Treating Princesses Like AdultsPosted: February 5, 2012
I started reading The Princess about a year and a half ago, and it quickly became one of my favourite comics. It’s about a young girl named Sarah who faces a lot of bullying and misunderstanding because she’s trans. I love it because it shows Sarah’s struggles and challenges, but also her positive outlook and unsquashable spark. She calls herself a princess, and she radiates love and joy in every direction, which makes it that much harder to see people tell her that she’s a freak or try to stop her from being who she is. I will totally spoil parts of the story for you, but I think the comic’s awesome enough to read even if you know pieces of the plot ahead of time, and anyway it’s still going on so I won’t be spoiling the entire story, so you should still read both what I’m going to say and the entire comic.
I think what I like most about The Princess is the way that Christine Smith, the artist, captures the injustices that children often face at the hands of people who are supposed to, and often, who probably intend to, support and care for them. Sarah has a great support group that includes her dad, her aunt, and a few friends and family friends, but Wendy, her mom, really doesn’t support her gender identity. Her attitude and behaviour have both improved since the beginning of the story. She went from calling Sarah “Seth” and trying to prevent her from ever dressing in girls’ clothes to now saying she accepts that her kid is trans but doesn’t want her to dress like a girl outside of the house. But really, she implicitly tells Sarah that being trans is something to be ashamed of, rather than making any effort to help her deal with the bullying and oppression that she regularly faces. Sarah stays quite patient with her mother, which is simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking to read. Her patience makes me love her more, but she shouldn’t have to suffer while her mother comes to terms with her identity. If Wendy needs to go on a transformative journey, that should be her problem, not Sarah’s. We get some acknowledgement of that in these strips, but again, Sarah needs to wait while her mother slowly learns that transphobia is bad.
(On a side note, I don’t know how slowly Wendy’s journey has been progressing. I’ve been watching it for the past year and a half, like I said, but the comic comes out twice a week, and several strips take place within the same day, so maybe this whole thing has been happening over the course of a month or less. That would be slightly better, but I think my point that Sarah has to suffer while Wendy deals with her own problems with diversity and sensitivity still stands.)
Last Monday’s strip actually made me angry, because it so clearly demonstrates what I think is a serious problem in the way kids are treated when they get justifiably angry. Sarah has put up with Wendy’s crap for a while, and she’s taken it with more patience and understanding than Wendy maybe deserves. When she finally snaps and calls Wendy a poophead, it’s pretty clear that she does it out of complete frustration that she has every right to feel. Wendy responds, however, by sending her to her room. As of Friday’s strip, Sarah is in her room, hating her mother, stewing in anger, crumpling up her princess crown, and breaking my heart. Maybe she’ll come out and deliver a righteous speech to her mother about inclusion and acceptance and not the abuse of authority. Maybe she will apologize and let her anger stew even more. Maybe she’ll call her father or her aunt or a friend for support and have a calm conversation with her mother later on. Maybe she’ll lash out, run away, and never speak to her mother again. Unless she starts engaging in destructive or intentionally hurtful behaviour, I will probably think she’s in the right, regardless of how she reacts. Wendy lost any potential for moral high ground that she might have had going into this (she had very little to begin with, so she didn’t lose much), when she responded to Sarah’s anger at her behaviour as though it were a temper tantrum.
I frequently don’t think adults treat children as well as they could. Grown ups have inherent privilege and power over kids. They have more say than children do in both the social and legal rules of society. They have more independence than kids and are therefore more often in a position to walk away from an unpleasant or unhealthy situation. Adults are also more likely to be taken seriously than children, so if they can’t leave a bad situation, they have more avenues to recourse. This is not to say that all grown ups have an easier time than all kids. I know that some kids have more privilege than some adults, but as a class, adults are the privileged ones.
I want to say that we need to treat children like adults, but I feel like that phrase can be misinterpreted too easily. I know many people who say we need to treat kids like adults, and for some of them, that seems to mean expecting children to be as mature and as reasonable as the most reasonable and mature adults are on their best days. It also sometimes seems to mean reacting with serious anger and disappointment when kids fail to live up to that standard. The whole thing just looks pointless and frustrating to me, both for the adults and for the kids. Children are learning how to be mature and reasonable, and we need to support them while they learn. They will do unacceptable things, and they need to be told that those things are unacceptable. They will do stupid things, and they need to learn what makes those things stupid. We should accept that children will do childish things – it’s not a coincidence that those words have the same root – and we need to sometimes help them learn from those things that they do, so that they can stop acting like children around the same time they stop being children.
When I say that we need to treat children like adults, what I mean is that we need to give them the same respect that we give adults. Children’s bodies and brains might not be fully developed, but their rights to be taken seriously should start as soon as they’re born. We need to treat kids like adults not in our expectations for them, but in our reactions to them. When kids complain, say things aren’t fair, or lash out in anger, we need to seriously consider that they might be absolutely right, and then we need to think about how we can work with them to make things better. It isn’t easy. Like I said before, children frequently say and do things that are unacceptable, and when that’s paired with a complaint, it can be tempting to brush off their complaint as whining. But I don’t think it’s at all helpful to ignore a person’s beef just because of how they voiced it. If a grown up tells a child that they won’t listen to their problems until they can talk about them in an adult way, they shut down the conversation, both denying the kid an opportunity to work on voicing complaints in a more mature way, and minimizing the kid’s problems, sending the message that all you need to do is wait until you have power, and then you can decide whose gripes are worthy of your time.
Wendy obviously has a lot of learning to do, and her interactions with Sarah are clearly complicated by her own struggles with Sarah’s identity. That might explain her behaviour, but it certainly doesn’t excuse it. The Princess is an awesome comic. Christine Smith does a really great job of showing how different forms of oppression intersect with each other, and how Sarah is doubly disenfranchised because she’s not just trans, but also a kid.