Original Publish Date: May 11, 2012
Everyone knows the story of Snow White: a young princess is forced to flee from a wicked, vain queen and finds herself in the company of a group of tiny dwarf miners, until her prince comes along and saves her from her poison-apple-induced sleep. For years, children worldwide have watched the iconic Disney film and seen its characters plastered on every type of merchandise imaginable. And the message this burned into the memory of little girls everywhere is clear: true love conquers all.
But take note, girls: Snow White has had a total media makeover— the sheepish, innocent girl of fairytale lore has been transformed into a fierce, lethal warrior princess, now more princely than girly, and is fully equipped to save not only herself, but her entire kingdom. As the star of two major feature films, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, as well as ABC’s highly popular, hour-long drama Once Upon a Time, she is not likely to be doing the dishes with her woodland friends or making seven tiny beds each morning. Instead, she is now determined to win back her kingdom from the evil queen who banished her, raising the stakes from simply living out her life in the eternal bliss of true love to directly challenging the queen for supremacy. Snow White, with her new, almost blind determination toward her goal, is not just more aggressive in this incarnation; she’s practically oozing testosterone. The new Snow White— in pants, no less! — represents a shrinking gender divide, reinforcing the idea that a woman can only become truly successful by losing her feminine traits.
Snow White’s transformation from an inactive princess to a fearsome warrior is a product of our society and what movie executives know will sell. Ultimately, this new manifestation of a nostalgic character may serve to “empower” modern women by changing Snow White into a self-sufficient fighter, but it also disparages them by turning the heroine into the male archetypal champion, while maintaining the same clichéd message of the original story about true love.
Our Story Begins Long, Long Ago…
But what is the original story? Most people would be surprised to learn that the version of the Snow White tale they know is nothing like the original. “Snow White and Rose Red,” a short story written anonymously in 17th century Germany, is about two sisters, Snow White and Rose Red, who make friends with a bear, and later save a nasty, ungrateful dwarf from various perils. The dwarf tries to get the bear to eat the two sisters so he can steal the bear’s hidden treasure. The bear instead kills the dwarf, and turns into a handsome prince. He thanks the lovely maidens and takes them to his palace, where they meet his brother and the four have a double wedding. Imagine a Disney film based on that!
The most popular version of the story comes from the Brothers Grimm, and is also slightly different from the tale we know. In it, the wicked queen attempts to kill Snow White three times, first with a bodice that constrict her lungs, later with a poison comb, and finally with the iconic poison apple. For her deeds, the queen is eventually punished with hot cast-iron shoes: she receives them at Snow White’s wedding and must dance in them until she dies. Despite its popularity in other later versions of this tale, there is no true love’s kiss that awakens Snow White; rather, when the Prince’s servants move her glass coffin, the motion ends up dislodging a piece of poison apple from her throat. Not the most idyllic of stories. But then, the purpose of these tales was to terrify children into obedience, not to idealize love.
It was really the 1937 Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves that brought the romantic association to the fairytale, and there is nothing vague or veiled about it. Snow White, who is only thirteen, starts the film off by singing about how she wants her prince to find her and woo her with sweet nothings, which he does almost immediately. However, in the film they share only a brief conversation in the opening act and then a comatose kiss only three minutes before they ride off into the sunset together. Beyond being Disney’s first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, also set in motion the trend of films about passive princesses waiting for, and ultimately receiving, true love. These movies have been a part of the average household worldwide for decades, and have taught girls to prioritize romantic love almost as soon as they can produce conscious thought.
Lindsay Ellis, a critic who focuses on media marketed to girls, discusses this same idea in her That Guy With The Glasses video review of the Disney Princess films: “I think there is just something insidious about getting little girls to fixate on romance so early. I mean this is one of those things which freaking rules your life as an adult, must we start on it before they [hit puberty]?”
A Whole New Woman
If this new Snow White is very different from her predecessors, at least on a superficial level, it is because TV and movie producers know that a passive princess simply is not a marketable model for today’s young women. After the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, women are no longer subjugated to this submissive role; girls are told they can grow up to be almost anything they want to be, and do not need marriage to be fulfilled in the eyes of society. No longer is there one unvarying “happily ever after” but hundreds of different life paths and career options awaiting them. Any film depicting a woman who’s patiently waiting for a man to come sweep her off her feet would not only come off as backward thinking, but also deeply insulting. After all, who would pay to see a film about a bland, inane character whose only life goals are to fall in love and focus on beauty, rather than on intelligence or emotional strength? Oh wait, millions of people do — it is called Twilight.
Proving that the traditional fairytale model can still make money, Twilight follows the story of an emotional-stunted, 16-year-old girl named Bella, whose only real aspiration is to be with her vampire boyfriend for eternity and to be pretty. Like any passive princess from the days of yore, she must constantly be protected for her own good, lest she make any decisions for herself. Snow White no longer fits this out-dated mold; in her newly released form, she is stronger, faster, and perfectly capable of handling herself without aid from Prince Charming, despite what the fairytales dictate. With the popularity of these new and improved Snow Whites, it seems that older audiences, those past the target age of harlequin romance of Twilight, are starting to agree.
“Women have been given an incredible melee of mixed up, different images [even today],” said author of Pop Mythology and mythology expert Dr. Laura Shamas, “And I do think we live in a time where people don’t want to sit around and wait for the prince.”
Cinderella the Trend-Setter
Snow White is not the only fairytale maiden to receive a makeover. Equally as well known, Cinderella is another perfect, passive princess, whose story, and 1950’s Disney film, also teaches girls to idolize “true love.” For any Sleeping Beauties out there, the tale follows a beautiful young woman who is forced by her cruel stepmother to cook, clean, and do her stepsisters’ bidding. One night, after being left behind as her family goes to a ball, she weeps in her loneliness until her fairy godmother appears. This magic maven grants her the ability to attend the ball, where she falls in love with the prince, who rescues her from her slave-master stepmother.
But many of you may have forgotten that once upon a time, in the late 1990s-early 2000s, there was a Cinderella media craze. It is hard to pinpoint how the trend began, but chronologically, the adaptations began after the release of the 1997 tele-musical Cinderella, starring then-R&B superstar Brandi and the now-deceased popular singer Whitney Houston. It was followed in 1998 by the major motion picture Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore as a 17th century French incarnation of Cinderella. The film presented Cinderella as a more intelligent, thoughtful girl than her Disney counterpart, and fleshed out the tale of gender equality and utopian ideals with historical cameos— including Leonardo da Vinci as a fairy godfather. The film received critical praise, and made over $98 million dollars worldwide. Due to its success, Disney quickly released two Cinderella sequels: Cinderella II: Dreams Come True in 2002 and Cinderella III: A Twist in Time in 2007. The sequels explored Cinderella’s life after her fairytale wedding, and were able to add more depth to originally two-dimensional princess, showcasing her self-confidence, wit, and strength.
Not all of new Cinderella’s incarnations were more evolved and complex. A whole series of movies were produced in the last decade or so that did little more than repeat the exact same story in different situations. The 2004 film A Cinderella Story, starring Hilary Duff and Chad Michael Murray, was a clichéd mess of overacting and contrived plotlines, a horrible modern-day adaptation for young starry-eyed girls who just want romance. It should surprise no one that while this movie was critically panned, it made huge amounts of money, enough so to convince the studio to release two terrible sequels, in 2008 and 2011, about two teenage girls who wanted to be a professional dancer and singer, respectively, and, of course, get two steady boyfriends.
Cinderella’s new image in these films was hardly a change from the original storybook princess. It is true that doing a multitude of chores and feeling like your family despises you is something most teenagers have felt in one way or another, but when depicted in a modern setting, the plot feels like a parody of the original rather than a retelling or reimagining. And before you wait with bated breath for a contemporary reimagining of Snow White, there’s no need: Sydney White, a comedy about the title character’s freshmen year at college with the seven dorks and an evil sorority president, came out in 2007. Ultimately, the original fairytale message—of true love conquering all— remains the same for all these Cinderella media products.
A Damsel in Distress, or Just One of the Guys?
The major issue for the new Snow Whites is how little about the character has actually changed in this new wave of re-adaptations. Beyond the same tried-and-true message about true love remaining intact, there is also the problem of gender portrayal. Rather than a blending of both gender stereotypes, these new Snow Whites abandon their feminine traits in lieu of more masculine ones.
In the ABC TV show Once Upon A Time, fairytale characters from time-honored bedtime stories are sent to the real world, and are under a curse, so that they can never achieve happiness. But even before leaving the world of fairytales, two very different, almost separate, Snow Whites exist within the same character. One is a loving, beautiful princess who is sweeter than sugar and purer than gold itself. The other is a hardened thief, who uses cunning, physical strength, and the occasional underhanded tactic to succeed in battle.
How is this indicated to the audience? By their outfits. The former is often seen in a ballroom-length gown, while the latter is in animal hides or rough textiles, and pants. But it is not just the garment itself, it is the attitude associated with the garment. Women in dresses are discreet, well behaved, and lady-like, or so the stereotype goes. Women in pants are not bound by this restriction and thus are allowed to be more active and athletic. After all, you would not expect to see a women’s Olympic basketball team dressed in knee length skirts, would you? In the real world, Snow White, under the name Mary-Margaret Blanchard, resembles the meek and mild-mannered princess, rarely if ever speaking out or fighting any injustices that come her way. The switch from feminine to masculine only occurs when Snow White needs to be stronger, tougher, and smarter, never the other way around. Thus Once Upon a Time’s Snow White is a ping-pong match between overly feminine and decisively masculine, never settling on one or the other.
In Mirror Mirror, Snow White undergoes a complete transformation during the film. In the beginning, she is a dainty princess who never leaves her tower, only interacting with the servants and the Queen. However, after the Evil Queen decides that Snow White is a threat to her rule and attempts to have her killed, the young woman goes into hiding. She eventually finds the dwarves, who teach her how to fight, fence, and ultimately become a savvy warrior of the forest. As such, her mannerisms become more definitively masculine. She slouches against walls, she spits, grunts, and even fights dirty, attempting to blind Prince Edward with snow during their first duel in the woods when she tries to rob him. And while this new form of Snow White might seem a tad too radical, mythology expert Dr. Shamas argues, “I think Snow White is also from her name an emblem of purity and innocence. And there is something about that too, wanting to see innocence lost.”
Most notably, Mirror Mirror’s wardrobe department followed the example set by Once Upon a Time in having Snow White dress more like a man after she becomes a warrior, including a pair of pants. While Mirror Mirror’s Snow White is certainly more feminine than that of Once Upon a Time’s version, this Snow White only accomplishes the majority of her heroic deeds after she puts on those pants, only wearing a dress during the beginning when she is naïve, and at the end, on her wedding day. Any time she is girly, even when dressed like a man, she’s over the top; when she goes to free the prince from the Queen’s love spell, she remarks how she wanted her first kiss to be special. Thus, she gets dolled up for the occasion, taking her time while the Queen grows stronger by the minute, and could attack and kill them all at a moment’s whim. While she is arguably the most realistic of the incarnations in terms of balance between male and female, this Snow White still falls into one of the two extremes more often than not.
The Snow White and the Huntsman version is the most difficult to discuss because the movie has yet to be released at the time of writing. From viewing available trailers and sneak-peeks, it become abundantly clear this Snow White falls into the pitfalls as the other two. In the beginning, after she escapes into the forest, she is wearing a dress, and is almost entirely unable to defend herself. BUT she is shown ready for battle after she puts on chain mail armor and is able to fend off the Queen only in this form. It doesn’t help that she is so androgynous-looking, she could be easily mistaken for a man.
In Good Company
Why use these storybook women at all in these narratives, when an original character would suffice? The simple answer is that fairytale love stories sell by brand association. There is no need to create and define the characters, because we are already familiar with them and know their roles, which makes it easier to get a character’s motivations across. On the other end of the warrior-princess divide, there’s Merida, the Scottish princess from the upcoming Pixar film Brave. The audience will have little to no idea about the character, such as her values, strengths, and likes, until the film explains it. But there are some things that can be gleaned from the trailers: she is a fierce and strong young woman who does not wish to fit into traditional standards of the feminine, actively opposing them at every turn as she fights bears, witches, and evil spirits with her impressive archery skills, all while clad in a dress.
However, Merida will not be the first of strong, multi-faceted female characters to grace the small and silver screens that manages to balance the masculine and feminine. Sarah Connor of the Terminator series, Alice Ripley from Alien, Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill are not only fearsome, skilled warriors but also mothers, protecting and nurturing their children at great personal risk. Hermione Granger, of Harry Potter fame, dueled deadly wizards twice her age, clad in a school-girl uniform and still managed to be the most clever witch of her age. But most remarkable of all these characters is the title character from Disney’s Mulan.
Mulan is one of the few female characters who has gone to war and saved a whole country. She takes the place of her sick and elderly father in China’s war against the Huns, but she can only do so disguised as a man. But the uniqueaspect of her character is that long before she donned that military uniform, she was already pushing the limits of femininity with her active work on her family’s farm and her striking intelligence; she felt completely out of place in her society before ever masquerading as a man. She did not need to wear pants in order to be active and strong – she needed the pants so her strength could be socially acceptable. She is a woman, but that does not define her character so much as it simply, honestly defines her circumstances.
Happily Ever After?
Viewers pay to watch new versions of the old forms. After all, we all know that Cinderella finds her prince at the end, but the audience is more invested in the personal journey of the character. This is where these new Snow White stories really shine; they take a beloved character and work her into a more modern take that tries to reflect the average woman and who she wants to become. Is it a perfect reflection? Hardly. The product has become too manly to be a “real woman” – someone who really encapsulates a blend of both “masculine” and “feminine.” Rather than blurring the gender divide, the new Snow Whites has made the separation so razor thin, that balance is nearly impossible, unlike Mulan and Brave.
“But [the new version of Snow White] is certainly an improvement on the original,” said Angeli Rafer, an avid Once Upon a Time fan and junior at New York University, “Now we’re getting the message of ‘Be strong, be your own person’ rather than ‘Your goal is to fall in love and get married.’ There’s nothing wrong with that part of femininity, but it just can’t be the only thing.”
While these new incarnations are only a shaky step in the right direction, perhaps there will be a day when Evil Queen asks, “Mirror Mirror, on the Wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” and the answer will be a valiant, tough young woman, who does not need a man, or pants, to inspire a whole new generation of little girls.