Snow White without the Seven Dwarves, Ghana Amer
Ghada Amer, Snow White Without the Seven Dwarves, Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas, 126 x 150.5 x 4, 2009
Born in Egypt, raised in France and now living in America, artist Ghada Amer has witnessed female subjugation across cultures. Her artistic practice explores female stereotypes and the consistent roles of submission and passivity in which women are cast. Whilst studying at art school in France, Amer was informed that the painting classes were reserved for men, with the male teacher refusing to teach a woman. It was in this moment that Amer committed herself to creating a distinctly female artistic language. She began using embroidery as her medium, a satirical response to women’s history in craft as opposed to being taken seriously in the realm of fine art. In doing so Amer is penetrating the canvas with needle and thread, quite literally defacing the male space/medium forbidden to her.
Amer is particularly interested in the role that Disney characters are having in the formation of young identities, viewing fairy tales as a problematic means of indoctrinating tightly constructed gender roles. In her piece ‘Snow White without the Seven Dwarves’, one easily recognises Snow White, but upon closer inspection we become aware that hidden within the stitching and loose thread Amer has introduced highly sexualised female figures. In doing so she liberates the female protagonist, activating her female subjects and removing them from the confines of their traditional representation in the mass media and popular culture.
I am not going to lie, when I see a little girl dressed up in Cinderella’s blue princess dress I’m like argh so cute! Gimme. But when you look into the messages that fairy tales are teaching young girls, it is rather problematic. Here’s why:
* The female protagonist is often framed as a passive, submissive, damsel in distress with no agency of her own. Take Sleeping Beauty or Snow White for example, they are quite literally lifeless. They lay there, essentially as cadavers, unable to manage consciousness without being rescued by their knight in shining armour. Ariel is rescued by Prince Eric, Cinderella by Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty by Prince Phillip … the list goes on.
* Rarely do we see supportive female characters. There are evil stepsisters, wicked witches and jealous queens. Where is the sisterhood at? The princess is often positioned in direct competition with other women, as if another female can be nothing but a threat. The evil witch lady in Snow White actually tries to kill poor Snowy because she is ‘fairer’ than her. And let’s be honest, fair is just an old-fashioned word for hot. Has nobody ever told evil witch lady that comparison is the thief of joy? Even more dangerous, this rhetoric is suggesting that men are the only ones capable of adding value and meaning to a womans’ life. Snore.
* The female protagonist is commonly bound to domestic duties. No thanks.
* A woman’s value is very heavily tied up with her physical beauty.
* There is a very narrow representation of female beauty. The princesses are all these slender little things with porcelain skin and golden locks. There is very little racial, physical or sexual diversity. Important to note, is that while the princess always conforms to traditional beauty standards the evil females do not. The wicked witch is ‘ugly’, the evil stepsisters overweight. As if to be good and kind and sweet is to be pretty, and if you aren’t this conventional breed of beautiful, sorry hun but you must be bad.
* There is no doubt misogyny runs deep in fairy tales, but there are similarly some very troublesome representations of masculinity. Men must be brave, men must be strong. Unlike the females they can’t be vulnerable, emotional or require help. And again, a man’s physical appearance is wrapped up tightly with his worth. They have to be tall, broody, have a chiselled jaw and enough lush hair to run their fingers through while the do the thinking. What has also struck me is it that I don’t actually remember the names of many of the princes. Granted, many have been unworthy of a name, they are simply charming and that’s enough. As if being good looking and brave is too much character to give a man. Apparently, the prince in Sleeping Beauty is called Prince Phillip, who knew, how cute though that he has enough personality to be gifted a name.
Sure, young girls aren’t going to pause whilst reading Cinderella and say hold up, wait a minute, let me psychoanalyse the gender stereotypes that are being represented here. But in constantly repeating the same narrative these stories are undoubtedly influencing their comprehension of gender. Children’s brains are so cute and mushy and impressionable and it worries me the effect this must be having. I one million percent appreciate the value of fairytales and the role they play in teaching children important moral lessons. Lessons of generosity, compassion and humility. But the stories we tell our girls should have positive role models to aspire to and I am struggling to find any behaviour I find aspirational. I am not inspired by the idea of domestic duties, not by competing with other women and I am certainly not inspired by the idea of a man being the hero of my story.
I can appreciate that these stories have a deep-rooted history and are a part of a culture and tradition, however the essence of culture is that it is a reflection the climate. The culture of today is very different to the culture of 50 years ago, and thank god for that. Such misogynistic thinking may have been relevant once upon a time, (snap) but it isn’t anymore.
I believe narratives such as Frozen are definitely taking steps in the right direction. Whilst in no way do the protagonists challenge the physical profile of a Disney Princess in that Elsa and Anna are white, thin and conventionally beautiful but they do possess an agency that is new. The sisters’ kingdom is under threat and in the end it is saved by the true love of the sisters as opposed to a male suitor. It is so important that we are seeing an act of love that isn’t tied to romance and that there is a positive female/female relationship that isn’t driven by rivalry or competition.
Fairy tales teach children to dream, to fantasise, to imagine, to think creatively and to believe in something they cannot see. So just imagine what could happen if children could believe in a world where their self-worth was in no way derived from their appearance, a world in which diversity was celebrated and a world in which equality was commonplace.
1. Compliment others, especially young girls, on traits beyond their appearance
2. Check out Disney Australia’s #Proudtobeaprincess campaign. They have partnered with six ambassadors from the AFLW in an attempt to revolutionise the definition of princess to include being tough, brave, daring and true to oneself.
3. Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’