"‘Fallen Princesses’: The Construction of Female Beauty in Dina Goldstein's Pop Surrealism" by Ildikó Geiger
Ildikó Geiger is a PhD student at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, currently working on her dissertation on performative identity constructions of 20th century American women writers. Email:
Our childhood stories always ended with the line, “… and they lived happily ever after.” We were rooting for the hero—most of the time an orphan, a poor peasant boy or a charming prince—who overcame all troubles to attain his well-deserved prize, the princess, and we were relieved seeing the quest ended in a sensational wedding ceremony crowned with the promise of a seemingly eternal life and never-ending happiness. We were spellbound by the fairy tale’s magic that “realized the unimaginable” (The Irresistible Fairy Tale 135), to use the folklorist Jack Zipes’ expression, since it had no importance (to us, children, for sure) whether the events in the story were real or unreal, or whether characters possessed worldly or magical characteristics. The only thing that mattered was that the villains got the punishment they deserved and everything went towards a happy ending. In most of the fairy tales there was a clear distinction between good and bad, and it was without a question that evil had to be punished never to be able to cause harm to the eternally good heroes. We never questioned anything heard or seen simply because the fairy tale fulfilled in manifold ways our desire for magic: First, it provided truly powerful scenarios in which heroes succeed in solving problems; second, fairy tales offered a path away from everyday reality disclosing a world in which problems were there merely to be overcome by the hero; and third, these stories granted access to a collective past, allowing readers, listeners or watchers to get access to the old conduit wisdom of past generations (Bacchilega 5). These stories are still very important in our lives since they help us to realize who we are; they allow our identities to evolve through them and can still provide guidance as to how to conduct our mundane lives.
Folklorists and fairy tale researchers believe, however, that fairy tales did more than simply achieve the above-mentioned desires. As Valerie Rangel explains in her essay entitled “Fashionably Ever After,” the childhood stories not only give meaning to who we are, but also advocate acceptable social and moral norms of behavior. She states here that “[N]umerous tales revolted around female protagonists with the intent of instructing young girls on virtues of modesty, chastity, respectability thereby preparing them for the marriage market and their future role in the domestic sphere” (2). Moreover, these tales not only reinforce women’s roles, but also affect other areas of their lives including their appearance. In a fairy tale, most women are depicted as impeccably beautiful with certain stereotypical aspects of their visible beauty: long hair and large, doe-like eyes. Nevertheless, these attributes are always combined with a weak and a generally submissive character. The emphasis is thus on the(ir) physical beauty and this compliance with social normativity determines their very existence and narrative function, as well. The aim of such conventional representations of femininity is to secure women into a particular gender role that emphasizes submissiveness and compliance, leaving no or little place for the intellect.
My aim in this paper is to discuss the representation of women characters in contemporary fairy tales through the artwork of the Canadian photographer Dina Goldstein. Her series entitled Fallen Princesses is a set of editorial photography posing serious criticism to traditional visual representations of fairy tale heroines whose lives depict false ideals, roles, and physically unattainable bodies. Goldstein places her characters into real-life situations, and by juxtaposing the idealistic world of fairy tales with harsh reality, she creates a world in which the staple ending “happily ever after” is reduced to a relative phenomenon. In my text below I will contrast the images of women and girls as pictured by Disney movies with Goldstein’s pop surrealistic portrayal of the same characters by showing how the North-American photographer (de)constructs traditional portrayals of beauty by subverting the iconic representations of the princess-archetype. By radically transforming the princess-figure built upon one-dimensional representations of women, Goldstein calls for women to create their own representations based on their everyday experiences, and by doing so, she makes her audience consider a world that is not built upon utopian dreams full of false promises but on actual, every-day events.
Goldstein’s art uses the visual language of Pop Surrealism, a movement originated in the 1970s’ Southern California finding a way between the “fine art” of mainstream galleries and the “low art” of comic books and tattoos. Her pictures follow both streams, since they are often comic, but also dark and depressing. She leads the viewers―just like the fairy tales do―from the world of enchantment to the world of real life challenges. She expanded the world of fairy tales as a written genre embedding them into visual arts through the speaking voices of her characters (The Irresistible Fairy Tale 135) that become textual images. Goldstein’s approach to the fairy tales is more than critical; it is also skeptical because her intention is not to provide any “happy ending,” but the contrary: to show viewers that the world is far from being as idyllic as it is pictured in most of the visual or narrative tales we hear each day through various media. Accordingly, her images lack the portrayal of traditional norms and expectations because she consciously wants her viewers to reconsider conventional narratives, best exemplified by fairy tales, from the gender aspect.
Many contemporary artists still feel that the aims of the civil rights and especially those of the feminist movements of the 1960s were not entirely fulfilled; therefore, they turn towards fairy tales and their various adaptations as a means to destroy the still pervading biased illusions of reality and use various forms or genres to allow different, so far unheard or less heard voices to speak through them; their conflicts and struggles are re-created with the aim of disturbing viewers and leading them to question many traditional norms and societal expectations. This encounter, as Jack Zipes says, “is clearly meant to be a collision—a fortuitous one—that will make viewers stop and think about the meaning of fairy tales and happiness (The Irresistible Fairy Tale 137). Zipes distinguishes between two forms of these collisions: one of them is called the critical remaking of the classic fairy tale, in which artists, such as Paula Rego, Kiki Smith, or Dina Goldstein try to shake-up viewers and make them re-think their knowledge about the fairy tales to show that their female protagonists are not helpless objects, but women who are capable of transforming themselves into confident women inhabiting a body of their own. These transformations come alive, for example, by changing their expected attire and altering their bodies. Accordingly, these works are disturbing, touching, and subject to change; consequently, by staying fluid, they allow for new meanings to evolve and provide and alternative space for women be that the protagonist or the artist. The other collision Zipes lists is the one called “conflicted mosaics,” which exemplifies art works that are rather bizarre and shocking projecting another world that abounds in happiness, even though this happiness is very evasive. Artists like Meghan Boody or Tracey Moffat, who are the most important representatives of this form of fairy tale collision, place their characters into provocative arrangements in which they do not belong. In both cases of collisions, there is a strange dissonance, but this turns out to be a useful tool to compel us, viewers, to re-think our position in actual reality. Goldstein’s photography series is an example of how she tries to shake up and urge her audience to re-think the configuration of our society.
Goldstein’s series, produced in 2009, was inspired by her three-year-old daughter’s obsession with Disney princesses combined with the news of her mother’s breast cancer. As she once said in an interview,
I began to imagine Disney’s perfect princesses juxtaposed with real issues that were affecting women around me, such as illness, cancer, addiction and self-image issues… Disney princesses didn’t have to deal with these issues, and besides, we never really followed their life past youth. (qtd. in Zipes, “Subverting the Myth of Happiness” 2)
Before going into details of Goldstein’s art series, I would like to contextualize the evolution of fairy tales, a genre rooted in oral traditions. Although several folklorists, such as William Hansen and Donald Haase, use the expression “wonder folk tale” and “literary folk tale,” the term “fairy tale” is used most often by contemporary experts of this topic. People always told stories of their experiences that formed the texture of their lives and these oral texts have served as tools to frame human cognition. Walter Burkert, scholar of Greek mythology and culture, writes about the origins of storytelling that has the same pattern of functions that one can find in most fairy tales or myths. Quest, rescue of the oppressed and conflict with the antagonists are always present in those stories, and basic actions of the community, such as rivalry, mating, abuse, and child abandonment give the basis of these tales. With its origins rooted in oral genres, the term “fairy tale” has been used since the 17th century. Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile were the first collectors of the Renaissance followed by Charles Perrault and Brothers Grimm in the 18th and 19th century. All collectors rewrote the original stories in order to make them more acceptable to the public. The Brothers Grimm rewrote the stories in a way that would be suitable for children (previously, the audience were comprised of adults). The Grimms’ rewriting of stories gave rise to different adaptations of the tales, which did not only apply to written storytelling but also to other art forms as well (for example, the theater and the opera). It should be noted here that from the 19th century until the 1960s, visual artists generally created works that portrayed idyllic settings and dream worlds that allowed viewers to turn away from the harshness of reality. From the 1960s on, fairy tales were approached more critically with the intention of, quoting Jack Zipes again, “disturbing viewers and reminding them that the world is out of joint and fairy tales offer no alternative to drab reality” (The Irresistible Fairy Tale 136).
According to Goldstein, life is full of conflicts, lies, corruption, and false promises, and her main aim is to raise consciousness and thereby to question traditional one-dimensional representations of women. Her photos suggest that women’s lives are peppered with struggles to attain false and unattainable ideals, which propel them to chase an imagined happiness that is built on the normative narrative of dominant ideology. In this context, Goldstein wants her women to create their own narrative(s) of representation; what is more, to make them question their identities and to transgress the dominant ideologies of power in their own milieu. She thus challenges the glamorous portrayal of the most popular Disney female icons to urge the women in the audience to create their own narratives, their own, new vocabularies of expression and their own visions of reality.
II. Re-Envisioning Disney Princesses: A Mosaic
II.1. Rapunzel and After
In one of the most controversial photographs of Goldstein’s “Fallen Princesses” series, Rapunzel loses her hair—her most important possession—due to chemotherapy and therefore has to wear a wig draped around her. Goldstein’s Rapunzel is not facing the camera, but is staring at the floor as if she were ashamed of her disease and lack of hair. The Canadian artist juxtaposes real-life issues with those of the princess-life from the visual fairy tale, which is so unlike that many viewers might find it unacceptable. This photo provoked heated discussions over the internet and a great number of people criticized Goldstein for mocking cancer patients. But this situation was deliberately created in sharp contrast with the ever-healthy looking setting and characters of Disney.
This image throws a light on the various struggles cancer patients go through, and depicts a scene which captures their feeling of loss. Although most viewers were clearly troubled by such presentation of cancer patients, it is clear that Goldstein reached her consciousness raising aims and I think this makes it far from an offensive or unacceptable picture. The reason why this photo might trouble viewers is because diseases as such are still treated as a taboo by most members of our modern, Western society. We are simply not prepared to talk about these issues. Having cancer is a secret to be kept in the closet locked away from outsiders and even from family members. The photo may be shocking or provocative, but is it far from being offensive; it has rather a therapeutic effect. Critics of Goldstein—unfortunately always hiding behind internet nicknames—find this piece offensive because the word from the title, “fallen,” is immediately associated with Rapunzel’s cancer as if she were to be blamed for her disease. She is fallen, they say, because she is ill. However, Goldstein had no intention of mocking cancer patient; not only because she had commented about the picture several times, but also because the inspiration came from having the news of her mother’s cancer. She focused on showing Rapunzel’s body and the beauty of her body while going through a physically and emotionally exhaustive period. (See the webpage of “Fallen Princesses” on http://www.fallenprincesses.com/flash/index.html)
II.2. Belle’s Mirror
Belle, the protagonist of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a beautiful, intelligent and confident young girl, who does not (have to) care about her attire or looks. She is fond of books and reading and does not like to be told what to do. She is a character who looks past people’s appearances and sees beauty in each and every person she meets. That is the reason why she is the only girl who can break the curse of the Beast and restore him to his original human state. Belle does not need any changes. In the fairy tale, she is perfect in every respect, but despite this faultless look, Goldstein’s picture depicts Belle having plastic surgery. Two doctors are busily ‘working’ on her face to create the perfect woman. This picture calls attention to the extremes women are willing to go to in order to follow current ideals of fashion.
Belle’s face is torn into pieces while her attire is still immaculate. With beauty being such a strong normative force, women’s desire is to look young and beautiful. Accordingly, they use every means there is to attain the societal norms of beauty. In order to meet these expectations, even Belle, the ultimate fairy tale beauty undergoes plastic surgery; this edited photograph suggests that cultural norms of beauty are always unattainable―since even an icon needs plastic surgery—and questions the idealized ideology of beauty. In 2013, Goldstein herself commented on the photo: “I’m in my 40s, and it is a very hard thing to grasp that 10 years ago you looked one way, and now you look another way, and it’s a downhill from here on out. Now, do you age gracefully and let nature take its course, or do you intervene? And Belle, of course, intervened” (Stern, “‘Fallen Princesses’: The Amazing Photos”).
II.3. New Window on Ariel
Since Ariel, the daughter of King Triton ruling the underwater kingdom of Merfolk is so beautiful and unique, she has been captured to become an object of scrutiny and desire kept in a fish tank. “The Little Mermaid” is the Disney adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s story in which the little mermaid is willing to give up her life in the sea in order to marry a human prince. After a series of struggles, she manages to become a human, giving up her mermaid-self, never to be able to return to her initial realm, the sea. In the story, she willingly choses a different life, a new freedom, as opposed to the mermaid from Goldstein’s photo on which she is unable to act freely because she is imprisoned in a vivarium. This picture calls the attention to the fact that people have a tendency to capture unique things (the little boy and his aquarium with the mermaid) and keep them for pleasure (which is definitely not the mermaid’s). Goldstein’s mermaid is not active or independent creature anymore; she cannot transgress her imposed gender role or authorize a sphere of her own; she cannot verbally complain as she is locked up in a fish tank; moreover, she is deprived of the possibility to become an active agent of her own life. She remains passive, surrenders (raising her two hands) and dependent because her stereotypical object status is amplified by portraying her in a closed space.
II.4. Updating Snow White
On this picture, Snow White—originally a German fairy tale published by the Brothers Grimm—is standing in the middle of a living room holding two of her children, while another one is pulling her dress, and yet another is crawling around the faded, shabby room. Their little dog is eating crumbles of chips, while the husband, Prince Charming, is busy watching TV and drinking beer. Looking disappointed and discontent, Snow White stares into the camera. This picture illustrates what happens when the prince comes and brings reality with himself. This is where “happily ever after” crashes with every-day life of many young women. As Dina Goldstein phrased it, “Snow White is trapped in domestic hell” (Stern, ‘Fallen Princesses’: The Amazing Photos”). This is the only picture where the prince is present, but this presence is really a non-presence still ensuring the object position of Snow White. The photo raises questions about society’s expectations as to how women should lead their lives, and Goldstein’s photo of Snow White visually challenges the one-sided textual representation of female fairy tale characters.
II.5. Big Little Red Riding Hood
Goldstein’s photograph titled “Not So Little Red Riding Hood” illustrates an overweight Red Riding Hood character with a basket full of fast food fries, sodas and other miscellaneous edible junk. After this picture was made public, the artist faced vast amount of criticism accusing Goldstein with attaching value-judgment to overweight people. She refuted these accusations saying that her intention was simply to call the attention generally to unhealthy eating habits prevailing in most societies; she also shed light on the fact that fast food restaurants are the obvious choices for most low income people because better quality food is much more expensive than fast food. I believe however, that there is more to that. Big Little Riding Hood takes the “bad” food with her into the “good” wood, directing viewers to experience a quite discordant situation―and relate to it.
Goldstein’s image presents a slightly overweight young woman, who is made to seem rather unattractive by the visual standards of normative thinness present in recent Western culture. Her plus-size body makes her the object of severe scrutiny; she is, in this regard, somehow in a similar situation as Goldstein’s Ariel in the aquarium. Big-Little Riding Hood might struggle to control her body weight, but―at the same time―she chooses to eat high-calorie junk food, which, for her means a way to show that she is in control of her action. As Li Cornfeld writes in his study on “Shooting Heroines: Sexual Violence and Dina Goldstein’ Fallen Princess Photography Series,” “Red Riding Hood is both disciplinarian and disciplined, subject and object both” (6). As in her previous images, Goldstein is juxtaposing here another dichotomy, that of obesity/plumpness/corpulence and thinness/slimness/slenderness to challenge the viewer’s ideal body picture. Being big is automatically associated in most Western cultures with negative connotations, while thin people are used to represent positive issues especially in contemporary advertisements. We, viewers and consumers of such images, are made here, in a shrewd artistic twist, to clash the image of the positive character of Riding Hood from the fairy tale with the negative image of her obese version in Goldstein’s ironic (re)presentation.
II.6. Cinderella’s New Party
Cinderella is the only fairy tale princess who does not go through a physical transformation in Goldstein’s new visual world; however, she goes through an emotional change. In the picture, the Canadian artist re-edits the old narrative by placing the anachronistically clothed Disney princess in a bar scene today and takes her picture just when she is hitting the bottle. Cinderella’s obvious physical beauty and her attire are juxtaposed against the low bar set; all in order to accentuate her visible drunkenness. We know from the Disney story that despite her hash childhood and family background, Cinderella’s life does have some wonders and miracles; her beauty, obedience, and hard work will ultimately be rewarded by her marriage to (a) prince charming. But Goldstein’s Cinderella appears just as shabby as many underprivileged women in our society: she can hardly count on wonders or miracles and instead, she drinks to provide herself with an alternative reality in which she can feel a princess. Similar to Goldstein’s other edited photographs, the background (the pub) and Cinderella’s (almost) aristocratic attire are so disparate that viewers are made to view reality from a different, puzzling perspective. The idealized notion of Cinderella is here subtly contrasted with a negative representation of women, a position they appear if they dare act out of their expected gender roles.
Goldstein’s photo features princess Jasmine and her character that was inspired by Disney’s “Aladdin:” she stands with a machine gun on a battle field calling the attention to many women being on the front lines or behind them today. In the original fairy tale on which a part of the Disney narrative is based, Jasmine is supposed to be a submissive character and marry Jafar, a vicious sorcerer (not the man of her heart). In contrast, Goldstein’s photo is the complete opposite: Jasmine holds power by carrying a gun and a knife, but is also quite feminine by wearing a chiffon shawl and an outfit with an unusual purple camouflage. Despite her representation in the visual tale, here she takes control of her destiny, is in power and exhibits strong, self-confident features. Similar to some other Goldstein photos, this image has also drawn subsequent criticism; commenters have even called the photo racist. However, I think this art work does an important thing: it juxtaposes the dichotomy of beautifully feminine (that is, princess-like) features against the aggressive qualities of soldiers (mostly associated with men and thus power) thereby disproving the belief that only men can be soldiers in a war.
In her thematic edited pictures, Dina Goldstein contrasts the traditional images of Disney princesses with recent reinterpretations of the same roles by placing them in discomforting situations that lead viewers to challenge the still pervading archetypes and gender roles of western culture. Her pop surrealistic pictures—combining the dream-like fantasy of historical surrealism with modern time iconography—overturn long and deeply embedded ideas and modes of thinking, encouraging women inside and outside her artwork to produce new representations and new modes of expressions that question ossified gender roles and assumptions. Goldstein’s images are compelling the viewer leading her/him from the world of enchantment to a world of serious (self-)criticism; her sometimes quite hyperbolical visual comparisons help deconstructing old patterns of thinking enabling the construction of new visual angles through which decoders of these artworks pose questions, engage into discussions on various forums and turn from passive objects into active agents that can promote changes in the conception of gender roles.
- Bacchilega, Christina. (1997). Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
- Benson, Stephen, Ed. (2008). Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Brooks, Peter. (1993). Body Work: Object of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
- Cornfeld, Li. (2011). “Shooting Heroines: Sexual Violence and Dina Goldstein’s Fallen Princesses Photography Series.” Retrieved from: http://dinagoldstein.com/essays/
- Gottschall, Jonathan. “The Heroine with a Thousand Faces: Universal Trends in the Characterization of Female Folk Tale protagonists.” Evolutionary Psychology 3 (2005): 85-103.
- Rangel, Valerie. (2010). “Fashionably Ever After.” Retrieved from: http://www.fallenprincesses.com/flash/education/valerie_rangel.pdf
- Stern, Marlow. (2013). “‘Fallen Princesses’: The Amazing Photos of Depressed Disney Royalty.” Retrieved from: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/08/09/fallen-princesses-the-amazing-photos-of-depressed-disney-royalty.html
- Zipes, Jack. (1983). Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. London: Routledge.
- ——-. The Irresistible Fairy Tale. (2012). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
- ——-. (2011). “Subverting the Myth of Happiness: Dina Goldstein’s ‘Fallen Princesses.’ Retrieved from: http://www.fallenprincesses.com/flash/essays/goldstein.pdf