Those Disney princesses have got a lot to answer for. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel have been icons of femininity to millions of girl children, convincing us that one day our prince would come, that you might as well stay in bed until he does, and that any body modification – even trading flippers for feet – is reasonable if it helps us get our man. I’m feeling this particularly keenly at the moment because my own daughter has recently developed a fixation on a Little Mermaid Barbie, and taken to carrying it around, caressing the doll’s hair and stroking its body (she’s two – if there is a singular moment at which body image issues begin, I think I’ve just seen it). So Ghada Amer‘s feminist agit-prop was particularly welcome when I saw it in the Brooklyn Museum Of Art in March this year.
In And the Beast (showing as part of the retrospective Love Has No End ), Disney’s Beauty is overlaid with delicately drawn, blatantly erotic females figures – female sexuality is identified as the unspeakable beast cast out by the fairytale conventions, then thrown out front. The nudes are taken from pornographic magazines, and represent another version of the imprisoning female stereotype. But in unexpectedly compressing the virgin and the whore, Ghada create a many-layered image (a witty aggregate of painting, gel-medium and embroidery) which is captivatingly lovely, and lends a knowing glint to Belle’s big-eyed innocence.
Much of the show deals with how culture makes identities for consumers to adopt. For Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie a pair of straight-jackets, tailored to conform to the bodies of adult-sized versions of the genital-free Mattel figures, hang side by side with the phrase of the title embroidered all over. The two suits have an arrestingly ghostly beauty of their own, at the same time as they force the uncomfortable question of how far women who grow up playing with fashion dolls come to pour themselves – and their partners – into the constricting prototypes established by their toys.
It would be easy to come off dour or humourless making these kinds of pop-culture critiques – after all, they’re children’s playthings, aren’t they? – but Amer’s playful style has the lightness to carry off her serious points. The hand embroidery pays tribute to the exhausting labours of women in the home; the images tell us that in between getting to be a princess, and getting off, there’s a whole world of female experience worth noticing.