She’s starred in an eponymous Disney movie, the comic book series Fables, and the television series Once Upon a Time. She will soon take the screen yet again in Snow White and the Huntsman and now Mirror, Mirror.
What is it about Snow White that makes her more appealing to modern audiences than Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, her Big Three Disney Princess contemporaries?
After all, the Disney Snow White isn’t exactly a great feminist role model. Here’s a woman who nearly dies eating a poisoned apple she accepted from a stranger (be careful trick-or-treating, kids) and has to be rescued by a passing prince.
In that, she’s no different from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. The former needs a may-un to rescue her from perpetual servitude to her stepmother, and the latter also needs a prince’s kiss to wake her from a century-long coma. This is a pretty creepy way to wake up, if you’re not a fan of the Twilight series.
But if you look hard enough, she does have the groundwork for a take-charge, carpe-diem attitude. At the very least, Snow displays some elements of risk-taking, charisma, and decision-making lacking in the other two.
All three princesses are in thrall to someone or something. Sleeping Beauty can’t shake a malevolent witch’s curse, and Snow’s and Cinderella’s stepmothers essentially hold the younger women hostage.
Snow White, however, is the only one to successfully run away. Sure, she gets help from the huntsman who was supposed to kill her, but she takes advantage of his change of heart. Neither of the other princesses so much as tries to flee.
She also has enough charm to prove herself capable of befriending commoners in spite of her royal upbringing. She cheerfully pitches in, instantly winning the dwarves’ respect and camaraderie.
Cinderella, too, performs menial tasks on a daily basis. But she does so unwillingly. She also makes no friends outside of the mice and birds she befriends in the Disney movie, putting her one step below crazy cat ladies. Older versions of her have her talking to her dead mother, putting her two steps below the Unabomber on the social butterfly scale.
The animated Sleeping Beauty has no one but the fairies mustered to her side in a doomed attempt to save her from the curse. Her predecessors don’t even get that much. With such competition, Snow handily wins the title of Chick You Could See Yourself Having a Drink With.
Just don’t order her an Appletini. The poisoned apple definitely ranks as the worst decision of Snow’s career. Unlike the others, though, she gets to make a decision.
Sure, she makes the wrong one. But the fact that Snow White goes on to live “happily ever after” says that she learns from this. Never again will she trust people she’s never met before, or people her friends haven’t screened.
The original Grimm fairy tale gives her even more credit. Snow White isn’t as gullible. She only takes the apple because the supposedly sweet old farmer’s wife cuts it in half and takes a big bite. How is our intrepid heroine to know her disguised stepmother poisoned the other half?
Gregory Maguire takes it one step farther in Mirror Mirror (no apparent relation to the Tarsem Singh film). Not only does his Bianca suspect a trap, she tells her malevolent guardian that she’s only taking a chance because death will give her an escape from the old witch.
Of course, Maguire has a generous perspective in all his fairytale retellings. His Cinderella in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister takes on household chores as a way of expressing grief for her recently departed mother, and her step-sisters play willing wingwomen so she can hook up with the prince.
This, however, is the only example of a Cinderella story that gives that particular childhood favorite any sort of agency. In the Disney film, the closest she comes to actively correcting her sorry lot in life is to cry until her fairy godmother takes pity on her.
In the original stories by Charles Perrault and the Grimm brothers, she cries until her deceased mother’s spirit gets sick of her whining. You know it’s bad when your mother wishes you’d let her rot in peace.
But if she’s not a woman of action, at least Cinderella never gets drugged or raped. The Disney film shows Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a poisoned spindle because a magic spell draws her to do so.
The Grimm version adds more. If being woken with a strange dude’s kiss sounds disturbing enough, imagine waking up to discover you have two babies from being raped while you were unconscious. Then marrying your rapist because it’s the right thing to do, only to have his jealous ogre of a mother (and no, that is not an exercise in hyperbole) select your children for an entree.
It almost makes Thanksgiving with your in-laws sound comparatively delightful. Almost.
The body of literature gives Snow White some room to think and act and learn, powers that aren’t extended to her more luckless canonical sisters. She’s the only one of the three who doesn’t always bow down before the whims of stepmothers and witches and witchy stepmothers. She’s the only one who reaches beyond her prim and proper upbringing to gingerly flip fate the bird.
All this makes Snow White seem like the only princess who can make a decision without her poor feminine brain exploding in the process. Yes, it is unfortunate that this sorta role model still needs her male friends to screen her would-be suitor and needs said suitor to swoop in and save the day.
Perhaps as the Millennials who grew up watching intellectual Belle or kick-ass Mulan take the helm in media, we’ll start seeing some truly capable women starring in 21st-century adaptations.
For now, Snow White is only one of the classic Disney princesses who seems like she can Get Shit Done, as evidenced by her non-housewifely roles of late. And that’s more than enough to make her a compelling character who can hold her own within the constantly swirling currents of modern drama.
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Written by Bree Kornblum Katz (@breekatz)
Bree writes when she is not skiing off cliffs, facing down funnel clouds, or plumbing the depths of the internet. She's published short stories with Dead Dog Press, Six Sentences, and BlazeVOX and currently blogs about her hair-raising experiences in the Rocky Mountains at extremetothemax.com. She's still waiting on her… More »
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