by Katrina Stuart Santiago
There are no fairytales where I come from, not anymore. A dictator has taken over the Palace. He has normalized violence and hate, vitriol and misogyny. His kingdom is ruled by lies. He flouts the law. He questions kindness and compassion. Everyone is a suspect unless they prove loyal. Loyalty has a price: he overpays his soldiers, puts them in civilian positions. Tens of thousands are killed. No justice is served.
The "Princess Collection" by Eisa Jocson is bound to the princesses sold by Disney, that same one we read in fairytales as children, that same one that many Filipino women have become, as they are exported by nation to perform as princesses in Disneylands elsewhere.
We claim we have the best talents in the world. That comes with a caveat: we transform into who you want us to be, a shadow of who we really are. We do erasure well.
Snow White is as foreign to this country as snow is to the tropics, but the imagination of the princess is at the heart of most our romantic narratives. Here, where wooing the girl remains culturally important, and treating her “like a princess” — serving her hand and foot, providing for her needs — is patriarchal ritual.
What’s unsaid is that in exchange for this “princess treatment” the woman is deemed as object to be cared for, not subject with a voice. She is seen, not heard. She is on a pedestal, being watched. She is unspeaking.
The first installation is a low table filled with crayons and coloring book princesses. We tell princesses apart by their looks: what they wear, the colors they carry. She does not speak, has no personality, but she comes in full color. She is painted based on what we want.
Opposite the table are two video installations. One, a 13-minute choreographed routine of two Snow Whites, dancing in unison to classical piano accompaniment, slow and deliberate, with willowy bodies and graceful hands. It’s an eerie display of control, but also of manipulation: they could be robots, down to the smiles plastered on their faces.
Two, a 40-minute video of the Princess Parade, a public intervention project with seven princesses traversing a 2.7-kilometer stretch from the Cultural Center of the Philippines to the Embassy of the United States of America, stopping at pertinent points to dance, gesticulating graciously the rest of the way. The path they walk is symbolic of a crisis: our female actors move from nation’s cultural centers to the fake world of Disney.
Regardless, they perform as expected: poised and elegant. Almost fluid, practically sinuous. And don’t forget: silent.
Princess-hood is akin to servitude.
You are told to walk barefoot down a short hallway that leads to a stark white room. It’s an installation of life-size Princess Dolls, one lying on the floor, another sitting in the corner. They are dismembered. There is no blood in sight, yet it feels like a crime scene.
Arms on the floor cut at the elbow, legs unseen, hair disheveled, glassy eyes staring into nothingness. An audio recording on loop of what one imagines is a princess speaking, crying — that lilt in her voice, that artificial pitch. These are mannequins. These are us.
The effect is one that’s visceral because it is terrifyingly familiar. Women know of carnage like this. We know of this final act of stifling us to the point of asphyxiation. There is no space to move, no time to negotiate. Just one limp body sooner than later.
The cruelty in this space is the hostility we live with every day, in a time and place where we are increasingly objectified and recklessly endangered — be it as princess body parts on pedestals, or as princess performers shipped off to the next Disneyland.
The abuses might be different. The violence remains the same.
The dictator in the Palace is brutal. He kills our brothers and fathers and husbands. His voice is an echo that rings in our ears: As long as there are pretty women, there will be rape! Why wasn’t I allowed to rape her first? Soldiers, policemen, you can rape women, once twice thrice, and I will take responsibility for your crimes! Shoot women in the vagina! I wish to offer virgins to tourists. Give me a kiss, woman!
We hear the unofficial State policy loud and clear: this tyrant treats women like princesses.
What does this mean? No voice, no opinion, no personality. Just bodies. Colored and pretty and gracious. Dismembered and glassy-eyed. Deathly quiet.
And Jocson reminds us by doing this work at all: we can be deadly, too. Consider this as fair warning coming from your princesses. ***