Dorian Lynde Reinterprets Disney Princesses to Subvert Their Problematic Narratives

Dorian Lynde is using her work to rewrite what it means to be a young girl. Whether it’s painting life-sized princesses in the street or working with youth in her community, she uses her voice to try and elevate others. I sat down with her to discuss her current museum exhibition, No Damsel, on display at Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) Raleigh, and what she has coming up next.

“I wanted to examine the messages that women are exposed to every day that dictate how they should look and behave. Disney princesses just became the vehicle for exploration.”

Tell me about how you got started with No Damsel.

No Damsel started simply enough…I did some outdoor wall paintings around downtown L.A. that depicted reimagined Disney princesses attempting to subvert their problematic narratives. When I started to do more research about the princesses and get into their histories, I learned that Walt Disney Studios, in its inception, didn’t hire women for any creative positions as a company rule. Women who applied for any positions as writers, animators or anything that contributed in some creative way to the movie, were sent a rejection letter, saying, “Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men.” I was shocked, but somehow it all made so much sense. I’m sure that’s why the earliest movies were so deeply flawed. There was no female creative input whatsoever. Women were instead relegated to the menial job of inking and painting animation cels — the half a million individual images that would make up the film. Learning this was the catalyst for me to take the project further. I started to seek out and interview women who worked on Disney movies since 1959, and began to create my own versions of the cels through a painstaking and delicate process.

Let’s talk about the women creating the cels. What was their work like?

If you watch any of the older short films put out by Disney describing their animation process, they completely gloss over the fact that they had women creating the films in factory-like conditions for long, relentless hours. In one of them, the narrator says something like, “We have hundreds of pretty girls working in a section of the studio that’s all their own!” It’s presented as though they would prefer to be doing this labor, rather than creatively contributing. Their work inking and painting was meticulous. It’s a beautiful, gendered art form that’s been virtually ignored. These women made massive contributions to animation. No Damsel is, in part, an homage to these women that were integral to the formation of some of the most iconic films in history. Hundreds of millions of dollars were made off of their labour. They were painting their own oppression into existence, and they were never given a voice. The representations of women they were helping to form continue to shape identities and narratives surrounding femininity today. Snow White was released in 1937, and it’s just as popular today among little girls as it was when it was first released. And really, my first thought when I began to create No Damsel was to explore images used in the commodification of femininity and youth. I wanted to examine the messages that women are exposed to every day that dictate how they should look and behave. Disney princesses just became the vehicle for exploration.

How did you change the princesses? What was your intention?

I wanted to not only expose their sexist and often racist narratives, but play off of their characters to form new iconography. I wanted to give them agency and personality that a young person could actually identify with. I talked to a lot of people before I installed the show at CAM Raleigh, and asked them what they wanted to see in a princess. It was elements like Princess Jasmine wearing a hijab, more subtle things like Princess Tiana having her natural hair, but by and large, the biggest request was a genderqueer princess. I was so happy about this, as my initial drawings and concept sketches already had this, and I was really just elated that people wanted to see this so much. I did Mulan as gender neutral erring on the side of masculinity. When I trained the young docents who give tours of the museums, I made sure that only neutral pronouns were used when discussing this wall painting. I have Mulan depicted ripping up House Bill 2, North Carolina’s notorious anti-trans bathroom bill. There are details like this throughout the exhibition, but this one was the most important to me.

Having seen first hand the reaction to your work, it is evident that you are creating something that is not only for an art world that is generally seen as ‘elitist’ by the people not close to it. Is that why you chose Disney as the vehicle to talk about these issues?

The Disney princesses are ubiquitous. They’ve been a part of the public consciousness for 80 years, not just in America but across the world. That’s multiple generations of women cross-culturally that have been impacted by these images. They’re very powerful, and their representations have deep ramifications in identity formation. I’m not the first to alter Disney princesses by a long shot. There are thousands of different ways people have changed them — princesses as other races, as men, the list goes on and on. There’s a cultural compulsion to play with these icons. All I did was bring them into an institutional setting where they became more accessible to youth, and more importantly, to young women. The princesses speak to a larger audience, and I like that. But my main focus was their place in the streets. I wanted to create something that was specifically for families that don’t feel like any other art in museums is accessible to them.

Do you feel like most museums are inaccessible?

There’s a huge amount of elitism and exclusionary practices in the art world, and it’s often racialized. Who is art for, and who can access it in a real way? Most parents I know work during the hours a museum is open, their kids don’t go to the kinds of schools that take field trips, and they might not otherwise experience art outside of what’s in the street walking home. I find any culture that ignores entire sections of the population to be a big problem, and I try to resist it at every turn.

I think art, like Disney, is a business.

Yes, of course. And like any business, it will act out of self-interest. And I actually have found efforts with Disney towards inclusivity, although I’m not sure how much of that is commercially motivated. Representation through imagery is extremely important, and that’s one of the driving forces behind No Damsel: to change powerful images so that young people may better see themselves reflected in them. I’m trying to not just rewrite history, but open up a new and hopeful future. One that is inclusive and critical of the past.

A lot of your work seems to be focused on identity and femininity.

I’ve done work using traditionally feminine materials like porcelain, explored beauty products, conducted interviews with hundreds of women that I later turned into prayer candles. Most of my work is central to gender in some way. What I love about femininity is that it transcends gender, and vice versa. There’s been a historic erasure of feminine creative input in the shaping of our world, and I want to take every opportunity I can to highlight multiple stories and voices in my work. My own identity is not necessarily at the forefront of my practice. I prefer to reflect on the complex framework that is all around us that dictates what identities should and should not look like.

You are always working on five things at once, it seems. What are you most excited about that you are working on now that relates to No Damsel?

I’ve been working on No Damsel for two years. I’m going to continue to develop it, but what I’m most passionate about right now is the animation cels, and bringing them outside of the realm of Disney.

So you plan to continue doing the princesses?

If I don’t get sued. Haha.

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Phil America
Phil America

Phil America is a California-raised artist, writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. He frequently exhibits his work in museums and galleries around the world, has published three books, collaborates with fashion brands, and has given three TED Talks.

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