The Evolution of Snow White from Screen Darling to Warrior Princess
Ilene S. Goldman
Presented to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Chicago, IL 2013
“It was in the middle of winter, when the broad flakes of snow were falling around, that a certain queen sat working at her window, the frame of which was made of fine black ebony; and, as she was looking out upon the snow, she pricked her finger, and three drops of blood fell upon it. Then she gazed thoughtfully down on the red drops which sprinkled the white snow and said, “Would that my little daughter may be as white as that snow, as red as the blood, and as black as the ebony window-frame!” And so the little girl grew up; her skin was a white as snow, her cheeks as rosy as blood, and her hair as black as ebony; and she was called Snow-White.” (Grimm)
You know the story, of course, of the young princess, whose mother dies in childbirth and whose father remarries and then dies, leaving Snow White in the hands of the beautiful, vain, psychopathic stepmother. The stepmother has a magic mirror that affirms that she is “the fairest in the land.” When the mirror spies one more fair, the queen, well, she loses it.
I’d like to tell you another story of “Snow White,” one that explores the strong place she has long occupied in our collective imaginations, particularly through her projection onto the film screen. For many, this story begins with Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but like nearly all fairy tales, “Snow White” originated as an oral tale. It was first written down by the Grimm Brothers in 1810 and they continued to revise it for more than 45 years. Since the Grimm Brothers, other creators around the world have re-imagined “Snow White” in myriad languages and forms–as children’s books, cartoons, dance, poetry, erotica, music, theater, television, and film. Hollywood alone has given us more than 35 “Snow Whites,” beginning in 1902 and continuing to the 2012 release of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman .
[SLIDES 2 & 3] As Hollywood screen women, Snow White and her Evil Stepmother have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Animations include a Fleisher Brothers’ Betty Boop version in which the Mirror (first anthropomorphized by Disney) takes on its own mischievous personality, meddling and mocking the queen, and Snow White is anything but innocent. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) uses “black characters and black idiomatic language and music to represent “white” fairy-tale characters,” parodying Disney and raising questions about corruption, filmic sexuality, and patriotism that reflect societal changes brought about by U.S. entry into World War II (Zipes 2011: 127). More contemporary versions range from Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1987), a Sigourney Weaver vehicle that draws the fairytale into the horror genre, to Sydney White (2007), a contemporary version with an evil sorority sister and seven dorks. Television and animation versions include a Fractured Fairy Tale Snow White, Rugrats Tales from the Crib, Muppet Babies, Jim Henson’s The Story Teller, and Shelley Winter’s Faerie Tale Theatre. None of these is to be taken lightly as they all reflect our cultural fascination with fairy tales in general and Snow White in particular.
The traditional analysis of “Snow White” is as well-ingrained on our consciousness—so much so that The Simpsons parodied the analysis along with the story [CLIP]. Though we may visualize Snow White in her Disney costume, singing to the animals in a high-pitched voice, and joyfully keeping house for seven little men, the most recent films have seemingly reinterpreted the tradition to portray Snow White as an active agent of her own destiny. Further, they reimagine the role of the Mirror and its inherent positioning of a dominant male gaze. Still these, and nearly all post-1937 screen interpretations of “Snow White,” enter into discourse with Disney’s version. Understanding Christy William’s admonition that “simply reversing patriarchal binaries—making the primary female character strong, confident, politically astute, and forceful, instead of weak, doubting, naïve, and self-effacing—is insufficient to create an image of a post-patriarchal world” (Greenhill and Matrix: 21), this paper explores whether the 21st century Snow White is truly a post-patriarchal warrior princess. Considering evolution in narrative strategy, transformation of motifs, and changes in style, I assert that today’s princesses begin to wrest control of a tale that has long been about Snow, but not by her. Further, while innocence always bests beauty in this tale, these films allow Snow to emerge a as more engaging, active character than we have yet seen.
The foremost scholar of fairy tales, Jack Zipes, writes that our fascination with the tale is not with Snow White, as she is “too pathetically good, too much the domestic” to be interesting (Zipes 2011: 115). Rather, the more erotic, more flawed aging Queen draws us into this ultimately tragic tale. The key relationship in the story, according to Zipes, is that between the Mirror and the Queen, who becomes obsessed with watching her life and ends tragically. Snow White never looks in the mirror and, thus, is never trapped by vanity. In his extensive critical overview of more than 100 years of filmic interpretations of “Snow White,” Zipes concludes that the cinematic discourse around this fairy tale is crucial because it demonstrates how filmmakers who have been attracted to some narrative of Snow White have consciously or unconsciously endeavored to unravel the power of the mirror, to question the hold that the mirror has on the queen, and the hold that representation has on the spectators (Zipes 2011: 116). I would argue that Snow White’s lack of engagement with the mirror is equally as important. Her ability to see the world around her, rather than get transfixed by her own image is what helps her break free of the Queen. In the Disney version, this boils down to running away and asking for help. In Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow chooses agency over image, in both instances drawing inspiration from her memories of her father’s gentle and brave leadership of his people. With this choice, both films refocus the narrative on Snow. Her desires, including a hint at sexual blossoming, parallel the Queen’s. While the Queen can only look at herself, Snow looks through the Queen, seeing the trap set by vanity. She also looks within herself, discovering strength of will. Ignoring the mirror and the subjugation of the male gaze, she chooses the window and the agency of her own gaze.
Shandi Wagner evokes Simone de Beauvoir’s “Eternal Feminine” in writing about Snow White. She argues that the binary of evil stepmother/pure-hearted young girl epitomizes gender stereotypes that account for a woman’s inability to live up to patriarchal society’s standards of femininity. Both 2012 films add a metatextual conversation about these binaries in their star pairings. Mirror, Mirror’s “bewitching beauty with a towering temper” is none other than Julia Roberts, whose own breakout moment was the Cinderella-esque Pretty Woman (1990). Charlize Theron is Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman. They are both certainly still gorgeous, but neither can command an ingénue role, much as the evil Queen can no longer claim the “fairest in the land.” Roberts brings delicious irony to the role, clearly enjoying the Queen’s over-the-top temperament. In this way, she is reminiscent of Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010). Theron’s Ravenna brings to mind Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). Like Desmond, Ravenna is an aging beauty who refuses to acknowledge her mortality and in her quest to convince all around her that she is indestructible, goes slowly insane. The question of the scarcity of roles for women of a certain age, is not too deep within the subtext of these films, nor of the tale itself.
Both films toy with Brechtian distanciation, using or breaking filmic tropes to jar the audience out of its complacency. Mirror, Mirror opens with the Queen narrating as she spins a Zoetrope. In the center of the Zoetrope is a crystal dime with a rose in the center, evoking a key motif of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). With this image and the animated opening sequence, the film announces its engagement with both Disney and Grimm as immovable fairytale standards. Further, the Queen’s editorializing creates an ironic distance from the story that is maintained by her mirror image’s playful banter. [CLIP: 2 min.] Her assertion that this is “her story” (the queens) is belied by the fact that we know it is Snow’s story, and the Mirror gets top billing.
[SLIDE 5] When the Queen looks in the mirror, she sees a version of herself. In the “Snow Whites” that we collectively remember, the mirror’s voice is male and if an image is seen, it is generally male, or it is an unclear reflection (as in Snow White and the Huntsman). In Mirror, Mirror she sees herself unadorned, in a simple white dress, aging slowly and even gracefully. Her reflection holds the key to her illusion of youth—magic—and reminds her continually “Everyone has magic within them, but very few discover it and learn to spend it wisely. Trust me; I am, after all, merely a reflection of you. Well, not an exact reflection. I don’t have wrinkles.” The Queen, it is implied, has wasted her magic by prioritizing beauty and wealth.
To reach her reflection, the Queen enters into a mirror and reemerges into a grass hut in an immense sea. The location of her reflection in a body of water, brings to mind Narcissus. And like Narcissus, she is enthralled by her own reflection—not only by its beauty, but by the power and magic the reflection can assert, that she cannot—and it is this fascination that leads to her demise.
Theron’s Ravenna controls her own dark magic, tricking Snow’s father into marriage and brutally murdering him on their wedding night. With her magic she can turn a flower petal into ash by crushing it in her palm or morph into the Prince’s form to try to kill Snow. But, she relies on the mirror—a large gold disk that shows no clear reflection—to substantiate her beauty. The origin of Ravenna’s obsession is explained in Snow White and the Huntsman: As their village faced destruction, Ravenna’s mother protected her with a spell assuring that Ravenna’s beauty would protect her from the evils of men. Tethered by the spell, Ravenna stays in her tower with the mirror, fearing the arrival of one more beautiful and pure, and sending her brother to capture Snow and, later watching as Snow storms the castle for the final showdown. She, too, is enthralled by the mirror. And, ultimately, she too meets her demise when faced with an active, combative Snow. Ravenna is thus both saved and cursed by her beauty. She must maintain it according to the Mirror’s assessment, but doing so costs her dearly. In direct contrast, a colony of women encountered by Snow has saved their daughters by scarring their faces. Ravenna, you see, claims immortality by sucking the life out of beautiful young women. Without their souls, she ages. But, she can’t be bothered with ugly or scarred women. These women, and the dwarves, may be ugly according to societal standards, but their inner goodness helps save Snow and they are crucial to her kingdom.
[SLIDE 6] Mirror Mirror fashions Hollywood-newcomer Lily Collins in the style of Audrey Hepburn in her own princess movie, Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953). The allusion is apt: Snow is a bit naive at first, but once her eyes are opened, she takes charge of her own destiny. Like Anya, Snow sneaks away from her guard, though not to experience a day as a regular person, but to discover what has happened to the people her father ruled. The film refers often to Disney with apple motifs, Snow’s wedding costume, and her sisterly affection toward the dwarves. [SLIDE 7] However, Mirror, Mirror attempts to turn the tale on its side to make this the story of a princess who earns back her crown, rather than being a victim saved by “true love’s kiss.” Unlike Hepburn’s Anya, Snow is not uncomfortable with her royalty. Once she sees the desperation her stepmother’s selfish vanity has wrought, she fights to reclaim her throne. She becomes a rogue warrior princess, leading a gang of bandit dwarves, exiled by the queen because they are “ugly.” Napoleon, Half Pint, Wolf, Butcher, Chuckles, Grub, and, in a lovely nod to the original tale, Grimm, rebel against the Queen by robbing the rich along the forest trails. Snow White, knowing the poverty and desperation caused by her stepmother’s rule, convinces the dwarves that they can re-enter society with her if they are willing to be a bit more like Robin Hood.
Mirror, Mirror does away with the comatose, poisoned Snow. Rather, it is the Prince who falls victim to the Queen’s spell, and Snow bestows the spell-breaking kiss upon his unwilling lips. Cured, the Prince joins the dwarves and Snow to take back the kingdom. To further emphasize Snow’s inner magic, when she faces a beast (who bears strong resemblance to Beauty’s beast) doing her stepmother’s bidding, she pauses when the beast looks her in the eye. Noting that he wears the other half of her stepmother’s glowing necklace, she cuts the necklace’s chain. With that, she breaks the spell that has bound her father as a beast in the dark forest. A second act of pure love and innocence that sets all to rights.
As a heroine, Collins’s Snow White has grit, agency, power, and intellect. I can’t help but think of A.O. Scott and Mahnola Dargiss’s “conversation” in the New York Times about The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen as a “Radical Heroine from Dystopia” (April 4, 2012). Like the female heroes they discuss, Collin’s Snow is not the heroine of yesterday–a poised (poisoned, sleeping) princess waiting for her destiny. She’s not quite the radical heroine Scott and Dargis discuss, but she is one who makes her own decisions and choices. Though gowned and gorgeous, Snow is not bound by the constraints of fairytale femininity. She can swashbuckle with the best of them to reclaim what is rightfully hers. The comparison to Katniss, Lisbeth, and Ripley can only go so far. But, this Snow indicates a continuation of the new kind of female hero Scott and Dargiss discuss.
Kristen Stewart’s Snow White bears closer resemblance to Katniss, Lisbeth, and Ripley. And Snow White and the Huntsman bears closer resemblance in its design to The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, and even The Terminator. It has, in effect, been Grimmified, a term TVTropes.com has popularized to mean “the act of allegedly de-bowdlerizing a story, but going to the other extreme instead: Making it Grimmdark” (TVTropes.com). TV Tropes lists the opposite of Grimmification as Disneyification. While the Grimm Brothers’ versions of Snow White were not that dark and gory, they certainly were darker than the Disney version. Snow White and the Huntman’s dark palette, threatening music, and unglamorous costumes set the stage for a Snow who gets muddy, looks dirty, and wears britches and armor.
No one needs to teach this Snow to be a warrior—she emerges from her cell as a woman who seems to have been planning escape for years. I imagined a sequence showing her working out and practicing her sword skills, as we might have seen if this were an unjustly imprisoned man planning a prison escape. She doesn’t hesitate to slide down a sewer hole, and is an expert horsewoman. There is no prince to save her: William, her oldest friend and the Duke’s son, thinks she’s dead, and when he finally comes for her, she has formed an intense partnership with the Huntsman. In fact, when Snow finally kisses William and takes a bit from the apple he offers, he turns out to be Ravenna and the apple is poisoned. The Huntsman’s kiss, not William’s, awakens her. But, in the end, it is action—hand-to-hand combat with Ravenna—that restores order, not the kiss. And unlike other versions of “Snow White,” including Mirror, Mirror, this one does not end with a wedding (though it does have a sequel in the works), but with a coronation.
And yet, as many critics have noted, Snow White and the Huntsman may give agency to Snow, but it give motive to Ravenna. We understand what drives her and what drives the Huntsman. Both characters are flushed out more than we’ve seen them in any iteration of “Snow White.” The princess herself, and her erstwhile prince, seem motivated by a memory of a Camelot-like moment and a deep sense of duty to reclaim it. In this sense, while she may be dirtier and stronger than Disney’s Snow White, she’s no less enigmatic.
Snow White and the Huntsman nods to Disney with black and white birds whose actions signal escape routes to Snow. It goes a step further, evoking a tradition of wonder tales that includes all kinds of magic. [SLIDE 8] The birds turn out to be fairies and in a place called Sanctuary, they—and all the forest creatures—bow to a white stag who in turn bows to Snow. Snow is,
according to the legend within this legend, “life itself,” the pureness come to save the day. Sanctuary is, for a moment, a Disney-like forest filled with magical creatures and plants. Then, for a moment the Stag is Aslan, from The Chronicles of Narnia, an all-powerful otherworldly creature to whom all goodness is owed. And, then the arrows fly, the stag is killed, and Snow must fight her own battles.
Snow White remains the ultimate cinematic fairy tale, not just because Disney gave us a revolutionary film that built on a timeless tale. If film is like a mirror, as Christian Metz wrote, then this story about a mirror, beauty, and the battle for good, may be the ultimate mirror on Hollywood’s star stystem, its codification of beauty norms, and the question of the male gaze. These versions seem to say that nothing is written in stone. The Grimm Brothers, who did revise their Snow White for more than 45 years, would certainly agree. Snow White is uncannily familiar, and yet evolving all the time.
LIST OF REFERENCES
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1978. Print.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.
“Betty Boop in Snow White.” Dir. Max Fleischer. Paramount Productions, Inc. 1933 Accessed via http://archive.org/details/SnowWhiteWithBettyBoop1933.
CBS Radio Let’s Pretend. “Snow Drop and the Seven Dwarves.” April 19. 1949. Accessed via Matinee Classics, http://matineeclassics.com/radio/1929/lets_pretend/.
Greenhill, Pauline and Sidney Eve Matrix, eds. Fairy Tale Films: Visions of Ambiguity. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010.
Wagner, Shandi. The Transformation of Snow White into the Evil Stepmother in Anne Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. The Sigma Delta Tau. 2011 (pp. 110-120)
Scott, A.O. and Manohla Dargis. “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia.” The New York Times. April 4, 2012.
The Simpsons. Four Great Women and a Manicure. May 10, 2009.
 Like so many fairy tales, this schematic narrative description is rather generic. That is, it truly does show some of the motifs and themes of the fairy tale genre, especially in that it could just as easily reference “Cinderella” as “Snow White.” “Sleeping Beauty” is not motherless, but she does fall victim to jealous fairy/witch.
 Zipes (2011) offers an extensive history and criticism of the Snow White films, including a filmography of 35 screen adaptations and interpetations.
 This paper will not discuss Grimm’s Snow White, also released (straight to DVD) in 2012. Grimm’s Snow White bear so little resemblance to the Grimm Brother’s “Little Snow-White” that it either deserves its own essay, or no attention at all.
 In Disney’s version, when Snow White does see her reflection, it is in the well in her yard and she is gazing at herself with her Prince, side-by-side, true love already found and her representation complete.
 While this partnership is never shown to be love, there certainly is more than a hint of sexual tension between them The Huntsman’s confession to the “sleeping” Snow White lets us know that he has fallen in love with her and that she has, in effect, saved him from a destructive life spent wallowing and weeping over his dead wife (one of the Queen’s victims).
- Snow White Themes (eng1131fairytales.wordpress.com)
- “White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony!” (alexsandravillafane654.wordpress.com)