Regimented Bodies: The Millions Interviews Barbara Bourland

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Barbara Bourland’s riveting new novel, The Force of Such Beauty, opens with the breathless escape attempt of a modern-day princess named Caroline as she endeavors to leave her marble prison once and for all. In the pages that follow, Bourland traces the path that plunged Caroline into such visceral desperation, revealing how swiftly “happily ever after” can morph into a cage. What unfurls is a darkly relevant depiction of the ways in which societal power structures hinge upon the subjugation of the female body. Caroline’s story submerges the reader in the depths of contemporary royal womanhood and only allows you to surface in those final pages as the tension builds relentlessly to a shocking conclusion. (Reader, I gasped out loud—let’s just say you’ll never look at a tiara the same way again.) I spoke with Bourland over Zoom about the princess trap, the inescapable pervasion of the monarchy, and fiction as catharsis. 
Abigail Oswald: In your author’s note you mention drawing from stories about Charlene Wittstock, who allegedly tried to escape on two different occasions before her wedding to Prince Albert of Monaco. You also touch on various miseries in the royal lives of Diana Spencer, Meghan Markle, and Kate Middleton. Was there a particular aspect of these women’s stories that led you to the character of Caroline?
Barbara Bourland: Well, they’re all modern women, like you and I. Millennial women in the United States, 40% of us got to go to college—like, the horse has left the barn. We lead what the Victorians would call a public life. It’s really interesting how Kate Middleton went to a great school, St. Andrews; Meghan Markle went to Northwestern. 
Charlene Wittstock is obviously an inspiration to the book because of her role as an athlete and then a princess. I found that to be such a particular kind of tragedy, because I think of Olympic athletes as the pinnacle of physical independence. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that maybe that’s not necessarily true, because of how much they have to do to stay at the top. I know some things about Charlene, but there’s a lot that I don’t know about her, because she’s a real person, so I wasn’t going to try to pretend that I knew about what her interior life was like. 
All of these women, their lives—it’s fascinating how pervasive the princess trap is, it’s such a Faustian bargain. And particularly when we look at Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton, who are so well educated, you’d think, Gosh, didn’t they know? And they didn’t know. And I was really curious about why they didn’t know.

AO: Each of your novels often revolve around a central issue or question that women face. In I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, you write about the compulsion to control our appearance, and in Fake Like Me, you explore the fear of being inadequate; The Force of Such Beauty deals with the idea of what it means to be special. Caroline’s desire for specialness is used by people in power to manipulate her; at other times, she uses it herself to excuse bad behavior. Why did you want to approach this particular theme with this book, and how does it fit into your larger body of work?
BB: Yeah, I mean, you know—it’s capitalism! We live in a really complicated economy and a really complicated society, in which none of us can escape that endless pursuit of feeling distinguished as an individual. It’s the opposite of looking at a society and trying to figure out what is best for everybody, because you’re always put in a position of having to do for yourself first. And that’s a really suspect interior instinct. 
All of my books deal with these same kind of suspect interior instincts, because people of our generation are in this fissure where we’ve had all of these advantages that for thousands of years no woman had, and we’re starting to see them. We’re starting to experience them and to understand what it is to have the things that historically men had for so long, and stuff that was kept from us. So we can have whatever kind of public discourse about “You can be whatever you want to be, you can have whatever you want,” but at the end of the day, we were born into this world. We didn’t build it, we just live here. And we are going to be influenced by all of the things that came before us, and there’s princess stuff in the atmosphere. In all of my books I’ve been really curious about trying to use fiction as a catharsis to dig these things out of myself that don’t feel like choices, and the princess stuff doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like I was born knowing it. 
AO: Caroline drops out of school to pursue her career as an Olympic marathon runner. Much of her identity seems to be tied up in her athletic achievements, even after a devastating injury ends her career and requires reconstructive surgery. How do the threads of Caroline’s unfinished education and her athletic background coalesce to make her the princess she later becomes?
BB: Princesses in public life have very regimented bodies. And this is true not only for royal women, but also for celebrities. When you look at celebrities’ bodies, they have the bodies of elite athletes. They have bodies that take hours and hours each and every day to create, not just with exercise, but controlling your diet, cosmetic surgery—whatever it is, it’s a lot of work to look that way. With Caroline coming from an athletic background, we get to investigate how it actually feels to do that. When I hear contemporary cultural discourse about the state of public women’s bodies, and the amount of work it takes to look the way, say, Natalie Portman looks, it’s usually really misogynistic and really unkind. And whether you’re going for an Olympic gold medal or you’re trying to have a career as an actor, the actual physical experience of being that athletic is the same thing. I really wanted to be able to see the transformation of Caroline’s body into this object on a pedestal from a perspective that would help the reader feel empathy instead of judgment. 
The thing that turns Caroline into a princess is the thing that turns every woman who has no power outside of the home into a princess, and that is a lack of education. Without education, we are doomed to have the same lives that women have had for thousands of years, which is that we have no choice but to stay at home, to have children. Princess stories are so much about potential. The whole glow of happily ever after, the whole thrill of it, is leading right up to the day that you’re married. Everything that’s attractive about a princess is about her fertility, or the potential of her fertility. And then when that ends and women are mothers, there’s no fairy tales about mothers—there’s no stories about that. Mothers kind of cease to exist—they cease to be reproductive potential for the state, so they cease to matter. But we do. We’re here. We are living, breathing beings. We have full lives. 
AO: How does Caroline’s story—the control that’s exerted onto her, her relegation to reproductive resource—map onto the current moment of women’s rights in America?
BB: I’m completely devastated that this exists as a post-Roe object, as a post-Roe piece of culture. I’ve been sitting here stunned. Obviously there is a huge part of America that does not want women to have reproductive freedom, and the sense of that part of America breathing down my neck and infiltrating my dreams and sense of self is part of why I wrote this book in the first place. That didn’t have to come in a post-Roe world, obviously—it was in a pre-Roe world where even things like contraception always made me feel like I was on a leash. It’s really hard not to feel like you are just always on a leash, like you can be anything you want as long as you’re still a wife and a mother, as long as you do it right now and as long as you never stop. That feeling was what drove me to write this book. 
I recently wrote a piece for Ms. Magazine about the way in which the monarchy infiltrates our daily lives in the form of the family; I think these things are a pervasive part of our lives. We do have the inherent right to control our reproductive futures, but the law has changed, and that is bad. I think what we can learn from this is that laws can be changed, and we just have to keep fighting. The forces that want to keep us at home and keep us in the kitchen will not stop, and we can’t stop, either, and if we get this sense that we are supposed to stay at home, that we are supposed to walk two steps behind men, we gotta get it out of ourselves. I hope desperately that every woman who reads this book for the rest of their life will feel, when they see a princess thing, instead of feeling “Ooh, sparkly,” you know, they’ll feel “Gosh, princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies.” 
AO: How did you go about writing the character of Finn, our ostensible Prince Charming, and crafting that complex relationship? He’s kind of a love interest-slash-villain, isn’t he? 
BB: Oh yeah, because he’s a collaborator, right? He has no independence from this process. But the classic love story of “Baby, I’m gonna take care of you” is also an argument for authoritarian government, and that is the tenor of their early romance, which she can’t see because she doesn’t have, like, a master’s degree in political science—she’s not gonna be like, “These are troubling things to say.” But he’s also smart and lovely, I think he’s very appealing and has a lot to recommend him as a charming person.
The really age-old stereotype of a “big, strong man” is so fascinating to me, because masculinity is its own prison that takes away the humanity of men as well. Obviously I’ve been talking a lot about how it feels to be a woman, a cisgender woman, but I think masculinity has its own challenges, and that is what Finn is in—he’s stuck participating in this government and participating in this life. If Prince William walked out the door tomorrow and was like, “You know what? Monarchies are bad. Let’s take this all apart,” they would force him to abdicate, and someone else would take his place. It wouldn’t matter that he spoke out—he would be shunned and ostracized, obviously, in the way that his brother has been. I don’t think Prince William has freedom from that—the institution is bigger than the person. And that’s true of Finn as well in this book, and I think it’s very heartbreaking… Institutions put us into tragic situations. The question is, how do we find freedom from being in that place to begin with?