“Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” -David Foster Wallace
I sat in his armchair, while he sat at his desk. We were having what would end up being our break-up conversation. Exasperated, he told me, “You do this thing, where you constantly make yourself the victim! It’s exhausting!”
“What do you mean?” I asked him, utterly bewildered.
He looked at me seriously, sternly, incredulously. “When we spoke about your past, and you started to—“
“But,” I cut in, “that was so hard for me—“ I stopped mid-sentence and immediately forgot what I was about to say.
Something clicked in me, and I realized that I was evading his criticisms. I was about to turn the conversation back on myself, justifying my lack of vulnerability by saying how much I was struggling. I was about to sidestep his feelings by making myself a victim. My response demonstrated the very problem he was struggling to show me.
In the end, that conversation left me with a bullet-point list to take to my future therapist, and the two of us didn’t speak again for several months. More than a year later we’ve had a sort of reconciliation, though we don’t talk anymore. In the meantime, I started watching the Netflix original, The Crown. It reminds me of that conversation.
In the show, the character Princess Margaret wallows in her sense of helplessness. As you learn more about Margaret and the rest of the British royal family, you see how she collects and nurtures complaints against her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, especially as Margaret tries to marry the divorced Peter Townsend. Margaret breaks off her engagement to Peter after learning she would have to relinquish her title and wealth to marry him, and she blames everyone else for the failed relationship. Then the show continues as the fictional Margaret shares the public image of the real-life princess, a wild partier with many lovers, who would divorce the man she eventually marries.
What makes Margaret unattractive at times, despite her good looks and social charm, is her sense of helplessness which she inflicts on the other characters. She accuses her sister time and again of deliberately working against her happiness, and colluding to prevent her marriage to Peter. She makes constant catty remarks against the rest of her family and their supposed refusal to be attentive to her needs. She cannot encounter other family members without bringing up their transgressions against her.
The observer of the show can see that, in large part, her accusations are out of touch with reality. And her obsession with her family’s failures often prevent her from sympathizing with or supporting others. The viewer might get annoyed by the complaints of a princess who can travel and drink constantly and never has to work. But these victimizing thought processes are totally believable for Margaret.
A sense of helplessness bubbles up for the other royal characters as well, from the abdicating uncle to Prince Philip to the Queen herself. And some characters, such as Margaret and her uncle, seem to live this helplessness with pleasure, smiling to themselves as they bemoan others’ alleged misuse of power. After all, when you entrench yourself in victimhood, it feels good to complain. We don’t only complain to assert ourselves. Often, without recognizing it, we complain for the self-indulgent pleasure of it.
One difference between Margaret and her sister, Queen Elizabeth, is that Margaret never really seems to rise above her situation of victimhood into full moral agency. Both the Queen and Prince Philip realize their ability to act as their own agents by accepting their situations. The Queen eventually comes to see her role as monarch largely as the responsibility “to do nothing,” which she embraces while recognizing the challenge it will present for her. And the viewer comes to respect her struggle to fulfill this duty, which contrasts sharply in the early episodes with Prince Philip’s incessant complaints about being unable to do as he wishes. Oddly, it is precisely the acceptance of her circumstances—in contrast to Philip’s early inability to accept them—which enables and ennobles Queen Elizabeth’s freedom and agency.
What we learn from the show is that victimhood is not limited to the powerless, and that privilege is not always indicative of power, at least the kind of power that enables you to transcend your situation in an internal sense of freedom. A sense of powerlessness can come quite naturally to princesses, just as it can come to paupers. To be sure, there’s something cheap about the princess who sees herself as powerless, something which I will explore in the following posts. But just because something is cheap does not mean it isn’t real.
Entrapment in our own narratives of victimhood prevents us from really listening to others. In that armchair conversation, my self-victimhood could only result in the interruptions of a young man who wanted to love me, by turning his struggles into opportunities to speak about my own. Like Margaret, I silenced his criticisms by voicing my ever-present insecurities. To cast oneself as victim is to render others voiceless, and to become entrapped within the self. And, as will be discussed in tomorrow’s post, it is to evade freedom.
More in this series: