Tyrant in Training – Snow White (1937)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Rotten Tomatoes

At the end of the Disney 1937 animated film Snow White, the Queen turned wicked witch scales the mountainside. The dwarves give chase, with Grumpy, supposedly the least interested in Snow White, leading the charge. The witch becomes stuck on a cliff face, tells herself that the only way out is through, and she grabs a branch to use it as a fulcrum to leverage a boulder down on the dwarves closing in. Suddenly lightning strikes, possibly the same lightning that infused with her brew to turn her into a witch in the first place. The cliff explodes, and the witch queen falls to her death. Similar to other Disney movies like Beauty and the Beast and The Hunchback of Notre Dame – while modern protagonists find themselves going against the grain of their upbringing and forming new identities, the villains find themselves still at the mercy of nature and predestination, (and in Frollo’s case as he grips a gargoyle at the top of Notre Dame, at the mercy of Hell) – the witch too dies at the hand of the author of the story, rather than Snow White or the dwarves themselves.

It was a missed opportunity. The original Snow White story by the Grimms brothers tells of a Snow White soon to be married, but also on the warpath. When the Queen arrives to “congratulate” her on her marriage, she is understandably nervous, because she tried to have her killed with a poisoned comb and apple. Snow White, far from being the innocent little girl the Disney movies make her out to be, orders a pair of iron shoes to be heated in coals. and after they are red hot, the Queen is ordered to place her feet in them and dance. Dance, effectively, until she dies. This is a morbid image. Trying to envision those invited to the wedding to watch the pleading screams of a woman dancing is enough to make my head spin. The Queen would likely be on her own, in this pair of shoes destroying her from the ground up, while Snow White looks on with a sort of delicious gleam, signaling to the others in the crowd, “This is what happens when you mess with the new mother in town.”

The weaknesses of Disney’s 1937 Snow White are many, but this one in particular rises above the rest to change the very nature of the story. The Queen was the fairest, but now Snow White is fairest. Through the actions of the Queen, she hoped to rid Snow White and become fairest again. While at first glance it seemed she failed, as she does in the Disney movie, the original tale is not so easily discerned. The Queen debased herself in order to steal Snow White from this Earth, thus by her own actions reducing her status. Disguising herself as an ugly witch reveals her true form, and her attempts to poison and malign could hardly be described as those of a well-mannered queen. Snow White, polite though she is, learns a lot from her matriarch, regardless if she is biological or a surrogate, as even the original tale is ambiguous on this front. Snow White learns that people must be punished publicly. Perhaps, right in that moment, she rests at the pinnacle of what we assume to be her beauty, where she has been redeemed and stands at the height of the land, even to the point where her dwarven keepers cannot acknowledge her presence in the castle, ugly laborers as they are. She has been removed even from plebeian society, by a prince whose age it is not clear. Very soon they will be married and they will inherit the land. Yet here, the success does not feel like success. What of the Queen? Is forgiveness an acceptable form of punishment itself for Snow White? Imagining the Queen growing old in invisibility seems more a punishment, to live aging, than this tortuous public penalty. I do understand that I am channeling Michel Foucault here, but there is something to be said for the mutilation and death as spectacle for the Queen, who perhaps died in a fit of laughing madness, signaling to Snow White that the Queen got EXACTLY what she wanted: the chance for her ward to debase herself.

The movie stands to contrast both the Queen and Snow White through manners and demeanor, but also in stark and stereotypical imagery. Once the Queen turns to a witch, her hatred is personified and she teases and throws shade at every creature she comes across. These creatures are malevolent disease spreaders and vultures, literal vultures! Rats, crows, the deathly side of nature. Snow White’s creatures tend to be the herbivores of the forest land, the occasional refuge of the Grimm brothers. Deer, rabbits, chipmunks. And as each scene progresses, including the unforgivably padded scenes with the dwarves in the middle of the movie – while Snow White luxuriates in desire and pleasure – the Queen, who to some extent has driven out the beauty from her immediate surroundings, and who could be said to have won, is not satiated. In the original tale, the repetitions of “mirror, mirror” as is customary in children’s tales, drives her mad. Snow White, while she doesn’t have the prince that she wants, finds that she has what she needs. Male attention, purpose in servitude, and safety in the home.

Sure, in the Disney movie, the prince is all she can think about, which is strange considering her rebuff at the wishing well of the very same prince as he yells with a pretentious flourish, “TODAY!!” Were it not for Snow White’s quick thinking, things could have gotten a little rape-y over there. Snow White, childish as she is, accepts the prince’s kiss (she has no choice) and rides with him to a castle in the sky. In the original tale, the prince is sort of an afterthought, a path toward Snow White’s resumption of royal duties, which here seem to be derelict. While the Disney movie suggests explicitly in a book on the subject that Snow White can be revived with a kiss, in the original tale the prince simply dislodges the apple in her throat on accident as he carries her back to the castle. Hardly the heroic rescue we all imagined.

One might be tempted to ask, “Where is the father?” in all of this, and there is something to be said for the lack of a third party. But, as with the prince, the lack of a third party is not the point: Snow White and the Queen are part of a simultaneous visible and invisible battle for affection and attention. And in this case, the Queen is not satisfied with her time having peaked. All that to be said, Snow White, so ruthless towards those who have wronged her, rather than be a case of “happily ever after” tinges the story with a kind of bittersweet realization. Similar to other films that discuss the combination of power and idiosyncratic leaders, like The Favourite (2018) starring Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone, or perhaps like the television miniseries The Great (2020) starring Nicholas Holt and Elle Fanning, the fact that whole kingdoms are left under the (un)watchful eye of leaders who are wrapped up in personal squabbles, means that the kingdom, far from being suspended in the sky, is very much fucked.

Snow White has a cyclical nature, as many good stories do, where the table is set for her to take up the vindictive mantle that her predecessor left behind, but in that cycle there is the compounding feeling that the Queen won by simply having Snow White acknowledge that all those manners, all that nicety, the swiping and the bowing, is just bullshit. The Queen knows, for she has the inside knowledge of being royalty par excellence. “We’re not so different, you and I,” that cliché dialogue of many a bad movie, works for the tale because in her horrific torture, left out of the Disney film, Snow White concedes. One also might see something of a morbidly heroic person in the Queen. Perhaps all this is basic training, so that when the naïve and quite stupid Snow White takes up the mantle, she has had to bear witness to a woman so terrible that it molds her into a leader ready to wield the power required to lead.

For those parents out there who have a copy, as I do, of Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, preserving the stories to be read to children again, I wonder what parents are supposed to do with conclusions as menacing and terrifying in their implications like that of Snow White? Some parents might have a desire to encourage “good” representations of mother-daughter relationships in the household, and forbid the story from ever being read. Some may read the story and explain away the ending as “what history used to be like” fully forgetting that, in representing a series of symbolic metaphors, perhaps the literal placing of the Queen in hot shoes was never the point. Going even further than that: are children really innocent? From my time as a child, I seem to remember children becoming violent without remorse, relishing in the ease of punching another child in the stomach without that same pain back. Some children might find glee in the story; the Queen’s demise is her comeuppance. Is this an acceptable feeling for a child to have? Even if we can be sure that our children, once grown, would not ever tie up an enemy in high school or beyond, heat up a pair of iron slippers, and force their frenemy to dance in them? Could we be sure that the representation of wrath was forgotten or sublimated?

The Disney movie of 1937 is the first to “Disnify” the complexity inherent in the story, a term many of us use to say to indicate that the story has been cleared up of any harm or wrongdoing, as well as any ambiguity in the text. But when I decided to go back and begin watching these older films, as I had not seen them in perhaps a decade or more, I hardly realized just how far back the concept went. People complain of the remakes of animated features into live-action garbage we see today to be an attempt at revisionist history. Lindsay Ellis on YouTube has an excellent piece on the revising of Dumbo from its original and racist underpinnings, to point to one example. But we forget that revision encompasses all art. Milton’s Paradise Lost is nothing less than a revising of the creation tale of the Bible. Satan’s fall now invites the ambiguous uncertainty “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven,” and we are grateful for it, for enriching the origin story of the Western Myth.

Disney has a lot to gain from mining the untapped vein of complexity in Grimm’s original tale. But imagining that they would use this to satisfy the urges of their stock holders is laughable. Disney is not interested in art, they are interested in money. They are the tyrant. Luckily for us, print has the advantage of being as timeless as the day it was written. Words like wine even improve with age, and the arcane language of these classic fairy tales give it a magic that the stories claim exists all along. I would without question read these to my children. Having a child at all is a wrath all its own, a desire to continue one’s legacy with your genetic line, forsaking the death you were guaranteed. “If there’s any chance at everlasting life,” Christopher Hitchens the atheist was known to have said, “it is in the life of my daughters.”

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