Not Your Average Disney Princess

Barjeel Art Foundation
Exhibition: Residua, Beloved Bodies II. Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas, 126x150.5x4-2009

Ghada Amer is an Egyptian artist best known for her erotic embroideries. Through her work she seeks to present female sexuality in needlework—a traditionally female discipline, as autonomous from the male gaze. I’m particularly interested in her piece Snow White Without the Dwarves, where she stitches a Disney-fied, doe eyed Snow White with images of naked women touching themselves in the background. The juxtaposition of rampant female sexuality with the European fairy tale raises questions around the presence of fairy tales themselves and the structures they enforce. 

In the original Snow White story, Snow is told repeatedly by the dwarves not to answer the door for anyone but them. However, seeing an old, frail woman selling apples, she can’t resist one. As we all know, she takes a bite of the poison apple, and promptly falls into an enchanted sleep, only to be woken at the end of the story by her prince. She is punished for her appetite; she is punished for wanting. To desire, according to Jessica  Benjamin in Psychoanalysis and Feminism, is to assert one’s sexuality and passion and she states that: “Desire in this sense is forbidden to women, because such assertiveness challenges the idea that a “good woman” stifles her impulses”.  

Amer’s interpretation is the antithesis of “the good, virtuous woman”. Her piece draws out female wanting in its most explicit and at its most free. It’s not a linear kind of wanting, and as viewers spot Snow White here and there amongst the crowd of naked women, the possibilities for female desire are painted as limitless. 

As familiar and comforting as “happily ever after” narratives are for children and adults, fairy tales exert a notable influence on cultural ideals of goodness, evil, models of man-hood and womanhood, and the mythic idea of “true love”. Timeless tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rapunzel share a common thread; often featuring a young girl’s progression to royal marriage, and a dream thwarted by a wicked stepmother, witch, or enchantress. The father figure in fairy tales is often oblivious to his daughter’s misery, he never intercedes, and is never called out for being inattentive. Ultimately, the prince saves the heroine from whichever woman’s wrath, and his power to save her coupled with her utter dependence on him seems the key to their imagined future happiness. 

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The heroine of the fairy tale is always alone, she is cut off. A villainous mother on one side, an absent father on the other, clearing the way for her prince to swoop right in. Feminist theorist Carol Gilligan observes that this creates a world where adolescent girls “have to give up their relationship with the world of girls and women, the world they have lived and loved in … for the sake of relationships that have been prescribed for them in male-led societies”. For giving into patriarchal demands, girls are promised a happy ending, and in turn girls are set up to sacrifice all other relationships as they search for a perfect love that will never disappoint. The framework of fairy tales divides girls from each other, and from themselves. 

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In Amer’s Snow White Without Dwarves she takes the protagonist Snow White, an isolated figure, and surrounds her with women. There are so many women it’s difficult to see where they begin and she ends, they are so interwoven. The void the protagonist hopes to fill in the traditional fairy tale is presented here as not a void at all, but full of possibility. The vibrancy of the colours in this piece are astonishing, and the textures of the embroidery are chaotic and unhindered.  

From Snow White, to Cinderella, to Twilight, young girls are taught that they must cut ties with other women, so that all their energy can go towards preparing for the race towards men’s approval. Through this piece, Amar proposes that the absence of male dominated structures is not the absence of a happy ending, but rather the starting point to framing our own stories and exerting our own desires. 

Footnotes

  1. Cynthia Burack, The Problem of the Passions : Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and Social Theory (New York: New York University Press, 1994): p.80.
  2. York: New York University Press, 1994): p.80.
  3. Fisher, Jerilyn, and Ellen S. Silber. 2000. “Good and Bad Beyond Belief: Teaching Gender Lessons through Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 28 (3/4): 121–136. 
  4. Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Pg.80.