Today’s single woman often finds herself torn between her desire for fairy tale romance and her new legacy of hard-won equal rights.
Like most of the women in their 30s, I grew up inundated with Hollywood images of fairy tales, princesses and happily ever after. I’m also a sophisticated businesswoman who has lived all over the country. Most who know me consider my feet planted firmly on the ground. If anyone should be immune to fairy tales, it should be me. Yet, I’ve tasted enough of the romantic fantasy drug to still lust after my own prince charming, regardless of how frequently the dream eludes me.
When I grew up, career opportunities for women were multiplying exponentially. My friends and I outperformed boys inside and outside the classroom. We burst into our careers with confidence, hunger and ambition, often still out-performing men our age. We relished the autonomy, power and independence that our mothers had won for us. We were unapologetically feminist.
Now we turn on the TV, pick up magazines or find ourselves sitting through movies that claim to celebrate independent women but send the message that what we really need is a love so romantic it could sell a memoir. It’s difficult to abstain from buying into the message because there’s just enough truth in it to give us hope. We long to be the romantic heroine in our own love story.
People talk of the angel and demon that sit on their shoulders, enticing them to travel in opposing directions, their feud a constantly raging battle within. The princess and the feminist sit on my shoulders and their war is just as intense.
The princess is born of cinematic love stories and the rare real-life moments of passion so large they leave no room for consideration of what comes after the moment passes. She is a demanding force. She has been loved, really loved, and will settle for nothing less. She has little tolerance for hesitation, doubt, or missed birthdays.
The princess works in blacks and whites. He is or he isn’t. She is an optimistic creature, always believing that her “real” prince is out there, allowing her to walk away from any would-be lover at the first sign of “frogginess.” However, as long as she believes that a suitor is still a potential prince, she will give almost anything for their chance at happiness, no matter what the sacrifice.
The feminist knows that she can stand on her own; she doesn’t need a partner to be happy. She knows her strength. She realizes that part of her strength lies in her ability to accept her own weaknesses, as well as the weaknesses of the man in her life. She’s more forgiving and more tolerant than the princess. She knows that relationships are hard work because they require compromise between two imperfect individuals. She knows that love eventually becomes an act of will.
She has accepted there will be times when she’s doing more of the loving, and times when she is doing more of the being loved. She respects the beauty of that dance, as heart wrenching as it may be at times, because at her core, she knows she can stand on her own. It makes the tumult tolerable.
But the feminist won’t reach for a star if she stands to lose her footing should it be beyond her reach. Solid ground is her most valued asset and sacrifice in the name of love is her greatest fear. She will not pass on that great career opportunity for the sake of love, no matter how fulfilling the union. She nurses a fear that sacrifice in the name of love will not only result in regret, but can actually destroy the relationship it’s supposed to benefit. She doesn’t apologize for her unwillingness to sacrifice; the feminist demands respect for her independence.
The feminist can cause us stay in relationships far longer than we should out of compromise, teamwork and suppression of the princess’ need to be stirred. The feminist can also make us leave partners when the sacrifice appears too great, even when love is there. The princess will convince us to leave relationships prematurely when a would-be prince fails to cross an arbitrary line drawn in the sand, a line he didn’t even know existed. She’ll also make us chase after stars, no matter how impractical or implausible their attainment.
It is quite easy for the feminist to dismiss the princess because she can trace the origins of the princess to Hollywood: a storyteller whose existence is contingent on peddling a version of love that can be resolved in 90 minutes. The feminist can see the fallacy of it all. While she may allow the princess her occasional indulgences, at the end of the day, the feminist usually prevails.
While the feminist may win more battles, it’s the princess who tends to win the war. In the midst of the bloodshed, when the pain of loss or loneliness becomes too much to bear, the princess’ ever-so-potent hope is required. But the finicky princess will only offer her optimism if she gets her way and so she does. Another would-be prince finds his way onto a shelf labeled “frogs,” or a doomed relationship is given new life in the name of “true love.” Sometimes she’s right. Other times she’s not.
There is value in what both the princess and the feminist have to say. However, the fact remains that they are often in conflict and all too frequently, their conflict is one without an identifiable compromise. There is little middle ground when one is deciding whether to leave or to stay.
I do not portend to have an answer to this paradox. Instead, I write to ask the question. How can we reformulate the fairy tale to allow for the feminist princess? What would she look like? How would she love? And how can we teach our daughters her truth?
Copyright © Heather Orr/2011 Singular Communications, LLC.
Originally from Houston, Texas, Heather Orr is an attorney who maintains a law practice in Beverly Hills.