Aristocracy and Labor

Royal Wedding simulcast. London, April 2011.

A Princess is Not a Career has gone viral. Starring US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Sesame Street video captures the judge informing muppet Abby Cadabby that “princess” isn’t a legitimate or desirable career option.It’s a useful public service announcement to counter the princess meme that’s infected Anglo-American pop culture as of late. The message is laudable. The impulse to remind girls that any career is theirs, and that being a princess isn’t really viable, is honorable and welcome.

This said, I’m still troubled by the video. A career is a job that someone trains and prepares for, and plans to do for a long time, explains Sotamayor to Abby Cadabby, who wants to be a princess. These criteria suggest that princess isn’t really one of them, as it is a position most often reached by birth, and not by hard work, or planning. What about those who have become actual princesses, by marriage? I wonder about them. Is it really not a job that requires training? Is it not labor?

Enviable work or not, identifying with a husband’s family, not to mention a country, can be exhausting. And it is a form of work that is most often the lot of women, not men. Monarchy aside, we’ve seen this in the First Lady of the United States, when Hilary Rodham Clinton acted against those expectations, seeking to revolutionize health care policy rather than share chocolate chip cookie recipes, or identify with a project more in keeping with “feminine” concerns. I love Michelle Obama, but her nutritional initiatives definitely align her with the domestic. She wants to feed the nation, and feed them well. (The less said about Obama’s obesity-related initiatives the better, as I have reservations about fat discourse that shames unruly bodies—bodies that are often female, and poor.)

As much as we could say princesses don’t have the same obligations as the wife of an elected official, I cannot help but think of the pressures Princess Diana faced as a member of the royal family. Look what happened to her. Perhaps here my pedigree as a Saint Andrews professor does come into play, as I have actually seen Kate Middleton at work, performing herself as the proper fiancée, and then wife of her husband, Prince William.  She must negotiate publicity constantly, whether demonstrating proper style or reproductive success. Middleton works when she attends the Queen’s Jubilee, standing and waving endlessly. It’s not a career someone should want. It may well be overpaid, and achieved through the suffering of others. But it is labor. In that regard, I’d suggest that it is a job.

This is where I start to worry. In this message, are we once again dismissing the domestic labor that has traditionally been the domain of women? Do we risk ignoring the economic and political dimensions of this seemingly romantic and fluffy narrative? Why don’t we ask if Abby wanted to be a princess in preparation for life as a Queen? Again, I don’t wish to support monarchy, but perhaps there is a bloodthirsty, imperial streak there that could be better directed to life as a British Prime Minister, or an American President?

I can’t fault Sesame Street for not including these questions in its public service announcement. To be sure, I can barely articulate them myself. However, I think that as excellent as it is that we ensure girls envisioning themselves in the work place, and aspire to realistic careers, that we also make sure we all recognize the more private work of others. Even the work of Princesses, which is by its very nature, public.*

[Note: Although I am stationed at the University of St Andrews, crucible of royal love and second spiritual home to Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge [née Kate Middleton,] I am neither a monarchist nor an apologist for monarchies. I am, what they call in the UK, a Republican.]


Royal Wedding photo courtesy of Joel Schalit

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