Clouds


Darkness clouds—whisper,
 
enchant me with your softness sad.
 
Melancholy heights—
 
paint my purple passions,
 
sing my mournful dreams.
 
Electric sorrow sky—
 
reflect my violet hopes,
 
echo my shadowed desires.
 
This cloudness longing,
 
this ethereal ache—
 
translate liquid dark,
 
interpret buried rain.
 
Release catharsis showers—
 
flowers bloom
 
where you weep.
 
Let me lie beneath
 
your sad shadow-fall.
 
Water me as you do the grass—
 
with your tears so soft
 
and sweet.




Monday, May 12, 2014

The Rainbow Report: May 12, 2014

 
 
It's mid-May now, so that must mean it's time once again for my mid-May Martinmania. And surely enough, just like this time last year, my inspiration for the novel known as Rainbow is in the ascendant. Why else would I be experimenting with designing book covers for a novel of which I have so far written only 13,000 words?
 
One thing I know is that I am determined to write this thing, one way or the other--whether it needs to be written, slowly and tortuously, in the erratic fits and starts which have seemed to characterize its progress thus far, or, more hopefully, in a steady drive of inspiration that will carry the novel through to its completion this summer.
 
Of course, that is what I hoped for when I started writing the story at the beginning of last summer, but in any case, I am not set on that timeframe of completion as a definite goal. As I have stated before, this is my art, and it must be given the time it needs to grow and develop and evolve in an organic and natural way. I must have faith in Rainbow that it will continue to reveal itself and, through my hands, realize itself in its own good time.
 
Lately the story has in fact been doing just that, continuing its wondrous unfolding in my mind "like some kind of crazy, beautiful, glorious flower" (as one character describes Martin).
 
One quality of the story that helps me to maintain faith in it and in the value of writing it--no matter the difficulty, the daunting grandeur of the ambition, and the occasional loss of vision and inspiration--is what I might call its "untranslatability". One of the texts that inspires and underlies the novel is Whitman's line "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable." 
 
I see this line as being pertinent both to Martin as a character, in the sense that he is a mystery who cannot be contained by any simple definition of who he is as a person, and also to the novel itself, in the sense that Rainbow cannot be contained by any simple definition of what it is as a story.
 
I think that this quality is something it shares with many other literary works that rise above formula and conventional expectations and standard categorizations, and this is what I mean when I say that the quality of "untranslatability" helps me to maintain faith in the novel. I mean that it helps to remind me that this is one of the best ideas I have ever had, that I have here something original and fresh and new, something that might even be (as it indeed feels to me) powerful and grand (or, as a friend put it, "monstrous and majestic"), and that this story is a living thing, i.e., a story with a sparkling, vigorous life of its own, as Bluebird was (and still is... literary works always live as long as they have readers who bring them back to life, in an endless variety of iterations, with each individual reading).
 
I myself cannot explain or define this novel Rainbow. I can scarcely understand, at an intellectual level, what the story is about, why it is such a powerful vision for me, or why I feel so compelled to write it. That inability to adequately articulate the concept is not because it is devoid of substance, but indeed the very opposite: its substance (speaking here only of the idea that presents itself to my mind, not of my actual work) is, on the contrary, so full, so rich, and so deep, that it does not permit itself to be reduced to any simple explanation or summarization.
 
The closest thing I can compare it to is a fairy tale, or, perhaps even better, a myth. It centers on the character of Martin Lane, an artist and poet, and, to the extent that one may summarize what Rainbow is "about", it is largely about who Martin is, and the way in which he gradually discovers and expresses who he is. It is like a fairy tale in that Martin seems to transform, or rather to realize (both in the sense of "become aware" and in the sense of "make real"), himself, from something apparently ordinary and plain into a wondrous and magical being.
 
I do not mean that the story is a fantasy; I use the term "fairy tale" metaphorically. As I said, however, I think the word "myth" might be a better instrument to capture the nature of this tale. Martin Lane is a mythic figure, and his story is of mythic proportions. Despite his uniqueness, mysteriousness, and strangeness, I believe that Martin can also stand for human beings in general, a symbol of the uniqueness, mysteriousness, and strangeness of each one of us.
 
There is far more to the story, and far more to its mythic nature, than this one aspect can possibly suggest. The novel is "about" a multitude of things, and is also, above and beyond and encompassing all of those things, about one thing. That one thing I can only explain by writing the novel itself. I cannot give words to that one thing other than the words (every last one of them) of Rainbow.
 
In other words, Rainbow is, like Martin Lane, untranslatable.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Incredible! Unbelievable! Told The Untamed Way!: Re-Calculating "Robot Monster" as 20th Century Art


I grew up watching a local Tampa Saturday afternoon TV show called Creature Feature that played "horrible old movies" hosted by a friendly and jovial (if rather spooky) old gentleman named "Dr. Paul Bearer". Science fiction, primarily from the 1950s and 1960s, much of it of questionable artistic quality and cultural value, formed a major component of my intellectual and aesthetic diet as a young boy.

My love for these ancient and often technically terrible science fiction and horror epics has not only survived but continued to thrive in my adult life. I have watched so many of the genre films of this time period that I feel like a veritable expert on the subject. To many people, this may seem at best an innocent waste of time, or perhaps a guilty pleasure.

I myself long considered it such, not being able fully to justify to my adult self, with my interest in and attraction to the high culture of poetry, classical music, and art history, why these trashy pictures retained such a strong hold on my heart and mind. I would sometimes half-jokingly explain to friends that sometimes I needed to rest my brain.

Robot Monster is widely considered one of the worst films ever created by human beings since the art of the cinema began. You may have never heard of it, but among film buffs, and especially fans of sci-fi, it has the dubious distinction of vying with Ed Wood's anti-masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space for the title of "The Worst Film of All Time". According to legend (which is probably just that), director Phil Tucker attempted suicide after the negative reaction to the picture upon its release in the summer of 1953.

The judgment is understandable. To the uninitiated (and even to most "fans" who enjoy the movie more as a spectacular failure to laugh at, MST3K-style, than as something to be sincerely appreciated and enjoyed), the movie is a total mess, an evidently zero-budget effort with equally nonexistent production values, laughable special effects, props, sets, and costumes (including the infamous alien costume consisting of a diving helmet and a gorilla suit), terrible acting and dialogue, and a completely nonsensical narrative.

My aim here is not to overlook or deny any of Robot Monster's abysmal technical and artistic qualities. These are part of its charm, indeed the whole of whatever charm it might possess for most people who devote 66 minutes of their life that they can never get back to witnessing this belief-challenging spectacle.

But I do believe, with Robot Monster as with many other of the much-maligned "B" movies that were churned out by Hollywood in the mid-20th century, that there is more going on here than simply a pathetic exercise in incredibly inept and trashy moviemaking—entertaining (or not) as that trash might be.

*    *    *

What began to change my perspective on Robot Monster (and, by extension, B-movies in general) was the review of the movie by Bruce Eder at the website AllMovie. Startlingly to my mind, Eder saw the movie as something other than an unmitigated cinematic disaster, and helped me to begin to appreciate and understand aspects of the film that give it value beyond serving as a cautionary tale about how not to make a motion picture.

The crux of Eder's analysis is this: "Essential in appreciating what director/producer Phil Tucker was trying to do with Robot Monster—and trying to do with a total budget of $16,000 and four days of shooting time—is to keep in mind that the main body of the movie consists of an eight-year-old boy's nightmare." With that in mind, the utter bizarreness of the film, the absurd, illogical features of the narrative, and even the cheapness of the production all come to be seen in a different light:
The way that the action unfolds, suddenly and with huge leaps in logic and thought, are seen the way a child sees the world. The threadbare sets, which are missing what we know to be vital pieces, also resemble the settings of dreams. [...] The whole notion of a brave young boy facing down a space invader hangs together beautifully once one accepts the setting as a dream (or nightmare).

According to Eder, Robot Monster re-creates the nature of children's dreams and nightmares more accurately than do many other fantasy films that address the subject, and thereby can actually be seen as, in its own strange way, an accomplished work of art, especially considering the production's severe limitations of money and time.

*    *    *

This is not to argue that Phil Tucker was an artistic genius, or that Robot Monster is a cinematic masterpiece. It is only to say that, if one views the film with the proper perspective (and is generously willing to forgive its abundant technical flaws), it is more than just trash. Understanding Robot Monster as the nightmare of an imaginative young boy who is obsessed with science fiction and space aliens, it becomes, in fact, a respectable if highly imperfect work of art, and even, as Eder describes it, "a somewhat enchanting film". That may not sound like much, but it is a far cry from "the worst film of all time".

One of the most giggle-inducing features of Robot Monster is the dialogue. The screenplay was written by Wyott Ordung, another 1950s B-movie practitioner. Many of the lines are rightfully regarded as just plain ridiculous, but there is a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime. The absurd can even be philosophical, as in the absurdist comedy of, for instance, Monty Python's Flying Circus or Seinfeld.

In the case of both Tucker and Ordung, who, judging by their entire career output, seem to be middling talents at best in the field of motion pictures, one is cautious to ascribe too much artistic or creative genius to their work in Robot Monster. But, as poet Kenneth Rexroth explains in his excellent article on Literature for Encyclopaedia Britannica, "The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. The writer need not even pursue it to attain it." Rexroth repeatedly alludes to the fact that artistic quality in a work, though usually intentional on the part of the artist, may sometimes be produced by "accident"—that is to say, without the artist's intention.

So, even if Wyott Ordung did not mean to produce ingenious absurdist dialogue for Robot Monster, he marvelously succeeded. Though it also contains many lines that are simply bad, Ordung's script is a treasure house of strikingly surreal utterances that read like some kind of brilliantly bizarre Dadaist play:

I cannot - yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "must" and "cannot" meet? Yet I must - but I cannot!

I will re-calculate. Your deaths will be indescribable.

Earth Ro-Man, you violate the laws of plans. To think for yourself is to be like the hu-man.

Hu-mans, listen to me. Due to an error in calculation, there are still a few of you left.

Johnny: I think you are just a big bully, picking on those smaller than you are! 
Ro-Man: Now I will kill you.


*    *    *

These lines also point to one of the major themes of Robot Monster (yes, the movie has themes): the survival of humanity, not just of physical humanity against (atomic) destruction, but of spiritual humanity against the dehumanizing effects of hyper-rationalization.

The premise of the film (i.e., of Johnny's nightmare vision) is that a race of super-advanced space aliens has conquered the earth, wiping out almost all of its inhabitants except for one family, which it somehow missed. These aliens, the "Ro-Mans" (as in Robot Man), are entirely guided by cold, calculating mathematical, logical, and scientific reasoning, with no room for human emotions and desires such as love and compassion.

The majority of the film's running time details the beleaguered family's attempts to survive in their new post-apocalyptic world and to escape, hide from, and negotiate with the Ro-Man who has come to earth as a sort of advance scout for his mechanistic and merciless race. In so doing, they run up against conflicts between physical survival and maintaining their human dignity, and the subject of love is cast into stark relief—not only by the budding romance and marriage (an expression of stubborn hope in the midst of such devastation) of the boy's older sister and a young male scientist who has survived with them, but also, and perhaps even more poignantly, by the Ro-Man's attraction to the young woman and his confused awakening to emotions of love and desire.

The Ro-Man's feelings and the desires they awaken in him bring him into conflict with his leader, the Great Guidance (who is similar in appearance and who communicates with his Earth-based underling via one of the ubiquitous viewscreens that populate 1950s sci-fi films). After the "Great One" has told Ro-Man that "to think for yourself is to be like the hu-man", Ro-Man replies: "Yes! To be like the hu-man! To laugh! Feel! Want! Why are these things not in the plan?"

The Great One answers, "You are an extension of the Ro-Man, and a Ro-Man you will remain." Ro-Man, rather than conquering the inferior "hu-mans", wants to become one of them. He wants to become a free individual, not "an extension of the Ro-Man". In this we can also see a theme common to 50s sci-fi horror films, though only subtly brought out in this one: the fear of assimilation by Soviet-style collectivism.

Most of the picture, however, seems not so concerned with communist paranoia as with the perennial anxiety (expressed in art at least since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein) of the loss of humanity to "science"—in this case, to the dehumanizing effects of technological and rational control that would attempt to subjugate and colonize all areas of human life and experience. The same concerns may have been more eloquently and powerfully expressed elsewhere, but Robot Monster can be seen as a strangely touching and colorfully imagined statement of not only the precious worth but also the spirited resistance and ultimate survival of the human against the inhumane.

*    *    *


I would not recommend that everyone should watch Robot Monsterand would certainly not make the claim that it is one of the most important works of art of the 20th century. But I will assert that this much-ridiculed picture is far more worthwhile, and far more accomplished, than its reputation would suggest.

In using the frame of a child's dream fantasy to conjure an image of a lone family struggling to survive in a devastated world—and not only to survive, but to defend humanity, i.e., that which makes us human, against obliteration by the forces of a cold, calculating logic that is devoid of unscientific but eminently human qualities such as empathy and love—Robot Monster proves itself to be not entirely deserving of the descriptor "trash".

In fact, I would argue that, in its own ridiculous, childlike way, Robot Monster is a masterful expression of flawed, imperfect humanity in defiance of rigid and oppressive rationalism and control. Its very form—both the setting of the narrative within a highly imaginative child's dream and the many technical shortcomings of the film's production—is actually, whether intentional or not, a perfect medium for the movie's message. What better way, after all, to defy the juggernaut of a humanity-denying perfectionism than with one of the most amazingly imperfect works of art ever made by man? What better way to counter the steamroller of uncaring, merciless "calculation" than by way of a child's deliriously irrational and freely imaginative dream—a dream that is nevertheless illuminated and made sensible by love and hope?

It is true that Phil Tucker most likely did not set out to create an important work of art when he made Robot Monster. Like most science fiction movies of the era, Robot Monster was no doubt intended as entertainment, especially for the kids who attended Saturday matinees. It is certain that many of the children who sat in the theater and viewed this picture were indeed delighted and thrilled by it. My 3-year-old daughter enjoys watching it now. But, regardless of the intent, and despite its miserable reputation, the film does rise above the level of "mere" kiddie entertainment and, I think, is worthy of serious enjoyment (as well as of the more giggly kind).


Whatever greatness Robot Monster possesses may have been an accident. But what a wonderful accident it was. Despite the technical disasters; despite the artistic failures; despite a poverty of resources and time—in fact, partly because of these things—Robot Monster stands as a small, strange triumph of humanity, of its daring imagination and undaunted spirit, of its deeply flawed but noble stuff, against those forces that would seek to repress and to eliminate human imperfections. A Ro-Man, equipped with expansive budget and technical wizardry, and guided by the inexorable logic of "calculation", never could have made this movie. Robot Monster is, and always will remain, a testament to the gloriously, imperfectly human.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Why I Will Allow My Daughter To Be A Princess

Athena, daughter of Zeus
and goddess of wisdom



My daughter is three and has, without prompting from her parents, and like so many other little girls in 21st century America, enthusiastically embraced the quasi-medieval imagery and fairy-tale identity of the "princess". This is far from being her only interest—she is also, much to her father's delight, fascinated by dinosaurs and space, enjoys watching my old Superfriends and Planet of the Apes cartoons on DVD, likes scary things, and loves books (most of them having nothing to do with princesses)—but princesses are nevertheless a major preoccupation at this early stage of her life.

I am of course aware of the socially and politically charged debate surrounding the popularity of the princess motif among young girls today, and, being a father who wants to see my daughter grow up to be all that she can be, without any artificial and unnecessary limitations, I sympathize with the concerns of those who see the entire princess notion as instilling unhealthy conceptions about femininity, love, and life in the still tender and forming minds of these glitter-eyed little girls.

I, too, am a little put off by the kitschy and overly sentimentalized Disney image of a princess, and, at the very least, as my daughter grows in years and understanding (and assuming the fascination lasts, which it may not), I will want to guide her toward a healthy and realistic understanding about the meaning of the princess symbolism and how it relates (or does not relate) to herself as a girl and future woman who lives in, well, 21st century America, rather than a fantasy version of medieval Europe that never existed outside of fairy tales and romances.

But, despite whatever cautions my mind might throw up, at base I have no problem with my daughter—the daughter who I very much want to grow up into an intelligent, independent, and strong woman—being fascinated by and identifying with the image of the fairy tale princess.

Why not? Why am I not concerned that continued identification with and influence by the Disney princess myth will permanently warp my daughter's sense of who she is as a female, of the way life and relationships work, and of what a woman can be?

Well, the answer boils down to one word, a quality in which children almost invariably surpass their grown-up counterparts: imagination.

I think it is crucial to understand that children are not adults. This may seem obvious, but it is a fact that adults so often seem to forget. Children do not think like us. They do not carry with them our concepts, particularly our social and political ideas, and they do not share our adult understanding of the world. Children do not see the world with the same eyes by which grown-ups see the world.

Because of this, children, and especially young children who have as yet received relatively little in the way of socialization and enculturation, do not see princesses, for example, the way adults see princesses. It is important to understand this, because it helps to illuminate the fact that a little girl is not necessarily seeing in a princess what we might see in a princess.

In other words, while you, the sophisticated grown-up, may see the princess as a fragile, infantilized, and impossibly idealized distortion of a woman, that little girl, watching Cinderella in wide-eyed delight, is seeing something entirely different—and something infinitely more interesting.

That is because, unlike most adults, the child has imagination. The child has not yet been indoctrinated to think that such things as fragile, infantilized, impossibly idealized distortions of women might even possibly exist. Therefore, the child's imagination is free and empowered to see that very same princess as something wondrous, beautiful, and extraordinary—a true ideal to which a little girl's heart might aspire. The ideal is not what you think it is, because you are thinking with the mind of an adult. The child is thinking with the far richer mind of a child.

It would be impossible, and perhaps even undesirable, to attempt to explain exactly what that ideal is, or what exactly my daughter is seeing when she sees Cinderella, or Ariel, or Aurora, or Snow White, or Jasmine (who, despite obvious differences in skin tone, is one of my Anglo daughter's favorites), or any of the other princesses who populate the Disney princess pantheon. That is because I do not know what she is seeing, and I do not pretend to know. I am an adult, and, even as much as I might pride myself on my imaginative powers as a poet, I do not claim to have quite the Promethean power of imagination that is the natural and rightful possession of children—especially the youngest among them.

But I do know—partly from my own infrequent, fleeting, but powerful moments of remembering the way I saw the world as a child (memories that remain one of the sources of whatever poetic power I might possess), and partly from an intuitive intimation, though only a hint, of my daughter's way of experiencing the world—that this little girl is seeing something far more wonderful, magical, and glorious when she sees a princess than anything most adults are capable of comprehending.

The adult urge to control and resist the princess mythology—even if understandable from an adult point of view—can all too easily devolve into just another version of Victorian moralistic repression. When premised on adult perceptions and conceptions, and based on misunderstanding of the child and of child psychology, it becomes, in fact, a well-intended effort that is actually detrimental to the child's development—or, to put it in plainer and more meaningful language: it is damaging to the child's soul.

If you think this sounds too harsh, allow me to explain. When my daughter sees Cinderella, I do not know exactly what she sees. But I know enough to know that she is not seeing what I am seeing. A 43-year-old man, no matter how imaginative, cannot possibly see a princess the same way that a 3-year-old girl sees a princess. And, from my daughter's fascination and joy, I know that she is seeing something that makes her happy, something beautiful and good and true, something wonderful and magical and alive.

My daughter's mind has not yet been corrupted by the boring adult modes of thought that would read political and social significance into the princess image. However true and valid those critiques might be, they do not exist for her. She is too busy seeing glitter and magic and wonder. She is seeing something that inspires and uplifts her sweet and beautiful heart and that opens her young and tender mind to new realms of possibility and hope. And it would be cruel, blind, and selfish for any grown-up to attempt to stamp that out in the name of a misguided and myopic moralism.

As she gets older, assuming the princess fascination endures, I will do my best to place alongside that fascination other experiences and ideas that will help provide her with a broad, full, rich spectrum of all the possibilities that are open to her as a young woman. I will teach her to think critically and to ask healthy and productive questions about the values her society teaches her, to value and respect herself, to believe in herself as a woman and as a human being, and to instill in her the faith that she is capable of doing and being whatever she wants to do and to be, according to her own natural talents and native interests, not according to someone else's stereotypes or false limitations. I will accept, support, and love her whoever she is, whatever she does, whoever she loves, whatever she believes.

But I will never tell my daughter she cannot be a princess.

Of course, as she grows older, she will come to have a more realistic understanding of what a princess is, in both fiction and reality. And, as an American woman of the 21st century, it is exceedingly unlikely that she will become a real-life princess, literally speaking.

That may sound ridiculously obvious, but it should underscore my point. Little girls today are not in danger of becoming actual princesses. (I would dare say that the looming possibility of becoming a fairy tale princess is the least problem confronting young women today.) Yes, it is true that they may be in danger of adopting self-images and expectations about life and relationships that are neither realistic nor healthy, and that this is the real threat posed by the ubiquitous princess mythology. 


But, at least at this early stage of my daughter's life, the princess image is more likely—far more likely—to instill in her tender young mind ideas, aspirations, and dreams that are nothing but healthy and productive, and I would never want to stand in the way of that.



I will certainly not quash the bright-eyed vision of my daughter's heart because of some completely distorted and prejudiced (and entirely adult) concept of what it is that she is so attracted to in the princess mythology. I may not be able to say exactly what that little girl is imagining in her mind when she watches a princess movie, or what she imagines herself to be when she wears a princess dress, but I can tell you this: it is not what we are imagining a princess to be.



If we see in the princess a fragile, disempowered, and dumbed-down being, she sees something more like a goddess. As adults, we may not be able to share the child's vision of the princess, but we can at least acknowledge our own ignorance and the child's innate genius for perceiving the world, including princesses, through the eyes of wonder.


The ancient philosophers believed that philosophy begins in wonder. So do science and art. Each of these are avenues of knowing and understanding the world, life, and ourselves, and of finding our way toward truth and, ultimately, wisdom. To repress a child's sense of wonder because we mistakenly believe the object of that wonder to be somehow morally corrupting even when it is having precisely the opposite effect is to harm the child's development as a fully realized human being.


Perhaps, instead of complacently accepting our own narrow ideas about what a princess is—instead of passively accepting what Disney tells us a princess is—it would be more productive, more helpful to little girls, to let them teach us what a princess is. Perhaps if we could find the means to turn off the noise of our own political, intellectual, and moral sensibilities for just a moment, and really sit quietly and watch and listen while our daughters and nieces and granddaughters beam with delight at a princess movie, or witness the way they feel themselves to be—how, in their own mind, they are—a magical being when they put on a chintzy princess costume, we might learn something. Perhaps we might learn to expand our own horizons, to stretch our own imaginations, to consider that a princess—just possibly, just maybe—might be an intelligent, wise, powerful, creative, generous, and noble human being. Who just happens to be female. Perhaps, if we cannot conceive of a princess who matches a "prince" in all of the latter's admirable qualities and connotations, it is we who have the problem.



I for one would rather expose my daughter, over the years, to a wide variety of narratives, from many cultures and time periods, both fictional and historical, and thereby help her develop a broad, open-minded, and well-rounded view of what it means to be a woman—and, even more importantly, what it means to be a human. I will not just thoughtlessly accept the dominant 21st century American narrative about princesses (which, for better or worse, has become almost synonymous with the Disney version), either to unquestioningly accept it or to confusedly and misguidedly reject it outright.



I will instead, to the best of my ability, attempt to understand what it is that my beautiful daughter loves so much about princesses. I will not assume that I know more than she does in areas where she, as a child, is the expert. I will not impose my own adult ideas and perceptions onto her bright new mind, still unfettered in imagination and unprejudiced by anyone's politics, right or left. I will allow her to be a princess—whatever that is, whatever that means to her.



Because, although I don't really know what my daughter thinks a princess is, I know this much: it is something wonderful, and beautiful, and good—just like her.