Translated and introduced by Dominic Hinde
This article appeared in the 2013:1 issue.
Nina Björk is one of Sweden’s best-known feminist writers and cultural commentators. She first came to prominence in the mid 1990s with Under the Pink Duvet, a seminal and razor-sharp analysis of how society constructs femininity. In Happily Ever After – On the Worth of People and Money she turns her pen on contemporary Sweden and Europe, highlighting the contradiction in a society which professes to value equality but which surrounds itself with fairytales of success and self-worth in order to escape the truth of its own precarious existence.
A Just Injustice
It is a remarkable feeling to look at the world at the beginning of the twenty-first century and know that this world holds a fundamental principle to be sacred: the principal of the equal worth of all human beings. It is a principle which we all recognise. It is written into the Swedish national curriculum; it is the foundation of our conception of legal justice; it is laid down in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Yet whilst some people rise from under feather duvets and have trouble deciding which coffee machine to use for their morning beverage, others wake up just as frozen, hungry and thirsty as when they went to sleep. Yet still the combined income of the world’s three richest people outstrips the total GDP of the world’s 49 poorest countries. Yet the average American in 1990 was 38 times richer than the average Tanzanian – today the American is 61 times richer. And 18 per cent of the world’s population lack access to clean drinking water and 815 million people are chronically hungry or undernourished.
Presented with these facts we can at the very least conclude that the principle of the equal worth of all people does not entail equal opportunities for every individual to have a life worth living. For all those who believe that our form of political democracy and our capitalist economy are the best way of organising human life, this blatant discrepancy between theory and practice presents a problem. How to justify inequality between human beings in a world which believes in equality between human beings? In On Human Needs the philosopher Kate Soper writes:
It is in accommodating this striking disparity between the facts of bourgeois society and the presumed equality of men, that the essentialist anthropology of liberal theory acquires its particular complexity. And this complexity corresponds to the particularly difficult task it sets itself, namely, to provide a moral justification of social inequalities on the basis of the natural equality of men.
She asserts that in earlier periods of civilisation there was no need to resolve such an irresolvable problem. Slavery and feudalism could for example be justified through reference to natural differences in worth between people, which defined their pre-determined place in the divine order. Such explanations are however no longer considered valid. What then replaced God as the explanatory model for unequal conditions with regard to wealth, power, the possibility of personal agency and the ability to satisfy one’s needs? The individual. The individual’s industry, knowledge and ability. Soper writes:
When divine ordinance becomes discredited, there is a risk that the effects of social determinations will be seen for what they are, as indeed the effects of social forces. The myth of the essential freedom of the individual serves to pre-empt that subversive move; my insisting that men are the masters of their own destiny and not the playthings of social forces. Liberal anthropology can make it truly a matter of one’s nature who one is and where one happens to be placed in civil society.
It’s enough to make you laugh. Or cry. I usually think about it when staying in hotels – so often it is people with a different skin colour from mine who clean them. And so often people with the same skin colour as mine who stay there. Is this a result of my having worked harder? Is this the result of my being more talented, more intelligent? The person who argues thus is also arguing that those born into the middle and upper classes are also those who work hardest and are the most intelligent in this country. Really?
You can laugh or cry over this tale of the individual as master of their own destiny. Over this narrative of inequality and hierarchy being justified by individual achievement. But we don’t laugh. Or cry. We accept. We accept this tale as the foundation upon which we build our society. Perhaps for comfort. Perhaps as a defence because the unequal conditions which we see around us are in actual fact legitimate. If we actually need such forms of comfort and defence it is good, in a way. It shows that we – somewhere – see the need to counter the domination and subordination which is practised daily by a society which simultaneously professes to believe in the equal worth of all.
Perhaps that is another reason why Walt Disney films are so adored? In them, this fortuitously comforting myth is hardly a secret. It is rather an unambiguous lesson to be learned by rote, an exercise in socialisation for children the world over.
On the DVD cover of one of Disney’s princess films, Enchanted Tales from 2007, we find the message clearly and unambiguously expressed in the imperative: ‘Follow your dreams’! Via the text on the back we discover that this film offers ‘a heartwarming message of the importance of following your own conviction’. It is about Princess Aurora from the film Sleeping Beauty, who is given charge of the whole kingdom whilst her parents are away on a journey, and Princess Jasmin from Aladdin who longs for a more meaningful task than being a show princess in camel parades.
Aurora’s dream might appear somewhat modest. She wants to organise a party to surprise her parents on their return home, something which she succeeds in doing once she understands that there can be no shortcuts for anyone determined to reach their goal. The good fairy’s wand should have been left untouched, what matters is being ‘steadfast’, or as the narrator’s voice explains at the end of the film: ‘It is indeed never a good idea to take the easy path. Sometimes you have to work hard to follow your dreams.’ And sometimes you have to work less hard to uncover bourgeois ideology in a Disney film: the difference between those who succeed and those who fail in this world is to be found only in dogged hard work.
Jasmin’s dream is more ambitious in character. After realising that she is tired of posing at parades and camel displays, tired of simply smiling and waving, smiling and waving, she bursts out: ‘I’m not living up to my full potential. I could do something really beneficial for society. Help at a school or a hospital’. Jasmin wants to do something important. ‘I could find a cure, I could help the poor”, as she sings. She goes to her father the Sultan and asks him for ‘a meaningful and challenging task. Something which is important to the kingdom‘, at which point she is offered a job at the Royal Academy. Jasmin’s first day as a teacher however turns out to be a total catastrophe – nobody listens to her, nobody wants to learn, and anarchy rules in the classroom. The morning after this misfortune she is woken early by a stable boy who tells her that her father’s prized horse, the unruly Sahara whom nobody has been able to ride since the death of Jasmin’s mother, has escaped. The rest of the film deals with how Jasmin succeeds in finding the lost horse, tames her and then rides her back to the stable and to a proud father who now realises that he has underestimated his daughter. ‘A princess who has the strength and courage to ride Sahara is capable of any job in my entire kingdom‘, he says. Jasmin returns to the classroom and picks up where she left off. Opening the door her pupils are immediately silent. ‘She rode Sahara’, someone whispers. Everyone sits down immediately and shouts in unison ‘good morning Jasmin‘. In her short epilogue to the film the princess says ‘if you just follow your dreams and do your best you can succeed at anything. You just have to be strong and never give up.’ The anonymous narrator adds ‘you should follow your dreams and never give up’.
Jasmin’s dream was of helping others, of transforming and improving, of being given a meaningful task. But even if we are explicitly told that Jasmin’s dream is eventually realised, this is not what is portrayed in the film. Instead we see yet another individualistic heroic deed where a wild horse in the desert is reined in by a determined woman. It is as if Disney lacks the tools. It is Disney that gives up. Jasmin’s real dream cannot be discussed. Where the collective world begins, Disney ends.
When Walt Disney decided to build his first theme park at the beginning of the 1950s, the corporation invested 500,000 dollars in the project and Walt himself staked 250,000 dollars of his own personal fortune. The first thing done when construction began in August 1954 was to move 27,000 cubic metres of soil to build up a high bank around the whole area. ‘I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the Park’, remarked Walt about the whole thing.
No, for to dream my Disney dreams I must not see the world. For the world is not calling out for dreams. The world is calling out for a utopia. And those who lose most from humanity dreaming not of the world’s but of personal transformation are those whose person is bound by circumstances over which they have no control.