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Let’s talk about princesses! In the toy industry where I used to work, emphasizing princesses is a way to sell pink plastic drek directly to little girls–and it works really well for that! So much so that a lot of the world’s best entertainment and toy properties are princesses. Yet, I always thought the idea was poorly explored—both its roots and its ramifications. Walt Disney, Charles Perrault, and all of the world’s toy executives just sort of decided that half of the world should share the same alter-ego protagonist and everybody blandly agreed with them. And things have stood thus for multiple generations.
This week, Ferrebeekeeper is going to talk about princesses because the concept is so extraordinarily powerful that we should all think about it and learn from it. At its heart the idea of princesshood is an exquisite and complicated fantasy juxtaposition. A princess represents near absolute power…but so seamlessly wrapped in the trappings of compassion, courtesy, and elegant refinement that the power is virtually invisible. The concept is a socio-political fantasy about the very best way to interact with other people: imagine if almost everyone was your social subordinate (!), but you were really kind and generous to them to such an extent that they didn’t mind. I would totally want to live that way—as a powerful person so lovable that I never had to exert my power! It makes you wonder why boys would ever want to be vampires, Godzilla, or Han Solo (although each of those entities also sort of embodies the same fantasy of being powerful without lots of lawyers, contracts, hired goons, and painful calls about money).
If you listen to NPR and read the New Yorker or suchlike journals, you might recall the “death of men” concept which was en vogue just before the disastrous 2016 election. This idea posited that women are actually more adept at today’s society than men. Nobody is mining things or fighting lions or hosting WWI style events–venues where men allegedly excel (when not being crushed, eaten, or blown up). Whereas women have the sort of soft but firm power which big offices desperately crave. Women are going to university at higher rates than men and rising higher in a society which is based on voluminous rules and carefully crafted double talk.
Nobody has been talking about that “Death of Men” idea lately for some reason. However, reactionary national politics aside, I thought there was something to the idea. Success in today’s world is indeed about PR and plotting rather that discovery and daring. I wonder if princess stories and dolls have something to do with this.
In reality, princesses were not always so genteel or compassionate…nor were they necessarily powerful, in some instances they were closer to the misogynist ideal of a submissive beautiful brood mare in gorgeous gems and finery. And, additionally, a princess who really rules is not an idealized fantasy figure. Somehow queens remain resolutely distant and scary (if not outright crazy and malevolent).
Of course there is another darker side to this. Little girls aren’t really being sold on becoming actual princesses (who are always beheading people and tricking inbred nobles) instead they are sold on being like fairytale princesses who spend lots of money on appearances, luxury goods, and dreams, while always being safely polite and waiting for a prince to come sweep them off their feet. Snow White was so passive that it was a miracle she wasn’t eaten by rabbits! That terrifying evil queen would totally have cut out her heart in the real world!
At any rate it is obvious that the concept of princesshood is absolutely jam packed with all sorts of insane cultural context and we are selling this to whole generations of little girls (and others) who will grow up to inherit the world, not because we have examined or thought about it, but because it sells. Let’s examine some of those stories and myths with a fresh eye and see what we can learn. I was a big fan of the idea that power comes from goodness (which is the moral wellspring of these myths). Come to think of it, I still am a fan of that concept. Maybe by thinking about this we can reawaken the good princess in everyone else’s heart too.
Today’s post seems like it concerns exceedingly trivial matters from a bygone age, but it is actually of much larger import. When I was five, I had the most delightful birthday! It was a splendid August day with the barest hint of coming autumn in the forget-me-not sky. There was every food I like. My mother made a special unlicensed Star Wars cake and, though chocolate Vader looked a bit blobby and brown he tasted amazing. There were astonishing presents, games with friends, and my splendid loving family telling me how wonderful I was. There was only one stain upon the luminous day and it came at breakfast through the black-and-white TV screen.
I was only allowed to watch limited amounts of TV (it makes me feel like some nineteenth century fogy to talk about having one (1) tiny mono-color viewscreen in a whole house), but even in the innocent (?) world of the seventies there were ads everywhere, fiendishly concocted to sink their razor sharp hooks into desires you did not even know you had. One of these was an ad for a cereal which featured the most miraculous toy—a swimming dolphin which actually dove down into the darkened abyss and then playfully rose back up with an enigmatic dolphin smile.
Through the dark magic of contemporary media saturation, the original ad is available on Youtube. Here it is!
Perhaps the four-year-old me was emotionally moved by the lumbering tragicomic figure of Smeadley the elephant, however I confess I did not remember him until seeing the clip. But the toy dolphins were magical! The only thing which could have been better would have been an ichthyosaur. There was a problem—we were not allowed to have sugared breakfast cereal, which my mother regarded as a dangerous abomination (as an aside: I was raised so well…how did I go so wrong?). The only chances for such a treat were trips to visit grandparents and birthdays—the one day on the calendar where requests for sugared cereal were countenanced in-house.
My poor parents were forced to turn down requests for Cap’n Crunch for weeks until the big day finally arrived. The first thing that went awry was the cereal–I guess Cap’n Crunch is supposed to be artificial peanut butter maybe? But whatever that unearthly bletted corn flavor is supposed to be, I found it vile. The year before I had had Alphabits when I turned four and they were amazing! Cap’n Crunch was a real disappointment. No matter—the important thing was the toy. We were supposed to wait to eat down to the bottom of the box to retrieve toys, but I abused my birthday privilege to stick my arm through the crunch and finally extract the coveted dolphin!
Sadly the actual toy was also a disappointing thing, much smaller and more colorless than it was on TV (and, again, the TV was black and white!). The dolphin came horrifyingly bisected in a little plastic bag and had to be assembled and filled up with sodium hydrogen carbonate (not included), an operation which involved my father and much muttering and forcing of poorly molded plastic injection joints.
We did not have a perfectly shaped transparent toy dolphin tank as pictured in the ad (not included) so the dolphin went into an opaque gray plastic mop bucket. It sank to the bottom and fell over on its side. We all stood there for a while as it was gradually wreathed in a milky cloud. Boring, boring time passed—five-year old 1979 time which I will never recover! About an hour later, the dolphin began to imperceptibly rise (according to my eagle-eyed mother) whereupon I raced off, and the dolphin was pushed into a corner. Later we looked at it—and it was floating at the top, on its side like a dead goldfish.
The bad toy was swiftly forgotten…except I have not forgotten it. I remember it more clearly than many of the awesome beautiful thoughtful toys I received later that day. It was a harbinger—and a warning.
Ninety-five percent of consumer products ARE the diving dolphin. They are cheaply made, poorly conceived and useless except for marketing/merchandising purposes. Most of what you are looking at on the web and on the news are diving dolphins. So is most of what politicians say. It was hard for me to recognize so much of human endeavor in a little plastic sack beneath the corn-syrup and artificial flavor, but I assure you it is so. Just put any of that junk in a bucket and watch it sink forlornly to the bottom…
Of course diving dolphins do not detract from the real things—happiness, friendship, good memories, family, and love. Not unless you let them.
I need a job! If any of you folk out there need a writer/toymaker/artist/analyst let me know. I will work for you with unflagging fervor, intellect, and creativity. I only need a smidgen of money for catfood and rent (and someone else to manage the spreadsheet)!
Sadly, according to the want ads I have been looking at, the world does not want astonishing super creativity. Right now, the market economy only wants these infernal i-phones and tablets which everyone is looking at all the time. The majority of jobs available are for low-level sales-clerks and admins to staff humankind’s great transition into a fully functional hive mind (where we humans, the individual neurons, are all always networked together through our androids and blackberries).
I’m no Luddite. I enjoy technology and I can imagine great benefits arising from the internet when it fully grows up into a vast colony-mind. Yet, so far iphones mostly provide a solipsist diversion—or, at best—a platform for buying and selling more unneeded junk or channeling resources to Carlos Slim and other anointed telecom winners. Naturally, I exempt Wikipedia from this grumpy jeremiad—it is indeed an amazing realization of the great utopian dreams of the Encyclopedists. I suppose I should exempt this very blog and you, my cherished readers, as well… but, after a day of looking at ads for junior marketing interns and assistant admin assistants, I can’t entirely. Here I am creating “content” for free so some MBA higher up the tech food chain can point at an infinitesimal rise or fall on a bar chart while his colleagues clap him on the shoulder and talk of “synergies.” I certainly don’t want to be that guy either! But what else is there? What are we supposed to do?
To escape these circular author-centric thoughts, let’s take a field trip around the world. To provide a more comprehensive vision of the smart phone revolution, today’s post takes us to Inner Mongolia—the vast landlocked desert hinterland of China. There, amidst the lifeless dunes and the alkaline sink holes is a vast manmade lake—Lake Baotou—which reflects some of the complicated dualities of the globalized market and the technology revolution. It has been said that each computer screen and cellphone window is a “black mirror” where we watch ourselves. Lake Bautu is a different sort of black mirror. It is literally a layer of super-toxic black sludge which is left over when the rare-earth elements and heavy metals necessary for smart phones have been processed.
Ferrebeekeeper has visited the world’s biggest lake, and we have dipped our toes into the fabled waters of Mount Mazama where the Klamath spirit of the underworld dwells. We have visited Lake Lonar where a space object slammed into the black basalt of a long dead shield volcano, and we have even been to China’s biggest lake where the world’s largest naval battle took place. However, Lake Baotou is a whole different manifestation of the underworld. Sophisticated modern electronics require cerium, neodymium, yttrium, europium, and goodness only knows what else. These so-called rare earth elements are also necessary for wind turbines, electric car arrays, and next generation green technologies.
Yet the refinement process for these elements is unusually corrosive and toxic and the waste products are horrifying. The raw materials tend to be found in great evaporitic basins (like those of Inner Mongolia, where an ancient ocean dried into vast dunes) but most nations are wary of processing these materials because of the unknown long-term cost. China’s leaders recognized the economic (and defense!) potential of becoming the world’s main (only?) supplier of these esoteric elements and the end result has been cheap consumer electronics, a communication revolution…and Lake Baotao, which slouches dark and poisonous beneath the refining towers and smokestacks of Baotao City.
A former roommate of mine visited Inner Mongolia and walked the streets of Baotao City. He described a wild-west boomtown filled with brothels, bars, Mongolian barbeque places, and…cell phone stores! Crime and excess were readily apparent everywhere as were prosperity and success—like old timey Deadwood or Denver. I wonder if Baotao City will develop into a modern hub like Denver or Chicago, or will it disappear back into the thirsty dunes when this phase of the electronics boom is over (or when its effluviums become insuperable).
In the mean time we all have to flow with the shifting vicissitudes of vast entwined global networks. We must make ends meet in a way which hopefully doesn’t harm the world too much. Now I better get back to scouring the want ads! Keep your eyes open for a job for me and please keep following me, um, on your computers and smart phones…
No doubt you have noticed how different clothing stores have the same color palette for their wares. If you walk from Banana Republic to Uniqlo to Armani Exchange, you will see remarkably different garments at wildly different prices…and yet the colors are all the same (and the opposing colors suit each other beautifully). The effect even stretches to kitchen and home goods stores: so if you are particularly obsessed you can probably match your underwear, your blender, and your divan—as long as you buy them in the same year (and also assuming you buy divans). The reason for this phenomenon is that every year the mughals of fashion, trendiness, and color itself get together and proclaim a color palette for the year.
In practice, international corporations tend to defer to Pantone, a company based in New Jersey for this palette. Every year Pantone (allegedly) convenes a secret quorum of fashionistas, artists, Illuminati, scientists, sorcerers, and what not in an unknown European capital to choose the color which most accurately expresses the zeitgeist of all human endeavor for a year. [When I was imprisoned in the legal industry, a strange coworker who was really “in the scene” during the eighties confided that what all this really means is that a gay man with a sharp eye chooses the palette, Pantone reviews it, and everyone else gets told what colors to use. This sounds quite plausible, but I have no way of verifying the truth of the allegation. Pantone has grown much savvier at marketing nonsense since the eighties…as indeed has everyone except for me, alas].
Anyway, the official color of the year of 2014 is [insert royal fanfare with horns] “Radiant Orchid” an extremely pretty mid-tone purple/lavender. To celebrate, I have illustrated this article with radiant orchid pictures (at least to such an extent my computer’s ever changing screen and my own eyes can replicate the hue). Undoubtedly the other colors you see at shops this year will all perfectly match radiant orchid. Pantone announces the color of the year for free, but if you would like to see the associated palette you will have to order the proprietary information from Pantone View.
As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I feel that “the color of the year” is a bit silly (not radiant orchid, which I find very fetching, but the concept itself), yet I do like the idea of a unified palette and I like the fact that favorite colors change with the era in accordance to a larger consensus of human taste. Perhaps someday we will all smile with bittersweet nostalgia as we think back on 2014 with its mild lavender in the same way that my parents talk about mustard and avocado or my grandparents talk about baby blue. In the meantime, if purple is your thing you should feel happy, and if not you should start pulling strings right now to influence the mystery color of 2015.