'As an Angry Feminist, Should I Let Go of the Dream of Marriage?'
Cherish all of your dreams and desires with the stubbornness of a wicked queen, and watch your horizons expand in every direction.
A Very Happy Picture (1948) by Dorothea Tanning
Usually letters that ask a question about whether a person should or shouldn’t get married reveal the questioner's underlying fear about their worthiness for a life they secretly desire. I’m very curious if my letter belies that same worthiness concern—or if the activism in my logic is a totalizing account of my feelings.
I do believe I am worthy and deserving of love and I want children. I have been dating and hooking up since I was 14 years old. At 32, I feel worn out by romantic relationships and completely cynical about my prospects for happiness in one.
I should say upfront, I am angry about sexism. Since I was child, I’ve resented the limitations of being a girl. Much of what we do gets discounted. I am admittedly a very funny person. Why was I never considered the funniest one in the class? I am a very smart person. Why couldn't I be seen as the smartest? It seems obvious to me that as a culture we stopped celebrating power and accomplishment at just the time when women began to accomplish things. We rarely see our excellence on our own terms. The misogyny on social media is batshit insane.
Despite being desired and sexy, I’ve always been somewhat of a lightning rod for male aggression. My high school years were marred by humiliation and horror. I experienced a good deal of sexual violence throughout my teens and twenties. In the work place, I have been inappropriately pursued by almost all of my male bosses and kept quiet about it. And because I’m steadfast in my opinions, I often excite combative drunk men, who will tell me to “shut up” and the like.
I think I’m capable of loving men despite these experiences but it seems like each of my boyfriends has had some fatal flaw — rudeness, self absorption, insecurity, jealousy. Over time, I’ve gotten better at choosing to date people I have more in common with, who are less damaged, share my interests, and make me laugh. Still, there is a squeezing feeling I associate with being in a relationship. After the emotional boundaries have been clarified, I get relied on for emotional support more than for companionship. I become homesick for my mom and sister in these moments. I want to gab with my boyfriend like I do with my best friends, but in my experience, men don’t like to speculate and gossip in the same endless way. They dissociate. They turn on the TV. They get obsessed by work.
There are many things I don’t understand and feel triggered by in my relationships with men. They’re so much more likely to withhold empathy. They tend to find ways to systematically push back on strong parts of my identity until I can no longer express them safely. They don’t like to hear about the times before I met them. They seem indifferent to my professional success. Maybe I’m extrapolating too far out from a few specific, recent examples. But even in my best relationships, I have found the gap between the expectation of love and the gendered reality of the relationship to be excruciating.
I am trying with therapy to identify red flags and make lists of the qualities that I desire. With this guidance, I’ve become more uncompromising, which makes me feel more in control. I've been able to end relationships sooner, instead of staying in them until they fail. It's made me realize how much happier I am when I am on my own, grounded in my significant power. I see that marriage confers stability and validation, but I'm less sure I need it. A man? Me? Can I really live a life of sleeping with the enemy?
In any case, it makes me wonder if the torture I experience over the radical otherness of the opposite sex means I should let go of the dream of marriage. How can I justify experiencing double consciousness for the rest of my life? Doesn’t my liberation and the full expression of my subjectivity mean refusing to labor under the patriarchal conditions that define heterosexual relationships? I don’t mean giving up sex or romance, but giving up being goal-oriented about life-long romantic partnership- promising myself that if it doesn’t work, I won’t force it. If I decide on this, then where does it lead me? Can I really manage alone? Can I be a single mom (I think so)? Can I bear missing out on having kids (this is a hard one)? What comes next after you decide to choose yourself?
Thank you for your guidance.
If you kiss fifty frogs in a row and not one of them turns into a prince, you haven’t proven that no frogs are princes. You’ve merely proven that most frogs are just frogs.
When I was 34, I was pretty over frogs. A frog had just moved out of my place with his life-sized cardboard cutout of the Emperor from Star Wars in tow. He was a super fun amphibian who wasn’t that interested in rambling conversations about emotions and ideas, wasn’t that curious about my professional ambitions, wasn’t that prepared to see me as more than a supporting character in his heroic odyssey. But he taught me a lot about optimism, ebullience, shameless childish goofing around at every turn, and refusing to overthink the heaviness of life when it doesn’t serve you that well.
He was pretty sexist at times, which I pointed out to him without fail. But I enjoyed his company too much to give it up that easily. These are the compromises of living in a sexist culture: You often spend time with people who blindly soak up the culture and spit it back at you without thinking. There are limits to how dramatically you can reshape their views, even when they recognize them as warped.
The next frog I met was also a prince. He understood and embraced the principles of feminism and applied them to our life together without struggling to do so. He sometimes seemed more interested in my career than I was. He listened closely to my opinions and my emotions and could talk for hours about anything and everything, and he still does this 20 years later. He has consistently referred to me as the most interesting person he’s ever met, and he manifests that belief in everything he does.
That’s the kind of prince I want you to believe in, no matter which path you take from here. My prince husband still spat out casual sexism at random intervals without noticing, but he was always open to hearing my perspective on where those views came from and why they were distorted. I mention this because just as some frogs are princes, you can almost always locate a little froggy smell or some pond scum under the toenails of the finest princes, too. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, it just means they are also frogs at some level. When you want something better than that, what you want is a whole different animal: a lovely horse or a delightful bear.
Believing in princes includes, I think, some realism about their damp slippery skin and their amphibian urges. And in order to embrace this pragmatic approach to being a straight woman in a world that is pretty unkind to straight women for an endless list of reasons, you may need to step back from your past and your current (understandably) disappointed narrative and also your prognostications about the future. In other words, if what you’d like is a prince, it’s helpful to believe in princes, to look for princes out in the open air in spite of your long history of grappling with frogs, and to resolve to never settle for anything less than a prince.
It's also very helpful to cultivate some appreciation of froggy smells and amphibian ways along the way, since you’ll still have to spend some time in watery bogs to find the prince you’re looking for. And it’s useful to imagine a froggy-smelling prince with slippery, algae-crusted habits, because that is inevitably what you’ll find.
You’ll find a person, in other words. The poisons of the culture will be located inside the cells of this person, just as internalized misogyny lives in your cells and mine. That person will sometimes get obsessed with work, and turn on the TV, and withhold empathy. But you have your own versions of this, trust me. Even though these are absolutely, positively froggy traits that exist in most of the frogs and the princes I’ve ever known – along with a lot of other choices and habits that range from amusing to flat-out chafing to mind-numbingly dull – you and I also have irritating traits and tedious conversational fetishes and streaks of self-righteous arrogance that can be difficult for a frog with a limited palate to stomach.
Will I run this metaphor into the ground? You’re goddamn right I will. I love my self-righteous arrogance and my speculation and gossip and all of the traits that make me the wicked queen I am, a wicked queen who expects to be treated like the most beautiful creature in the land even when the empirical evidence does not support this conclusion.
This is my way of being a feminist and pushing back against our dumb, dull, sexist culture: daring to test your patience in support of my pushy thesis. My thesis NEEDS to be pushy, in order to dig you out of a preemptively rigid, well-defended battlement. I NEED to be arrogant and self-righteous at times in order to do this job. I am conjuring the conviction and exuberance I need to inspire you, to reframe your existing narrative, to arm you with more optimism, more ebullience, more shameless childish goofing around at every turn, and more splashing around in scummy ponds in order to cultivate a tolerance for frogs and also avoid overthinking the heaviness of life when it doesn’t serve you that well.
I understand that your history with men makes this splashing around less palatable, if not flatly unappealing. You’re done with feeling vulnerable, misunderstood, and even dominated by frogs who can’t see you clearly. This is why you have to wake up the fun-loving, artistic side of your most recalcitrant, arrogant self and commit to turning your experiments with slimey, bug-eyed creatures into an experience that feeds and fuels you instead of depleting you. It’s all about where you begin and end these encounters. You begin in a bold but curious stance, and you end in a gentle place where you refuse to second-guess yourself. You’re allowed to be large, say weird things, and make mistakes without analyzing how it lands with a frog. The goal is to grapple with uncertainty, occupy a joyful abyss, and marvel at the weird and terrible and surprising things that happen there.
When will you feel up to splashing carelessly in a pond full of apparent frogs, where some princes are definitely lurking quietly, observing, taking notes on how to play and feel free and reveal their real-prince selves? Once you fully own your status as a wicked queen, imperious and impossible, yet still capable of sauntering haughtily through the world, painting her long nails the demonic purple of cold planets, and proclaiming herself magnificent even when the empirical evidence does not support this conclusion. Empirical evidence can go fuck itself, because you are THE QUEEN.
Now let’s be clear: The more formidable a queen you already are at your core, the harder it can be to feel right in this world, that prefers simpering princesses and coy handmaidens. The more capable and independent and brilliant and flexible you are, at heart, the more tempted you’ll be to second-guess your instincts and hide the full force of your personality among frogs, because you’re smart enough to know that frogs dislike these things and you can’t help but make adjustments to suit their tastes, even when you don’t mean to. This is why most prince-hunters are constantly tempted to write off frogs. Because in spite of all stated bluster, they feel depressed and confused by swampy ponds. What evil queen wouldn’t feel conflicted in that setting? It’s impossible. Your nails are nine inches long, glittering like amethysts, and there is a blank-faced, stanky amphibian next to you, saying he’s looking for someone to stay at home with the tadpoles because he sure as fuck isn’t going to do it.
Instead of worrying about frogs and princes, I want you to own who you are right now. You’re doing that in your letter. I want you to do it out in the world. I don’t want you to think ANGRY FEMINIST anymore, because you don’t have to feel as angry if you resolve to be WICKED instead: assertive, unapologetic, selfish, vainglorious, and a tiny bit imaginative in your conception of yourself. You are still a feminist of course, and you are still angry at times. Who wouldn’t be? But the important thing is that you’re now using pain and rage and sadness as FUEL to manifest as a swaggering and gorgeous force of nature, a rapacious and unrelenting woman with a tireless insistence on FUN, which includes emotional bursts of dancing, frivolous speculation, idle gossip, and the conviction that others WILL see her clearly, whether they always conform to her high expectations or not.
There is no engaging combative drunk men or debating strangers in this picture, because a wicked queen seeks joy above all else. She says so out loud. She allows herself time and space to be extra, because that’s what makes her feel powerful. And the more wicked she gives herself permission to be, somewhat ironically, the more kind she is to frogs and princes and frog princes and tadpoles and regular humans with flaws. She is kind or she simply walks away. The more imperious and impossible she RECOGNIZES herself to be, the more patient and generous she is with those who just aren’t as unrelenting and dynamic and obsessive around the clock as she is. She recognizes her own avoidant reaction to a froggy prince’s need for emotional support, and she makes adjustments as a way of admitting that everyone needs what they need and there is no objective moral value to needs. She investigates her own aversions with curiosity and a spirit of compassion for herself. She confronts her shame and makes space for her flaws, and this gives her the fortitude to allow a prince to be temporarily insecure or vain or pathetic or simpleminded and also to slip off to the swamp for some slimey comforts now and then.
A wicked queen sharpens her nails and lacquers them in the shiny chartreuse hue of meteorites and this makes it possible to imagine a life with or without a frog prince. Isn’t it obvious that you can handle raising kids alone and you can ALSO handle missing out on kids and you can absolutely shine and thrive without any man? Aren’t you formidable enough to create a heterosexual relationship that isn’t defined by patriarchal conditions? You can do anything under the sun, as long as you remain absolutely unyielding in your determination to believe in your spirit and your desires, while also humbly acknowledging that every single being on the planet is imperfect and at times, deeply irritating.
Remember that no feeling is final and no immediate choice is necessary. Enjoy this time of uncertainty without trying to fast forward through it, and trust that you will make good choices along the way. Nothing we do is permanent and nothing lasts forever. Your life is beautiful right now. Show up for it. Embrace recalcitrance, embrace arrogance, embrace exuberance, and you will be seen clearly, and you will be loved.
Because this world loves a stubborn queen. It’s surprising but it’s true. The more stubborn and queenly you are, the more comfortable you’ll feel under your skin. Don’t wait to be proclaimed the smartest or the funniest. Smash every magic mirror that contradicts you, and make the proclamation yourself. Nothing will render you more humble, kind, and generous than this seemingly wicked, selfish insistence on the enormity of your power. You are free, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. Rejoice in what you are.
Thanks for reading Ask Polly! Today, use your imagination to erase old stories and create a vision of yourself that makes life feel more exciting and full of promise. This isn’t delusional. Every living being needs a guiding philosophy in order to truly thrive. If your philosophy is outdated or limiting, reimagine and redesign it until you feel more empowered to assert your desires, connect more deeply with others, and give your love more freely. Big love to all wicked queens, princesses, frogs, princes, and frog princes everywhere.