In an attempt to seek some balance to my cynicism, I knew from the offset there was one person I had to include in this project. Anna is a young actor with Mind the Gap, the UK’s largest learning-disabled theatre company. I knew she loved all things pink, but it also transpires she’s something of an oracle when it comes to fairy-tale princesses.
So I asked her – what do you love about princesses?
“I love the costumes, definitely. First I love Cinderella, because I’ve played Cinderella here at Mind the Gap. But my ultimate favourite, is Elsa from Frozen. I love the costume, I love the make-up, the finale dress on the steps and the song”.
She also adores the mix of live action and animation in Enchanted, and it’s apparent that a lot of this appeals to the natural performer in Anna.
Lorraine also performs with Mind the Gap, and is a talented dancer and musician. She also loves princesses.
“I also love being princesses because it gives the experience of being one of them. I love Frozen (she and Anna made sure they each got a turn in the blue dress I brought to the shoot). I did a performance called Fairy-tales and I got chosen”.
My third princess from Mind the Gap, Charlotte, is a dancer:
“I quite like dressing up as a princess, I also like the encouragement of being part of it (this project) – empowering women to be strong together, not necessarily as princesses, but as women. We’re being powerful towards the concept, and that concept is to be who you are. To be yourself, but also to be powerful in decisions we’re going to make our daily lives as well. It means you can be more powerful and strong in the future as well”.
I talk a little about how my view of princesses has changed in doing this project, because I’m dressing these brilliant women in big frocks the iconography of the princess has started to take on a new meaning for me. It’s starting to feel more powerful. At which point Lorraine pipes in with enormous passion ‘and some of us have learning disabilities!’ starting a discussion about representation and the importance of seeing yourself in art and media.
Anna then talked us through some fairy-tale princesses who are breaking the mould in terms of ethnicity, such as Mulan, and Pochahontas. She’s very aware of the different ‘types’ of princess on offer:
“There’s different ones as well. Some can have, bravery, confidence, be strong, and others are girly-girly and things”.
I can see why these characteristics appeal to girls and parents. Encouraging qualities such as kindness, bravery and courage are positive messages, and it’s nice to be reminded of this. These young women also surrendered themselves to the sheer joy of dressing up – swapping outfits, lots and lots of spinning, and even some lip-synching. I thought I’d never get those frocks back! Charlotte kept it real though, and had some more serious points to make:
“I’ve noticed that one of the Disney princesses from Princess And The Frog – that concept is a bit strong and full on. Because in the beginning there are two separate scenes, there’s one family who are real rich, but in the other scene there’s a black family that’s in a very poor area. And I don’t feel that’s very comfortable because of history repeating itself (It’s a stereotype). I don’t think it’s appropriate for Disney”.
So I asked – If you were to create your own princess stories, what would they look like?
“You don’t really see many black princesses. I don’t really feel comfortable, it’s not very nice not having many black princesses around. It would be nice to have more. They’re a stereotype, there’s a bit of favouritism there, and it’s not fair. People who are black want to step out into the world and want to be that princess. Girls are even encouraged to buy moisturiser that makes their skin lighter, and I don’t think that’s right, to change your skin colour to make it lighter I don’t think that should be allowed.
Love yourself and be yourself. Because we are women and we are in it all together, it doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t need to change yourself, it’s about loving yourself and accepting who you are in yourself”.
And that, people, is a fine message to end on. Love yourself and be yourself.
These amazing young women, alongside many others, will be appearing in The Real Princesses of Yorkshire exhibition at Arts@Trinity from 11th to 22nd September 2017. And if you’d like to join us at the Princess Ball, book your free tickets here.