Fallen Princesses: Art Imitates Real Life

BlogHer Original Post

When Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel,any remaining illusions I had of charmed lives for princesses did too. I was a teenaged Anglophile, one of the millions who woke up extra early to watch her wedding day on tv, and felt real sadness - whether I should have or not - in the years after as that initial
fairy tale story crumbled.

There it was. Princesses - at least one,anyway - marry people who don't love them all that much, or at least not enough to cut ties with his ex-girlfriend. She gets an eating disorder and never quite gets over her parents' divorce. She goes through a series of bad relationships and then ends up unthinkably dead in a traffic tunnel. And this when it seems, only just seems, that she might be beyond the worst part of the learning curve.

I'm tempted to sugar-coat this as some kind of life lesson but I fail miserably at that, which may be why Dina Goldstein's Fallen Princesses photo series remains very much on my mind, a week after I saw it for the first time on the JPG Magazine site.


Even Cinderella's coach breaks down in a sketchy neighborhood. All images brilliantly shot by and courtesy of Dina Goldstein. 

Goldstein takes princesses - the Disney versions, this time - and depicts what may have happened after the closing credits.  Cinderella's hitching because she got drunk in a dive bar. Snow White looks miserable with a house full of children. And in the ones that hurt me to look at the most, Rapunzel holds her wig of long braids during chemotherapy, and Belle lies on an operating table during a plastic surgery procedure. 

As a strictly in-the-moment shooter who knows and chooses not to take on the work that goes into studio photography, I'm impressed with Goldstein's work on a technical level and also of any use of photography to intentionally comment on larger issues. It's one of its most important uses, I think.. In Goldstein's words on JPGMag.com:

As a young girl, growing up abroad, I was not exposed to Fairy tales.
These new discoveries lead to my fascination with the origins of Fairy tales. I explored the original brothers Grimm's stories and found that they have very dark and sometimes gruesome aspects, many of which were changed by Disney. I began to imagine Disney's perfect Princesses juxtaposed with real issues that were affecting women around me, such as illness, addiction and self-image issues.

Now, despite what any Facebook quiz would have me think, I am not any kind of Disney princess, unless upcoming releases include Princess Who Swears-a-lot, or @Laurie of Twitterlandia. I grew up in the generation after the classics were released - Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella, and they really didn't work for me. I was honestly freaked out even at an early age by the recurring theme of women needing to pass out for indeterminate periods of time in order for things to get better. No thank you. I was way into 101 Dalmations and Mary Poppins, stuff like that, and if anything really scarred me for life it was Bambi.

Real life has not been princessy either.  Issues, I have issues. Externally, weight gain, a congenital facial scar, eyeglasses, unfortunate spiral perms. Internally, a crazy penchant for overanalysis and an occasional attitude problem. You name it, I got it. For more appropriate pop culture references, I was Winona Ryder in Heathers, minus the Christian Slater killer boyfriend, or Janeane Garofalo to my best friend's Uma Thurman in the Truth About Cats and Dogs. I maybe passed out sometimes, but there was no guy standing over me at the end crying. (And if there was, he needed money for the tab.)

Now that's just a cheap parenthetical joke. But the truth is, I've been jealous of women whose lives have appeared to be more charmed, more princessy than mine, at least aesthetically. I've thought that real-life girls who were popular, and pretty, and consistently boyfriended, were better off than me.

That's the truth. Sometimes I thought it because they strongly insinuated it, or because social interactions made me feel that way. Or maybe I thought it because of music videos, or movies with impossibly happy endings that looked nothing like my life (or to be honest, anyone's I knew, but we all kind of live in our own head until jarred out of it.) Even last night, watching a rerun of The Office at the gym, I was all, "Look how cute Jim is. Where's MY Jim? Pam's life is AWESOME. I'll just keep doing this here elliptical exercise for thousands more hours and some day, my Jim will come up to me in the parking lot with Dwight who will hand me things to photocopy!"

I said there were issues, right, just so we're clear? Now, I know and you know that Pam is not real, and in most cases I would not indeed like to be a paper company receptionist in Scranton, Pa., (unless Jon Krasinski really did work there, oh my word) but this is what happens to my brain while watching closed-captioned sitcoms while exercising. I have no real desire to fly around with a guy on a magic carpet Jasmine-style, or dance with talking tea cups and butter dishes waiting for a beast to transform in some creepy castle. I would not have argued, however, if Lloyd Dobler showed up in the Malibu. Alas, the person I mistook for him showed up in a trashed Jetta for which he paid $1 and moved into an undergraduate dorm five years later at an advanced age, leaving me behind with a stack of books about letting go Buddhist style and an assortment of irrational behaviors.

Would a princess have better luck? I don't know, because I haven't met any. But life proves to me frequently that real life is not charmed really, for anyone. Happiness is fleeting and weird. Princessy people are happy or sad depending, just like average people, whatever that may mean. I know people who I believe to be very attractive who pick themselves apart worse than I ever have, who are not happy with their internal or external selves. Beauty pageant winners are dethroned, while it is considered remarkable that Susan Boyle can sing at all given her physical appearance, and when she opens her mouth the world pats itself on the back for its enlightenment until she gets second place and ends up hospitalized (there's a Disney theme for you.) And you know, while I'm on the uplifting tip: nobody gets out alive. 

Like my co-contributing editor and brilliant blogger Rita Arens wrote about the Fallen Princesses, happiness is relative, and hard-won

In real life, happiness is the time spent being thankful you aren't
going through hell anymore.  In real life, we don't know happy unless
we've been sad, really sad, or really angry, or really sick. Once we've
been all of those things, we learn to appreciate moments when nothing
is wrong --- and see them as happiness instead of the status quo.

If Rita's right, I should be accompanied by bluebirds 24/7, and even though I'm not currently bursting with joy, what I'm learning to identify as happiness in her terms is simple contentment, best experienced by not comparing other peoples' experiences and circumstances with mine. This may be why I choose not to watch the Real Housewives of New Jersey. 

A larger aim of Goldstein's set might be to realize the very obvious and basic truth that is nonetheless easy to miss when you're caught up in bibbity-bobbity-boo and whatnot: I don't decide happy for princesses and their ilk any more than they ought to decide it for me, no matter what the zeitgeist says. And if I think for a minute that anyone is immune to common suffering like disease, addiction, lost love, or body image issues - no matter what slice of princess life we've seen in movies or through the media lens - that misconception is mostly on me.

As another well-known BlogHer, co-founder Lisa Stone wrote on Surfette in response to Rita's post

Amen. We live, we learn, we grow up, we are thankful, we learn to find our happiness.

Unless, for some reason, we don't.

Other reactions: 

A Cup of Jo finds the series "genius and heartbreaking."

Kelly at DesignCrush liked "seeing the flip side of the typical fairytale."

The Queen of the Quarterlife Crisis was "enthralled" by the images. 

My friends and I have been saying for years that it's really the
fairytales we heard as children that actually fucked us up. These grand
illusions of men climbing up a girl's braid to "rescue her" can really
give a girl a COMPLEX. Anyhow, the artist here replaces the "happily
ever after" with reality that addresses current issues such as war in
the middle east, addiction and self-image.

Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites, with many photos to be found on Flickr.  

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