Upon first glance, the images in “No Damsel” will seem familiar. After all, characters don’t get much more iconic than princess heroines from more than half a century’s worth of Disney cartoons.
Except that these particular Disney princesses, as rendered by Los Angeles artist Dorian Lynde, are strikingly different. Snow White, star of 1938’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” is a tattooed boxer in one picture and flashing “Los Angeles hands” in another.
Hua Mulan, the young female protagonist of 1998’s “Mulan,” is shown tearing up North Carolina’s notorious House Bill 2. Jasmine, the female lead in 1992’s “Aladdin,” wears a hijab head cover and UNC Tar Heels light blue while holding a basketball. And Ariel from 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” is in a wheelchair, which doesn’t stop her from being an animal-rights activist (she’s painted breaking a harpoon).
Still, Lynde’s most pointed Disney princess is Aurora, from 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” – who is shown burning a bra with a cigarette lighter. Lynde took time out from preparing for the show one recent afternoon to explain.
“ ‘Sleeping Beauty’ might be the most regressive Disney movie of all,” Lynde said. “She’s supposedly the protagonist but has only 18 lines in the entire movie, some of them just one word, and she’s the most passive character – meets a man in the forest, falls in love ... and that’s her whole world. So it was important to make her the quintessential feminist, holding a sign from the women’s march and burning a bra.”
Growing up with Disney
“No Damsel,” which opens Sunday, May 28, will be on display through early August at CAM Raleigh, which is the first museum anywhere to show the project. It includes Lynde’s alternative renditions of 10 heroines from the Disney princess universe, which she started painting in public places around the Los Angeles arts district a few years ago, mostly for fun.
A lot of princesses don’t really have ‘angry face.’ It was difficult to come up with princess faces that showed anger and determination, rather than just an accommodating smile and the one-dimensional ‘happy’ aspect you see so much.
Artist Dorian Lynde
Reaction was positive enough for Lynde to turn it into more of a serious project, with field trips to Disneyland for research and shooting film as part of the process. Eric Gaard, CAM’s exhibition director, said he was “shocked, in a good way” the first time he saw Lynde’s images.
“I grew up 10 minutes from Disneyland, and with some of these movies,” Gaard said. “So it’s my heritage and upbringing. To see Snow White in a Dodgers T-shirt and gang tattoos, I thought, ‘I need to know more about this girl!’ The more of her drawings I saw, the more this became something we just had to do.”
A native of Toronto, Lynde grew up as a self-described “obsessed princess girl, through and through.” She watched all the classic Disney cartoons over and over, and seeing them again through adult eyes has been … interesting.
“A lot of princesses don’t really have ‘angry face,’ ” she said. “It was difficult to come up with princess faces that showed anger and determination, rather than just an accommodating smile and the one-dimensional ‘happy’ aspect you see so much.”
Giving Belle her globe
Lynde has spent the past few weeks in Raleigh getting “No Damsel” ready (a process that also involves battling the soundtrack songs that invariably become stuck in her head as she works). The show consists of a number of princesses painted directly onto CAM’s gallery walls – yes, the work is temporary and will only be preserved in photographs – as well as several painted in outdoor locations around downtown.
The show also features a number of animation cels, transparent sheets with images Lynde painstakingly created using old-fashioned animation techniques.
“It’s kind of a dying art,” Lynde said. “I haven’t had much guidance because nobody really does this anymore. Disney as a rule had no women in creative jobs like writing or animation, but they were in the ink and paint department. They had their own building on the lot and spent tireless hours inking and painting these cels – up to 500,000 of them for a full-length film.”
By the time 1992’s “Beauty and the Beast” was in the works, some women were involved in Disney’s creative process – but not always listened to. “No Damsel” attempts to set some of that to right, such as its depiction of “Beauty and the Beast” star Belle with a globe.
“When ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was being written, a woman who was part of the creative team had Belle putting pins in a map to show places where she wanted to travel,” Lynde said. “But the men said that wasn’t realistic, and the final scene has her icing a cake instead. So I brought that back.”
A creative career choice
“No Damsel” arrives in the midst of a fraught cultural and political moment. Donald Trump’s election as president has triggered a massive resistance movement in America, in large part led by women – such as the Jan. 21 Women’s March on Washington, which drew an estimated 500,000 people to the capitol for a protest march the day after Trump’s inauguration.
“I’m lucky in that feminism is actually kind of trendy right now,” Lynde said. “Female empowerment and women’s rights were already polarized, and things became inflamed and more divisive with Trump’s election – a whole world of people were emboldened to say things they otherwise would not. But it’s also led to many people standing up to say it’s not OK for women and minorities to be treated like this.”
Quirky though it is, Lynde envisions “No Damsel” as part of that conversation – and a work that she hopes will draw more young people into the debate.
“Not much artwork today is youth-oriented,” Lynde said. “It’s likely because of money. When I was in school, I was very aware of how elitist the art world can be. A narrow group of people decide what art is, and it’s typically gendered, racialized, class-based. They dictate the market and also write the history books.
“All that converged to create this project,” she concluded. “I think it’s important to involve youth inspirationally. When young people are asked what they want to be when they grow up, the aspect of creativity is usually not considered. I wanted to show young women a creative career.”
What: Dorian Lynde, “No Damsel”
Where: CAM Raleigh, 409 W. Martin St.
When: Sunday, May 28 through Sunday, Aug. 6
CAM Hours: noon-6 p.m. Thursday-Friday (and until 10 p.m. each First Friday); noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; by appointment Tuesday-Wednesday;
Cost: $5 general admission; free for CAM Raleigh members, children 10 and under, seniors, veterans and active members of the U.S. military, teachers, area college students; free to all on First Fridays
Details: 919-261-5920 or camraleigh.org