The People’s Obsession with Snow White, and Why the Queen Really is the Coolest of Them All

November 21, 2011 § 4 Comments

There are times when—in the film industry, the world of community and high school theater, mass market paperback production—I wish I could convince a bunch of people in the same gig to get together, just once, and discuss their season’s offerings so no one steps on someone else’s toes. There are only so many times one can see Zombie Prom in a fifty mile radius. So it is with this year’s apparent obsession with Snow White, one of our culture’s most recognizable and beloved fairy tales. New spins! That’s what the people want, and there’s clearly no problem with putting several new spins on the same tale out into the world at once.

It could be, though, as Obama would say, a teachable moment, one for the world of casual fairy tale lovers, in which they don’t have to accept that Disney’s is the only version for them. This is what will separate the men from the boys, the pretty pretty princesses from the Grimm enthusiasts, for now we are faced with—ta da—a choice. A smorgasbord of Snow Whites, all set out at once.

That’s not to say that any of our current three examples—ABC’s Once Upon a Time (which has about as much to do with the fairy tale of “Snow White” as my cat does with the Oxford English Dictionary), Universal Pictures’ Snow White and the Huntsman, and Studio Canal’s Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh of The Fall and The Cell fame—are destined to satisfy anyone of either camp (least of all the snot-nosed academics like myself), but we do at least get to know who likes colorful costumes and dumb jokes and who likes mirrors  MELTING OFF OF FREAKING WALLS AND TURNING INTO CREEPTASTIC PROPHETS.

In case you were in any doubt, I am in camp two.

But as neither of the two films have come out yet, and you’ve already heard my rant about Once Upon a Time, let’s pause, and take a moment to prepare ourselves, by recalling what “Snow White,” according to the folks who aren’t Disney, is really about.

The version that most people remember when asked about the tale of Snow White—even if they don’t know it—is the Grimm’s version, which coined the catchy rhyme, “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ who in this realm is the fairest of all?”, and which Disney based its 1937 film on. But, like most memorable fairy tales, several versions exist. Were you surprised? Of course not. Many of these other versions, unlike the Grimm’s version or the Disney film, include a character who would seem to be the explanation for why things between Snow and her stepmother aren’t entirely kosher: Snow White’s father.

Critics such as Maria Tatar, Bruno Bettelheim, and the duo Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert discuss in their work* the notion that the father is really the central figure in Snow White’s tale, even though he is often absent. The two women are polarized against each other: the virgin and the whore, the pure innocent and the calculating witch, in a competition of beauty–and in the patriarchal society in which these stories were written, beauty was how one earned oneself a man. To think of it less in terms of sexual competitiveness and more in terms of family dynamics, Snow White would naturally have her father’s affection as the daughter of his first wife, and the stepmother would, in even a normal family, be feeling the pangs of trying to fit into that equation.

So why is it that, in the versions of the story with which we are the most familiar, the father is not even present? The women are given no motivation for their jealous natures—just beauty. In another  tale involving a similar child (skin white as snow, lips red as blood, hair black as night), and a wish for that child, the man is the one who does the wishing, and the woman he is traveling through the woods with, who did not wish for the child, succumbs to a murderous jealousy: the grounds here for competition seem pretty apparent. Bettelheim, whose work with fairy tales relied heavily (often ickily) on Freud, makes it clear in his analysis that the couple traveling through the woods are the symbolic parents of the snow child, and that something very Oedipal/Electral must be going on with the woman to want to kill her own child. In a retelling of this tale included in the collection The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter goes even further with the underlying subtext, having the woman in the woods kill the child only after the man has had his way with it, letting him have his pleasure and then watch the object that gave him this pleasure destroyed. I chose the word “object” by no accident: in this grim cousin of “Snow White,” the child is not a character, but an object around which the jealousies latent in the couple’s relationship are given room to twist. In the Grimms’ “Snow White,” the Queen is the only one of this pair of actors left—her mate has been cut out of the story. And yet, Snow White remains no less of an object. She is acted upon, without given any agency beyond the one plea for her life from the Huntsman. This makes for an unfair advantage in the Queen’s favor as far as the minds of story-readers goes, an advantage that the makers of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman seem all too aware of:

The reason we love this story is not because Snow White herself is such an engaging, clever heroine. Balls to Snow White. Kristen Stewart really is perfectly cast in Snow White and the Huntsman, since I don’t give a hoot about either her or her boring character. We love this story because the Queen is such a crazy, crazy, powerful woman. And without her man in the picture, she’s even more frightening, because we can’t see or make sense of the reason she acts the way she does. She’s a villain, for sure, and I’m not saying you’re supposed to be rooting for the Queen, the woman stereotypically obsessed with her own beauty. But if these two trailers, and the powerhouse actresses in them, tell us anything, its that the filmmakers (and trailer editors) are well aware that we’re so much more interested in this villain than anyone else in the story:

Yes, it’s true that Julia Roberts, next to Charlize Theron, looks about as lethal as a pair of nail clippers, but you can still see how it’s the Queen, and not Snow White, who drives the main action of the story. Hooray, Queen! You own that narrative. Who cares about Kristen “Edward? Huh?” Stewart? Not even a sword and a snazzy set of armor can change the trope set in place by the Grimms and Disney, whose princess is “so dull that she requires a supporting cast of seven to enliven her scenes,” according to Maria Tatar. Tatar notes that someone at Disney must have recognized this: “Covers for the video version of ‘Snow White’ may foreground the heroine, the prince, and the seven dwarfs, but it is the wicked queen who dominates the action of the film and virtually monopolizes the film’s visual and narrative energy.”

Though Mirror, Mirror promises to be as funny as a kick in the pants and Snow White and the Huntsman could just be called The Charlize Theron Show as far as I’m concerned, what is also interesting about the both of them is that they do, in a roundabout way, insert the man back into the mix without taking away from our fascination with the Queen: why cast Thor as your Huntsman unless there’s going to be some exciting sexual energy which can infuse the actions of the two women? And in the case of Mirror, Mirror, having the Queen trying to wrap her past-her-prime fingers around the Prince is a fine plot idea, even if your movie does look like the red-headed stepchild of The Princess Bride and Shrek 2. I’m excited to see what this does for the tensions between these archetypal women in both cases.

Now, I’m a Jezebel reader, and I know that you forward-thinking ladies trolling the web might be affronted by my insinuation that a man makes “Snow White” more interesting, or that the only reason Snow White or her Wicked Stepmother act at all is because there is a man to please lurking in the corners of the subconscious. To this I say, get over it. I’m not saying that these films aren’t flawed (perhaps deeply, deeply flawed), in part because I haven’t even seen them yet. But these stories were written/told in the hey-days of patriarchy, and part of the fun of dissecting their various incarnations is noting where the feminist gains have been made, and where they just don’t have room to budge.

And let’s not forget that for every movie that fools with a fairy tale, there’s a predecessor who’s likely gotten a little closer to the mark. Case in point, 1997’s Snow White: a Tale of Terror, in which Snow White actually manages to be compelling and save herself and her family. The film stars Sigourney Weaver as the creepiest damn Queen of all, and Sam Neill as…Snow White’s father. So there. Now we’re all a little happier.

That’s all for now, though I can’t resist leaving you with some illustrations from my favorite version of Snow White to date: translated by Paul Heins and illustrated by the late, great Trina Schart Hyman. It’s hard not to like Snow White in this version. She wears calico, and she falls for beardy men. Adorable.

*Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. (New York: Vintage, 1976).

Gilbert and Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: the Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979).

Tatar, Maria. The Classic Fairy Tales: a Norton Critical Edition. (New York: Norton, 1999).

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§ 4 Responses to The People’s Obsession with Snow White, and Why the Queen Really is the Coolest of Them All

  • Jennifer Lynn Krohn says:

    Great post. I was always interested by the removal of men from the tale and how that affected the power dynamic. In some ways, it seems that by removing the father figure from the tale, it is easier to render the stepmother’s actions more evil, simple vanity and jealousy, rather than a complex family situation. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on the film.

    • crfricke says:

      Thanks for responding! I took a look around your blog, and I guess you and I are in similar post-grad situations. It’s a rough world out there! I’ll be interested to hear what you think about the films as well.

  • Amanda says:

    I loved your views on these upcoming movies. And you are absolutely right…the villain truly does make the story in both cases. I think that Disney sees this in almost all of their fairy tales. How many can we recall where the princess or main character is somewhat flat, while the evil character is full of life and intricate details?

    I find it refreshing to root for the bad guy every once in awhile. At least in the case of Mirror Mirror, I have a feeling there is going to be a very large part of me that would like Julia to get the guy at the end. Charlize may be the queen we love to hate, but either way, we’ll love the role she plays.

    • crfricke says:

      Yeah, the notion of a funny wicked Queen is an interesting one. And you’re so right about Disney–villains are always more complicated and strange. I’d imagine that those parts are the most fun to do the voice-overs for!

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