What do women want?

December 1, 2008

I always look forward to Adam Phillips’ interpretation of fairy stories at this time of the year. So, from Saturday’s Guardian, here’s (part of) his take on Cinderella

Freud’s infamous question “What does a woman want?” is both silly and mildly insulting, implying as it does that women in general are incapable of knowing what their wants are and making them known, aside from the obvious fact that all women are different and want different things at different times. What Freud really wanted to know is: what do mothers want from their children?
If Cinderella was a story about what women want, the answer would be: women want a mother who does everything she can to facilitate their pleasure; a mother who relishes her daughter’s pleasure rather than envies it, or competes with it, or trivialises it.
To pursue her pleasure, a woman has to imagine that there is another woman who enjoys and sponsors this pleasure. In this sense, her fairy godmother, in her unlikeness to her wicked stepmother, is the most important person in a girl’s life. Without her, at least in the terms of the fairy tale, she can never leave home and become a woman; without this fairy godmother – the part of herself that will do whatever is necessary for her heart’s desire – she will go on believing that her pleasure always harms another woman. Indeed, she could even believe that her pleasure is in harming another woman, whereas this is just sometimes the consequences of following her heart’s desire. So guilty is Cinderella about her own pleasure that when she does finally marry her prince, she finds two “noblemen” for her ugly stepsisters.
The moral of the story is: girls must learn not to be intimidated by envy, not to make themselves unenviable by diminishing themselves, and that this requires a certain magic, a ruthless unwillingness to accept things as they are. Rebels, Sartre wrote, are people who keep the world the same so they can go on rebelling against it; revolutionaries change the world.
For the author, and possibly the reader, of Cinderella, the question is not “what does a (the) woman want?” but “how does she want?” How does she go about disregarding her own wishes? What is her wanting like if she can live two such disparate lives, as drudge and princess? Drudgery, the story persuades us, is a bad solution to the problem of wanting. It is not satisfaction the woman fears, but the envy of her satisfaction. Men are the least of a girl’s problems, at least from Cinderella’s point of view.