Monday, January 13, 2014

A living example of how the "princess romance" theme can backfire

If you were raised on Disney princess movies, and Hollywood musicals, as I was, you were probably brainwashed into thinking that to be happy you had to find a man. Even a few years ago in Sex and the City, the girls were all pursuing relationships as their ultimate goal. Most movies don't pass the Bechdel test because what few women are in the movie have only one topic of conversation—relationships with men.

But this weekend I was reminded of how very toxic this brainwashing can be. My mother-in-law is now 83 and in assisted living dealing with slowly-progressing Alzheimers. Some days she's good, some days she doesn't want to get up and just lies in bed staring out of her window. Saturday was one of those days.

As I sat on her bed quietly talking with her, trying to cheer her up, I asked her what she thinks about. She told me she thinks about the past and all her good memories are about husbands. Part of her sadness now is that she sees no future for herself because without a man she has no future.

Margit was married first at 19 in Malmo, Sweden, and divorced at 20. She then moved to New York, a beautiful Swedish girl who spoke little English in the early 50s—a time of fur coats, night clubs and martinis. There, she had a part-time job in the New York Public Library but quickly started dating, and then married, a man 30 years older then her. She and Harry were happily married for almost 20 years when he died at age 70.

Once widowed, Margit took off, dropping all contact with her teenage kids until she had another husband (they learned to fend for themselves younger than most). Again she married an older man, this time a Swedish restauranteur. He died after an 8-year marriage and at 53 she had a facelift, lost a lot of weight and set out to find another husband. This time, she chose a man her age with whom she lived happily for 20 years. But when he fell ill and died, she was truly alone, and her attention latched onto her son, my husband, whom she now expects to be the source of all her care and attention.

What's so sad listening to her talk as she looks back is that she has never lived an independent life where she was happy with herself. She's never really worked, never really spent much time with her kids, her whole existence revolved around her husband—and now that she doesn't have one she has no center or purpose. She has told me she is embarrassed to be without a husband and, while she's had a few female friends through her life, she's not making any now. When we discuss events happening to my family and friends she always asks me what Bret thinks, or my father thinks, because my ideas don't really carry weight unless validated by one of the men in my life. With my kids she openly favors our son, and has little time for our daughter or her own daughter.

Why, I wonder? Why build your whole existence, your whole source of happiness, around whether you have a man or not? And yet in film after film that is the woman's sole objective—find your prince, marry him and fade out. I'm all for being in happy, stable relationship, but not as your entire source of happiness.

Which is why it is so very important that we support filmmakers who show independent women living full lives without a prince. Why Geena Davis' work on the portrayal of girls in media is so critical. And why we must help our girls get to college, have meaningful careers and build independent lives so that their husband, if they chose to have one, is a part of their life—not their whole life.

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