Wednesday, May 31, 2017

STRENGTH | Male and Female

Princess Josephine Confronts the Dragon.
The following review of Princess Josephine and the Rainbow Dragon, by Kate Paice (ill. by Brigid Marlin), was recently posted on Goodreads. I am reposting here because it addresses an issue that has been raised before on this blog — how did Eugen Boissevain capture the heart of both Inez Milholland and Edna St Vincent Millay? I believe it is because he showed a form of strength that was manly but not macho. What follows is by my niece Marguerite Marlin:

Princess Josephine and the Rainbow Dragon speaks to an interesting childhood point of contemplation of mine about the value of boldness and how it can be channelled in ways that are fair and socially valuable. I became aware of it through my aunt Brigid, who makes her living as a fantastic artist (her imaginative illustrations add quite a bit of wonder and charm to the captivating story).

In the book, a young child princess encounters her first major challenge when a dragon is depriving her kingdom of colour through its colour-based appetite. The princess faces the dragon head-on, but what occurs is less of an epic St. George-style showdown than a wise display of conflict resolution, diplomacy, and a version of innovative public policymaking in a fantasy world where a dragon might be among the potential stakeholders in a consultation process.

Her approach reminded me of what counselor Marshall B. Rosenberg PhD recommended in his classic 1998 book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: that we dispose of enemy images in order to encourage empathy – which in turn leads to conflict resolution. As with many children’s stories, the power structure of the setting is monarchical – meaning that Josephine’s will can be done in a much more centralized fashion than a president of a republic or a royal head of a modern constitutional monarchy.

[Side note: I have often wondered about the balance of reasons why old-style monarchies persist as models of power relations in children’s stories, as I suspect it is some combination of 1. Simplicity of structure and 2. A deep-seated nostalgia for a pre-industrial era where the relative lack of opportunity for social mobility also brought with it some relief from troubling modern anxieties about maintaining or increasing one’s unstable place in society].

In any case, the feudal monarchies of yore persist as the preferred context for children’s books, and this appeal is increasingly relevant – as it appears more and more that it may not be limited to the storybook world. Global politics is increasingly rife with actors fed up with the stickiness of political systems where change is restrained by the need to harmonize positions with political tradition, with special interest relations, with the political order, and in general with the various categories of other people who share the reins of power.

But is this “boldness” constructive? Besides the issue of whether one person or family truly be trusted to know and act upon the interests of the people, populist leaders often build their political base by purporting to act against certain people in order to work for others. The result is alternately failure of the approach (since it is difficult to entirely override the interests of a group large enough to figure into popular political discourse) or in worse cases, gradual dehumanization and grave mistreatment of the demonized group/s.

Princess Josephine, while she has all the power to act against the fearsome yet likely socially marginalized dragon, opts instead to show the qualities of an enlightened monarch for whom peaceful coexistence of peoples and species is paramount. She weighs the options of action that can be most mutually beneficial to her kingdom, and critically assigns important value to the wants and needs of the dragon.

Returning to my own contemplation of this dynamic as a child: I recall one time having stayed up past my bedtime and ventured out to the kitchen or some other place in the house; my father heard me from his study and declared disapprovingly that I was a “bold girl.” I took that as a great compliment at the time, even if I had some idea that it was not meant as one – at that moment I had styled myself in the image of the warrior Queen Maeve or Joan of Arc. There would be much to support that interpretation today, as the boldness of little girls has been leveraged to further goals of women’s advances into male-dominated industries or encourage girls and women to receive education at a global level.

However, reminders that more than boldness is required for socially valuable leadership are more important than ever for all children and adults. The inimitable Mr. Rogers unsurprisingly had a profound way of expressing this point: He said that “Most of us, I believe, admire strength. It's something we tend to respect in others, desire for ourselves, and wish for our children. Sometimes, though, I wonder if we confuse strength and other words--like aggression and even violence. Real strength is neither male nor female; but is, quite simply, one of the finest characteristics that any human being can possess” (The World According to Mr. Rogers, 2003: 161).

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