(Heads up: I don’t explain the plots of the stories mentioned in this update in any great detail. If you are curious, please look them up on Wikipedia.)
I’ve begun to see the story of Bathsheba and King David as the first “romantic” fairy tale, and if you’ve read the story, you’ll know it’s not romantic at all. It’s the story of a powerful man, a king, lusting after a young woman and the chaos that follows. It’s the story of what men in power can do to young attractive women and other less powerful men.
With the recent success of the Disney film, Beauty and The Beast, we are again confronted by feminist takes on what an actually fucked-up love story this is: Beauty is imprisoned by a mad, beastly prince until she eventually falls in love with him. The question is asked: what are we teaching our daughters? Are we teaching them to fall in love with abusive men, telling them that eventually this guy will reveal his true, princely self?
But I think this is a narrow way to look at these tales. Yes, these stories have been watered down for modern viewers, and are sold and marketed as love stories, but I think at their core these are not love stories. They were never meant to be read as love stories. They were meant as warnings to young women. If you fuck with the royalty, they will fuck you up. In highly stratified patriarchal societies, normal people, and especially women, had no recourse. Powerful men could do basically whatever they wanted and there was nothing an average person could really do about it.
Notice how none of these fairy tales are about normal peasants falling in love and getting married to each other. They’re all about princes and kings and either commoner women or princesses. These women who have no female protection (all orphans with dead mothers, evil stepmothers, evil stepsisters etc.) are controlled, abused, raped, kidnapped, lied to and manipulated by powerful men. Not normal men. Powerful men.
Many fairy tales can be read, not as happy stories, but as a warning to young women: if you’re attractive, some powerful man might come into your life and cause chaos. If you’re lucky, he will turn into a human at the end and you will live happily ever after. If you’re unlucky you’ll end up like The Little Mermaid in the original Hans Christian Anderson tale – as sea foam.
Now, I’m not saying that current feminist critiques are all wrong. These Disney films don’t exist in a vacuum. I feel like most women my age can identify with feeling brainwashed by the “Disney Princess” phenomenon. I do however think that class and class dynamics play as big a role as gender in these stories. And - these power dynamics, that go beyond gender, are ignored at our own peril. To make these stories about one interaction between two gendered individuals, ignores the wielding of power and its extreme imbalance.
This all brings me back to what this has to do with my Portland Update and living in Portland and in the United States right now.
Last July, before Trump was elected to the presidency, before each day in America became a psychic struggle against horror and despair, I wrote about Trump as “the trickster” figure. Tricksters are mythological figures that appear in nearly every culture’s written and oral traditions. Sometimes they take the form of animals such as the Coyote or Raven, sometimes they are gods and sometimes they are human characters. They are appealing because they operate outside of the moral constructs and power structures of the day.
“Tricksters don't care about right and wrong. They don’t care about ‘political correctness.’ They’re amoral. They have no ethics. Their only ethic is personal gain and having a little sadistic fun while they’re at it. While not claiming to be morally pure themselves, they expose the hypocrisy of polite society.”
I cited King David as a trickster figure. Now, I will also cite the Beast in the Fairy Tale “Beauty and the Beast” as a trickster. Of course, both King David and The Beast were punished for their bad deeds, had spells put on them and Bathsheba’s baby died etc; they were not completely unaffected by consequences of their “tricksterdom”…. However, both of them created their own moral reality - they did not play by the rules that the other characters in their stories followed and had to follow. And yet they retained their power. Even though they did horrible things, no one ever said they didn’t deserve their crown or challenged their right to rule. In other words, their standard of living certainly never went down…their servants may have been invisible, but they still had servants! They certainly weren’t panhandling for bus fare by any means.
Despite King David sending Bathsheba’s husband off to die, despite the Beast tricking Beauty’s father and imprisoning and coercing Beauty, both of these powerful men kept their power. Sure, King David is punished by God, and the Beast was originally put under a spell but neither of them fall from their throne. The power structures of society remained intact.
When a character can act chaotically without real consequences, it’s a kind of magic. It summons a real sense of awe in common, regular people. And so it is with Donald Trump.
Trump has had several (?) bankruptcies, cheated on his wife, bragged about sexually assaulting women, lied and lies repeatedly and often. And yet, he was elected to one of the most powerful positions on the planet. He’s been married to several beautiful women, has loving and loyal children, and yet he appears to be the biggest scumbag ever.
It’s supernatural, it’s mythical. It boggles the mind. It’s magic.
It’s also patriarchy and it’s also power. And that’s the way power operates. When people are able to get away with awful behavior and keep their power, it often leads to a reification of their power. Over and over.
Last night I spent a couple hours watching the first few episodes of A Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, another story of female power, abuse and patriarchy. I found the series rather triggering to be honest. The moment when the female characters just can’t believe that their accounts have been frozen, that they’ve been laid off, that now, their government was shooting at them and killing people, that those in power meant business, weren’t joking around anymore, were displaying power in a brutal way…. This shock. This particular disbelief. This was what was upsetting to me. I didn’t want to see that emotion play out on the faces of Elizabeth Moss and Samira Wiley. Because it’s the shock of betrayal. It’s the question: how could you do this to me?
Because all of us, all of the majority of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump are shocked that this is our reality. Still. However many months later. We can’t understand how our country, our government, the media could betray us in this way.
I suppose most of us are coping in whatever way we can. I am burying myself in an essay about fairy tales. I am operating under the assumption that he will be impeached. That some fairy will turn him into a beast, trap him in a spell inside the White House.