Sunday, November 9, 2014

Where's the Rest of Him?

So this meme turned up on Facebook the other day, on a queer page called Lizzy the Lezzy which exemplifies the declining standards of queerness nowadays. (No, I don't really mean that: standards of queerness have always been low. Remember, it takes a fairy to make something tacky.) I'm not going to post the image itself, to protect whatever privacy the people in it may have, but here’s the text:
My son Jack (7 yrs. Old), told me he wants to be “Queen of New York”. Maybe that was him “coming out”, maybe not! I did tell him he can be anyone he wants and Id be right by his side! Love knows no limits OR gender! And this is what Ive been teaching him since he was a baby!! #I ADORE AND SUPPORT THIS PAGE!!!!!!
I wasn't the only person who didn't adore. I commented that New York doesn't have a queen, or a king for that matter. This of course led the page owner and numerous others to whine about “haters” picking on a little boy. I don't believe that any of us were addressing Jack. We were addressing the nominal adults who posted this meme on Facebook. If I knew the boy, or someone like him, I wouldn't pour cold water on his fantasy. I wouldn't take it seriously either. It would be difficult to walk the tightrope between non-judgmental support and the patronizing contempt that many adults consider the proper way to deal with children, but I'd do my best. I'm not obliged to be non-judgmental to Jack's adult enablers, though, and I meant my remarks for them.

What is going on here? I don't know Jack or his mother, so I don't know where he's coming from. Does he really want to be Queen of New York, or was he saying something he knew would reduce his mom and some other adults to a slobbering puddle of head-patting? Children often learn to perform for adults (I did), and it doesn't speak badly for them, but it does speak badly for the adults. Even if the boy was serious when he said it, he'll likely forget it in a few months at most, and decide he wants to be Cher, or Margaret Thatcher, or Michelle Obama. And I hope he does, because wanting to be Queen of New York is like wanting to be a Unicorn, or Bartholomew Cubbins: the Queen of New York is an Empty Set.

This has nothing to do with gender, and even less to do with love.  I feel sure that Jack wouldn't have received so much attention and stroking if he'd said he wanted to be King of New York; gender is very much at the crux of the reaction. It seems to be because a little boy said something gender-nonconformist. I don't know anything about his inner life. Maybe he tortures cats when his mom isn't looking.

I don't know what fantasies about being royalty mean to young children. If Jack wasn't just buttering up his mom, then maybe he daydreamed about being the center of attention (which he achieved, online anyway) in a palace, or wearing glamorous outfits, or wearing a crown. (As I've said before, I don't get crowns. Drag queens like them, as do some fundamentalist Christians. I've recounted before the drag queen I heard about from a mutual friend, who stole the crown a rival had won in competition so that he could dress up in his trailer, sit in front of the mirror, set the crown on his head, and admire himself.)

A queen doesn't exist in a vacuum. She sits at the top of a pyramid, at the top of a lot of other people, and she couldn't be queen without them. No wonder Jack's mother told him she'll be right by his side: if he were queen, she'd get a lot of perks. But a queen's life has plenty of routine and drudgery, even more so in the past. I just read Nicola Griffith's new historical novel Hild, which depicts how much work there was in being a British queen in the seventh century of Our Lord: not just cutthroat politics and jockeying for position and producing and protecting an heir but cloth production and embroidery and running the domestic side of court life and managing royal businesses: –production, storage, distribution, trade, and quite a lot more. Not quite what Jack or his mom imagines, I daresay. Not just sitting on a throne while wearing a crown to die for and yelling "Off with their heads!" now and again.

Here's something that occurred to me the third or fourth time I watched Frozen, which I think says something about fantasies. When Elsa builds her ice castle in the mountains and closes herself in, what does she do after the great doors slam shut? It's a satisfying fantasy to think of telling off the people who've annoyed you beyond endurance and going to your room, slamming the door, and locking it from the inside. But then what do you do? It's like the difference between having a wedding, and living a married life: the first is glamorous, the second is not, though the second has its pleasures and satisfactions. Even if the cold doesn't bother Elsa, the boredom would surely get to her in five minutes. (No cell phone, no Facebook, no Disney Channel -- how would she survive?)  And even an anorectic ice queen needs food, which Elsa doesn't seem to be able to conjure up from nowhere. She doesn't even seem to have a diary to vent to. It's the theatrical gesture that counts here, the fantasy of power and control and getting even.

Now suppose young Jack wanted to be Scarlett O'Hara, with Tara and gowns and crinolines –and hundreds of slaves to tend to her body and keep the plantation going. I imagine his mom would still drool over him -- she might have the same fantasy, and make them adorable matching mom and son ball gowns and hairdos -- but it might be a little less attractive to other adults. Suppose he wanted to be Ilse Koch, the Bitch of Buchenwald –-- love the uniform! Or hell, why not Imelda Marcos with her fabulous shoe collection? Suppose he wanted to be Mammy, Scarlett's senior slave. Ooh, way less appealing. But these are fantasies, not realities, right? Who are we to judge a child's dream?

But you can't be anyone you want. You can't be queen or king of New York, because there's no such office. You can't even be queen or king of England: that slot is reserved for a very few select persons. You can't be Barack Obama, or Michelle Obama; you can't be Cary Grant (who himself wished, apparently in vain, to be Cary Grant). Nor can you be Superman. That still leaves you a vast world of possibilities, of course.  And you can always be yourself, but who would want that?

Jack's story got under my skin because it's just the latest in a long series of idiocies. Consider this meme, one of many that have come my way.

I don't think it did this dog any harm to be dressed in that ridiculous costume, but does it say anything about how it sees itself? Of course not. We know nothing about its inner life. I wish I believed that the dog's owner knew that too, but with the floods of similar animal memes and other postings from pets' "mommies" and "daddies," I don't take it for granted. I believe that dogs and cats and other animals have inner lives, but I doubt very much they're about being human superheroes. (Some cat memes base their humor on positing that cats don't like being dressed up in such outfits and plot revenge on their owners for it, which seems more plausible because you can tell when an animal doesn't want to do something. Cats can be quite firm about that.  But loving mommies don't care what kitteh likes or wants; Mommy knows what's good for her sweety-puss.) Even less do their inner lives involve being used as fantasy surrogates for their owners.

Again, I wouldn't tell my* or someone else's young child this, but I wouldn't spread their fantasy all over the Internet either. Why is Jack's fantasy getting so much attention and praise from strangers? If you post a photo of your seven-year-old daughter dressed as Princess (later Queen) Elsa on Facebook, probably only your relatives and a few dutiful family friends will like it, let alone share it. (Don't mention her insistence that she has to diet so she can be skinny like Elsa, because she's "too fat"; that doesn't fit in this happy scenario.) A photo of your son as Elsa, complete with eating disorder, might get more attention for the gender nonconformity. It seems to me that the people celebrating Jack on this page are projecting their own fantasies onto him, using him in an unwholesome way.

By the way, did Jack ask his mom to splash his childish dream on the Facebook to Hell and back? Even if he did, it wasn't informed consent: does a seven-year-old know what it means to go viral on Facebook? What does it have to do with his fantasies, or hers, and those of the adults who slobbered over it? I don't believe these fantasies among adults are more common than they used to be, though I wouldn't be surprised if they were. When the economy is a swamp for most people, when most parents don'’t believe their kids will be better off than they were and most kids agree with them, why wouldn't people retreat into fantasies about being fictional characters? (Corporatists don't mind, of course. Disney sold millions of Anna and Elsa dresses for Halloween this year. There's gold in them there dreams, but not for the dreamers.) We know something about the fantasies of people in the past, the fictional characters they identified with – wanting to be a prince or princess is nothing new. But thanks to Facebook and other electronic media, ordinary people can now publish their fantasies for each other to see.

Nor do I want to forbid other people to fantasize, to make them live in a dreary grim “real” world. (That's a common accusation against those who question fantasies, I know.) I think daydreaming is fine, and indeed necessary. I daydreamed as a child, and I still daydream now. I understand the uses of fantasy. Why shouldn't a child, who's constantly pushed around by adults, dream of being powerful and free? I probably wanted to be Superman; as a five-year-old I drew lots of pictures of him. My mother bought me a Superman shirt, blue with the logo; I think one thing that killed the fantasy for me was realizing that wearing the outfit didn't give me the powers. Later I wanted to be Davy Crockett, and later an astronaut, and later still a musician. I still fantasize about having a book on my shelves by me, published by a major house, with my name on the spine. I'm working on that one.

Why shouldn't adults stuck in dead-end jobs fantasize about becoming rich, even if it's just from the lottery? But humankind does not live by fantasy alone. There also has to be room for action, for figuring out what you really want, what will fill your days in satisfying ways, and how to get it. And somewhere along the way -- when I was in my thirties or a little later? -- I realized that I wanted to be me, and that I'd succeeded.

We don't, in fact, always let people see themselves as they wish.  Bigots don't like to see themselves as bigots; racists don't like to see themselves as racists; homophobes don't like to see themselves as homophobes.  Why should we judge them? Why can't we see them as they see themselves? The standard retort would be that those people are haters, and people like Jack and his mom are about love, and they aren't hurting anybody!  Those people don't see themselves as haters, of course: they're Christians, they are about love and not about hate.  As I've pointed out before, the people who denounce hate are generally big haters themselves.

Many people want to organize their lives around bumperstickers (and now memes), with everything black and white with no shades of gray, and with simple slogans that tell them what to do.  That's the approach that got us into the trouble we're in now, that Walter Kaufmann called decidophobia, the fear of making fateful choices.  How we see ourselves both matters and doesn't matter; how others see us both matters and doesn't matter.  A wise person must take both into account, listening to others but not giving them final say, but also recognizing that he or she can't see him or herself whole.  We need to find other people whose opinions we can trust to some extent; we must see ourselves as others see us, we need all the input we can get -- but we also must judge for ourselves how far to rely on them.  This isn't a matter of the truth lying somewhere in between, but of both-and.  Children want to be kings or queens, princes or princes; adults must decide for themselves, and take responsibility for their decisions.

* "My [i.e., Duncan's] child" is also an empty set.