Fairy Tale Whitewash

IMG_9028On a Young Conservatives blog I’m not sharing a link to, someone proudly (arrogantly) responds to ‘liberal minds’ who complain about lack of ethnic diversity among fairy-tale princesses. His argument is that the predominance of porcelain skinned princesses is simply ‘realistic’, because the original stories are set in white-majority countries. I find it curious that, in fantasy worlds where pumpkins turn into carriages and frogs into princes, he’s such a stickler for verisimilitude when it comes to skin colour.

This liberal mind believes representation is really important, even in cartoons and fairy-tale worlds. Seeing yourself (and others) represented in books, on the screen and in the toys you play with is a serious issue. Even the Tellytubbies represented. I know Disney have made more of an effort to include black and brown characters in recent years, but is it good enough when many of the stories still perpetuate knackered old stereotypes? I recently watched Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action version of Cinderella, where the first woman of colour we see is a kitchen maid, FFS. But then this is a world where Prince Charming is still entitled to any woman he wants…

One of the Princesses in my project, Natalie Davies, is an actor from Bradford, and her heritage is mixed. She had this to say:

“The princesses do not reflect the everyday female. I never could quite relate to any of the Disney princesses – so I just settled for being Mowgli!”

And playwright/poet Zodwa Nyoni delivers African Princess realness in another of my portraits:

“There is a westernised stereotype of what princesses look like, usually blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Certainly with fair hair and skin. I come from a culture with royalty that doesn’t look like that, but is never held up, celebrated and respected as royalty.”

Well Zodwa’s Princess certainly garnered respect from a passer-by during our photoshoot, as he yelled his enthusiastic support from the street.

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There’s a great blog by a Dad called ‘Man vs. Pink’, chronicling the struggle he and his daughter share against pinkification. In ‘Celebrating Disney Princesses of Colour’ he says:

“As parents of a mixed race daughter, it’s important we include representations of girls & women of colour in stories, films, and merchandise she is exposed to. As far as Disney Princesses are concerned, the women of colour tend to be far less prominent than their caucasian counterparts… While I appreciate there are overriding issues with gender representation and Disney Princesses (admittedly only three of these movies – just about – pass the Bechdel Test), that is something that I can address by talking to my daughter about these stories.”

It’s great when parents can take the negatives and use them to stimulate conversation with their children, but some would also like to buy an Esmeralda lunchbox from the Disney store.

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.