By Raija Haughn
My early childhood years can be summed up in one word: princesses. I played and replayed old VHS tapes of “Sleeping Beauty” and “The Little Mermaid,” acted out their stories with my friends, took trips to Disney World decked out in Belle’s golden gown from “Beauty and the Beast.” I was enchanted by the narrative – a young, beautiful girl whose life has been turned upside down by an evil older woman jealous of her beauty and whose only hope is the love of her Prince Charming. I accepted this narrative and the happily-ever-afters without reservation.
It was not until I was much older that I began to realize the insidious undertones of these tales. Despite their roles as protagonists in these stories, the women rarely possess any sense of agency. Their virtue is wrapped up in their physical attractiveness and their fates decided by the heroism of their men.
What are we teaching young girls when we sell them this narrative? Is it possible to flip the script on these harmful stereotypes and gender roles?
It wasn’t until last summer when I met artist Lauren Chapman that I realized just how possible it is. I first met Lauren at the artist talk for her exhibit “Tigress and the Silver Sea” at the Jones-Carter Gallery in Lake City. Her work, whimsical and lively, illustrates a very different kind of fairy tale. The women in her paintings are powerful, confident and fully in charge of their own stories. They have depth, defined not by their appeal to the male gaze, but by their own strength in exercising their free will. Put simply, Lauren’s work captures something that I had often tried to articulate: Women are so much more than the narratives men assign us.
Lauren had created a world in which little girls slay their own dragons and Eve’s first act of defiance is a blessing rather than a curse. I listened in awe as she described her inspiration, the intense misogyny of our society and the ways in which our stories have influenced this culture. Her experiences with self-image and the dark side of the male gaze are common among women, but Lauren has the unique ability to channel that pain and inequality into empowering works of art.
The first thing I told Lauren when I approached her after the talk was that her paintings reminded me of those Lisa Frank binders we were all obsessed with in elementary school. Lucky for me, she took that as the compliment it was. We talked about feminism and how the stories we grow up with impact our perceptions of the world.
“It’s remarkable to look back on all that has unfolded since I begin this body of work three years ago,” Lauren says. The women’s march, the #metoo and #timesup movements are forging new opportunities of justice and equality giving a platform for us to tell our stories. Personally, my story feels important now when in the past it was unbearable. Through painting I’ve created strong protagonists I wish I had found earlier in my life.”
As the friendship bloomed, I began writing short poems inspired by the themes in Lauren’s paintings. We have discussed the possibility of writing a book of illustrated fairy tales together, the goal being to show young children that women are the protagonists of their own stories. We can slay our own dragons and eat all the apples we please. We will not be defined by superficial beauty or the wants and whims of men in power. Working with Lauren has given me tremendous insight into the things women are capable of when we combine our talents to change the narrative.
When our storybooks tell us that other women are vessels of deceit and jealousy, our society’s culture is bound to reflect that. When our childhood role models are swept off their feet by the Prince Charmings of their worlds, we are bound to expect the same. Pitting women against each other in the name of getting male attention is a powerful tool the patriarchy has wielded since the beginning of time. If they can convince us that our misfortunes are the fault of evil stepmothers and self-righteous witches, they can distract us from the real enemy. The reality is that we have been spellbound by men whose power would be threatened if women everywhere were to figure out their game. In the wake of #MeToo, Time’s Up, and the protests surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, it is clear that we are not only awake but furious.
Many American women are done with passivity. From the collective battle cry of peaceful protests to the transformative power of artistic collaboration, there is no longer room for man-made myths binding women to a power structure that treats us as pawns. The revolution has been a long time coming. Our heroines are warriors, not princesses: Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Roxane Gay, the list goes on and on. We are, each of us, the heroes of our own stories. Our collective voice will change the narrative of our world, no matter the opposition we face.
As I work with Lauren to transform the way that young girls see themselves and their peers, I am constantly reminded of the amazing things women can accomplish when we come together in the name of creating a more equitable world.
Raija Haughn is a junior at College of Charleston, where she is majoring in communication and minoring in women’s and gender studies. She is the managing editor of Cistern Yard News.