In early 2015, Toronto-born artist Dorian Lynde began painting altered Disney princesses with new identities and attitudes around downtown Los Angeles. What started out as a simple project quickly grew when further research shocked her about the unspoken gender roles inside the world of Disney. In the 1930s, the studio was segregated by specific jobs for men and women. In some cases, more than 500,000 cels (transparent sheets filled in for animation) would be painted for a single feature. Women made all of those cels, and did all of that work. As a company rule, women weren't able to become writers or animators as those opportunities were reserved for men.
For Dorian, it quickly became clear that this rule was the reason why Disney princesses were such terrible representations of women. With no female creative input, the princess's only focus was cooking, cleaning, and marriage.
No Damsel aims to change that sentiment. Attempting to dismantle these representations and create alternative iconography, Dorian gives the princesses strength, attitude, and agency. The result is a massive installation with 18 individual wall paintings measuring over 6 feet high. It is easily accessible and at the same time challenging and thought-provoking.
I had the chance to catch up with Dorian to ask her a few questions about the current show as well as what inspires her to get out of bed every morning.
Mike Stalter: You started painting the princesses around LA a few years ago for fun. Was the idea all along to eventually do a gallery or museum show featuring this body of work?
Dorian Lynde: No, I originally intended to keep it outdoors. I wanted to put them in highly visible places that more people would see than just those that can afford to go to art museums and galleries. There's a huge wealth disparity in Los Angeles, meaning that there are hundreds of thousands of kids that will never set foot in a museum. Art is not for everyone. I wanted to create something that is. I don't usually create work with the exhibition setting in mind, but rather with the intention of working through or talking about something. A contemporary art museum in North Carolina approached me about bringing it into an institution for the first time, and I believe so much in their vision that i had to say yes.
Why princesses anyway?
Women are hit every day with a barrage of messages about how we should look and act, what we should buy, how we should feel. The princesses are one of the earliest and most powerful of these messages. And they hit me hard, I wanted to be a princess so much growing up. It didn't even really occur to me until I went back and watched the movies. They're deeply flawed. The early ones only cook, clean and sing, and even the ones that came out in the 90's end up in marriage.
I couldn't help but notice that many of the princesses have Los Angeles tie-ins - things like Dodgers hats, LA tattoos, and so on. What's the connection to Los Angeles culturally and from a women's progression perspective?
They do have a lot of LA details - Walt Disney Studios was started in Los Angeles, and I wanted to make the princesses into something that flew in the face of the city that first created them. I also live in LA, it's one of the most amazing and diverse cities I've ever been. The LA Women's March had the highest turnout of any city in America, higher than DC even. There are women from all over the world here with voices that need to be heard.
How do these adaptations inform people of your view of the modern woman?
What I really want people to take away from this is that there isn't just one way to be a woman. The princess view of womanhood is so narrow and is really just about being validated by men. In reality, maybe you have interests beyond your romantic partner who may or may not be a man, maybe you want to be strong or aggressive, maybe you can't walk or hear or maybe you don't even identify as a woman. I wanted to expand what being a princess looked like.
How do you feel your work ties into the current political conversation?
I've been asked this a lot - since my work is focused on women and femininity people think it's innately political, but I don't necessarily agree. A lot of people have tried to tie No Damsel in with today's political climate, and for sure some aspects reflect it - I have Mulan ripping up North Carolina's House Bill 2, "The Bathroom Bill". But No Damsel would be just as relevant to my grandmother in 1937 as it will be to my grandchildren in the future. The issues women face reach far beyond the political, and even the tangible - they're engraved in the psyche.
Why paint directly on the walls for the show versus creating work that could later be shown again or even possibly sold?
I love that it's ephemeral. You need to experience it in person to get the full effect, and it's not tainted by art markets, or auction houses. But the show isn't just the wall paintings. It's also animation cels - vinyl paintings on clear celluloid that animated movies used to be made of. They're so difficult and delicate to paint, one little mistake and the whole thing is ruined. The paints are only made by one place in the US, this little shop that's been around since the 1940's, and when I first went in they were so confused about why I was trying to do this since it's such a dying art. So luckily these I can take away and show or sell. But to be honest it will break my heart a little when the walls are buffed - I spent 13 hours a day for more than two weeks working on them.
I've noticed in a few things I've read now that one of your priorities is creating art directed toward youth. Can you elaborate on that a little and why it's important to you?
I wanted to create something that spoke to everyone. Of course art is a business, but the art world is so elitist in terms of who art is for. No Damsel is something that you can see and immediately understand, regardless of age or nationality and that was really important to me. If you see it at it's surface level, it's very simple and easy to read, but if you look beneath that the complexities start to emerge. I spent two years learning how to paint animation cels, and even longer researching the movies and talking to the animators and inkers who worked on them, and each little detail reflects that.
Who are some artists whose work inspires you right now?
I love Erin M. Riley's work, Andrea Bowers, Jordan Casteel, Phil America, really anyone that works really hard at what they do. What inspired me most for No Damsel was the women that worked on the movies who were written out of history - they put in countless hours and their contributions are largely unknown. This work is an ode to them and a very gendered art form that has been forgotten.
What conversation are you hoping to spark with this show at CAM and ultimately, what makes it a success in your mind? I want people to start talking more about the media representation of women and women of color - or the lack thereof. Sexuality and domesticity is so codified in it, and the fact that this is what we're exposing young children to is so bizarre. To me, the show is a success if it inspires just one young person to push back against this, question what's coming at them and respond in a creative way to it.
No Damsel is up at the Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh, North Carolina from May 28th until August 6th.