This is the first in a new series looking at Disney princess movies, from the first to the latest, to see whether they are as “anti-feminist” as some might claim.
- Bechdel pass: No
- Number of female characters: 2
- Female characters’ goals: to marry her true love; to be the fairest
- Lesson: if you are good and sweet and beautiful and pure, your evil stepmother will probably still poison you… but a handsome prince will swing by to rescue you.
When it was released in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was intended for adults.
We really should consider it the same way today. Partly because the Witch scared me so much as a child that this is the first time I’ve ever watched the whole movie from start to finish. But mostly because the movie is incredibly set in its era. As the world’s first cel-animated film, it is culturally significant, and the animation is gorgeous, but the optimistic side of me thinks that young children will be bored by the old-fashioned film. Either way, it is chock-a-block full of every negative Disney Princess stereotype you can imagine.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is told in a very detached way, recreating the simple language and characterisation of a classic fairy tale on screen. All of our character motivations are laid out in two “book” moments, when we read still pages on the screen. Snow White and the Evil Queen are outplayed in both screen time and character by the seven dwarfs and even the forest creatures that Snow White befriends. And, as a fairy tale princess brought to life, Snow White is precisely what everyone imagines when they think negatively about “Disney Princesses.”
Snow White is the epitome of goodness, which, in this case, seems to mean passivity. She cleans and sings, dreaming of the nice things her prince will say when she meets him. She screams and cowers when threatened, but she cannot run unless someone tells her to. She communes with the animals and wins over even the “humorously” misogynistic Grumpy. Her natural beauty looks like a woman wearing make-up (apparently the animators used real rouge to paint her cheeks), and she walks and spins and gasps in a delicate way that no human being has ever attempted.
And she has no real emotions of her own. She runs through the woods in terror, but afterwards tells the animals that she is “ashamed” of her fear. After singing with them, she is perfectly happy again, and responds to everything with laughing delight. She never seems truly afraid of her step-mother, and in her gentleness, has to be reminded over and over by the dwarfs to watch out for her and her tricks. She of course ignores this advice once told that “men prefer apple pie,” so she should buy some apples.
She’s so insufferably good that it’s no wonder the Evil Queen wanted to kill her. And anyone trying to emulate her would learn that laughing and taking any nonsense that anyone gives you is the best way to get ahead in life.
In fact, Snow White is so detached from her own story that she barely even interacts with the two characters who drive it. She never says a word to her true love, the prince, who she sees once and instantly falls in love with. While he declares his passion for her immediately, she, in all her sweet innocence, instantly runs and hides from him. Quite right, perhaps, since he first appears as a creepy eavesdropper with a feather in his cap, who appears beside her and joins her in a duet without invitation, and next appears to kiss the lips of a beautiful corpse. But the “true love” hardly rings true.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Evil Queen’s hatred of Snow White drives the entire plot, they don’t even appear in a scene together until 1 hour and 10 minutes into the 1 hour 23 minute movie. I thought the film would be a certain Bechdel pass, but although Snow White and the Evil Queen do eventually speak to one another (for all of two minutes), I couldn’t give it because the Queen doesn’t have a name, or at least not one mentioned in the film. Considering that their relationship creates the entire plot, it is disappointing that they barely even see each other (Snow White never interacts with the beautiful version of her stepmother at all), and the tension between them is never mentioned. I’m not sure Snow White even knows why her stepmother tried to kill her… she just takes it as one of those things that happens and gets on with her singing and cleaning.
On the bright side, the Queen has initiative and a goal, which is more than I can say for simpering Snow White. But she is the villainous older woman, and I came out of watching the movie with the sense that I was being shown two kinds of femininity and two kinds of motherhood: an older, jealous, selfish type, contrasted with the young, sweet purity of Snow White. To say that the Evil Queen is a bad mother figure is beyond understatement. Snow White, on the other hand, despite being a “young girl,” immediately becomes a mother to the dwarfs, earning her place by cooking and cleaning, sternly telling them to go and wash, and generally being the perfect image of passive domesticity. As a result, Snow White gets her dream prince, and the Evil Queen dies, struck down partly by her own wickedness and partly by the world itself, as a bolt of lightning tears the ground from under her. Why such a powerful woman flees from seven little men with pickaxes in the first place is unclear. But evil is struck down, sweet purity is saved, and everything is right with the world… without Snow White having to do a single thing (other than laugh and scream and be motherly) to save herself.
As a movie for adults, Snow White does get a bit of a free pass as a first in animation and a movie stuck in its time. But although I’m still generally a massive Disney fan, this is one movie that I could not enjoy.