"We have princesses and a king and a dragon," one seven-year-old girl gushes.
I'm sitting with my daughter and her friends, playing with marionettes and our home puppet stage.
"I'll be the queen," I suggest.
"No, the queen is too mean," my daughter says, pushing a knight into my hands. "You be a knight."
It was unconscious. The kids hadn't yet decided on a plot line or a premise for their fairy tale, but one given is apparently that the queen is always evil.
The printable flashcards I use with my ESL students make a similar assumption. In the fantasy set, there is a king, a princess, a prince and a knight who are all nice-looking protagonists. Then among the antagonists there is a green monster, a sadistic wizard and an evil queen with a dripping, red-stained dagger.
I have started noticing this trend and searching for positive "queen" stories and symbols. There is of course the age-old British obsession with their queen, who is considered a benevolent figure. But there are few others in the modern world. Very rarely does a Disney movie feature even a neutral queen.
And when I come to think of it, a large part of the attraction of the British queen is that she is a symbol of wealth and celebrity but has very little power in the world.
Consider what our popular culture conceives of as a good king--the qualities that make a king truly admirable in the modern imagination. You don't have to look only at kings to see this. Anyone who is in a king-like position (with a measure of absolute power in a certain area), whether it is a lord of a domain in a fantasy novel or a Star Trek captain, fulfills the "king" archetype.
In modern culture today, a king should be strong and able to protect his people, first and foremost. He should make hard and even harsh decisions bravely and only for the true common good of his people. He should be a warrior, willing to go first into battle. If he is ever called upon to sacrifice one of his people to save the others, he must insist that he will be the sacrifice. How many plot-lines use this device?
Women are never portrayed in this way. They can sacrifice themselves for the people, sure. But they cannot hold such power at the same time. If a woman holds massive power over an area or a people, she is always portrayed negatively in modern western culture.
I just tried googling "queens in popular culture." Google didn't even initially want me to put the query and tried to insist on "drag queens in popular culture." Then when I finally typed out the whole query, the first result was titled literally, "Evil Queens in Pop Culture." No result on the first page of Google results has positive messages about queens.
There are "drag queens" and "evil queens." There are "welfare queens," "queen bees," "drama queens," and "ice queens." But there is no role model, no symbol, no archetype in the great common subconscious of a strong, honorable queen, such as we have for the strong, honorable male leader.
Wildly popular female heroines do exist in popular culture, of course. and there are positive examples. But they are universally young and rebellious. There are Katniss, Tris and a host of recent plucky Disney heroines. Even Hermione Granger gets harsh judgement from my teenage English students when they write about the Harry Potter series, because she is not rebellious enough!
One only needs to look at the wildly popular Game of Thrones to see how young, strong but relatively powerless heroines compare to older, powerful queens in the popular imagination. Young girls can have their flaws, but they are essentially sympathetic as long as they don't have much power. They can even be ruthless and not be seen as evil.
But a queen with power is immediately the object of hatred and disgust.
And I have to wonder why.
Does this hatred of queens stem from some deep historical wound? Or are powerful, good queens just generally unknown in history? There have been a few but mostly their names are much less known than the female rebels. How many more people have heard of Joan of Arc than have heard of Boudicca? Not many westerners beyond history buffs know the names Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hatshepsut, Empress Theodora or Empress Wu Zetian.
Those who did study Maria Theresa of Austria, Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia in mandatory school textbooks found them described as cold, harsh and cruel for decisions that were no more harsh or calculated than those of similarly positioned kings.
But at least the British for a very long time did have a popular, kindly concept of the queen and the phrase "God save the queen" was often said with all sincerity. So, I am not certain that history can be blamed entirely for our modern antipathy toward queens.
Is it a backlash then against the feminism of the late 20th century? Is there an instinctual fear among men and women alike that female power will result in tyranny?
Surely, this ubiquitous undertone of negativity about women with political and military power hurt Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate. And at the same time she contributed to that stereotype by being cold, out of touch and--I'll try to be diplomatic here--strategic.
But I have to wonder if the reason why the women who have come anywhere close to power in recent decades have been so cold and ruthless is that it requires harsh calculation for a woman to reach that pinnacle of power in today's world. Among activists and rebels, there are certainly plenty of positive figures who are warm and capable of leadership, but they never seem to rise high in power if they are female
Maybe that's all it is. It has been a long time since we have seen a good and honorable queen-like figure, because the patriarchal system screens out women with those qualities from political power.
After imbibing a lot of popular culture myself, I find that I cannot even conceive of a strong, powerful and protective queen figure without doubts about cold and ruthless women creeping in.
Take a moment, if you will, to imagine a female queen or general who must protect her people and tackle complex ethical issues. What qualities would such a leader embody? Could the same qualities that make a good king--honor, protection, ethics, the setting of clear boundaries and guarding of borders and self-sacrifice--transfer directly across?.
Would these same qualities make an ideal queen whom the popular imagination could embrace? I have thought on it for a long time, trying to come up with the plot for a fantasy novel in which a queen possesses these same qualities. And it just doesn't quite work. Such a queen would inevitably be seen as too cold.
Where Captain Archer of Star Trek Enterprise can make questionably ethical decisions to save humanity and still be admired, a queen would be judged as "evil." Captain Janeway of Star Trek Voyager, the series' one admirable attempt to switch the gender roles, lets an alien who stole the lungs of one of her crew members keep them to save the alien's life. And still she is perceived of as cold and sexless. Captain Archer employs torture and kills massively in his quest to save Earth, and he never loses the viewer's sympathy or his cult of sexual attraction.
After skimming through many modern and historical stories, my search finally led me to the ancient Celtic concept of a Brig, a great lady. The time is so remote and there are no written documents from the ancient Celtic culture, so we cannot be entirely sure of details. But we do know that a Brig was a judge, a woman of great power.
The term appears in the name of the goddess Brigid/Bride and Saint Brigid. This is a figure of vast importance to Celtic cultures and very likely originated with an ancient woman or women of power. And through this legend it is possible to grasp at the qualities that might just make an ideal, good queen in the popular imagination.
The Goddess Brigid was traditionally the lady of the hearth, ruling fire and the great hall. She is anything but cold. She is a mother of the community, an authority but also a refuge.
She was also the keeper of the well and a powerful healer of body and soul. She is connected with inspiration and creativity as well as protection. While much of her legend appears very feminine and homey, there are the ancient stories of Brigid as a warrior queen. In these legends she does not ride forth often. But she does go into battle to put injustices right, to fight for the dispossessed and the downtrodden, for innocent outcasts and for ill-treated orphans.
I am beginning now to get a picture of a good queen, one a Disney movie or a popular fantasy series could embrace. She must be keeper of the hall and castle, much as the king is. But her power will be in the creation of abundance more than in the destruction of enemies. She is creative and she integrates inner and outer worlds.
Beyond that she is a healer and a giver of solace, and not only for her own people. She is generous without exhaustion for she can always create more plenty through her wise policies. Rather than holding iron borders to protect her people, she protects through the forging of alliances and the invitation of wanderers to add their talents to her realm. Still she can defend boundaries when there is true need.
She is maker, artist, poet, healer and mother of the people. But she is also the judge, who weighs both logic and compassion, ethics and organic fairness. Her boundaries are strong, but made of reason and prudence rather than of iron or stone. And like the mythical good king, she is protective, although she is rarely roused to battle. When she sees injustice and no one but her to cut it down, she will go.
As for self-sacrifice... The male commanders of today's popular culture are always insisting that they will go into battle first or lead the impossible mission to save humanity. Their supporters try to dissuade them, telling them that they are needed to lead the people and that their death would be too great a blow to the cause. By all logic, another should go. But the male hero's answer is always that he will not order another to attempt a suicide mission.
What is the ideal queen's version of this? I know that surely this ideal queen would go hungry rather than see her people starve. She would fight for justice. But I do not see her abandoning her post for some mission that will eventually bring her great glory if she somehow wins through.
She would stake her power, her position, her livelihood on being right in a gamble to save her people. But she would not leave the hard work to others while she went off to win acclaim. She would risk her own safety but she would most likely not bet on a risky mission in which one solitary individual has to save the world through an insanely risky act.
She would use diplomacy, wit and the strength of nature for protection and justice. She would risk more than her life to save her people. She would, unlike most male heroes, sacrifice even the memory of her name and her deeds. She would do what must be done, even if it meant that her name and her very existence would be forgotten by future generations. Such would be my ideal queen.