Disney After Dark: A Review of Paul McCarthy’s Drawings for White Snow

ESSAY by Ben Stolurow

Disney After Dark: A Review of Paul McCarthy’s Drawings for White Snow: University of Chicago Renaissance Society, September 2015- January 2016

These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death.
-Julia Kristeva [i]

Maybe it’s a conditioned response: we’re taught to be disgusted by our fluids…Body fluids are base material…The body sack, the sack you don’t enter, it’s taboo to enter the sack. Fear of sex and the loss of control.
-Paul McCarthy [ii]

“Inside Her Ordeal,” WS, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

If you didn’t know better, you might assume Paul McCarthy’s studies for White Snow were recovered from the basement of a disgruntled Disney illustrator in the wake of a heinous crime spree. The images, studies for a 2013 video installation at the Park Avenue Armory, present a grizzly reimagining of Disney’s 1937 classic, Snow White. Executed in a variety of media, they depict a familiar cast of cartoon characters engaged in acts of extreme sexual violence, torture, necrophilia, and coprophagia. Many of the images are heavily annotated in McCarthy’s sloppy, often garbled, script. The text, “Walt dont care/ it hurts but he/ dont care” accompanies a sketch of White Snow’s protagonist, Walt Paul (a combination of Walt Disney and Paul McCarthy), watching apathetically as a man-sized rabbit severs his penis with a pair of sheers. On the far wall of the gallery, a ghostly, larger-than-life portrait of the show’s heroine, White Snow, grins vacantly at the viewer from empty eye sockets (“Inside Her Ordeal” (2009)). Her placid, dollish expression clashes forcefully with the huge, bloody penis hovering menacingly above her right shoulder. In place of her body, an incoherent mass of lines and smeared pigments hang like entrails, papered indiscriminately with cutout images of tabloid divas and porn stars. Violent lines and daubs of pigment crisscross the work haphazardly, pooling in dirty shadows, intersecting and obscuring the central figures, even tearing through the paper in places to leave open wounds in the body of the image. Subtlety is not McCarthy’s forte. His drawings give shape to the depravity he sees just below the surface of the American fairytale, while his crude, cartoonish aesthetic parodies a blockbuster material culture that panders to its audience’s insatiable desire for shocking novelty. Critics of McCarthy often claim that, in an era when anyone with high speed internet can watch a woman copulate with a horse, Jihadists behead a hostage, or a man dissect his own genitals with a hatchet, the power of shock has been largely neutralized. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, McCarthy’s crude sketches maintain a unique ability to disturb. Their ghosts persist in our memories and flash, unbidden, into our conscious thoughts. Through the dissonant marriage of a sexuality that we recognize and a brutality that we want to deny, McCarthy challenges our notions of what sex is and how it relates to the formation of subjecthood.

On the surface, White Snow is a repudiation of the mythic architecture of the fairytale. McCarthy’s preparatory studies pair the vacant, cartoonish face of the Disney heroine with tabloid cover girls and glossy cutouts from porno magazines, exposing the Princess as yet another reification of the patriarchal female ideal. These images blend the virginal and domestic with the bawdy and salacious, positing modern femininity as an oxymoronic pastiche of radically conflicting virtues. McCarthy’s drawings subvert the predictable logic of the fairytale. He makes no attempt to situate his tableaux in a larger logical or ethical framework. In fact, his figures actively balk teleology; White Snow has all the narrative clarity of an orgy. McCarthy’s storyboards eschew plot and chronology, focusing on discrete moments of penetration, excretion, pain, and pleasure. These images blend abjection and ecstasy in a forceful reappraisal of the mythos of the human animal.

“Dwarf House,” WS, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

When asked about his fascination with Disney, McCarthy told one interviewer: “Disneyland is so clean; hygiene is the religion of fascism.” [iii] For McCarthy, the fascism of Hollywood fantasy is embodied in the sanitized narratives of sex and gender, family and nation that structure our understanding of society and the subject. Mapped onto physical spaces and structures – the suburban home, the female body – these narratives conflate appearance and identity. McCarthy works to subvert these associations. In White Snow, the dwarf’s cottage is an amalgamation of elements from the Disney original and McCarthy’s childhood home outside of Salt Lake City. By transposing the fictional narrative of the fairytale onto the real site of suburban life, McCarthy confuses the distinction between fiction and reality. At the same time, the cornucopia of violence and depravity that occurs within the cottage mocks the image of suburban Middle America as a bastion of family values. The image “Dwarf House” (2009) (fig.2) depicts the skeletal blueprint of a quaint cottage meticulously grafted over a mass of amorphous bodies. This architectural overlay fails to contain or rationalize the clustered figures. In fact, its stark geometric forms further obscure and subdivide the work’s already indistinct subjects. This visual metaphor articulates McCarthy’s view of a world of bodies confined, constantly struggling against the constraints of social and psychical structures. For McCarthy, the most fundamental of these structures is the human body. His installations, performances, and drawings explore the architecture of the body–its plumbing, entrances, and exits–and the ways in which these features are inscribed in narrative and correlated with identity.

In a 2003 interview for Vice magazine, McCarthy described “architecture” as “an institution for repression,” and a “frame and/or stage for trauma.” [iv] In the early performance “Plaster Your Head and One Arm into a Wall” (1973), McCarthy enacts this sentiment with almost comic literalness, using one arm to plaster his other arm and head into the wall of his studio. In later video installations, architectural imagery and the illusory architecture of the set function as material metaphors for a larger set of socially constructed spaces, exposing the ways in which these environments shape and constrain subjectivity. In White Snow, this spatial conceit is further expanded to include the physical, psychological, biological, and verbal structures that participate in the social production of identity.

For McCarthy, Hollywood and the mechanisms of popular culture are the primary authors of the American identity crisis, manufacturing a narrative of heterosexual normativity that marginalizes all other forms of subjecthood. McCarthy’s works defamiliarize the human body in an attempt to disrupt conventional narratives of sexuality and identity. Far from legible social glyphs, like the straightforward figures on restroom doors, McCarthy’s figures transition fluidly from passive to active modes of sexuality, challenging the notions of sexual orientation and gender as “ahistorical, essential, biologically determined,” categories. [v]

Moments of sexual fluidity in which male subjects submit passively to penetration present a “radically revised imagination of the body’s capacity for pleasure” akin to Leo Bersani’s notion of “self-shattering”: the willful and pleasurable transgression of the ego’s boundaries that occurs in moments of extreme pleasure, horror, or pain.[vi] Bersani describes these liminal sensations as “the jouissance of exploded limits.”[vii] For him, “self-shattering” is a polemical pleasure with the potential to transgress both personal and cultural boundaries. He imagines homosexual sex as a challenge to the patriarchal values encoded in normative sexual practices, and the gay man’s rectum as a “grave in which the masculine ideal…of proud subjectivity is buried.”[viii] The existential masochism inherent in the notion of “self-shattering” recurs throughout McCarthy’s five decade long career. In his drawings, videos, and performances, he disfigures and subverts the recognizable attributes of the male body in an effort to challenge prevailing notions of masculinity. In Sailor’s Meat (Sailor’s Delight) (1975), the artist, wearing black satin panties and a silver wig, has sex with a pile of ground meat, slathers his body in mayonnaise, and inserts sausages in his mouth and rectum. [ix] His performance challenges the correlation of practice, appearance, and identity, presenting sexuality as a polymorphous set of impulses, sensations, and practices that cannot be mapped neatly onto a discrete identity.

“White Snow, Part 2, The Beginning,” WS, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

The subversive interplay of sexuality and identity is also a major theme in McCarthy’s drawings. In one panel of a storyboard (“White Snow, Part 2, Trial, 4”) Walt is shown contemplating the wound where his penis used to be. Later in the same panel, he attempts to fit his severed organ into this newly formed orifice. Finally, prone, assuming the come-hither pose of a porn starlet, he prepares to insert his penis in his rectum while quipping: “my asshole/ is a round hole/ perfect.” Violently ungendered, Walt does not lose his sexuality; rather, he experiences a sexual efflorescence. The mutilation of his body frees him from the constraints of a heterosexual masculine identity and the prescribed sexuality that such an identity demands. By embracing the erogenous potential of his new vaginal orifice, and his anus, Walt discovers “the value of powerlessness.” [x] Penetrating his rectum with his own severed penis, Walt reclaims his body as a site of autoerotic pleasure. At the same time, his simultaneous expression of active and passive sexual impulses speaks to a polymorphous vision of human sexuality. Walt’s body, freed from social determination, becomes a site of unrestricted pleasure.

However, this picture of sexuality is both unstable and ambiguous. Some of the characters in White Snow certainly experience moments of autoerotic revelry, but these instances are the exception and not the rule. By and large, McCarthy depicts sex as a violent power struggle, which can maim or even destroy its subjects. In McCarthy’s works, this existential violence arises from the patriarchal discourses of straight, white America, which promote the objectification and fetishization of female and minority bodies. The persistent appeal of Disney fairytales speaks to America’s unshakable infatuation with the mythos of heterosexual romance and a passive and unthreatening ideal of female sexuality. For McCarthy, these myths subsume identity, crushing individuals under the weight of cultural association. By juxtaposing scenes of extreme sexual violence with collaged images of women from tabloids and pornographic magazines, he draws attention to the violent subjugation of identity that occurs in the willful transformation of subjects into sexual objects. Where McCarthy’s sadistic cartoon characters literally dissect, deface, and violate each other’s bodies, the close cropped photographs of disembodied breasts and vaginas enact a symbolic dismemberment of the female subject, reducing femininity to a constellation of interchangeable erotic signifiers. At the same time, McCarthy presents violence as an inherent attribute of human sexuality, which exists independently of, and despite, cultural influence. His works reflect the notion that “so-called normal sexuality is already pornographic,” that sex will always, in part, be a selfish act of self-gratification and an assertion, or surrender, of agency.[xi] McCarthy’s art centers on acts of extreme domination and submission in which subjects flicker on the threshold of extinction. More than hyperbolic illustrations of the symbolic violence of penetration, these images speak to the metaphysical violence that sexualization performs on the human subject.

Paul McCarthy, “Drawings for White Snow,” Installation View, 2015. Photo by Tom Van Eynde, Courtesy of the Renaissance Society

McCarthy’s drawings allegorize dehumanization as a physical act. The characters in White Snow torture, vivisect, and rape one another without reason or justification. They appear motivated only by a powerful impulse to destroy the other and assert their dominance over its abject remains. In one series of panels, White Snow defecates in Walt’s mouth after orally sodomizing him with a wine bottle. In this coprophagic parody of intercourse and ejaculation the bottle assumes the sexual significance of the phallus. It is the implement of penetration in an act of violent domination. By reducing Walt to an object, a receptacle for her phallic agency, she asserts the dominance of her agency over his. In another panel, a dwarf sodomizes Walt with a broomstick while another presses his head into a pail of water, obscuring his face. Again, both the violation of his body and the subjugation of his agency are pictured as acts of domination rather than of pleasure. In both images, Walt is sodomized with phallic objects rather than actual penises. These objects invoke a domineering masculine sexuality located not in the site of the male body, but in dynamics of normative heterosexual sex. Walt is simply the victim of this predatory sexuality, his feminized body acting as a site of sexual violence. White Snow’s body is also subjected to violent disfiguration. A larger, color study depicts the princess’s mutilated face, masked in blood, reclining (in a state of unconsciousness or death) beside her severed nose and tongue. In this image, sexual violence is pictured as an act of literal defacement, rendering its victim insensible, and dumb. Without her tongue, without language, she cannot articulate her identity as subject, or pose any ontological challenge to her violent objectification.

In this sense, McCarthy’s drawings are images of abjection, described by Julia Kristeva as that which “disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.”[xii] The corpse is a prominent motif in Kristeva’s writing; it is the material residue of an extinguished being, a liminal object that shows up the ephemerality of life. McCarthy’s brutal caricatures draw attention to the same liminal moments between life and death, subjecthood and objecthood. In one particularly striking image, a gallery of anthropomorphic animals stands over Walt’s decapitated corpse. A bear with a bloody cleaver stares fixedly at the void that he has created between Walt’s oozing neck hole and his freshly severed head. The scene is eerily calm, a bathetic denouement to the anti-narrative of human life. The violent deconstruction of Walt’s body destroys its coherency as a signifier of identity. Walt loses his agency and identity well before he loses his life. In image after image, his mangled remains are treated as a fleshy prop with which other subjects articulate their agency. Death is the culminating moment of his dissolution into nonbeing; the final, anticlimactic violation of a body no longer capable of containing a recognizable subject. Walt’s corpse, a human subject made object, travesties the romantic notion of an inviolable and transcendent human essence. In McCarthy’s works, there is no neat separation between subject and object. Bodies are both social signifiers and fragile sacks of “visceral goo”, equally susceptible to physical and metaphysical abuse. [xiii] The abject object of the corpse “simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes” the viewer, forcing him to recognize the fragile contingency of life and identity.[xiv]


“White Snow Shit Scoot 1,” WS, 2013. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

McCarthy’s drawings present an abjection of human sexuality, transforming familiar and pleasurable acts into deplorable ones through the transposition of agony and ecstasy, organ and object. His works dislocate sexuality from the body and subsume it in a symbolic discourse of violence and submission. McCarthy’s characters wield an arsenal of phallic weaponry—bottles, rods, cleavers—to pierce and dominate their partners. White Snow characterizes bodily orifices, like the “mouth, ears, eye sockets, rectum, vagina, penis hole,” as wounds, sites of unwanted entry where allegorical domination finds its material instantiation. [xv] Sexual penetration is at once a physical and metaphysical assault, a transgression of the body and the subject by which one agent asserts its dominance over another. Climax is not the moment of greatest excitation, but the fleeting dissolution of the sexual subject in a moment of total objectification. In this sense, the orgasm is a displaced pleasure. By pairing acts of violence and intercourse, McCarthy suggests that the true jouissance of sexual release is the momentary eradication of one subject by another.

“White Snow Placemat,” WS, 2014. Courtesy of the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

McCarthy’s drawings reveal the failure of human structures to articulate identity. They probe the space between appearance and reality, exposing the contradictions that shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. His works reveal the existential angst at the heart of the human experience and the vast web of narratives and fantasies we construct to shore up the fundamental irrationality of our existence. Ironically, a visit to see McCarthy’s drawings is much like a trip to Disneyland; both experiences leave the viewer slightly queasy and with a decidedly worse impression of humanity.


[i] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 3.

[ii] Paul McCarthy, “In Conversation with Benjamin Weissman,” in Sexuality, edited by Amelia Jones (Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2014), 158-159.

[iii] McCarthy, “In Conversation,” 159. 

[iv] McCarthy, “In Conversation,” 158-159. 

[v] Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” October, Vol. 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (1987): 209. 

[vi] Ibid, 215.

[vii] Ibid, 217.

[viii] Ibid, 222.

[ix] Phillips, “Theater of the Body,” 5. 

[x] Bersani, “Rectum,” 217.

[xi] Bersani,”Rectum,” 214. 

[xii] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 4. 

[xiii] McCarthy, “In Conversation,” 160. 

[xiv] Kristeva, “Powers of Horror,” 5. 

[xv] McCarthy, “In Conversation,” 159.


Ben Stolurow (MAPH ’16) is an aspiring art historian and author. He is currently a doctoral student in art history at Johns Hopkins University. 

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