When you think of fairy tales, you might think of a beautiful princess with long golden hair, a handsome prince in shining armour, or a fairy godmother performing miracles. Think again. The sweet, innocent children’s tales known today did not always end with “happily ever after”. The meaning, tone and content of older versions of these fairy tales, collected by the Brothers Grimm, was dark, even ugly. They included harsh punishment of characters, sexual inferences and often death. These tales were rich and expressive, passed down for generations through an oral tradition that allowed constant alterations by individual story-tellers. Criticized as unsuitable for children, the earlier versions of these stories were edited to suit ever-changing societal tastes. Over time, all ugliness and sexual connotations were removed, culminating in changes made over the last century – by Disney. This series attempts to thematically take these fairy tales back in time through image composites. I create my own versions of Walt Disney’s Cinderella, Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Thumbelina, the Little Mermaid, and Goldilocks – introducing a different way down the rabbit hole.
The dark aesthetic takes the stories back to their origins, mocking the Disney versions for their simplistic happy endings. Contrasting the tale of Alice in Wonderland, my own image presents Alice as a girl with a mental illness, in a dark state of mind, as her environment suggests. This depicts the tale in its original, dark form, which is far more expressive. Visual elements portray this idea as well. For instance, while many of Disney’s heroins are portrayed having beautiful golden hair, I use only dark hair in all the stories. These repeating visual details tie up the stories thematically, correcting Disney’s uninspired, sanitized versions of these tales.
I choose to narrate the story as well as participate in it, placing myself as the dark haired heroin. She is not saved by a prince, but alone and in despair, or even dead. Playing the role of the girl character, I challenge conventional ideas about how a women should act, look and be like. For example, Cinderella sits crying as her leg has been cut off by her sisters as punishment. The recreated narrative in this image returns the story’s tone to what is presented earlier versions, while acknowledging and embracing the fact that these stories are meant to be shaped by their creator, thus creating stories that speak about much more than the Disney versions do.
My inspiration for this series came from women writers of the 17th century. Writing primarily for adults, women used these stories to create alternate realities–worlds that could only exist in imagination. Their stories touched on counter-cultural ideas such as choice of spouse, inheritance rights, and woman’s right to education. Their tales challenged both literary and social conventions in a world where they did not have political power. A story by Marie Ebner-Eschenbach, “Princess Banalia”, 1872 tells the story of a queen breaking away from her expectations as a queen, woman and wife, as she longs to join her beloved. In this story, the heroin embraces her own sexuality, breaking away from the expectations imposed on her by society.
In this series, I re-frame Disney versions of fairy tales through my own lens. They are illustrated as dark, ugly, and horrid. This parallels previous versions, while presenting the case that current Disney versions of fairy tales are uncreative and unrealistic. The twisted narrative in the images and use of character also challenges mainstream cultural myths about what a woman should be, and how her story really ends. The series also stressed that the plot of the story is always controlled by its teller, in this case, not ending happily ever after.