The stereotypical, not to say sexist and outmoded, claim that ‘every girl wants to be a princess’ is being spectacularly subverted by a new exhibition which opens in Leeds next week.
Morley-based photographer Maria Spadafora’s show The Real Princesses of Yorkshire offers a different, gritty take on the fairytale princess, a figure of popular culture that is still (unfathomably) held up as inspirational and aspirational. It has been a source of irritation for Spadafora for years she says and it all came to a head when her brother and his partner were expecting a baby. “They had been told after the first scan that they were expecting a girl and we had nine months of ‘I can’t wait to meet my little princess’. It really irked me – not their excitement, but the fact that we were inflicting that gender stereotype on to an unborn child.”
It sowed the seeds for The Real Princesses of Yorkshire which is Spadafora’s first funded project as an artist – with support from the Arts Council and Leeds Inspired – having taken up photography a few years ago in her forties. “I’m very much on a steep learning curve,” she laughs.
Initially she says she had thought of photographing ‘princesses’ in everyday situations and settings. “But then it evolved into a celebration of real women and people. I wanted to try and turn something I feel really quite cynical about into something positive.”
Spadafora’s ‘day job’ is at Bradford-based theatre company Freedom Studios where she manages the education and participation programme. “I come across a lot of actors and writers through my work and so after securing funding it’s been a whirlwind of inviting people to be part of it – the repsonse has been brilliant – organising shoots and locations and hiring costumes. All of the pictures are either in Leeds or Bradford and most of the people in them are from Leeds or Bradford.” Locations include the Corn Exchange, Roundhay Park, Brudenell Social Club and Cartwright Hall.
Spadafora’s princesses include Emmerdale scriptwriter Caroline Mitchell, playwrights Aisha Khan and Zodwa Nyoni and poet Kirsty Taylor in a group shot wittily entitled The Writers’ Block, taken on Shakespeare Avenue. Others who have taken part are actors from Bradford-based leading learning-disabled theatre company Mind the Gap and drag artist Martin Carter aka Maria Millionaire. “She is actually quite bossy and wears a lot of black,” says Spadafora. “So she is my wickedly beautiful queen.” Significantly, none of the participants are smiling in the photographs. This is entirely deliberate. “Women spend their whole lives being told to smile,” says Spadafora. “And of course smiling is something you instantly feel you must do when having your picture taken. But why should women feel they have to smile to please others? I wanted to play around with that a little bit.”
While the project wittily explodes the whole ‘princess myth’ it also asks some serious questions about gender stereotyping at a time when in some quarters it seems to be making something of a sinister comeback. “The idea is to embrace the fun side of it while at the same time being critical of the lack of diversity or agency,” says Spadafora. “I wanted to show that princesses can be of different ethnicities, all shapes and sizes and disabilities – that is something that the archetypal princess doesn’t convey to young girls very well. But I hope that at the very least some of the pictures will make people smile.”
As part of the exhibition there will be a Real Princess Ball featuring some of the photographed ‘princesses’ who will be performing drag-queen inspired lip-syncs. It is a free event and is open to the public.
There is no suggestion that any of the princesses in Spadafora’s pictures are expecting prince charming to come along and provide them with a happy ending. These are strong women who are in charge of their own lives and making things happen for themselves, thank you very much. “Yes,” laughs Spadafora. “Nobody is waiting to be saved.”
The Real Princesses of Yorkshire is at Arts@Trinity, Holy Trinity Church, Board Lane, Leeds, September 11-22 (not open on Sunday September 17) daily from 10.30am to 5pm.
The Real Princess Ball launch night is September 15, 7-9pm. Tickets can be books via www.eventbrite.co.uk and everyone is encouraged to dress up.