Someone to Watch Over Me
When I read this 1997 essay about the death of Diana (recently linked at XXFactor), and I found myself nodding along. The author says that modern women’s over-the-top fascination with princess-hood isn’t just a craving for everything foofy and romantic—but points to a deeper longing:
[I]t is the rare little girl who wants to grow up to be queen. To wish to be a princess is not simply to aspire upward, to royalty; it is also to aspire to perpetual daughter-hood, to permanent shelter. To dependency.
But, as Diana’s life demonstrated, that radical dependency bore terrible fruit:
[F]or all her fame and her 36 years and her accomplished motherhood and her millions, the life of a princess prepared her very poorly to look after herself.
... As long as Diana was out there, plying her glamorous, uncertain path to a full self, we could at least retain our ambivalence about the myth. We’ve known for a while that trying to be a princess can stifle you, but it’s horrible to think it can kill you.
[T]his drama is girlhood and young womanhood in America: a succession of choices between the possibilities of independence and the seductions of dependence.
At first I agreed. I was thinking mostly of the disturbing evangelical movement to keep daughters domesticated and uneducated, passing them directly from the demands of the father to the demands of a husband. It is oppression under the guise of a desire to cherish and protect.
It also reminded me of the secular version of stunted womanhood that hyper-sexualized socialites display. They think that their overt promiscuity empowers them, but their entire worth depends on how much they please men. Same story, different language: oppression under the guise of fun and games.
I thought, too, of the typical American woman who lives in a trivial haze, endlessly distracted by a parade of the meaningless: celebrity break-ups and Brazilian waxes. Even after bearing children, they prolong their own teenage girlhood as long as they can.
Yes, I thought, women lost their heads over the wedding because they simply do not want to grow up—that must be at least partly true.
But when I passed the article along, my friends reminded me of a simple fact: I’m spoiled. This longing isn’t trivial, and it isn’t about immaturity. Many women today never get the protection they deserve, period. If they have some inchoate longing for “the seductions of dependence,” it’s not because they’re petty or immature, but because they’ve been robbed.
I’ll never forget a scrap of conversation I heard on the radio. A young couple with a new baby found themselves in a terrible fix, jobless, homeless, rejected by family. The young woman, overwhelmed, cried out, “I just wish you could fix everything!” and her boyfriend responded not with anger, but with a postmodern whine: “That’s totally unfair—what a sexist construct!” And the woman wept, “I know, I know.”
But she didn’t want to be pampered—she just wanted, as a mother and wife, to be sheltered for a moment, even if only by words of comfort. She wanted to know that he would at least try to take care of her and the baby—and surely he wanted to believe that he was capable and strong, a real man. But the world had taught them both that what they wanted was something foolish, artificial, and archaic. And so they did not know what to do—neither one of them.
My husband and I depend on each other equally, but in different ways—why is that so terrible to admit? Women and men alike have been robbed of a very basic human understanding of couplehood—but the longing doesn’t go away. Women long to be cared for. This is not wrong.
When I am pregnant, I know my husband will care for me. When I’m tired, he will help. When someone insults me, he will defend me. When I spend time caring for babies and the house, I’ll be met with gratitude, not mocked and belittled. I’m no shrinking violet, but sometimes I just plain need him—and he needs to be needed.
Women walk a fine line: It’s tempting to surrender to lazy ninnihood—to confuse femininity with feebleness, and to let our minds and our wills atrophy. And so women lash back against this feebleness, squashing any signs of softness under their executive high-heeled maternity shoes. Let’s be clear—feminism brought many necessary goods to the world, and I don’t want to go back to the fifties. But neither do I want to pretend that I can do it all by myself.
Here’s my advice for a woman looking for that middle road between harsh feminism and stunted daughterhood: Be strong, be smart, take responsibility for yourself—and never, never bind your life to a man who doesn’t want to care for you.