Strong Female Characters: Snow White

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!

 

 

image: wikimedia.orgThis 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.

Come back, nope-rocket! TAKE ME WITH YOU! (image: photobucket.com)
Come back, nope-rocket! TAKE ME WITH YOU! (image: photobucket.com)

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

 

 

image: youtube.comWhile 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.

OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)
OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

 

image: shortstorystation.wordpress.comThis 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.

Apart from MURDER. (image: giphy.com)
Apart from MURDER. (image: giphy.com)

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

 

 

image: youtube.comAnd 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.

That's not a good thing. (image: tumblr.com)
That’s not a good thing. (image: tumblr.com)

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

 

 

image: all4desktop.comThis 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.

Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)
Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)

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.

It's like a good actor just wandered onto the set and they shot the film around him. (image: pastemagazine.com)
It’s like a good actor just wandered onto the set and they shot the film around him. (image: pastemagazine.com)

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

 

 

image: studenthandouts.comThis 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.

DAMN RIGHT I DID (image: memegenerator.com)
DAMN RIGHT I DID (image: memegenerator.com)

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.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here. Also, I have an FAQ now!

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9 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Snow White”

  1. I think the Disney take does deserve more credit. Despite all the trappings of the story, the character has a pretty well-defined personality. It actually always bothers me when people claim that she is stupid, because that actually isn’t true at all. She is innocent – that isn’t exactly the same. She simply can’t believe that people are as bad as they sometimes are. That makes it hard to relate to her, because no one is that innocent in real live – though maybe we all should be. It would end all wars in the world. Remember, she originally doesn’t allow the old woman in the house, only when she pretends to need help, Snow White immediately does the charitable thing. The idea that she gets a magical apple as reward isn’t actually that far fetched in a world, in which a wishing well actually works.

    Either way, she does have hobbies and interest. Just because baking and cleaning are typical housewife skills, it doesn’t change that she is obviously enjoying them. She actually does control her own fate to a degree once she has to flee from the castle. Once she gets over her fear, she asks the animals of the woods for a shelter, and then she more or less exchanges the permission to stay with the dwarves against her taking care of the house for them. She doesn’t beg for their help, she offers her skills. And aside from waiting for her prince, she also has the clear defined goal that she wants Grumpy to like her. It’s not flashy, and yes, most of this falls into the trappings of what was expected of a woman back in the 1930s, but in the end, she has a clear defined personality, and she is actually able to get her way when she really sets her heart on it (like insisting that the Dwarves wash up before the meal).

    1. I did actually give her the point for hobbies and interests – apologies if that wasn’t clear.

      The main problem that I had with the Disney version of Snow White was that she spent so much of the film being led into things. The Huntsman lets her escape, the animals lead her to the dwarves’ house, and the queen tricks her into letting her inside. She spends most of the story being put into situations where there’s really only one option available – to take one of your examples, if she didn’t persuade the dwarves to let her stay she would’ve been thrown out in the woods to die. She’s presented with a range of situations where her only choice is to go along with the plot if she wants to stay alive, and that’s just not the same as actually making her own choices.

      I was wondering when we were going to start disagreeing again! 😛

      1. In a way, though, she influences the plot with her actions. She practically calls the prince over by singing into the wishing well. She chooses to encourages his love (she could have simply ignored him if she had wanted too). She decides to clean the home of the dwarves. She decides that no one with dirty hands is allowed at her table. She decides to bake for them. She decides to first reject the old woman (good decision) and then helps her when she perceives her to be in need (bad decision if you know who the old woman truly is, good decision from the perspective that it is the right thing to do). And she decides to bite into the apple. True, the one who is actually controlling most of the plot is the Evil Queen. But Snow White is definitely the next in line. All the other characters in the movie react to those two (female) characters.

        1. That’s a good point, but she’s still reacting to stuff more than anything else – whether that’s the prince’s love, the queen’s plans or the dwarves’ dirty hands. I guess it just comes down to opinion and in my view, that isn’t really in the same league.

  2. I have been meditating a lot on the Disney take on Snow White recently. It is easy to write her off as weak, passive and more than a little silly, but that is not a necessary reading of the character.

    For one thing, Walt Disney meant Snow White to be about 14 years old. If, as an easily recognized 14-year-old with no support network, you VERY abruptly learn that the most powerful person in the nation wants you dead, what other option do you have than fleeing into the woods? It is not irrational or a sign of weakness in any way, it is the only choice you have.

    Also, if you have previously connected emotionally (however briefly) with a prince from another country, who might offer you protection from the mad queen who wants you dead, it is not a bad idea to just lie low until you can get in touch with him again. (And if you happen to live in a fairy tale world where it is simply a fact of life that destiny will always bring sincere lovers back together, waiting him out is the best choice you have, if you have no other contact information. “Some day my prince will come,” indeed.)

    Snow White’s characteristics are her innocence and goodness. Of course she may seem almost saccharine sweet to modern, more cynical audiences. But when the wild animals come flocking to her and befriend her, though they should normally flee in terror from a human, she takes on an almost transcendent quality. The beasts and birds are magnetically drawn to her radiant goodness and purity. It is as if a tiny garden of Eden manifests around her wherever she goes.

    As for her interactions with the dwarfs, it is interesting to notice that as soon as she tells them her name, they know perfectly well who she is (“the princess?!”) Potentially she could think of herself as their better and demand their obedience, since she is “royalty” and they are not. But there isn’t a single atom of arrogance in her body. She wants to be an asset to their household, not a burden. As for her assuming a very stereotypical “female” role (washing, cooking etc.), the logic of the story suggests that these are simply the only skills she has to offer. She only possesses them because her step-mother thrust her down from her position as princess to make her a scullery maid before the film even began.

    Snow White’s strength lies in the fact that she will NEVER pity herself and NEVER give up her mystical belief that it will be all right in the end, even if she is dragged through hell. When we first see her as a scullery maid in the castle, a single sigh is the sole hint about how hard the work really is. But she does not know self-pity, nor does she waste any mental energy hating her step-mother. She remains cheerful and fundamentally happy no matter what life throws at her, for her happiness issues from her own inner goodness, not from her outer circumstances.

    Even in the dwarfs’ house, we get the impression that she never badmouths her murderous step-mother beyond relaying the simple fact that the Queen wants her dead and must therefore be avoided. Our heroine is seen PRAYING (something that Disneywise would not happen again until The Hunchback of Notre Dame sixty years later) that Grumpy will come around and like her, though he is the dwarf that has so far been the meanest to her. One can easily imagine Snow White praying for the Queen as well, literally applying the Christian ethos of “praying for those that persecute you”.

    When the Queen does arrive in her hag form, Snow White may seem hopelessly naive not to recognize a character that seems so “obviously evil” to the audience. She even dismisses the instincts of the birds attacking the sinister figure. But again the point seems to be that Snow White has a hard time discerning evil in others because she does not know it in herself.

    It should be noted that a little belatedly, her inner alarm does seem to go off; she eventually backs off from the hag and looks rather apprehensively at her guest. The disguised Queen must expoit Snow White’s tenderest longings to finally talk her into taking a bite from the “magical wishing-apple” (and since she lives in a fairy-tale world where magic is uncontroversially real, it is not naive of Snow White to believe in this lie).

    The happy ending does feel like something of an afterthought, the prince arriving to almost mechanically perform his destined task: unwittingly undo the Queen’s death-spell by giving Snow White his loving kiss. If the female protagonist feels flat, it must be said that her male love interest isn’t developed at ALL; he is almost like a prop, a deus ex machina required to provide the inevitable happy ending. Finally he is there, and since we are in fairy-tale land, the lovers simply know that they are meant to be together even though they have never had even a single conversation. Complaining that this is unrealistic is like complaining that the magical transformation of the Queen couldn’t “really” happen.

    Snow White would be written somewhat differently if the Disney movie had been made today. But she is not to be thought of as a mere “damsel in distress” — ultra-feminine and sickeningly sweet. There is, I should say, more to her than that.

    1. I really disagree with you here, but for brevity’s sake let me break it down into a few points:

      1) Snow White’s age. Yes, she is 14, but that doesn’t give her an excuse to be quite so flat. Sansa Stark is about the same age and is a much more well-rounded character, and she’s in very similar circumstances. Exclusively looking at fairy tales, there are plenty of stories about young girls who take their lives into their own hands – Thousandfurs, The Little Mermaid and Gerda from The Snow Queen, to name just three.

      2) In the Disney version Snow White doesn’t even choose to run off into the woods – the Huntsman tells her to. It’s true that she doesn’t have a lot of options but to run away, but she doesn’t even make that choice (or work out that she’s in danger) herself. What’s more, she doesn’t even go looking for a place to stay on her own – the animals lead her to the dwarves’ cottage and she doesn’t even have to try and survive. Everything’s all laid out for her.

      3) Snow White’s emotions. She’s always cheerful and never has a bad word to say for anyone – but frankly, there isn’t any evidence that this is a deliberate choice on her part. It’s all very well to say that Snow White’s strength lies in her lack of self-pity, but it’s not really a strength if self-pity is something she’s never even considered – which is what the film suggests. It would be like saying a right-handed person is strong for avoiding the temptation to write with their left hand. Avoiding something that doesn’t bother you at all is not a strength. If we actually saw her being tempted to pity herself or hate her stepmother, and then actively decide not to because it’s not worth her time, that would be a different matter altogether. But we don’t see this, because Disney’s Snow White just wasn’t written with the capacity for that kind of emotional complexity.

      4) The prince. Yes, he’s there as Snow White’s escape route. But frankly, he doesn’t really need to be, particularly as in some versions of the original story true love’s kiss wasn’t required to break the spell (it was literally just a piece of apple lodged in her throat, so the Heimlich manoeuvre would’ve done the trick just as well). Disney could have written him out completely and the story wouldn’t have suffered at all.

      A lot of the points you raised are interesting ideas, but there’s just no evidence for them. Whichever way you look at it, Disney’s Snow White is essentially a representation of the perfect woman. She’s beautiful, she’s kind, she’s always cheerful no matter what happens to her, she cooks, she cleans, and she never, ever complains. These aren’t necessarily bad traits if there’s some real weight to them. Your point about Snow White automatically cleaning because that’s all the Queen told her she was good for would be some great character development – if we actually saw it in the movie. But she doesn’t get to have that kind of weight behind her emotions. She is a personification of all the ‘good’ feelings that women are supposed to have – kindness, gentleness, a caretaking impulse – and she’s set up against the Queen, who’s the personification of a lot of typically feminine bad traits: jealousy, vanity, and pride. Snow White isn’t a real character, she’s an example that people want girls to follow.

  3. Thank you for your reply.

    Is it the Huntsman who decides that Snow White must flee into the woods? Technically it is just a piece of advice, however forcefully expressed. Once he has made it clear that he will not use violence, he really has no further leverage over her (and as a commoner he surely cannot give actual orders to a Princess of the realm). Would the movie have been better if she had instantly turned and fled without the Huntsman urging her to do so? One might construe it as level-headedness on her part that she did not go into altogether instant panic, though he had just raised a knife against her. It was only from him she could learn what was going on here, and if he had really had a change of heart, the possibility existed that he would actually offer her shelter.

    One might say that HE in a sense panics before she does. Now that he has decided to actually defy the ruthless Queen, he must by all means remove from sight the walking proof of his insubordination. So he tells Snow White to flee.

    You note, “It’s all very well to say that Snow White’s strength lies in her lack of self-pity, but it’s not really a strength if self-pity is something she’s never even considered … Avoiding something that doesn’t bother you at all is not a strength.” Well. Is a person’s goodness (including lack of self-pity) somehow of less worth if such good qualities are innate and the person does not really have to struggle to remain good, but it comes to one naturally and effortlessly? There is a philosophical riddle with no very obvious answer.

    Fantasy and mythology will tend to presuppose that “good” was the original default state and that turning evil somehow required effort. Adam and Eve have to eat the forbidden fruit to “fall”. Tolkien has his characters observe regarding the Dark Lord Sauron that “nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

    Snow White in the Disney movie embodies the “good” or unfallen state, and so it can hardly even occur to her to be anything but good. The closest thing she gets to “falling” is accepting the Hag’s suggestion that the magical apple will make her dreams come true. Believing in a lazy solution and an easy fix is what condemns her to “sleeping death” (though ironically, her dreams WILL be fulfilled in her next conscious moment).

    Interestingly, in the moments leading up to the fatal bite from the apple, when she apprehensively backs away from the Hag and clearly seems to be experiencing conflicting impulses, we also find the ONE half-second in the entire movie where Snow appears genuinely thoughtful (as well as fearful). For once it is not instantly, intuitively obvious to her what the “good” course of action is.

    The movie would admittedly have been better if there had been just a tiny moment (early in the story) where Snow reflects on how her stepmother has let herself be consumed by evil, and consciously resolves not to go down the same path by hating her back. But it hardly occurred to Walt Disney to give his characters such psychological depth.

    You write, “If we actually saw her being tempted to pity herself or hate her stepmother, and then actively decide not to because it’s not worth her time, that would be a different matter altogether. But we don’t see this, because Disney’s Snow White just wasn’t written with the capacity for that kind of emotional complexity.” Well, yes and no. We are not privy to what goes on in her head. If we dare to assume that such reflections actually do happen, only “offscreen” because they are all in Snow’s head, our perception of the character may change. But I guess you would say I am overly kind to Disney here, filling in blanks in the most gracious way possible. How much benefit of the doubt should we grant good ol’ Walt?

    Plainly we are already overthinking what is, by Disney’s intention, just a simple and straightforward fairy tale where the characters are uncomplicated archetypes: Snow White is good and innocent, the Queen is jealous and evil, the Prince is a deus ex machina and the Dwarves are mostly comic relief. The only two characters that are not entirely one-dimensional are Grumpy (he is first skeptical about Snow and takes time to warm up to her) and the Huntsman (we get the impression that he has been doing the Queen’s dirty work before, but this time she orders something he cannot bring himself to do).

    However, archetypes like Snow White must remain in the fairy-tale realm. It is interesting to watch YouTube videos from Disney theme parks where we have performers in the appropriate costume trying their darnedest to bring Snow White to life. These specially-trained young women typically end up with a slightly creepy, Stepfordesque smile permanently fixed on their lips, while they talk in a high-pitched overly-sweet voice that would in real life scream “brainless bimbo”. As a man I could try to imagine what it would be like to live with such a person if it had been her real personality, and I have rather conflicting feelings about it. On the one side she would be SO unfailingly sweet and kind and caring, never complaining and never losing her optimism. However, in the long run I fear that she would begin to come across as a slightly retarded child, not as a mature and well-rounded person that I could think of as my equal life partner.

    (Incidentally, does the cinematic 14-year-old Snow White really understand what her wifely duties will be after marrying her prince? Can she unlock her sexual side and yet remain as immaculate as Disney wants her to be? Or does she conveniently live in a fairy-tale world where physical intimacy is limited to kissing and children really do arrive by stork?)

    I will maintain that the archetype of Snow White sort of works in animated form, and that she can there be seen as movingly innocent and pure – but it is very hard for any flesh-and-blood performer to portray her without turning her into a subtle parody of the actual movie character. Once removed from the movie, she ends up in an uncanny valley of sorts: we know that real people can’t be like this. So I agree that she doesn’t quite work as an “example for girls”. Like the impossible Catholic ideal of Mary, at once mother and virgin, Snow White cannot be fully emulated by real people (whether girls or boys).

    1. I’m not going to argue the theological points here – I’m no philosopher and it’s ultimately down to opinion. However, I will say this.

      You say that characters like Snow White must remain in the fairy-tale realm but this is not the case. Fiction does not exist in a vacuum – it’s a tool that humans have used for centuries to make sense of society and understand each other better. Stories affect us (and there’s been several studies conducted that prove this) and Snow White is no exception.

      Disney’s Snow White is obedient, kind, good and pure – the things that girls have been told to be for centuries. That’s not a coincidence. I can tell you from experience that there’s still an enormous pressure on women to embody those traits – just look at how many women are employed as carers, or how many have to give up their career to raise a family, or look after an elderly parent. When these kind of situations arise you have to look at the culture that they’re a part of, and stories form a crucial part of that. It’s much more difficult for a girl to pursue a career her family disapproves of if she’s been told all her life that the best thing a girl can be is obedient. Fairy tales are a massive part of this. Just look at how many fairy tales show boys going off to seek their fortunes, and girls following instructions.

      I think you have to look critically at characters like Snow White. Yes, she is an archetype, but it’s important that we actually say that out loud, because in so many ways she is used as an example for real girls to follow. I agree that it’s one that’s impossible to live up to, but that makes it worse. She is still a relevant character (just look at all the merchandise) and so we still have to keep talking about the expectations she sets.

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