When it comes to the fictional female characters who have left lasting impressions on little girls and the women they grow up to be, none are more influential than the fabled Disney princess (rivaled perhaps by only Barbie). This logic is precisely why writer-turned-sex-educator Danielle Sepulveres had the brilliant idea to recast the popular princesses as modern-day gyno patients, to raise awareness for reproductive healthcare and the fight against cervical cancer.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 cervical cancer affected over 12,000 women, including 4,000 fatal cases. HPV, which can be both prevented and detected on many occasions is the leading cause of this disease, by far. And yet, each time writer Sepulveres attempted to pitch mainstream media outlets (even "women's issues" blogs) a story about Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month, she was rebuffed. It was clear her approach wasn't working, and that the stigma about HPV and women's reproductive healthcare was still alive and well. So, in order get the world's attention, Sepulveres upped the ante. In a collaborative effort with illustrator Maritza Lugo, the two depicted everyone's favorite storybook heroines receiving routine Gardasil shots, morning after pills, and STD tests. The results: images so powerful editors couldn't ignore them. Danielle Sepulveres: 1. Cervical cancer: 0. Disney princesses, they're just like us!
In one brightly colored picture, Tiana, of Disney's The Princess and The Frog, gets an HPV vaccination. In another, Belle of Beauty and The Beast visits the clinic for emergency contraception. Cinderella has blood drawn to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Aladdin and Jasmine stop by the doc for a little family planning session. The message: if the prettiest of princesses can take control of their reproductive well-being, then maybe more women and girls will realize there's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, and more lives will be saved.
Sepulveres became interested in sex education after writing a coming-of-age memoir about losing her virginity and contracting HPV (Losing It: The Semi-Scandalous Story of An Ex-Virgin). "I had barely heard of HPV and written it of as a 'promiscuous' disease, which is obviously an incredibly false and damaging assumption," she tells me. "The positive response to my book from teens and females in their twenties let me know it was important to tell my story so that no one felt alone or ashamed like I did." In fact, according to the CDC, nearly all sexually active people will get HPV at some time in their lives, although most strains are relatively harmless.
Sepulveres wanted to deliver real sex talk to young people, the kind of dialogue that wasn't happening in schools. I ask her about the problems with sex education today, and she rattles off a laundry list. "There's inaccurate information, there's the judgmental way it's taught in so many places to incite shame," she explains. "People are going to have sex, equip them with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about it. Don't shame or scare. Teach them."
So, of all the ways to educate young people, why on earth did she select Disney princesses? "As kids we identified with them and we still love them as we grow older. My illustrator Maritza and I took something that everyone already recognizes and said 'Hey, we know you're watching, we've got something important to say.' It was a risk and it worked," says Sepulveres. "I think it's essential putting visuals to a vital topic to drive the point home. It's so important to remove any stigma or embarrassment from self care where it matters," adds Lugo. And if Cinderella and Mulan can help remove these stigmas, we're all for it.
Text Jane Helpern
Images courtesy Danielle Sepulveres and Maritza Lugos