My friend Megan Conley was in a library the other week, and overheard a horrific conversation between a couple on a first date. Well. We’ve all had our share of cringe-worthy first dates, of course (unless you’re me, in which case you’ve had your share of no dates at all). But this one, oh, this one got under my skin.
Meg wrote a beautiful response for the girl she wanted to take aside, which I hope you’ll read. But I am raising boys. With Meg’s kind permission, I’ve written this for them.
My dear, lovely boys,
I don’t know when you’ll be reading this. Perhaps you already keep to your room most of the time and roll your eyes when you talk to me, because I’m the most uncool person you know. (Just as an aside, right now you think I’m the best thing since chips and ketchup, so there. (Extra aside: am I better at being an adult, now? I hope so.))
I’m willing to bet, though, that you’re already interested in girls. And that’s good. Because girls are what I want to talk to you about. You hear a lot about dating at the moment, I’m sure. A lot of it is good, sound advice. We’ll have talked about all this already, in person, so I don’t need to say anything here.
Here’s what I do want to say: if I catch you treating that girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps.
I am so tired of all this girl-as-a-princess talk. Do you know what princesses do, in stories? They are kidnapped. They sit in towers guarded by fire-breathing dragons. They are the prizes in competitions of strength and manliness. They are the victims of spell-casters twirling their moustaches, and lie in enchanted sleep or as sad little swans on the river until they are rescued. And rescued they have to be, almost always, by the handsome prince on his white horse.
Oh, that prince. He is dashing. He is determined. He chops down the forest of thorns and defeats the evil witch even when all hope is lost. He works out the problem to be solved and doesn’t stop searching and trying and thinking until the princess has been found and there’s a happily ever after. I know it’s not always this way; I know there are princesses who think for themselves. There are exceptions to every rule. But for every Mulan there is an Aurora, and for every Belle with her library book there’s a Cinderella waiting for the ball, in fact twelve Cinderellas, a hundred Cinderellas: a princess at the top of every tower you can think of, and all of them waiting for you.
My dear boys, this is utter, utter pigswill. The girls you meet are not sitting in suspended animation, waiting for your manly shoulder to cry on, your voice to explain everything and make it alright. The girl you fall in love with has opinions, loves, passions, tragedies, strengths and weaknesses all of her own. She was born an endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creature, and has spent her life thus far remembering and discovering who she is. She has spent her life in a world where too many stories told her that she had to stay put and look pretty, that all her value lay in what a man thought of her, wanted from her, was willing to do for her. I hope she is fighting against it. I hope she has come out spitting.
It’s not much fun for you either, this handsome prince lark. Of course it’s nice to be needed, but the pressure to always be the strong one, always chopping down that damned forest to get to her, can be suffocating. At best, you feel an added pressure to always be in control of yourself, to never show weakness or emotion, and to carry the weight of you both even when you’re sinking. At worst, you begin to assume that only you know the answers to the questions that bother you both. You make the decisions, you tell her what to think, you explain things, endlessly. It’s disrespectful to both of you, that sort of thing. It leads nowhere good.
This is what I want you to say, when you find a girl that makes you feel like the best version of yourself: to hell with the stories. Do you hear me? To hell with them. Neither of you have to be anything you’re not. Both of you are endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creatures, and you’ll spend a lifetime learning each others’ strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll be on the horse, and sometimes you’ll be in the tower. Sometimes you’ll be back-to-back, chopping down the thorns with a sword in each hand.
Let her be, in all her wonderful imperfection. Let yourself be, too. It’s alright. Together you’ll leap every obstacle and storm every castle and make something so fine we’ll hardly be able to look at it straight.
Oh, I love you to your bones, my darling boys. So will she. Be worthy of it. Or I really will break your kneecaps.