June is Pride Month. It’s a time to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community past, present, and future, celebrate diversity, and most of all, celebrate ourselves as individuals. We celebrate in many ways, from pride parades and festivals to special rainbow fundraisers, products, and advertisements. Although Pride Month is a festive occasion, the celebration isn’t sequestered to this single month. Individuals celebrate LGBTQ+ visibility everyday using the seemingly endless mediums available to us, including the narratives found in pop culture. Using creative mediums, we tell the stories of LGBTQ+ characters, and sometimes ourselves, in order to keep that visibility alive all year long. Sometimes, we even tell the stories of our own vulnerabilities. One such pop culture work worth celebrating this month is Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker.
Welcome to June’s OWLS Blog Tour
Every month, I join the voices of the Otaku Warriors for Liberty and Self-respect (OWLS) blogging project. The OWLS bloggers and vloggers use anime and other pop culture works to discuss a central theme promoting diversity, respect, self-acceptance, and equality. I feel proud to work with the OWLS team, so keep an eye out for future posts exploring important social issues. If you’re interested in these topics, be sure to check out the other OWLS posts coming out with this blog tour, or consider becoming an OWLS blogger or vlogger yourself!
In honor of Pride Month, the OWLS team is writing about vulnerability in pop culture. When we hear the word vulnerable, we often think of weakness or fearfulness. However, it takes a lot of inner strength to understand our own vulnerabilities and to share them with other people. One of the important functions that LGBTQ+ media such as TV, video games, and comics serve is offering us creative spaces to explore these parts of ourselves and others.
A note on pronouns: in the comic, Sebastian never says that he identifies exclusively as male or female. He describes sometimes feeling very confident and comfortable as prince Sebastian, and sometimes feeling that he’s a princess. Because of this dual-comfort in both gender identities, I will use the gender markers that match whatever persona (Sebastian or Lady Crystallia) I am referring to in that moment. For the sake of clarity, I will mostly refer to Sebastian’s male identity.
A note on spoilers: There will be some spoilers in this post. If you’re concerned that learning about events in a creative work ruins your experience of it, I highly recommend checking out this delightful comic for yourself before reading the rest of this post. Enjoy!
What is the Prince and the Dressmaker?
The Prince and the Dressmaker is a comic about a young woman named Frances who works as a lowly seamstress in a shop. When she makes a shocking dress for a young, bored debutant who desperately wants to offend upper-class sensibilities, she loses her job. Fortunately, the offensive dress catches the eye of a new client who hires her right away. This new client happens to be Crown Prince Sebastian, who wants her to make dresses for him. Together, they explore their self-expression, Victor finding expression in his newly named female identity, Lady Crystallia, and Frances finding it in gaining notoriety for her dresses without anybody knowing who she is.
Trust is a Key Part of Vulnerability
When Frances receives one of the keys to Sebastian’s dressing room, the butler Emile tells her that it is only one of three existing keys. Her expressive face shows that she understands the importance of the object she has just received.
It’s a meaningful exchange on both a symbolic and personal level. The key symbolizes several things in this work, including Sebastian’s female identity and his trust. It also symbolizes the prince’s vulnerabilities—his fashion and identity secret— and he entrusts these keys to only two people. Sharing such an important piece of his identity with both Frances and Emile places Sebastian in a highly vulnerable position. If they were malicious, or careless with his secret, his family could find out. He risks public (or private) ridicule and losing this avenue of identity expression in order to share his female identity with them and have their support. The key is a very tangible representation of the trust he puts in the pair of them.
Sebastian isn’t the only one with vulnerabilities invested in their new relationship. When he first offers Frances the position of dressmaker, he unknowingly offers her a chance at reaching for her dreams of becoming a well-known seamstress and impossibly meeting her idol. Having her dreams come so close-to-hand is exciting, and creates a vulnerability in Frances because she trusts that the prince can and will help her achieve these dreams. Their shared vulnerabilities are well paired, with Frances creating dresses for Lady Crystallia and accompanying her out on the town, and Crystalia providing an outlet for Frances’s dresses to gain notoriety.
Just like in the real world, however, things aren’t always smooth sailing for long. As Crystallia draws more and more attention to Frances’s dresses, she manages to land an incredible opportunity for Frances to meet the famous seamstress that inspired her to become a seamstress herself. The day that they’re supposed to meet, however, Crystallia has a change of heart. She fears that because her family knows who Frances is, they might connect the dots if it becomes known that Frances makes Crystallia’s fine dresses. Feeling vulnerable in that moment, she sends Frances home and goes to the meeting alone. Having successfully protected her identity, she feels triumphant when her meeting lands Frances’s clothing line a fashion exhibition.
Unfortunately for both of them, in his rush to protect his own secret, Sebastian mistakenly tramples over Frances’s less visible vulnerabilities. Feeling hurt and vulnerable herself, Frances returns the dressing room key. She no longer wants to be included in Sebastian’s dual life and removes herself from the responsibility of keeping his secret safe at the expense of herself.
Exploration Through Pop Culture
Pride month is a time to celebrate LGBTQ+ visibility. In the wake of invisibility that allowed for the ill-treatment of LGBTQ+ people here in the U.S. and raids on gay safe spaces such as The Stonewall Inn and other establishments, the LGBTQ+ community and its allies fight for visibility. I’ve written about pop culture’s role in this visibility in the past. However, what we don’t always talk about is pop culture’s other roles in the LGBTQ+ community.
One of those roles is providing a safe space to explore vulnerabilities. Pop culture media like The Prince and the Dressmaker offers authors and audiences alike many creative platforms to explore vulnerability with relatively low personal risk. Whether we are looking to connect with something about ourselves or someone else, we get a window into what other people may experience through these creative works.
In the case of Wang’s beautifully illustrated comic, we get a window into the vulnerabilities of two people. We see Prince Sebastian struggle with being true to his female identity while keeping it secret from nearly everyone he knows. He’s brave enough to trust a select few people with his secret. Throughout the book, we get to see how Sebastian balances threats to his secret with remaining true to this important part of himself.
We also have the opportunity to watch Frances come into a world in which her childhood dream and career goal is on the line. She has to navigate keeping her dreams safe while also helping her new friend to keep his own secret safe. Being thrown into such a compromising situation where our own dreams are in direct conflict with our social relationships is heartbreaking, as it is for Frances.
The Prince and the Dressmaker does a great job of increasing LGBTQ+ visibility and highlighting the struggles of two individuals dealing with very different vulnerabilities. The ways that their vulnerabilities impact one another really adds a lot to the story’s conflict and character development. If you’re looking for a new piece of LGBTQ+ literature to enjoy or just want to take in a wonderful story, I highly recommend this one.
Thanks for joining me for this month’s blog tour exploring vulnerability in pop culture. Please be sure to check out some of the other blogs from this month’s blog tour! Yesterday, Mel of Mel in Animeland wrote about The Lord of the Rings. Tomorrow, be sure to catch a post from Takuto of Takuto’s Anime Cafe writing about Sarazanmai.
Do you have a favorite example of vulnerability or LGBTQ+ visibility from pop culture? Share it in the comments! You can also connect on Twitter @Popliterary, or send a message on the “contact” page. And as always, if you have a literary device or grammar rule you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!