Recently I had a highly interesting discussion with a close friend of mine about how the prince is always expected to save the princess, which prompted me to write this essay
First of all, a clarification: This essay is not about princesses that don’t need or want to be saved, nor about princesses that save themselves. That is a different, but related subject. The last generation we have been fortunate enough to see a surge of heroines that are perfectly able to take care of themselves from Leia in Star Wars to Katniss in Hunger Games, and about time too, I might add. This essay is about the prince that needs saving.
And let us not understand the words «prince» and «princess» literally. It would be more accurate to say that this essay is about the active male that through his deeds earns the favors of – i.e. “saves” – the passive female. No need for royal blood in any of the involved parties.
There is a distinct lack of princes that are in need of saving in modern art (books, films, computer games, etc.). And not only in modern art; there is a lack of princes to be saved in art, period. One of the very few tales that spring to my mind is Beauty and the Beast (where the original is, as always, a lot darker than the Disney family-friendly version). If you look back at the old germanic fairy tales, you will find some other fairy tales with a similar theme, but there is no abundance of them.
As far as I know, the theme of the knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress was mostly introduced with the chivalric romances of the 12th and 13th centuries. Of course, there were tales and myths where a bold hero saved a beautiful woman before that, but they weren’t as common. Mostly it was about just slaying a dragon or some other nasty monster to gain it’s riches, to gain the favor of the gods or simply to survive. Much of the basic structure of modern fantasy stories are based on the elements introduced by the chivalric tales, and it is only recently that we have broken out of that mold.
So why is this important?
Well, first of all, we are finally starting to get rid of the silly notion that men are inherently more skilled and talented than women, and our fiction will do well if it adapts to that. While there is no need to condemn older stories for sticking to the cliche of saving the princess, we would do well to move beyond them in the future.
The time for objectifying women as a prize to be won by the hero is in the past. While we still have a long road to travel before we reach true gender equality, you have to be horribly backward not to agree that true gender equality is a desired goal. Though we see occasional throwback neanderthals elected to public office, their days are numbered and so are static gender-based role models.
Which is an excellent thing, it may be more obvious how the traditional female model of Kinder Kuche und Kirche (children, kitchen, and church) has a detrimental effect on women, the traditional role model of a sexually overcharged, aggressive gorilla is not a good one for men either. We see it in schools, in suicide rates and unemployment numbers how much men that have been socialized into a traditional male model struggle in modern society. The pain these men feel is real and is reflected in the recent rise of Men’s Right Activists (MRAs). Does this mean that the MRAs are right in their struggle against feminism? No. But sadly, they know of no other way to react to the feeling of loss of power. So maybe, just maybe, if we continue to eradicate the traditional gender models, life will be somewhat easier for the next generation of men, if they aren’t brought up in the «Me Tarzan, you Jane» tradition. And this is where the subject of saving the prince becomes relevant.
From childhood, men are taught to be the «active» part. From Mario jumping through empty castles to save the princess at the end to Superman rescuing Lois Lane, boys are taught that you have to be the active one, to make an effort to receive the prize that the affection of a woman is.
Have we really considered just how daft this concept is? Imagine for a second Maria jumping through the same castles to save a prince. Does that make sense? How do our heroic plumbers even know if they will have compatible personalities with the royalty-to-be-saved?
I suspect that much of the complaining these days about friendzoning has a lot to do with this:
“I’ve been so nice to you, I’ve [fill in your favorite sob story here], and you still won’t be in a romantic and erotic relationship with me!” 🙁
Well, fuck that shit. A happy romantic relationship isn’t the reward you get for winning the game or finishing the quest. A happy relationship is something magical that happens when two compatible persons meet at the right time in their lives, and both parties make an effort to make the relationship work. It’s not “yeah, I earned you, so now you are mine, bitch!” – it’s an ongoing labor of love, with up- and downsides.
The Glorification of the active, dynamic personality
If we strip away the heteronormative aspects of what is expected of romantic relationships (i.e., the outdated notion that they should consist of one active personality and one passive personality) we uncover a whole new set of problems, namely the glorification of the active dynamic achieving personality as better than the passive, static, maintaining personality. We as individuals have extremely little influence over which one we end up with (and the question of how we end up there is worth a whole book of text), and one of them is not inherently better than the other. A healthy society needs and has room for all kinds of personalities. Different personality types will be needed depending on what challenges that society faces. Sure, back when we were chopping up the neighboring tribes or fighting cave bears for caves to shelter in, the active dynamic and heroic types were needed and valued. But these days (as I assume that most of my readers live in north-western Europe or North America) we don’t really have that much need for those head-bashing, bear-fighting types. What we need more of is the kind of people that take the time to care about others, whether it is homeless people, the elderly or refugees fleeing from Hell on Earth. So maybe it is time we stop the worship of the active dynamic “grab’em by the..” kind of people?
Or to elucidate my point in a fantasy setting, why do we cheer for the young peasant lad that turns his back on his family and community to travel to foreign realms in search of gold and glory (and damsels)? Why don’t we even spare a thought for the older brother that stayed behind to keep the family farm going and take care of their elderly parents? I’m not saying that we should condemn the glory seeking brother, but instead admit that we need both kinds. To each their own.
And please do not misunderstand me to the effect that there is anything wrong in dreaming about being saved by a bold and dashing prince or princess. And art should reflect our dreams, so there is still plenty of room for heroics in art, just don’t look down on those people who chose another path.
Is there really a point to saving others?
Not really. One of the defining things about us humans is our god-given ability to fuck up, aka “Free Will.” While anyone can be brought low by a set of unfortunate circumstances, if you pay attention to people over time you will notice a pattern where some people will fall flat on their faces time after time, while others just clench their jaws and work on getting out of whatever pit they have fallen into. Some people are quite simply unwilling to take an adult responsibility for their lives, unwilling to accept the fact that the lives they are living are mostly a result of the choices they themselves have made. Fair enough, not my attitude to life, but who am I to judge?
I am reminded of the old adage of “Give someone a fish, and you will feed them for a day. Teach them how to fish, and you will feed them for a lifetime.”
While you can not force anyone to learn how to fish, those who refuse to learn how to fish, can’t expect others to waste their time and energy to save them from the predicament they’ve put themselves in by refusing to learn how to fish. Of course, if you find enjoyment in feeding them, by all means, do so, but do not think that you are entitled to any reward for doing this. Most likely you will do more good by being supportive as people learn how to fish
Is being heroic a thing of the past?
Again, no. But from my point of view, the nature of heroism is changing, mostly through a change of the focus of heroism. It is no longer (if it ever was) about looking for people to save. The reason for it is simple: The person that deserves a heroic rescue the most is present right here. That person is you. Start with yourself. Think about how you can change yourself and the world closest to you to something that is in tune with your dreams and ideals. Is it easy? No. Is it painful? Yes. Which might be one of the reasons why we dream about slaying evil dragons. That is much less scary than taking an active control over your own life. I’m not talking about nonsense like “Everyone can become a champion” and other drivel that those self-help books spout. I’m talking about starting with the small things. Be nice. To yourself and to others. Don’t beat yourself up because you can not live up to the standards set by society. Set yourself your own standards and adhere to them. Do small, simple things, like smiling to the people working at your local supermarket and wishing them a nice day, even if you feel like shit yourself. It will make a difference both in your and in their lives. If you don’t believe me, I challenge you to try it out for a month, Try being nice to other people (and I’m not talking about the proverbial “turn the other cheek”), just try to smile more and give small compliments when you are satisfied with things.
Time to sum up my point before I start sounding like a bleedin’ do-gooder:
The world is always changing, no matter how hard we sometimes wish that it won’t. And our art should change with it, is my bold statement. I hope we will see more art about people taking responsibility for themselves and their own happiness, and of course there is still room for large-scale heroics (dreaming big dreams will never be a bad thing), but can we please, balance it out a bit more, with more stories about how people save themselves as a supplement to the stories about people blowing up Death Stars and slaying dragons?
I recently read an amazing story by Anniken Hansen Haga (which isn’t published yet, I had the honor of being one of the pilot readers) which is exactly the kind of story I want to see more of. The heroine never planned on being a heroine (and doesn’t considers herself as one either), but through being faithful to herself and her instincts and ideals ends up saving herself, the day and everybody else (and wins her true love along the way). We can (and perhaps should) always aspire for greatness, but never forget the importance of doing the day-to-day stuff in a way you can be proud of.
Of course, writers are allowed to write whatever story they feel like, without having to subscribe to any kind of progressive liberal agenda. If you have a prince or princess that needs saving, by all means go ahead and write a brilliant book about that, just don’t be afraid of twisting the plot in all kinds of weird and wonderful directions, like swapping the genders, having a story where the one being saved doesn’t want to be saved, or where the one being saved turns out to be stronger and more heroic than the one doing the saving. And one important element to remember, there is no rule saying that the one being saved has to become romantically attached to the one doing the saving, or that the one doing the saving even wants the one who is saved to fall in love (I can imagine a great story about a hero(ine) that goes on strike and refuses to do anymore saving because he or she is fed up with fending off the advances of all the people that he or she has saved over the years)
And if this subject matter is of importance to you, do make an effort to seek out and recommend the literature that treats this subject in the manner you enjoy. When I did the research for this post, I was pleasantly surprised by the large amount of both books and films recommended to me that I had never heard of, mostly about princesses that didn’t need saving, did the saving themselves, and suchlike (my to-read list became even longer). So the literature is out there, but it still is a bit hard to find.
By all means, you are definitely allowed to dream about being saved by a handsome prince or a gorgeous princess. It is to escape the drudgery of the real world that many of us enjoy scampering off to the imaginary worlds we find in books, movies, and computer games. Just remember to stay in touch with this world. Just as we would think it wasn’t a good thing if a child would refuse to make an effort in school because “I’m just waiting for my letter from Hogwarts”, you shouldn’t let your own life fall to pieces while you are waiting for (insert name of favorite hero or heroine here) to come and clean up your mess.