One Size Does Not Fit All

IMG_9076For one of my pictures I teamed up Natalie Davies and Jenny Wilson, both brilliant performers from Bradford, who frequently get their height commented on. And when I say commented, I mean told: “Ooh, aren’t you short!” “Ooh, you’re tall!” Jenny and I talked about gender as performance and the colour pink.

Jenny: I get my gender identity called into question quite a lot, and I have throughout my life. And that’s really about size. I can really identify with trans people, their journey and their experience of having their gender identity questioned. I play with gender and gender stereotypes in my performing, and Mysti Valentine (Jenny’s Drag character) is very much taking control of that. If you’re going to question my gender identity I’m going to give you all of the question marks in one go! Gender is performance, it’s social construct, it’s not innate.

We’ve all been brought up in a patriarchy, and our language is formed in that context, the words we have, the frames of reference we have, the very thoughts in our heads – those words are patriarchal words. Everything is so very gendered.

(For this shoot) we both turned up in pink, and I hate that ‘pinkification’ of everything. It’s capitalism and patriarchy. For example, Lego recognised that by making pink Lego theycould make twice as much. I just had a big bag of it because I had two big brothers, and the same’s true for Stella (Jenny’s daughter), she gets to play with Ivan’s (her son’s) old cars, guns and swords and stuff. She likes to play with those, and likes to play ‘big boy’ games, but she’s a very ‘girly girl’ in loads of ways. She likes to sing and dance and dress up in princess clothes and all of that. And it’s difficult, as there’s a bit of me that’s like ‘don’t be girly!’ but I try to make sure she has a choice and isn’t limited by what she’s ‘supposed’ to be. She can be a warrior and a princess, and princesses can be powerful. It doesn’t mean you have to be rescued – you can rescue yourself.

We talked about dressing up. I totally understand children wanting to play dress up, because I want to do it! That’s one of the reasons I adore drag queens. But when little boys put on princess (or whatever) frocks it’s immediately problematic for many people.

Jenny: It’s about control, it’s about where the power lies. Who’s in control of it and who’s entitled to do it, and the values we ascribe to it. And that’s where the patriarchy will keep reinventing itself, you know every little gain that women and girls make, the patriarchy just redefines it as a bit shit. Because once it’s got feminine qualities attached to it, it’s lesser somehow than the masculine thing. It’s much easier for Stella to dress up as a pirate, or to be a ‘tomboy’ than it is for a little boy to be a ‘sissy’. For a boy to dress as a fairy or princess is much more problematic, and that’s because of the power. It’s insidious. What I try to do with my work as a performer, through Irregular Arts, it’s to try and create little glimmers of what the world might be like if it wasn’t like that.

I want to live in one of Jenny’s glimmers. Like the little boy who dressed up as Daphne for Halloween. And the boys who wore skirts to protest school uniform policy. I’d like to live in a world where pink isn’t for girls, it’s for anyone and everyone, if you happen to like pink.

The Punk, Post-Menopausal Princess

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I’m not sharing any project portraits until we get closer to the exhibition, but I can tell you about some of the Princesses. On the morning the general election results came in, Kath Morgan-Thompson and I had surreal fun in the ladies’ loos at the gorgeous Iberica, Leeds.

Kath is many things. A Yoga teacher; Bollywood, Kathak and Northern Soul dancer; performance artist; kick-arse comedian and a Mum. Her burlesque character Mrs No Overall is a downtrodden ordinary cleaning lady who breaks out from domestic drudgery in a celebration of middle-aged exuberance – and she won the Welsh Heat of Burlesque Idol 2016. Her other comedy burlesque character – Lady FTP – messes with the stereotype of a posh country lady, and has been accepted to compete in Burlesque Idol 2017 in London. And most recently Kath was a member of The Gulabi Gang in the Transform Festival production of The Darkest Corners, produced by the dance and theatre company RashDash (‘The punk princesses of late night theatre’ – according to The Guardian).

I asked Kath about her opinion on fictional, fairy-tale Princesses:

I’m one of six children and have four brothers, so spent a lot of my childhood on a bike or in a rugby scrum. Though being the only girl child for ages meant that I was mum’s little helper, and also treated a bit more special.

I was never really bothered for the princess thing as a little girl and saw through the ridiculous idea of a prince coming to save me. That was probably due to the mystique of manhood being farted out of me by my four flatulent brothers!

I like the idea of a punk princess (Siouxsie Sioux) and my favourite fiction character is Ripley from the Alien films. A smart, athletic, independent princess not a frothy, fluffy marshmallow princess.

I had a discussion with my daughter Pearl (19) about this and she says she liked fairies better than princesses because

a) they have powers that make them kickass
b) they can wear cool outfits
c) they don’t need anybody to save/rescue them…

The Princess and Public Pedagogy

20170331_141158.jpgThere’s a Ted Talk by Christopher Bell that’s really stayed with me. He talks with enormous pride and passion about his daughter, an athletic comic book fan, and their combined disappointment in the lack of superhero merchandise ‘for girls.’

“Since 1937 Disney has made most of its money selling Princesses to girls. Unless, of course, the Princess your daughter is interested in is Princess Leia. In 2012 Disney purchased Lucasfilm for four billion dollars, and immediately they flooded the Disney stores with Han Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Yoda, and not Princess Leia. Why? Because this Princess messes up the public pedagogy for these (Disney) Princesses.”

Watch the Ted Talk here. And please note a trigger warning, as it includes an upsetting story about bullying.

Keeping it Real

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So what in holy muthaflippin flip-flops is this? In short, it’s a photography project.

The fictional Princess has really saturated popular culture in the last few years, but I’m not convinced they are particularly inspiring role models for young girls.  I find them a bit vacuous and, as much as I love a glamourous sparkly frock (and I really do)  they seem to be selling little more than a predominantly thin, white version of pretty, straight wife-material as the ultimate aspiration. (Excuse me while I do a massive Y A W N).

On the flipside, of course, there are those who do find value in what Princesses represent, so it’ll be interesting to explore different perspectives.

Over the next few months I’ll be photographing REAL women and girls in Yorkshire. Partly to challenge the limitations of Princesses as role models, but mostly to celebrate amazing women and girls in all their diversity.

Stay tuned…

Maria x