By Chan Sze-Wei
(786 words, 4-minute read)
I’ve recently been reading articles about how childhood trauma is determinative of one’s risk of future health issues from asthma to cancer. Also how ancestral trauma is recorded in our DNA.
Snow White is the original first Disney Princess. She is 82 this year (!) and it’s quite plausible that both my late grandma (the one from a solidly middle class family, who knew some English) and my mum watched it before me. Did I too receive this programming to aspire to (white) domestic goddess martyrdom even before I saw the movie? Yes I know, Snow White is a feminist nightmare. But how can I not love her? I am cushioned by the fond childhood memories of this and subsequent Disney films which I watched with absorption, believing that these were my stories too.
“I’m White, Snow White”
Researching the labour of Filipino bodies, Eisa Jocson saw the harsh contrast between this fantasy and Hong Kong Disneyland, which employs a significant number of Filipino performers. In the castings, brown (and yellow) bodies are NEVER princesses. Instead they are relegated to the lesser roles of dancing zebras, corals, monkeys, and required to perform happiness. Just reading the premise of the work gets me excited… and riled up with a sense of injustice.
A breathtaking shape shifter, Jocson grabs the monster by its adorable hair bows. She was last on the Esplanade Theatre Studio stage in 2017 as a libidinous macho dancer. Today, she inhabits instead the polychromatic confection that is Snow White. She is accompanied by a doppelgänger princess, incarnated by performance artist Russ Ligtas. As they sway and sigh sweetly, they are both so made-up and squeaky-voiced that the only gender role apparent is the artificially vapid sweetness of the Princess persona.
The show has a compact vocabulary. A set of sound bites and gestures from the original cartoon are appropriated, repeated, and reordered into a constellation of shifting inflections. “Goodbye,” “Hello there,” “Can you fly?” “Make a wish!”. Every 10 minutes or so, both princesses swoon into a heap of tears on the floor, before covering up their affective labour and recomposing themselves to resume the housework.
The piece intensifies when the princesses turn their charm on the audience, sidling up demurely to introduce themselves: the central incongruity of the brown body uttering, “I’m White, Snow White.” At the first response, Russ exclaims, “Oh, so you can talk! That’s wonderful!”. The reference to the dumb savage is just one example of the appropriated text that makes spot-on analogies adapted to a subtext of colonisation, privilege, colour discrimination, gender stereotypes, globalisation and inequalities. The line that breaks my heart is “Maybe they have no mother!” (referring originally to the dirty house of the seven dwarves). I recall that I have been raised by Filipina yayas (here we say “maid”) who left their own children to care for me in Singapore.
The princesses proceed to climb awkwardly among audience seats seeking conversations, charmingly invoking difficult topics with assumed naivety: What’s your name? What did you do today? What’s your work? Where did you buy your shoes? They coo that everything is “nice” and “wonderful” – with the inherent comparison of class difference, have and have nots. You do office work? I do housework. Oh, those shoes are expensive. I am sitting nearby when Princess Eisa shares a handful of imaginary gooseberries. Ten strangers pass the berries down the row and consume them delicately, affably entering in the roleplay of whitewashing and perfection.
Suddenly the girls/gurls call a “Filipino conference”. In a hilarious turn of the tables, they stand on stage and gossip about the audience in Tagalog. Most of the audience that night doesn’t understand, but my Filipina friend in the audience is doubled up laughing. The joke is on the colonisers and the rest of us who have never needed or wanted to learn Filipino languages – we have depended on Filipinos’ labour of learning English instead. Amidst the tittering banter, the Princesses drop theoretical terms in English including “post colonial feminism” and “intersectionality”. They put a manicured finger on the way that discourse is assumed to take place in English (or European languages) and rarely in the vocabularies of peoples in developing countries.
The climactic conclusion comes when the princesses’ saccharine veneer implodes from exhaustion, desperation, and accumulated hurt. “I’m terribly sorry… but you don’t know what I’ve been through!” The statement is repeated over and over, first as an apology, and then with the performers finally breaking out of their character falsetto into their real voices, in a howl of long-repressed rage. I find myself shaking in empathy – but subconsciously humming “Someday My Prince Will Come” as I put my son to bed later that night.
Princess was staged on 11 & 12 October at the Esplanade Studio Theatre as part of the Esplanade da:ns festival 2019. More info here.
Guest contributor Chan Sze-Wei is a dance maker, performance maker and sometime trouble maker. Her practice for the stage and screen is grounded a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, coupled with an interest in the politics of the body.