For decades, Disney has had a wealth of relatable, inspiring characters, including many women. From Mulan to Elsa, Esmerelda to Merida, Disney women are courageous and heroic. Unfortunately, that's not how Disney always represents them. Fan artist Elaine Ho points out the way Disney merchandises their female characters:
"There’s a glut of marketing materials of Disney princesses in very delicate poses. You know, one leg is slightly bent inwards, the head is tilted, shiny skirts everywhere. They’re all removed from the context of their stories which gave them their personalities. To me they are reduced to bodies parading pretty dresses."
That's what inspired Elaine to start her "Disney Women" series. She wanted to represent the strength, endurance, and courage these women show in their films. And that's exactly what she did in these powerful paintings, showcasing some of the Mouse's most famous leading ladies at their best.
Inspired by her work, I reached out to Elaine, and through the magic of the internet we got to have a chat about her work. If you want some of her fan-made princess merchandise for yourself, Elaine sells all kinds of prints in her shop on Society6, and be sure to follow her on Tumblr to keep up with her latest and greatest paintings.
Caleb: Let's start out simple to get things rolling. Tell us about yourself. How did you come to be an artist?
Elaine Ho: I was born in the US, moved to Singapore when I was four, came back to the US for my first degree in Psychology. I moved back to Singapore feeling completely lost about what I wanted to do, nearly sent off my application to law school and felt miserable the entire time. I took off some time to figure out what I really wanted to do, and that was art.
I wound up settled down in Los Angeles to pursue art as my second degree. I went to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, majoring in Entertainment Design. I attended for three years. During the last term I was working part time for a theme park company, so when they offered to make me a full time employee I accepted it and left school. Last year I switched jobs to work as a concept artist for virtual reality experiences, so that's been pretty exciting!
So art is your full-time source of income? Sounds like a dream come true! Is it everything you hoped it would be? Do you have any special plans in store for your personal art projects?
I do work as an artist as my day-job. I'm extremely fortunate to work in an industry I'm passionate about, plus being part of VR technology which (I hope) will take off in a major way in the next few years, so I have little to complain about. But as always, the grass is always greener on the other side. I think everyone has their own stories to tell, and I have definitely been bitten by that bug. It's mostly a matter of discipline at this point to force yourself to come home and do your own personal art even though you're exhausted. I have a few plans once I finish the "Disney Women" series, but I don't want to announce them quite yet! I find announcing things in advance makes me less likely to do the work.
Did you get into art when you were younger, or did you discover that love in college?
I did some pretty bad photomanipulations when I was 17–18, but overall, no, I didn't grow up with a pencil in my hand. I don't think I really saw art as a viable source of income until I saw some Assassin's Creed 2 concept art while I was surfing around one day, and realized this could be a career. I started doing art seriously only when I was 22, and it took me a while before I was considered good enough to be admitted into Art Center.
Now let's get down to your "Disney Women" series. Your paintings depict some of Disney's most beloved female characters, in scenes that express their character and their story from the movie. How did you get started?
It originally started out when I went to Disneyland with my fiancé, and despite the fact that I really love Disney, I never bought any of the merchandise. I didn't really try to figure out why I didn't like the stuff. So while we were watching World of Color, I asked my fiancé, as a joke, if he could be any princess, who would it be. He mentioned Tinkerbell, for the reasons laid out in the caption for that piece, and it was really kind of an eye-opening answer for me.
And that's when I started to see the merchandising in that kind of light, and I realized all the princesses were always posed in a kind of passive way. They're swirling their dresses, the head is tilted down, not up, and the only thing that defined these girls was how iconic their dresses were. I felt their poses were interchangeable and didn't really reflect who they were in the films.
I loved Disney films because of how relatable the characters were to my life, and the merchandise just didn't speak to me that way.
All of your paintings are titled simply with the character's name. Is there any reason behind that?
Oh wow, thank you so much for noticing this! I use their names to title my pieces. I don't like having quotes for titles or using the title to lead the viewer into interpreting the piece, or making the title more distracting than the painting — I want the piece to speak for itself. People sometimes read the captions I write for them on my blog, sometimes they don't, and to me it enhances the painting, but doesn't take away the focus from the piece. Titles do.
So how do you feel about the reaction you've been getting?
It's pretty amazing, to be honest! I'm glad that people liked reading the captions, particularly Rapunzel's, because her piece wasn't really a stereotypical depiction of strength like Elsa's. Hers was more of courage than annihilation.
It was really touching to see people in similar relationships who found the piece resonating with them and using that as their source of strength. It's a huge honor being able to contribute to people's lives like that.
Has it all been positive? Have you received much negative pushback?
I did actually, for the Mulan piece. I thought it was all valid — the main criticism was that Mulan wound up accepting herself as a woman at the end of the film, and she settles into her turquoise dress, and my depiction of her as a male warrior was not true to what her character turned out to be. There was also some pushback that I had "lightened up" Mulan by making her look more white than Chinese. I used myself as a reference for Mulan, since I'm Chinese, so I disagree, but it also doesn't mean their opinions are wrong either. I used that to be more mindful on depicting Esmeralda's skin tone afterwards.
So it's been a learning process. How else has the experience of drawing the "Disney Women" series helped you to grow as an artist?
I try to challenge myself for every piece I do, and this preceded the "Disney Women" series. I try to use different kinds of techniques in rendering for every piece I do, although sometimes I find myself going back to old habits, haha! I tried using unconventional angles that I never worked with before for Elsa, using really high contrast for Ariel, and tried going into a more stylized, brush-stroke finish for Rapunzel. I always look for something that I've never done before, and try to do it in every piece I make.
Have you done much Disney fan art before? What else do you like to draw in your spare time? What's your favorite subject?
I did do a Meg piece back in...2011? That was the only Disney fan art I did prior to the "Disney Women" series. It's a little mortifying looking at it today, haha!
I haven't had time to draw randomly in recent years, but I like to set myself small projects to work on, and I spend what little free time I have fulfilling those projects. Last year I self-published a small short story on the Hades and Persephone myth, titled "The Sixth Equinox," which in turn was based on a book called Receiver of Many retelling that same myth.
So my entire time was spent developing the look and planning how the book would look. The "Disney Women" series has also pretty much consumed my time, so a lot of it is also spent on developing composition and how the women would look in the painting.
My favorite subject switches between environments and people — I like drawing girls or 18th century architecture.
What mediums do you work with? What do you like about it? Are there any you haven't tried that you want to experiment with?
I'm mostly digital at this point — I use a Wacom Intuos 3 with Photoshop to paint. I like it because I get to mess around without feeling I'm wasting money, while for traditional mediums it's always trying to conserve as much material as possible. If I had time and space I really would love to do some clay sculpting, and creating little maquettes!
Take us back a few years to when you were a young artist still learning to draw. What would you like to go back and tell yourself?
I don't think I'd tell my younger self anything! My experiences and struggles shaped me to become the person I am today, and I would not want to change any of it. Younger Elaine can keep struggling to get herself accepted into Art Center — she'll figure it out!
That's a really unique and inspiring perspective. Now, at the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your "Disney Women" series?
That's an interesting question. I feel like I painted these women for myself first. If I didn't like what I was painting, then I should not expect other people to like it either. I feel the origins of creating this series came from fulfilling my own need of seeing these women as they were depicted in their films, as Disney's merchandising didn't strike a chord with me. I don't want to tell people how they feel about my paintings, and they should come to their own conclusions about their interpretations of it. If people liked my Ariel because of her butt (NSFW), then that's totally OK too! My purpose for delivering the paintings should not cancel out your own experience of it. If people find hope and strength in these paintings, that's the whipped cream and cherry and ice cream on the top.
One last question, just for fun. Who's your favorite Disney Princess?
Belle, because I have a thing for Beauty and the Beast-type stories, haha!
Ultimately, Elaine's art is meant to be interpretive, and I admire that respect she has for her audience. I can see a lot of people finding many different personal meanings in her paintings.
As for me, her work inspires me. It reminds me how strong and relatable these Disney characters are, and how important it is for young girls to get to see womanhood represented as more than pretty faces and frills, but as strength, bravery, and kindness, by women who are heroes — or even villains. Because these women are more than the bejeweled dresses and slim bodies that dolls and other Disney merchandising focuses on. It's an injustice to the characters, and the girls who look to them as role models.
Elaine sums it up for me in the caption she wrote to the Esmerelda piece on her blog:
Don’t stay silent. Speak out.
Want more Disney awesomeness? Check out the video below and learn a few new facts about your favorite childhood company: