“moutainESS” series (diptych)
The Santa Cruz Mountains, Los Gatos, CA
For five years our second cousins, known as the girls next door, played as princesses outside in our redwood tree mountain yard almost every day. My kids seamlessly jumped into these outdoor princess playtime scenarios before they could even walk. What I loved about these princesses in the woods was that they had come up with what I would describe as the perfect balance of pink clothing, shiny tiaras, pastel tulle skirts, dirt, sticks, and an aptitude for physical fitness. The children hardly ever wore shoes, their princess outfits were never spotless, and they were at ease in nature (except for the shrieks from anyone who accidentally stepped on a banana slug).
The traditional princess narrative gave me pause, but also the chance to explore it. Before I had kids, I studied human rights and gender roles as part of my work and my husband, who never had any sisters and who had also never visited Disney World, was very passionate about raising a strong and independent daughter. In addition, our son was out-numbered by the girls in this fairy-tale play and the definition of the male gender role was also of interest. So many questions came to my mind about the contemporary princess: Just how does the princess narrative affect girls today? Why does my husband not approve of many parts of the traditional princess narrative for our daughter? How does princess play affect our son and how will the next generation define gender? My husband thinks of the traditional definitions of princesses as embodying helplessness, weakness, docility, popular culture’s idea of physical beauty, and a subservience to males. This was all intriguing to me because it was not what I directly observed in the princess play that took place in my lawn. What I saw was a fascinating process of exploration. My own ideas about childhood began to unravel and I started to appreciate that just because something doesn’t have an end goal or a defined ending (like fairytales do), that the process can be as equally important as following a defined path or set of instructions for life. The process of doing something without an adult goal in mind was something I had been separated from for many years.
As a mature woman, the princess-themes to me represented being perfect, looking perfect, and acting perfectly, striving for a fairytale life – and an identity that pleased everyone. However, what I witnessed in the mountain princesses in the woods was a lot of sloppy sand, dirt, insects, and a physical connection with nature and self-assuredness. I observed in the outdoor play setups, a freedom of exploration, adventure, and self-determination, ultimately something much more interesting than my definition of perfection. In this series, I contrast the idea of the collective perfect princess with my ‘mountainESS series’ photographs, including images of the children’s imperfect, yet perfect mud-pie creations displayed on a tree-stump table in our side yard. I wanted to show how these mud-pies and children's domestic creations very much contrasted the perfect Pinterest examples and the parenting standards of today. In creating this work, I questioned children’s play and how scripted and unscripted tales for life relate to the way that we as adults define how we are supposed to live our adult lives. Ultimately, I wanted to figure out how to create an environment of freedom for my children to build their own authentic identity in today’s world.