Lately, we’ve seen Disney Princesses do a fair amount more than prance around castles in tiaras. From hipster Ariel and punk Aurora to the whole gang done up as flesh-eating zombies, our fairytale icons have become a canvas for modern obsessions and cultural memes alike. But, the trend might have just jumped the shark: Milan-based artist Alexsandro Palombo decided to do up the cartoon characters as sexy breast cancer survivors — along with jagged stitches, come-hither looks, and nipples replaced by cheery pink ribbons.
The artist says his work is all about raising awareness and acceptance — great goals, to be sure. Most of the online coverage (and there’s been lots these last few weeks) is taking him at his word. Which is troubling, since what he’s claiming as “awareness raising” ends up feeling like little more than profiteering on the shock value created by a weird juxtaposition. Then there's the fact that his work cuts the real, human story out the narrative of this disease.
“I’m all for art that pushes boundaries,” says Tricia Gately Mackey, who had a pre-emptive double mastectomy after discovering she carried the BRCA1 gene. To her, the pieces aren’t a meaningful way of telling that story as much as a way to shock people with the pairing of childhood fantasy and adult disease. “I don’t like them at all. In fact, I think the last thing they do is portray empowerment or bravery. It's shock value — pure and simple.”
Palombo is no stranger to using kids’ cartoon characters for their shock value in his artwork. In the past, he’s drawn Marge Simpson as if she were a high-fashion Vogue cover star. And, he's illustrated the comic adventures of Kimye. Palombo's artwork, he told us, is like a mirror that reflects the cultural expression of the society in which we live. “I mix up color, iconic cartoons characters, satirism, humor, realism, and surrealism. This way, I try to entertain and have people to reflect.”
That “mirror” has also taken on some very serious subjects: Palombo’s princesses (as well as characters like Lois Griffin, Jessica Rabbit, Olive Oyl, and Betty Boop) have been featured as bloodied-and-bruised victims of domestic violence, potentially suicidal sufferers of online bullying, and wheelchair-bound amputees, all in the name of "raising awareness." Palombo says his most recent variation on a theme promotes a message of "hope and courage" for women struggling with body image and self-acceptance following mastectomies.
Writer and breast cancer survivor Joanna Montgomery sees that silver lining in the illustrations. She points out that, by drawing attention to issues of survivorship in a graphic way, Palombo is helping to facilitate an ongoing dialogue about the cancer journey and scars themselves. “Survivorship is beautiful, in my opinion,” she says, “and my scars are just a visual souvenir of this part of my journey.”
Recognizing that women’s bodies are beautiful even after (especially after) a journey like breast cancer is crucial. One out of every eight women born today will develop breast cancer at some point in her life, and almost anything that encourages awareness and early action is a good thing. That said, there’s something about Palombo’s method here that isn’t sitting quite right. By taking perfect bodies and simply adding scars, he’s leaving out most of the story: Jessica Rabbit minus one breast is a far cry from what real women go through, and — with her swollen pout and purple-gloved hand emphasizing ample cleavage — she looks less like an empowered survivor than fetish porn.
It doesn’t help that the princesses in the work are making playful peace signs and staring at us with come-hither winks — as if there's something about their mastectomies that is, in itself, sexual. We’re all for helping women reclaim their sexualities, but here that often seems to blur into the weird idea that cancer is sexy and playful. That idea in anti-cancer work (see everything from the “Save The Boobies” campaign to documentaries with titles like Crazy, Sexy Cancer) has created backlash among cancer survivors. Survivor Tricia Mackey objected to it here: “I hate the peace sign most of all. It just doesn't make sense… Mastectomies usually come with battling a horrific disease, and after having this surgery, a peace sign? That just doesn't work for me.”
At the end of the day, building awareness and acceptance is a positive thing. But, plastering stitches across cartoon landscapes once occupied by unrealistically perky breasts seems like the wrong way to go about empowering women in general and cancer survivors specifically. In fact, we’re hoping this will be the death knell for using unrealistic images of made-up women to represent the experiences of actual women.