Last week my wife took our very young daughters to Disneyland, where they were excited to pose with a few of the Disney princesses. The fantasy is a thrilling one for little girls, which I’ve written about before for Acculturated, but the Disney princesses also seem to be fertile ground for adult artists, who wring out all the fun and fantasy from those icons in order to make grim socio-political observations.
The most recent example is the domestic abuse awareness poster campaign from an artist known as Saint Hoax. “When did he stop treating you like a princess?” goes his slogan, emblazoned beneath the bruises, blood, and black eyes of a battered Cinderella, Ariel, Jasmine, and Sleeping Beauty. “Disney princesses are perceived as ideal females,” Hoax explains. “They belong to a fairytale land where happy ever afters are bound to happen. But what happens after the happy ever after?”
Saint Hoax has a similar poster campaign called “Princest Diaries” depicting Aurora, Ariel and Jasmine as victims of incest; it notes that nearly half of all raped minors are victims of family members, and encourages those minors to report their attackers.
Animation storyboard artist Jeff Hong’s photograph series “Unhappily Ever After” inserts the princesses into “environments they wouldn’t be associated with”: Mulan with a facemask to filter out Beijing’s murky air pollution; an oil-soaked Ariel crawling ashore in the wake of an ocean spill; Tiana in the segregated South; a post-ball Cinderella abandoned in a dirty back alley. “I realized a lot of social issues that are always important to me could be woven in,” Hong says. “I'm glad it has started debates and discussions on the issues of racism, animal abuse, drugs, etc.”
And then there is artist Dina Goldstein’s photographic presentations of “Fallen Princesses,” depicting a barefoot Snow White burdened with a gaggle of babies and a former Prince of a husband who now sits slumped with beer and chips watching TV; a depressed Cinderella nursing a drink in a darkened dive, surrounded by leering men; Rapunzel sitting downcast in a hospital room, having lost her hair to cancer; Belle undergoing a facelift and lip injection to stay beautiful; Pocahontas as a lonely cat lady; and more.
Domestic violence, incest, and the issues Jeff Hong lists are very real problems, no question; who wouldn’t applaud effective efforts to bring attention to them, or to view them in a new light to spark debate? And “happily ever afters” do sometimes end less than happily, as Goldstein and the others suggest.
But not always.
The Disney princesses, as emissaries of the Happiest Place on Earth and enduring symbols of fairy tale endings, are easy targets for the bitter, the angry, the pessimistic. When the princesses are depicted as lonely and broken, as victims of domestic violence, in loveless relationships or dangerous environments, it is a disheartening subversion (even if unintentional) of Disney’s message of dreams, hope, happiness, and romantic love. It tells young women that fairy tale endings are illusory and that happily-ever-afters don’t exist.
Believing that they can exist is not naïve optimism; it’s the perspective of a realist, who acknowledges that life serves up bad and good. Sure, relationships go wrong sometimes. Tragedy and misfortune strike. Dreams fall hard. But sometimes they come true. Sometimes a woman gets her prince and her fairy tale ending (though she might have to kiss a lot of frogs first, as the saying goes).
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 7/22/14)