Boldly Baldwin word mark

Commencement 2012: ‘Embrace Your Inner Princesses’

The following is Abigail Disney’s address at Mary Baldwin College’s 170th Commencement Ceremony on May 20, 2012.

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WERE TWO PRINCESSES. SORRY. IT’S JUST THAT I’M REQUIRED TO START ALL SPEECHES THAT WAY. THIS IS A VERY SERIOUS AND IMPORTANT DAY, SO I PROMISE TO MAKE THIS A VERY SERIOUS AND IMPORTANT PRINCESS STORY. TRY TO STAY WITH ME.

SO ANYWAY, BACK TO THE PRINCESSES. WHAT IS IT ABOUT PRINCESSES? EVEN WHEN THE DISNEY COMPANY IS HAVING THE HARDEST TIME MAKING NEW FILMS THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO SEE (ANYONE SEEN JOHN CARTER LATELY?) OR SELLING US VACATIONS AND STUFFED ANIMALS, IT IS ALWAYS THE PRINCESSES THEY CAN COUNT ON TO CREATE ALMOST UNSTOPPABLE AMOUNTS OF BUSINESS. IT IS A CONUNDRUM.

AS A CULTURE WE ARE FASCINATED BY PRINCESSES BOTH IN FICTION AND IN LIFE. AND AS THE AMOUNT OF MEDIA OUTLETS AT OUR DISPOSAL PROLIFERATES, THE DEMAND FOR PRINCESSES SEEMS ONLY TO INCREASE. IF MY SUSPICION IS CORRECT THAT THE PRINCESS SCHTICK IS REALLY JUST THE TRAINING WHEELS VERSION OF BEING A FULL-FLEDGED A WOMAN IN OUR CULTURE, IT MIGHT BE A GOOD IDEA TO SPEND A LITTLE TIME FIGURING OUT WHAT THESE HORRID LITTLE STEREOTYPES ARE TRYING TO TELL US.

I HAPPEN TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE GRADUATING TODAY AFTER CHILDHOODS AND ADOLESCENCES SPENT BEING BOMBARDED WITH IDEAS ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A WOMAN. AS MANY AND AS PASSIONATELY EXPRESSED AS THESE IDEAS HAVE BEEN, THEY’VE ALSO BEEN NARROW, AND TRAGICALLY UNIMAGINATIVE.

HAVE A GOOD LONG LOOK ACROSS THE LANDSCAPE OF THE POPULAR CULTURE YOU’VE BEEN RAISED ON — IT HASN’T BEEN A GOOD COUPLE OF DECADES FOR WOMEN IN MEDIA. PARTICULARLY FOR WOMEN YOUR AGE. THE GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE HAS DONE A NUMBER OF STUDIES ABOUT THE STATE OF WOMEN LIKE YOU IN THE MEDIA AND THEY HAVE FOUND THAT FOR EVERY ONE FEMALE CHARACTER IN A FILM OR ON TELEVISION, FROM G TO PG ALL THE WAY UP TO NC-17 — THERE ARE THREE MALE CHARACTERS. AND THAT RATIO HAS REMAINED UNCHANGED IN SPITE OF A MOUNTAIN OF ADVOCACY TO CHANGE IT, AND IN SPITE OF THE PERCEPTION THAT IT HAS IMPROVED, SINCE 1946. IN SOME WAYS, WE’VE LOST GROUND. MALE CHARACTERS OVERALL MAY MAKE UP 75 PERCENT OF SCREEN PARTS, BUT THEY POP UP TO OVER 80 PERCENT OF PARTS WHERE THE PERSON HAS A JOB. FEMALE CHARACTERS, ON THE OTHER HAND, WHO APPARENTLY DON’T HAVE MUCH INTEREST IN WORK, ARE FAR MORE LIKELY TO BE WEARING SEXUALLY REAVEALING CLOTHES — IN FACT, THEY WEAR SEXUALLY REVEALING CLOTHES IN G RATED FILMS IN THE SAME PERCENTAGE AS THEY DO IN R RATED FILMS.

SO THE IMAGES OF WOMEN ARE LIMITED, AND THEIR ROLES ARE NARROW IN EVERY KIND OF MEDIA TO WHICH YOU’VE BEEN EXPOSED SINCE THE DAY YOU WERE BORN AND IN SPITE OF ALL KINDS OF WORK TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. WHAT IS MORE, THESE NUMBERS ARE UNLIKELY TO CHANGE ANY TIME SOON BECAUSE THE PEOPLE MAKING THIS MEDIA HAVE GOTTEN MORE RATHER THAN LESS MALE IN THE LAST TWO DECADES. IN EVERY CREATIVE EXECUTIVE POSITION IN THE MEDIA BUSINESS MEN OUTNUMBER WOMEN 5 TO 1. THE NUMBER OF WOMEN DIRECTORS HAS ACTUALLY DECREASED IN THE LAST DECADE.

SO WHY DOES THIS MATTER? IT’S JUST MEDIA AFTER ALL, RIGHT? AREN’T THEY JUST GIVING US WHAT WE WANT? WELL CONSIDER THIS: IN ANOTHER STUDY FROM THE GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE A LARGE SAMPLE OF 13 YEAR OLD GIRLS WAS ASKED WHAT THEY WANTED TO BE WHEN THEY GREW UP. CAN YOU GUESS WHAT THEIR NUMBER ONE ANSWER WAS? ASTRONAUT? PRESIDENT? DOCTOR?

I AM AGGRIEVED TO INFORM YOU THAT THE NUMBER ONE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION WAS KIM KARDASHIAN. YES, THAT’S WHAT I SAID. KIM KARDASHIAN. MEDIA ISN’T GIVING US WHAT WE ARE ASKING FOR. IT IS SHAPING WHO WE ARE.

I WILL TELL YOU THAT I’M NOT ALL THAT SURPRISED BY THIS. I’M HORRIFIED, BUT NOT SURPRISED. STOP FOR A MOMENT TO THINK ABOUT WHAT A FIVE YEAR OLD WHO’S BEEN POUNDED OVER THE HEAD WITH THE NOTION THAT THE EXEMPLAR, THE PARAGON OF WHAT IT IS TO BE A GOOD FEMALE OF THE SPECIES IS PRINCESS JASMINE — NOW ASK YOURSELF WHAT SHE IS BOUND TO BELIEVE ABOUT BEING A WOMAN BY THE TIME SHE’S THIRTEEN. OF COURSE SHE IS GOING TO WANT TO BE KIM KARDASHIAN. HECK, KIM KARDASHIAN EVEN LOOKS LIKE PRINCESS JASMINE!

JASMINE AND KIM HAVE A LOT IN COMMON. THAT PERKY LITTLE PONY TAIL, OF COURSE, NOT TO MENTION A THE PERKINESS OF EVERYTHING ELSE ON THE WAY DOWN TO HER TOES, A TASTE FOR REVEALING CLOTHES, A JOB DESCRIPTION THAT INCLUDES NO ACTUAL SKILLS OR KNOWLEDGE OR ABILITIES, AND A LIFE PLAN THAT CAN BE TOTALLY SUMMED UP IN ONE PHRASE: MARRY THE HOTTIE.

THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO BE A PRINCESS, AND WE’LL GET TO SOME OF THE ALTERNATIVES LATER, BUT THE FACT THAT WE LIVE ON PLANET PRINCESS NEEDS EXAMINING, AND I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT WE DO LIVE ON PLANET PRINCESS. ONCE I WENT ALL THE WAY TO THE EASTERN CONGO AND WHEN I TURNED ON THE TV IN MY HOTEL ROOM, THERE THEY WERE, THOSE DARN KARDASHIANS, UP TO THEIR HILARIOUS

ANTICS, RIGHT THERE IN GOMA, A HALF MILE FROM ONE OF THE MOST NOTORIOUS REFUGEE CAMPS ON EARTH. THE HARSH REALITY OF THE MATTER IS THAT THE WORLD YOU ARE GOING TO GO OUT INTO SOON, TO BECOME THE COMPASSIONATE CHANGEMAKERS YOU WANT TO BE, HAS A DISTRESSINGLY LOW REGARD FOR YOUR POTENTIAL TO LEAD, TO ADVOCATE OR TO DO MUCH OF ANYTHING OTHER THAN SERVE YOUR MEN IN A DECORATIVE CAPACITY.

BUT I THINK IF WE PARSE KIM A LITTLE BIT WE HAVE MUCH TO LEARN FROM HER. SHE IS POPULAR AFTER ALL BECAUSE SHE IS AN ENACTMENT OF ALL THAT AMERICAN CULTURE SEEMS TO WANT TO BE: RICH, BEAUTIFUL AND FAMOUS. AND SHE SPENDS ALL HER TIME CHASING ALL THAT WE SEEM TO WANT TO CHASE: MORE WEALTH, MORE BEAUTY AND MORE FAME.

THIS MIGHT BE HARD FOR YOU TO IMAGINE, BUT I COULD HAVE BEEN KIM KARDASHIAN IF I HAD WANTED TO. I WAS BORN IN HOLLYWOOD; I HAD A FAMOUS NAME AND FRANKLY IF YOU’D KNOWN ME ABOUT 3 DECADES AGO, YES EVEN A SORT OF NICE TUCKUS. OF ALL THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE JOB OF BEING KIM KARDASHIAN, I WAS BORN WITH THREE. NOT A BAD START.

BUT THERE ARE SOME OTHER REQUIREMENTS, OF WHICH I HAVE NONE. A WILLINGNESS TO SAY OR DO ANYTHING ON CAMERA — AND I DO MEAN ANYTHING. A WILLINGNESS TO PLUCK, POKE, BLEACH, DYE, STAIN, PEEL, WAX OR LASER ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING, ALONG WITH A COMMENSURATE TOLERANCE FOR PAIN, AN INSATIABLE HUNGER FOR FAME, AND A MIND THAT IS SHARP ENOUGH TO RECOGNIZE OPPORTUNITIES BUT NOT SO SHARP THAT IT MIGHT CAUSE YOU TO OCCASIONALLY ASK YOURSELF WHY ON EARTH YOU ARE DOING ANY OF THIS.

IT IS IMPORTANT TO STOP AND RECOGNIZE, WHEN YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT KIM KARDASHIAN, THAT YOU ARE REALLY NOT TALKING ABOUT A PARTICULAR PERSON. KIM IS REALLY A PLACEHOLDER. SHE IS WHAT HOLLYWOOD USED TO CALL AN “IT GIRL.” IN FACT IT GIRLS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WITH US. I IMAGINE THERE WAS SOME CUTE LITTLE NEANDERTHAL LADY LONG AGO WHO FIGURED OUT HOW TO TIE HER ANIMAL HIDES ON IN A REALLY SPECIAL WAY THAT MADE ALL THE NEANDERTHAL BOYS WEAK IN THEIR HAIRY KNEES. JULIET WOULD HAVE BEEN AN IT GIRL HAD SHE NOT HAD THAT DRINK OF POISON, SILLY GIRL. AND OF COURSE, MARIE ANTOINETTE WAS AN IT GIRL WHO REALLY LOST HER HEAD.

YOU HAVE HEARD OF ALL THE 20TH CENTURY IT GIRLS. CLARA BOW, JUDY GARLAND, MARILYN MONROE, JAYNE MANSFIELD, TWIGGIE, DEMI MOORE, CAMERON DIAZ, BRITNEY SPEARS, PARIS HILTON, LINDSAY LOHAN. WHAT’S INTERESTING AND IMPORTANT ABOUT THIS LIST IS HOW IT ACCELERATES TOWARD THE END. ONE IT GIRL GIVES WAY TO THE NEXT ONE IN INCREASINGLY RAPID SUCCESSION AS THE CENTURIES THEN THE DECADES GO BY. IN FACT AS THE AMOUNT OF MEDIA AVAILABLE TO CONSUMERS HAS PROLIFERATED, THE SHELF LIFE OF THE TYPICAL IT GIRL HAS GOTTEN SHORTER AND SHORTER TO THE POINT THAT, FOR YOUR GENERATION, THE IT GIRL HAS BECOME SOMETHING SO RAPIDLY CHANGING AND DISPOSABLE THAT YOU HAVE PROBABLY BEEN CONSCIOUS OF SEVERAL OF THEM, JUST IN THE FOUR YEARS IT TOOK YOU TO GET YOUR DEGREE HERE.

I HAVE NOTHING AGAINST KIM KARDASHIAN. I DON’T THINK SHE’S EVIL OR BAD, OR INTENTIONALLY DOING HARM TO THE PLANET. I THINK OF HER AS MORE LIKE A SORRY LITTLE FEATHER, DRIFTING ABOUT ON WINDS SHE NEITHER CONTROLS NOR UNDERSTANDS. AND SHE HAS CONSTRUCTED AN ENTIRE LIFE OUT OF THE GAZE OF OTHERS. SHE EXISTS ONLY INSOFAR AS SHE IS SEEN BY OTHERS. SHE MATTERS ONLY AS LONG AS OTHERS CONSENT TO LET HER MATTER AND SHE IS BEAUTIFUL ONLY AS LONG AS OTHERS SAY THAT SHE IS. THERE IS NO HER THERE.

THIS IS A VERY FRAGILE EXISTENCE. IT IS LIKE LIVING IN A HOUSE OF CARDS. IT IS LIKE TRYING TO LIVE IN A BUILDING WHEN ALL THERE IS IS SCAFFOLDING. THERE IS NOT ONLY NO CENTER THERE, BUT NO MEANS BY WHICH A CENTER COULD TAKE UP RESIDENCE, COULD GRAB AHOLD AND GROW.

THE MOST FRAGILE ASPECT OF THIS EXISTENCE IS OF COURSE THE PHYSICAL ASPECT. AND BY ALL MEASURES IT GIRLS ARE ALWAYS BEAUTIFUL. AND BEAUTY IS WHAT EVERYTHING IN OUR CULTURE IS TRYING TO TELL US IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING ANY GIRL BRINGS TO ANY EQUATION. BUT, LET’S FACE IT, EVEN THE BEST TUCKUSES EVENTUALLY LOSE THEIR CHARMS, AND MODERN SCIENCE HAS SO FAR HAD LIMITED SUCCESS IN PREVENTING THAT FROM HAPPENING.

BUT THAT IS THE LEAST OF THE WORRIES OF AN IT GIRL. I GREW UP GOING TO A HIGH SCHOOL THAT WAS FILLED WITH FAMOUS PEOPLE, AND YOU WOULD THINK THAT BEING IN A COMMUNITY POPULATED BY THE VERY PEOPLE YOU WOULD REGULARLY SEE ON THE BIG AND SMALL SCREEN WOULD BE KIND OF EXCITING, RIGHT? AND YET WHAT I WAS SURROUNDED BY WAS NOT AN AURA OF FAME OR GLAMOUR. WHAT SURROUNDED US THERE WAS ANGST. CONSTANT, AGONIZING, DEAFENING ANGST — AND HERE’S WHY: FAME IS A GREASED POLE. YOU CAN CLIMB IT BUT IF YOU WANT TO REACH THE TOP YOU’D BETTER BE PREPARED TO FIGHT ALL THE WAY UP. IF YOU REST, YOU FALL. IF YOU SLOW, YOU FALL. IF YOU TIRE YOU FALL. AND ALL AROUND YOU ARE PEOPLE YOUNGER, SMARTER, FASTER AND PRETTIER THAN YOU CLIMBING THEIR HEARTS OUT WHO WOULD NOT LOSE A WINK OF SLEEP OVER KNOCKING YOU OFF INTO OBLIVION.

WEALTH IS INTERESTING TOO. WEALTH IS A GREASED POLE LIKE FAME, ONLY THE GREASE IS MORE LIKE ACID AND MAYBE THE POLE IS ON FIRE AS WELL. EVERYONE IS CHASING WEALTH. SO WHEN YOU HAVE IT, YOU ARE CONSTANTLY GUARDING IT; IT’S KIND OF LIKE THIS HUGE ADORABLE PET THAT YOU LIKE AND WANT AROUND BUT IT NEEDS BRUSHING ALL THE TIME. YES, YOU CAN BUY STUFF WITH IT — IMPORTANT STUFF LIKE HOUSING AND FOOD AND SECURITY AND A GOOD EDUCATION. BUT ONCE YOU HAVE ALL THOSE THINGS, THE BASICS, THE REST STARTS TO GET CONFUSING. I ONCE READ A STUDY THAT ASKED PEOPLE WHO INHERITED MONEY HOW MUCH THEY WISH THEY HAD INHERITED — MUCH THEY THOUGHT WOULD MAKE THEM FEEL SECURE AND NO LONGER NEED TO WORRY ABOUT ANYTHING. EVERY SINGLE RESPONDANT, NO MATTER WHETHER THEY HAD INHERITED A MILLION DOLLARS OR TEN MILLION OR TEN BILLION, NAMED A FIGURE THAT WAS DOUBLE WHAT THEY HAD ACTUALLY INHERITED.

YOU KNOW HOW QUICKSAND WORKS IN THE MOVIES, WHERE THE MORE YOU STRUGGLE TO GET OUT THE DEEPER YOU SINK? YOU KNOW HOW WHEN YOU ARE ON THE OCEAN, NO MATTER HOW FAST YOUR BOAT, THE HORIZON ALWAYS RECEDES AWAY FROM YOU? YOU KNOW HOW AN ALCOHOLIC KEEPS REACHING FOR THE NEXT DRINK BECAUSE YEARS AGO A DRINK ONCE MADE THEM FEEL SOMETHING GOOD, AND YET EVERY DRINK FROM HERE ON OUT ONLY GETS THEM FURTHER FROM WHERE THEY ARE TRYING TO BE? WEALTH IS LIKE ALL OF THESE THINGS. AND IF YOU DOUBT ME, IMAGINE THIS. I MET A MAN RECENTLY WHO RUNS A HEDGEFUND, WHO BROUGHT HOME OVER 3 BILLION DOLLARS TWO YEARS AGO FROM ONE YEAR OF WORK. DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE IS DOING TODAY ON A BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY MORNING IN MAY? IS HE AT HOME WITH HIS FAMILY? IS HE OUT ON A SPECTACULAR YACHT OR SKIING IN THE ALPS OR SHOPPING FOR LUXURY ITEMS ON MADISON AVENUE OR OTHERWISE ENJOYING THE WEALTH HE HAS BROUGHT HOME? NO. I GUARANTEE YOU HE IS AT WORK, TRYING TO BEAT THAT FIGURE. BECAUSE LAST YEAR HIS ARCHRIVAL CAME HOME WITH MORE.

NO MATTER HOW DILIGENTLY THE WORLD TRIES TO SELL YOU ON THE IDEA THAT THESE ARE THE ONLY THINGS THAT MATTER, BEAUTY AND FAME AND WEALTH ARE ILLUSIONS — EPHEMERAL AT BEST, AND AT WORST A BOX CANYON THAT CUT US OFF FROM, RATHER THAN LEADING US TOWARD HAPPINESS. SO WHAT’S NEW? I THINK THERE ARE ABOUT FIFTY VERSIONS OF A FORTUNE COOKIE THAT WILL TELL YOU THAT. BUT

BEAUTY AND FAME AND WEALTH MORE INSIDIOUS PRECISELY BECAUSE THE ONLY WAY TO WANT THEM IS SIMPLY TO WANT MORE — THERE IS NEVER SUCH A THING AS PLENTY, OR ENOUGH. THERE IS ALWAYS THE SIGHT OF SOMETHING OUT THERE JUST BEYOND YOUR GRASP, BECKONING TO YOU TO REACH OH THAT LITTLE BIT FUTHER, FOR THAT LITTLE BIT MORE.

AND IT’S NOT JUST THAT YOU CAN SQUANDER YOUR TIME ON THE CHASE FOR THESE MIRAGES. IT IS THAT IF YOU DO IT WILL BE INSTEAD OF CHASING ANY OF THE OTHER THINGS THAT ACTUALLY WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPY. THERE IS AFTER ALL, AN ENORMOUS AND IMPORTANT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PLEASURE AND HAPPINESS. AND IN THE DESERT IT’S ONLY A TRAGEDY TO MISTAKE A MIRAGE FOR AN OASIS IF IT USES UP THE TIME AND ENERGY YOU HAVE TO LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKE AND GO FIND THE REAL ONE.

AS I SAID BEFORE, THERE’S MORE THAN ONE WAY TO BE A PRINCESS, AND THE OTHER KIND IS THE MULAN KIND. THE ARIEL KIND. THE ONE THAT STEPS OUT AND HAS AN ADVENTURE. THAT’S THE KIND OF PRINCESS I WAS. IT FEELS VERY DIFFERENT FROM THE KARDASHIAN WAY, AND IT LOOKS LIKE A NOBLER WAY TO LIVE, BUT HERE’S SOMETHING STRANGE AND SURPRISING I FOUND OUT ABOUT THIS WAY OF GOING ABOUT THINGS: IT CAN BE JUST AS TOXIC AND NARCISSISTIC AS ANYTHING KIM KARDASHIAN EVER DREAMED OF AND HERE’S HOW.

I WAS NEVER VAIN OR VERY CONCERNED WITH MY APPEARANCE, ONLY BECAUSE IT JUST DIDN’T INTEREST ME MUCH. BUT I WOULD STILL CHARACTRIZE MYSELF AS A NARCISSIST — A TRICKY ONE. I WAS THE KIND THAT CAN LOOK LIKE A VERY GOOD PERSON. I WAS THE KIND THAT WANTED TO SAVE THE WORLD, FIX EVERYTHING, HELP AN OLD LADY ACROSS THE STREET, HUG A TREE, AND STILL BE HOME IN TIME TO BAKE COOKIES WITH MY KIDS. I WAS THAT MOST INSIDIOUS OF NARCISSISTS, THE HERO.

I GREW UP IN LA IN A FAMILY THAT WAS WELL KNOWN, BUT NOT VERY ENGAGED WITH THE WORLD. I WAS SORT OF AN OVERACHIEVER IN SCHOOL. I PLAYED LOTS OF SPORTS, DID STUDENT GOVERNMENT, GOT GREAT GRADES. THE BETTER I DID THE BETTER PEOPLE TOLD ME I WAS, AND THAT WAS A FEELING THAT STARTED TO BE A BIT ADDICTIVE. I FOUND INCREDIBLE STRENGTH AND EXCITEMENT PARTICULARLY IN BEING A DO-GOODER. WORKING AS A CANDY-STRIPER, BRINGING HOME AN ABANDONED ANIMAL, HELPING TO ORGANIZE GAMES FOR THE SMALLER KIDS IN THE SCHOOL. THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT THAT THAT FELT SO GRATIFYING AND GOOD.

ONCE I CAME TO NEW YORK TO START MY WORK ON MY DISSERTATION I FOUND LOTS OF NEED FOR A PERSON LIKE ME. I VOLUNTEERED AT A HOME FOR MENTALLY DISABLED PEOPLE, WITH AT RISK KIDS, AT PRE-SCHOOLS AND HOMES FOR INCARCERATED WOMEN. MORE AND MORE I’D JUST SHOW UP AND DO THE WORK, WHATEVER IT WAS, AND IT FELT GOOD.

THIS WAS ALL RIGHT AND APPROPRIATE AND I AM GLAD I WAS DOING IT AND GLAD IT MADE ME FEEL GOOD. BUT SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY SOMETHING IN ME SHIFTED. I STARTED BEING THERE FOR THE GOOD FEELING, AND NOT FOR THE PEOPLE I WAS HELPING. I STARTED NOT LISTENING BEFORE I WOULD PICK UP A TASK. I STARTED ASSUMING THAT BECAUSE I HAD BEEN DOING SO MUCH OF THIS AND HAD LEARNED SO MUCH FROM MY OTHER EXPERIENCES, THAT I COULD HELP PEOPLE BETTER AND FASTER IF ONLY THEY’D START LISTENING TO ME INSTEAD.

THERE WERE SO MANY SCHOOLS TO BE BUILT, SO MANY WELLS TO BE DUG. TIME WAS SHORT AND PROBLEMS WERE HUGE! WE NEEDED TO GET EFFICIENT! WE NEEDED TO GET SYSTEMATIC! WE NEEDED TO START FIXING THINGS IN LARGER WAYS, IN LARGER NUMBERS! WE NEEDED TO BE MORE SYSTEMATIC AND SCIENTIFIC. WE NEEDED TO TEST OUR ASSUMPTIONS AND THROW OUT THE SACRED COWS AND SILLY RITUALS AND JUST GET THE WORK DONE. THE WORLD NEEDED SAVING AND THERE WAS NO TIME TO STOP TO CONSIDER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS.

MY GRANDMOTHER USED TO SAY THAT THE ROAD TO HELL WAS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS. I USED TO THINK THAT WAS A HORRIBLE THING TO SAY. I MEAN, IF I MEANT WELL, WHY WOULD THAT NOT BE ENOUGH? BUT NOW THAT I HAVE BEEN AROUND THE WORLD OF DO-GOODER TYPES AND PHILANTHROPISTS FOR A WHILE I AM BEGINNING TO BELIEVE SHE WAS RIGHT. SO MUCH OF WHAT I WAS DOING WAS BASED ON HOW IT FELT TO ME. AND IF I WANTED TO HELP SOMEONE, WHY WAS IT NOT BASED ON HOW IT FELT TO HER OR HIM? OR WHAT THE CONSEQUENCE WAS FOR HER OR HIM, INTENDED OR UNINTENDED?

SOMETHING SHIFTED IN ME WHEN I STARTED DOING THE WORK OF THE NEW YORK WOMEN’S FOUNDATION. THE FOUNDATION WAS BUILT AROUND A TOTALLY DIFFERENT ETHIC, ONE THAT DIDN’T NEED A HERO AT ITS CENTER. INSTEAD, GROUPS OF WOMEN FROM ALL KINDS OF PLACES WORKED ARM IN ARM WITH EACH OTHER. SO BASICALLY THE END RECIPIENT OF WHATEVER HELP I WAS OFFERING WAS STEPPING IN AS MY PARTNER — AS MY PEER — AND TOGETHER WE WERE GOING TO LOOK AT THE SCARCE RESOURCES AND THE PRECIOUS TIME AND ENERGY AND WE WERE GOING TO MAKE STRATEGIC DECISIONS TOGETHER AS PEERS ABOUT HOW IT WAS GOING TO GO. SUDDENLY I NOTICED THAT IN ALL THE TUMULT AND CLAMOR OF MY HERO STORY, I HAD NEVER EVEN NOTICED THAT I WAS NOT LOOKING UPON THE PEOPLE I WANTED TO HELP AS MY PEERS — MY EQUALS.

INTERESTING THINGS STARTED TO HAPPEN WHEN MY EYES STARTED TO OPEN. IT TURNED OUT THAT MUCH TO MY AMAZEMENT, SOMETIMES I WAS WRONG. SOMETIMES I DIDN’T HAVE ALL THE INFORMATION. SOMETIMES I THOUGHT I WAS ACTING RATIONALLY BUT WAS REALLY BEING DRIVEN BY A SMALL INNER PREJUDICE THAT I’D NEVER BEEN CONSCIOUS OF OR HAD NEVER BOTHERED TO EXAMINE. IT TURNED OUT THAT NOT ONLY HAD I A LOT LEFT TO LEARN ABOUT ALL OF THIS WORK, BUT THAT I WOULD PROBABLY NEVER RUN OUT OF THINGS TO LEARN AND THAT I HAD BETTER DEVELOP A HABIT OF LISTENING OR I WAS GOING TO BE GOOFING UP PRETTY MUCH ALL OF THE TIME.

I WAS SAVED FROM MY PARTICULAR VERSION OF NARCISSISM BY THE NEW YORK WOMEN’S FOUNDATION BECAUSE OF THE PARTICULAR WAY IT CONCEIVED OF PARTNERSHIP. I HAD BEEN BLINDLY GOING FORWARD ON THE PRESUMPTION THAT I KNEW MORE, WITHOUT RECOGNIZING THE IRONIC AND INCREDIBLY INSULTING FACT THAT IT WAS BASED ON THE PRESUMPTION THAT THE PEOPLE I WAS HELPING WERE NOT MY PEERS, HAD NOTHING TO TELL ME, AND THAT THEY SHOULD HAVE NO SAY IN AND SIT PASSIVELY BY WHILE THOSE OF US ON HIGH WHO HAD SELF SELECTED AS HEROES WENT ABOUT — WITH NO ACCOCUNTABILITY — THE BUSINESS OF SAVING THEM.

ONCE I IMAGINED MYSELF AS ONE OF THOSE SERVICE RECIPIENTS I SUDDENLY FELT HOW HUMILIATING, HOW DEGRADING, HOW ABSOLUTELY WRETCHED THAT POSITION MUST FEEL. AND WITH HOW MUCH RESENTMENT AND AMBIVALENCE THE HELP WOULD BE RECEIVED. WHAT DROVE ME TOWARD THIS TOXIC DYNAMIC WAS THE IDEA OF HEROISM — THIS IDEA THAT ONE PERSON PICKS UP THE WORLD, THROWS IT OVER HER SHOULDER LIKE A FIREMAN IN A BURNING BUILDING, AND RUNS TO SAFETY OUTSIDE, WHERE THE ADMIRING PUBLIC STANDS, WAITING TO APPLAUD AND ADMIRE.

WHEN I WAS YOUNG I WAS AFRAID OF THE PLANETARIUM SHOW. YOU KNOW THE SHOW, WHERE YOU SEE ALL THE STARS AND THE GALAXIES AND NEBULAE AND STUFF AND THEY TELL YOU HOW THE UNIVERSE IS TO ENORMOUS TO MEASURE AND EXPANDING ALL THE TIME? I HATED HEARING THAT. I WONDERED TO MYSELF HOW I COULD POSSIBLY BE A PERSON WHO MATTERED AT ALL IF I WAS NOT EVEN ENOUGH TO COUNT AS A BLIP ON SUCH A VAST LANDSCAPE. I HATED HEARING ABOUT HOW MANY BILLION PEOPLE LIVED ON EARTH, AND HOW MANY MORE WERE COMING. I REMEMBER A COMEDIAN TELLING A JOKE WHEN CHINA OFFICIALLY CROSSED THE BILLION MARK IN POPULATION; HE SAID THINK ABOUT IT, IN CHINA IF YOU ARE ONE IN A MILLION, THERE ARE 999 OTHER PEOPLE JUST LIKE YOU. THAT MADE ME DEPRESSED FOR A WEEK.

THEN ONE DAY A FEW YEARS AGO I WENT WITH MY KIDS AND GAVE THE PLANETARIUM ONE MORE TRY. I WENT, AND SAT IN DREAD, WAITING FOR THE NEWS OF MY COSMIC INSIGNIFICANCE. AND IT CAME — THE BILLIONS OF LIGHT YEARS. GAJILLIONS OF GALAXIES. TOO BIG, TOO LONG, TOO INCOMPREHENSIBLE. AND HERE’S THE WEIRD THING: I DIDN’T GET DEPRESSED. QUITE THE OPPOSITE IN FACT — I FELT MYSELF LIFTED UP BY THIS NEWS. I FELT MYSELF BUOYED BY THE IDEA THAT NOT ONLY DID I NOT HAVE TO STAND OUT AMONG THESE STARS AND GALAXIES BUT WOW, I WAS DAMN LUCKY TO BE PART OF SOMETHING SO AMAZING AND GIGANTIC. I REALIZED THAT I WAS ONE PEARL ON A LONG STRING, A BRICK IN A WALL, A LINK IN A CHAIN, A PLANET IN ORBIT, I WAS PART OF A MASSIVE, INTERCONNECTED, ETERNAL SYSTEM THAT WAS HERE BEFORE I CAME AND WOULD LAST WELL AFTER I WAS GONE AND THAT I HAD A PLACE IN IT, IT WELCOMED ME AND I WAS THEREFORE NOT GOING ANYWHERE ANYTIME SOON.

WHAT HAD CHANGED WAS ONLY A SMALL THING. WHAT HAD CHANGED WAS THE CENTER OF MY UNIVERSE. IN OTHER WORDS, I WAS NO LONGER IT. WHAT HAD CHANGED WAS THE PROFOUND MISAPPREHENSION OF MYSELF AS A PERSON AROUND WHOM EVERYTHING ORBITS.

I THINK WE ALL LOVE THE IDEA OF THE PRINCESS, THE IDEA OF THE HERO. IT PERMITS US TO KID OURSELVES THAT WE MIGHT JUST BE THE ABSOLUTE CENTER OF EVERYTHING. I THINK OUR CULTURE IS OBSESSED WITH FAME FOR PRECISELY THE SAME REASON. WITH SO MUCH ENERGY GOING INTO MANUFACTURING WAYS TO CONVINCE OURSELVES THAT WE ARE THE STARS OF OUR OWN SOLAR SYSTEMS, WITH EVERYONE ELSE SUBJECTED TO OUR OWN GRAVITATIONAL PULL, YOU WOULD THINK THAT TO DISCOVER OTHERWISE WOULD BE A TERRIBLY DEPRESSING AND DISHEARTENING PIECE OF NEWS.

BUT HERE’S THE INTERESTING FACT. FINDING OUT THAT I WAS JUST ONE PIECE OF A GIGANTIC PUZZLE AND THAT THERE WERE MILLIONS OTHERS LIKE ME, JUST AS SMART JUST AS GOOD, JUST AS INTERESTED IN MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE WAS THE BEST THING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED TO ME. FINDING OUT THAT I WAS NOT GOING TO LEAD ANY CHARGES, RUN ANY COUNTRIES, OR CAPTAIN ANY TEAMS WAS RADICALLY HEARTENING. IT CAUSED ME TO SEE THAT AS ONE PIECE OF A GIANT MECHANISM WORKING ALL THE TIME FOR THE GREATER GOOD, I COULD OCCASIONALLY FAIL OR FALL, SLOW OR GOOF UP, AND THAT WOULD BE OK.

KIM AND I WERE RAISED TO THINK OF OURSELVES AS PRINCESSES. FROM EARLY ON I WAS TOLD IN WAYS BOTH SUBTLE AND OVERT THAT I WAS DIFFERENT, SEPARATE, NOT LIKE OTHER PEOPLE. MY FAMILY, WHILE IT WASN’T AN OSTENTATIOUS OR SHOWY FAMILY STILL KEPT US APART — WE LIVED BEHIND FENCES, FLEW FIRST CLASS, DIDN’T REALLY MIX. I CAME TO BELIEVE IN THE IDEA THAT I WAS BORN FOR SOMETHING DIFFERENT. AND THAT IDEA FOUND ITS EXPRESSION IN MY EMBRACE OF THE HERO NARRATIVE. AND EVEN WHEN IT’S WRAPPED IN THE BEST OF INTENTIONS, THE HERO NARRATIVE, BECAUSE IT SPRINGS FROM NARCISSISM AND SELF- INTEREST IS TOXIC AND DOES MORE HARM THAN GOOD.

AND THEN ONE DAY I FOUND OUT THAT I’D BEEN TOLD A LIE. I WAS NO PRINCESS. AND INSTEAD OF EVERYTHING FALLING APART SOMETHING QUITE DIFFERENT HAPPENED. REMEMBER WHEN DOROTHY OPENS THE DOOR TO HER HOUSE AFTER IT’S LANDED IN OZ AND STEPS OUT OF HER BLACK AND WHITE EXISTENCE INTO A TECHNICOLOR WORLD? THE DAY I STOPPED BEING A PRINCESS WAS THE DAY I STARTED TO LIVE IN TECHNICOLOR. THE REALIZATION WAS MY ENGRAVED INVITATION TO JOIN THE HUMAN RACE WITH EVERYONE ELSE. IT WAS THE BEST THING THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME.

YOU MAY THINK THE PRINCESS THING HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. BUT HERE’S THE DEAL. I AM TO AMERICA AS AMERICA IS TO THE WORLD. REMEMBER THIS FROM THE SAT? YES, SO I MAY HAVE GROWN UP WITH A LOT MORE PRIVELEGE THAN MOST AMERICANS. BUT THOSE OF US LUCKY ENOUGH TO LIVE HERE, EVEN WITHOUT MUCH, HAVE A PRETTY BIG HEAD START ON BILLIONS LIVING ELSEWHERE. HAVE YOU GOT RUNNING WATER? THAT’S A HEAD START. A BANK ACCOUNT? TITLE THAT SAYS YOU OWN YOUR HOUSE OR CAR? A CONSTITUTION THAT SAYS YOU HAVE THE SAME RIGHTS AS A MAN? HIGH-FUNCTIONING COURT SYSTEM AND RELATIVELY LOW RATES OF CORRUPTION TO MAKE SURE YOUR RIGHTS ARE ENFORCED? A REASONABLE EXPECTATION NOT TO FIND YOURSELF SUDDENLY DISPLACED? A LOW LIKELIHOOD OF CONTRACTING A TERRIBLE DISEASE AND A HEALTH CARE SYSTEM THAT, EVEN WITH ALL ITS FLAWS, WILL TREAT THAT DISEASE COMPETENTLY? OH, AND I ALMOST FORGOT, A COLLEGE DEGREE? CONGRATULATIONS. YOU ARE ALL PRINCESSES.

ISN’T IT BETTER INSTEAD TO JOIN THE HUMAN RACE? WE ARE ALL JUST WORKING PARTS OF AN INCOMPREHENSIBLY HUGE AND COMPLEX SYSTEM. AND THAT’S THE REALLY, REALLY GOOD NEWS. BECAUSE IF NOBODY’S A PRINCESS, THEN EVERYBODY’S A PRINCESS. IF NOBODY IS A HERO, EVERY SINGLE PERSON CAN BE A HERO. THE DAY YOU FIND YOURSELF IS THE DAY YOU TAKE YOURSELF OUT OF THE PICTURE AND FOCUS ENTIRELY ON SOMEONE ELSE. DON’T BE FOOLED AND DON’T BE LIMITED BY THE PRECIOUS FEW CHOICES ON THE MENU YOU’VE BEEN PRESENTED WITH — THE MENU IS A TRICK. DON’T SATISFY YOURSELF WITH A LIFE THAT HAS BEEN PRESCRIBED FOR YOU IN HOLLYWOOD OR BOLLYWOOD OR ANYWHERE ELSE. THE LIFE YOU ARE MEANT TO LIVE IS RIGHT THERE AMONG THE PEOPLE WHO NEED YOU — AND IF YOU GO TO THEM WITH AN OPEN HEART, WITH HANDS EXTENDED TO HELP YOU WILL FIND YOUR BEAUTIFUL OUTLINE IN BRIGHT RELIEF AGAINST THE LANDSCAPE OF THEIR JOY. THIS IS ALL THE RECOGNITION YOU WILL EVER NEED OR WANT, ALL THE RICHES YOU WILL EVER BE ABLE TO ENJOY.

Published May 21, 2012 by - Comments? None yet