Reflecting on 'The Emperor's New Clothes'
Updated: Apr 14
I have recently been engaged in several emotionally heated discussions concerning the complexities of the use of gender affirmative therapy for people who go through a gender transition and later de-transition. In reflecting on these conversations I remembered a 2019 blog post I wrote called ’The Cost of Compromising to Belong.’
I thought it might be useful to revisit the fairytale I mentioned in that particular blog - the Hans Christian Andersen story of ‘The Emperor's New Clothes.’ When thinking about the story it is important context to know that Andersen is thought to have been gay, trapped by the deathly politic, religious dogma and social censorship of his time. As with all his stories - he is concerned with the marginalized voice in society and his stories offer powerful insight into individual psychology and social dynamics that work to oppress.
In both Group and Jungian interpretation each aspect of a story is thought to represent a part of the self and the group. A helpful exercise is to look at the characters in any story that one enjoys and find the character you have less empathy for, then try and find a way to connect with them. With this in mind, in the fairy tale and therapy reflective practice space I hold, the Emperor's New Clothes has been the source of much discussion, particularly thinking about the weavers and the emperor.
I would like to encourage the reader to have your own associations, to be your own emperor, that may well contradict mine. However, to get the ball rolling here is the story again, followed by a few associations and thoughts of my own:
The Faerie Tale:
There was an insecure emperor, who had an obsession with coats and cares too much about how he appears. He had a coat for every hour of the day, and instead of saying, as one might, about any other ruler, "The King's in council," here they always said: "The Emperor's in his dressing room."
The Emperor hires two weavers to make him some new clothes. The weavers claim to make the most beautiful clothes in the whole world. In actuality, the weavers are tricksters who convince the emperor they are using a special magic fabric that appears invisible to anyone who is incompetent at their role or hopelessly stupid.
Of course no one can see the alleged fabric but everyone who is invited in to view the weavers work pretends that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their role. Likewise people are keen to see if any of their neighbours are ‘faking’ their cleverness.
No-one feels able to challenge the weavers' integrity. One influential person after another crumbles when put on the spot. Each in turn adding to the validity of the reality of the cloth. After sometime, the weavers report that the suit is finished and they mime dressing the emperor who then marches in procession before his subjects.
The townsfolk uncomfortably go along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Finally, a child in the crowd blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is then taken up by others.
The emperor realises the assertion is true, but is too proud to stop as he thinks he has come too far to stop now and so he continues on his way - naked.
Thoughts, Associations and Reflections:
The story begins with an Emperor (notably not a king which is the usual thing in a fairytale). An Emperor is the highest power in the region he occupies. While a King rules one fairly homogenous territory (called a nation or kingdom), emperors often wield power over a fairly heterogeneous territory (ruler of many nations). Think of the British Empire or the Roman Empire.
Given the heterogeneous nature of ruling an empire, acting as Emperor also must come with the experience of being introduced regularly to social and cultural differences and thus the experience of not immediately knowing the intimate/nuanced aspects of another's culture and ways of doing things.
A coat typically is an outer garment for the upper body as worn by either gender for warmth and/or fashion. Coats signify both a relationship with the social world (fashion) and also the natural world (weather). Coats can mask and protect what's worn underneath. Coats also sometimes act as an identifier for a professional role. This makes me think of my professional ‘coat’ as a doctor of psychology and how much of my vulnerability is masked when I wear it. Many clinical psychologists come to our profession for restorative reasons. Our professional identities can act as a mask of what is occurring underneath.
The Emperor has an obsession with coats and changes them every hour. This makes me think of the therapeutic hour and how clinical psychologists, who commonly might use more than model of working, can change therapeutic approach/coat with each person we encounter. I also wonder about how the Emperor may have been familiar with hiding his vulnerability when holding power in the room. Then how, in the presence of the weavers, his vulnerability, shame and desire to belong is exposed; this leaves him open to exploitation and betrayal.
Presumably to do the work of an Emperor ‘well' there must be an ability to tolerate a great deal of not knowing and meeting personal limits of understanding regularly. Certainty is a risky concept in this regard. There is a need to be led by the person in front of you. However, some certainty and knowing is also necessary as blindly trusting the mind of another is a dangerous choice. Ideally we operate a balance of trusting other people’s minds whilst also leaving space for risk .
The work of an emperor can often be the work of colonization. One of the British empire colonial tactics used to dominate and destroy other cultures was to study mythology. For example:
British colonial leader, George Grey, was responsible for colonising much of Australia and New Zealand. When encountering the Maori, who were successfully resisting the British attacks, he was able to break them by studying their mythology to which he made frequent reference.
Other government officials and Christian missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries made similar efforts to understand the mythologies of nations or peoples so as to facilitate communication. Such studies were more than a means to an end, whether domination or conversion. They amounted to the discovery that myths present a model or charter for human behaviour and that the world of myth provides guidance for crucial elements in human existence—war and peace, life and death, truth and falsehood, good and evil. While the outline of myths from a past period or from a society other than one’s own, can usually be seen quite clearly, to recognize the myths that are dominant in one’s own time and society is always difficult. This is hardly surprising, because a myth has its authority not by proving itself but by presenting itself. In this sense the authority of a myth indeed “goes without saying,” and the myth can be outlined in detail only when its authority is no longer unquestioned but has been rejected or overcome in some manner by another, more comprehensive myth.
Group analysts Weinberg (in 2009) and Doron (in 2017) discuss the importance of considering the anxieties, fantasies, myths and collective memories, as well as chosen traumas and chosen glories when aiming to reveal the social unconscious of a particular social system (Volkan, 2001). Doron (2017) also suggested that every social systems contains “Mental Black Holes”.
In astronomy, a “Black Hole” is a region of space-time exhibiting such a strong gravitational pull that no particle can escape from it, not even light. Since black holes do not emit light, they cannot be observed and their existence can only be deduced from phenomena caused by their presence. In a similar way, the Mental Black Holes can’t be seen directly, but we could learn about them through their effect of distorted relationships patterns between the members of the group (Friedman, 2013). The Mental Black Holes represent materials that we reject and deny as a society, in processes that involve guilt and shame. They raise intense, existential emotions related to annihilation, separation and death anxieties (Hopper, 2005), unconscious needs to excel, the fear of being expelled from society or being ridiculed and so on. The attitude of Israeli government and people towards the Nakba is an example to Mental Black Holes in the Israeli Social Unconscious.” (Doron, 2017 )
All cultures have their black holes, often exposed in examination of their mythology. If you understand the 'black hole' of a culture - you can get in and either generate healing or havoc (sometimes both). Within this fairytale the social system has a 'black hole' . The edges of which are exposed through people not speaking in the face of a particular phenomena and instead staying silent. The weavers have an understanding of this ‘mental black hole’ and that leaves the people of the empire open to exploitation.
To think a little more about the weavers, weaving is a method of textile production in which two distinct sets of yarns or threads are interlaced at right angles to form a fabric or cloth. Symbolically psychologists are kinds of weavers, taking the threads from the stories/yarns given to us by our clients, along with material found in the evidence base where we weave together a formulation.
An important part of most psychotherapy training (unlike in clinical psychology) is to attend therapy so clinicians can become aware of their personal black holes. Part of this therapy is that it is useful to connect with personal motivations and ambivalence about the work. Many psychologists describe experiencing imposter syndrome and sometimes can have a belief that their ambivalence is an indicator of personal ‘dis-ease’ (not being good enough) and then hold the ambition of finding a constant feeling of confidence/certainty in their professional identity which could indicate 'wellness'. This black hole of insecurity/ambivalence/imposter/silence can move into interpreting the research evidence-base - where effectiveness of treatment is understood to be evidenced in the patient's saying with certainty how ambivalent free they now are and any sign of ambivalence or doubt is seen as a sign of continued 'dis-ease'.
Likewise toxic shame experienced by a clinician without ever being processed (that is to say going through the necessary development out of shame into a transitional period of rejecting any shame and owning pride, to eventually finding somewhere balanced holding healthy entitlement whilst connecting to the larger group) can encourage a rejection of all shame and a desire for wellness to mean being only shame- less and pride-full. Indeed these are the black holes we see in the story - the group does not wish to shame anyone and does not have the confidence to speak out.
In the transcript of 'A Woman's Way': A conversation with Marie' Louise von Franz - the Jungian analyst discusses the importance of following the feeling of the body, rather than intellect in conversation, as a way to detect when we are being caught up in a mental black hole - or as she describes it a: 'truth with a wrong twist in it.'
You read along and nod your head and say 'That's true!' Then suddenly, "Wheeee!" - there comes a wrong crazy turn in it - and then it goes on and is right again.
The pattern is typical for all ideologies. If you take Marxist ideology or Khoumeni's preaching or whatever, generally it is the truth with a wrong twist in it. It catches the masses because it seems true and people overlook the wrong twist.
I have often wondered what motivated the weavers. Was it to get ahead in a bid for power and to be seen as cutting edge? Did they think beyond their goal of being successful and gaining social success and approval?
The weavers can be thought of as tricksters. The trickster Jung says, is an aspect of the shadow archetype, at least in its negative traits ("On the Psychology of the Trickster-Figure" in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. 2nd ed. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969. Vol. 9, part i, of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, pp. 255-272). In mythology a trickster is a character in a story who exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and defy conventional behavior. The trickster, obviously, deceives, often playfully, sometimes painfully. A very sexual archetype, it has the ability to seduce, change genders and play havoc with the hyper-rational personality and community. Whilst to be in a trickster experience confuses our thinking capacity, it rarely gets past the feeling part of the body: typically it causes a sense of causing confusion, dissociation or dissonance of some sort. Tricksters are the mischievous archetypes of the collective unconscious that shatter old paradigms and gleefully poke sticks at our sanctimonious beliefs and stiff pretensions. They expose our mental black holes.
The trickster weavers in the fairytale are not really playing with the fabric of the material world, they are playing with the fabric of social relationships. Exposing how the system works. To do this they are navigating the use of shame and people's fear of being seen as not good enough - they can do this because they act shamelessly. To take a person head on who is behaving shamelessly you must be secure in your own identity and feel able to break social taboos yourself. So much of the madness in the story held collectively could have been resolved were more individuals able to hold a position of not knowing confidently and as such invest in just saying that they 'just don't see it'.
When I connect this story with clinical psychology culture and my training, I think of how the cronyism in our culture encourages silence and uncritical sharing of information. I remember the times when I used other people's minds to hide my not knowing and as a shortcut exercise to providing expertise - offering a professional opinion based on someone else's ideas, using their material - maybe presentation slides or handouts etc. Whilst I will have cited/ referenced these minds appropriately I effectively was acting as a mouthpiece for someone else and did not enquire more deeply into what exactly was my position on the material I was presenting. I think of the times as a trainee, I made claims that psychoanalysis was scientifically proven false or outdated - without ever really looking at the research telling myself 'everyone knows that' (except when I did look, turns out there is an evidence base). I think about when I swallowed up queer theory whole without any digestion or self reflection about how it aligned with my own embodied reality, because I really wanted to belong to that group of clinicians that are so charismatic, wonderful and clever. I think about how I left un-investigated the notion that gender fluidity is common in other cultures, without exploring the stories, contexts, spirituality and mythologies these fluidities sit in. From my desire to feel full of pride and certainty in my professional identity my actions became shameless. At the beginning of my career, my shame in admitting 'I don't know' and my wish for a fast track to being cutting edge meant bypassing some important development of embodied knowledge and nuance. To own this can feel quite shameful. Appropriately so.
Did the weavers know what they were starting in their scheme, or was it just a get power quick plan that got out of control? Do tricksters know what we set in motion? I think if as a group we genuinely want to raise our consciousness and to live and work more ethically, we need to grapple with the idea that we have blind spots and be open to exploring what is exposed when we are presented with new material. Tricksters are not inherently good or bad. They just expose what is already there. Groups, societies and bodies all have history that we cannot just erase and press a reset button on. A desire to erase the past, often speaks of shame. However, to try and raise consciousness we must pay attention both to our silences and also to what material is actively exchanged and passively accepted. Group consciousness requires multiple voices being spoken and heard so we can together explore this new material. However, this requires being curious about our cultural mental black holes and learning to take risks, speak directly and say what we see. We also need to be gentle about our insecurities, our failings and feelings of being an imposter; we must try and soothe each others desires to not look stupid and temper our keenness to do something like the magical weavers and be ‘cutting edge’; or else we might end up only mimicking our craft and instead end up doing something quite different.