For those of you that don’t know, Snow White is the story of a beleaguered young girl forced into servitude by her stepfamily whose stepmother is criminally jealous of her beauty. Obsessed with being the No.1 hottie, when Snow White finally comes of age and is deemed more beautiful, her wicked stepmother tries to have her killed. Snow White gets away and stays with some dwarves for a bit, but when her stepmother finds out she’s alive she gives her a poisoned apple that puts her into an enchanted sleep. Everybody’s miserable about poor old Snow being basically dead, but then a handsome prince trots along, gives her a kiss and she wakes up again. He marries her, they live happily ever after and the stepmother drops down dead – from jealousy or red-hot metal shoes being forced onto her feet, depending on which version you read.
What’s interesting about this particular fairy tale – aside from all the teenage runaways, attempted murder and step-matricide – is that unlike many of its counterparts, Snow White appears to have pretty recent origins. Unlike Cinderella, which can trace its origins back to Ancient Greece, Snow White doesn’t seem to have been around much before the Middle Ages. In fact, some scholars believe that Snow White may have been based on a real person – a German countess called Margaretha von Waldeck, or a young Bavarian noblewoman called Maria Sophia von Erthal. Both young women had difficult relationships with their stepmothers and one of them was poisoned, but beyond that, there’s not much evidence for their lives being used as inspiration for the fairy tale.
Regardless of whether Snow White is the medieval equivalent of a Lifetime movie, there’s no denying that the fairy tale has had a huge impact on the popular consciousness. The most popular version of the story is the one made known by the Brothers Grimm, but there are versions of the tale found all over the world. New versions are still popping up in the form of adaptations – whether that’s movies, TV shows, poems, video games, musicals or animes. It’s very easy to view Snow White the character as a combination of all of these different adaptations – she’s been the star of literally thousands of different stories.
But I’m not going to look at all of them. I’ve chosen six variations of the Snow White story and I’ll be seeing how each measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.
Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!
This version of the story is the basis of most modern adaptations, although it does tend to get toned down quite a bit. Snow White is a pretty passive character whose fate is decided by other people wanting to murder or marry her. She doesn’t have any goals, beliefs or hobbies and much of her characterisation revolves around how good, sweet, innocent and kind she is – but this is, at least, consistent.
You can’t tell her story without referencing her physical appearance – there’s just no getting away from the fact that her entire story revolves around the fact that she’s a total hottie. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that her love life affects many of her decisions. Snow White’s decisions revolve around staying alive or finding a few nice things for herself. It’s the Prince who dictates her love life when he comes across her unconscious/possibly dead body and decides to MAKE OUT WITH AND MARRY HER.
She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have a weakness and while she does influence the story in some way, she plays a very passive role. She’s reacting to other people’s actions or letting the plot revolve around her. As far as her relationships with other female characters go, we only really see her interact with her stepmother (or mother, in the original story), and while their relationship raises all sorts of interesting questions about jealousy and female competition it isn’t explored in any real depth. And when it comes to gender stereotypes, she’s practically a cliché with legs. She’s a lesson on the dangers of female vanity and jealousy in red lipstick, not a character with any real development, agency or personality of her own.
FINAL SCORE: 3/10
While the Brothers Grimm interpretation is the version of the tale most commonly used as inspiration, the one that most people actually know is the 1937 Walt Disney film. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t do much for her character, either. Her fate as a larger whole is still decided by other people playing a real life game of Screw, Marry, Kill. She does have a bit more to her in this version – we know she’s fond of cooking, cleaning, dancing and singing, and she believes in a lot of vague, wishy-washy stuff about true love and following your star and the power of dreams, etc. Her personality is pretty similar to the original fairy tale – we don’t see much different to the original kind, sweet, innocent heroine.
You still can’t describe her story without referencing her physical appearance. Thankfully her love life starts featuring in the story BEFORE she slips into a coma rather than during, but it actually doesn’t affect a lot of her decisions – once again, she focuses on staying alive while the Prince is the one actively pursuing her. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have any weaknesses aside from being just too kind, and she’s even less of an influence on the plot than in the original fairy tale. Her relationship with the Evil Queen isn’t given any more depth – if anything, we see less of it in this version – and when it comes to gender stereotypes she’s another walking morality tale. Much like Cinderella, her story is used to sell the idea that goodness, kindness and innocence will see a girl through all her troubles – never mind things like self-reliance, being proactive, taking your fate into your own hands and having more than a spoonful of common sense.
FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10
This is probably one of the most radically different interpretations of the Snow White fairytale, and certainly one of the versions I most enjoy. Told from the perspective of the ‘evil’ queen, in this version Snow White is an unholy vampire, Prince Charming is a necrophiliac, and the long-suffering step-queen is trying her best to conquer evil, govern the kingdom and just not get eaten. Snow White has a bit more control over her own fate, as she’s trying to take down her stepmother, but ultimately her ‘Destiny’ is decided by what she is rather than what she does. She has a pretty clear goal – get back at her stepmother – but she’s such a mysterious character that we don’t actually know a lot about her hobbies and beliefs.
She’s consistently portrayed as a cold, manipulative, ruthless character with the ability to hold people in her sway. It’s very easy to describe her without referencing her love life, appearance or the words ‘strong female character’, too: “a terrifying vampire princess determined to get revenge on the stepmother who cast her out”. Her love life features in the story quite a bit, but Snow White uses it as a means to an end – she uses her sexuality to lure in her victims and nom on their tasty, tasty necks. She doesn’t appear to feel any actual love at all, and so most of her decisions are motivated by a desire to feed herself or get back into power rather than real emotions.
She does suffer from the classic ‘mysterious character’ syndrome – she’s so mysterious that we don’t actually know all that much about her, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how her personality develops. She does have a tendency to underestimate people and isn’t very good at spotting when people are trying to kill her, but other than that she’s something of a superhuman. Because she’s so determined to eat some people she drives the plot forward all through the story, but when it comes to gender stereotypes it’s not so clear-cut. In some ways she’s quite progressive, in that she’s a young woman who has no boundaries, will do anything to stay alive and is stone cold evil, ruthless and (literally) bloodthirsty. In other ways she really isn’t – she falls right into the bracket of the Femme Fatale, who uses her womanly wiles to lure men to their doom. Much like the original fairy tale, we only really see her interact with her stepmother, but this relationship is given a lot more depth and detail as the two see each other as adversaries on the same level.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
And now we come to the more recent adaptations of the Snow White fairy tale. Once Upon A Time doesn’t set out to tell Snow White’s story alone – it draws on several other fairy tale characters, but Snow White is one of the principal ones. Set in the little American town of Storybrooke, the plot revolves around several fairy tale characters who find themselves stuff in the real world – and the ‘Saviour’ who’s supposed to lead them home.
In this version, Snow White’s destiny is largely in her own hands – she does still react to stuff the bad guys set in motion, but she’s more than capable of trying to improve her life under her own steam. She has some pretty clearly defined goals and beliefs – she believes in doing what’s right, trusting in herself and the importance of family and true love, and she’s always looking to secure a safe life for her family. Her personality is pretty consistent – she’s kind, brave, determined and generally well-meaning – but her skills are another matter, as she’s pretty much perfect at everything without having to put much effort in.
It’s possible to describe her story and character if you focus on her goals to take back her kingdom and secure a good life for her family – and this is also what motivates most of her decisions (rather than her love life). She also develops over the course of her own story, as she buries the hatchet with the Evil Queen and learns to see the world in less black and white terms. However, she doesn’t really have much of a weakness as she’s just so perfect.
She’s another one of those characters who can stand still and let the plot generate itself around her, and most of the time she’s reacting to the actions of other characters rather than acting of her own accord. However, she’s actually pretty decent in terms of gender stereotype as she’s a character who wants to settle down and raise a family, while also taking her rightful place as queen, organising military campaigns, and governing a kingdom. As far as her relationships with other female characters go, she has plenty to choose from, and over the course of the series these are allowed to develop in their own distinct ways. I don’t particularly like Once Upon A Time (or Snow’s character in the show, for that matter) but I have to say that I think she’s done a pretty good job.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10
This retelling is one of those modern takes on fairy tales where the screenwriters are desperate to stick to the original story while trying to get around the fact that their protagonist is a bit of a wet blanket. Mirror Mirror is a formulaic retelling of the fairy tale except this time, Snow White is actively trying to bring down the Evil Queen. She joins a group of dwarves who happen to be bandits and plots to overthrow the queen – all while never raising her voice above a demure whisper.
Snow White has a stab at taking control of her own destiny – she does spend the movie trying to overthrow the queen – but a lot of her actions are the result of her own physical attractiveness or the actions of other characters driving the plot. She believes in fairness, equality and being a responsible ruler, and works towards getting the queen out of power and saving the prince. Her personality is consistently kind, sweet, innocent and well-meaning, and even though she does go from sheltered little princess to sword-wielding bandit we do actually see her train for this.
You can describe her without referencing her love life, appearance or the words ‘Strong Female Character’ – a kind, well-meaning young princess trying to take back her kingdom. However, her love life still motivates a lot of her actions, as she’s only trying to save the Prince because she fancies him. She develops confidence and self-reliance over the course of the story, but doesn’t really have any weaknesses that hold her back, and she’s another one of those characters whose influence on the plot is mainly reacting to other characters. Usually it’s Julia Roberts hammily ruining her life, a generically good-looking Prince pursuing her and swooning a bit, or even the disappearance of her father, the king, who is inexplicably played by Sean Bean.
In terms of gender stereotypes, she’s quite deceptive. She’s set up as a character who breaks down gender stereotypes by running away, stealing things and overthrowing a kingdom but if you really look at her, she’s very much on the back foot. Most of her moments of empowerment are things other characters cajole her into doing, which really takes away from any positive stuff she might have had. When it comes to her relationships with other female characters, she really only has two – the evil queen, who is nasty, and the cook, who is nice. That isn’t really good enough – and to be frank, the same can be said for the rest of the film.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
This last retelling is probably the one which got the most attention in recent years. Released in 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman desperately attempts to re-cast Snow White as a ‘Strong Female Character’ by putting her in some armour, having her fight off the evil Queen Ravenna, and giving her an emergency spine transplant. However, it doesn’t quite hold up. Snow White isn’t really in control of her own destiny, as her entire fate revolves around her royal blood and the fact that she is the only one who can grant the queen immortality. The Queen spends most of the story trying to kill her, so she has no real option but to take her out if she wants to stay alive.
We don’t see any of her hobbies, and her beliefs aren’t explored much beyond the typical goodness, justice and kindness, but throughout the film she strives to get away from, and then defeat, Queen Ravenna. She’s consistently good, sweet, kind and determined but her skills are all over the place. She’s got unexplained magical powers coming out of her ears, and after spending half of her life locked up in a tower she’s suddenly strong enough to put on full plate armour, wield a sword, lead an army into battle and single-handedly defeat the evil Queen. You can, however, describe her character without referencing her love life, appearance or the words Strong Female Character: a kind, fair-minded young princess attempting to take back her kingdom.
This Snow White doesn’t really have much of a love life at all, as most of it seems to take place when she’s unconscious (which is something of a red flag). But she doesn’t really make many decisions under her own steam – rather, she’s presented with a series of choices where her only other option is death. She does change over the course of the story, but it’s poorly handled – she changes so rapidly it’s as if a switch has been flipped – and she doesn’t really have any weaknesses. In fact, she doesn’t really influence the plot at all – she has so much help from outside forces (such as the Huntsman rescuing her, her own innate magical powers and her royal blood) that she doesn’t really need to do anything. To be perfectly frank, a limp dishcloth could drive the plot forward if it received all the help Kristen Stewart did.
When it comes to gender stereotypes she’s slightly better off, but not by much. On the one hand, she becomes a strong leader who leads her army into battle and takes back her kingdom, but on the other hand, the plot makes so much of her goodness, sweetness and purity – and gives her so much help – that we never actually see her make any of the choices a leader has to make. This makes her seem like much more of a pretty figurehead than an actual warrior. We don’t see a lot more from her relationships with other female characters, either. She bonds with the nice ones, and is clearly set up as a contrast to the evil queen, but these relationships aren’t explored in any kind of depth. In short, this version of Snow White isn’t anywhere near as strong as she’s set up to be.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10
So that’s my analysis of Snow White! Long story short, much like Cinderella, the problems that most of these adaptations have often stems from the original fairy tale – namely, that it was so tied up with the morality of things like vanity, appearances and ‘goodness’ as a virtue that the characters don’t go much beyond set pieces. Modern adaptations have tried to work around this, and some have succeeded, but only when they stop treating Snow White like the pinnacle of feminine virtue and like an actual human being.
Next week, I’ll be returning to my original format and looking at Gravity Falls. Mabel, I’m coming for you.