Snow White is the original Disney princess. She’s the ultra-feminine, perpetually kind, hopelessly naïve optimist in the pretty dress. In fact, she’s so happy not even complete servitude can keep her from a mid-morning song. She’s, to be frank, annoying.
Snow White inhabits the stereotypically “female” gendered roles. She’s a cook, a maid, a nurturer, an entertainer and an organizer. If she sees a dish, she cleans it. If she can’t clean it, she gets a few woodland animals to help her – through song, of course. While her character is hyper-feminine, I will argue that she, unlike later princesses, is not entirely dominated by men.
There are only three “masculinities” presented in Snow White: the working class heroes (seven dwarfs), the muscular metrosexual (Prince Ferdinand), the aggressor (the Huntsman). The Huntsman succumbs to Snow White’s innocence and beauty and cannot force himself to kill her, literally collapsing in tears in front of her. The dwarfs, half her height, kneel before her presumed-dead body in an eternal vigil for “many seasons” after she bites the poisoned apple. True, the dwarfs let Snow White stay as a guest after they learn she can clean and cook. They forced her to conform to a gender role in exchange for shelter. However, the maternal power Snow White exercises over the dwarfs is, from my perspective, more notable than one act of sexism.
I will concede to the argument that the prince, although only making two appearances in the movie, is a dominant figure because he represents upward mobility. When Snow White sings, “someday my prince will come” she’s singing as the damsel in need of saving – she wants out of her rags and into economic stability.
If we only focus on male-female relationships in Snow White, we miss out on more interesting and overlooked themes: the punishment of ambitious women and ageism.
Admittedly, I have a weakness for Disney villainesses, particular Snow White’s Evil Queen. I’d even go as far as to argue that the character represents a double bind. She’s seductive, with stunning green eyes, well-sculpted eyebrows and a slender figure, and completely terrifying.
The Queen is a uniquely ambitious character. She’s Snow White’s antithesis. Where The Queen takes action – sending the Huntsman to murder Snow White, transforming herself into an old hag, tricking Snow White into eating the apple – Snow White passively lets the action happen to her. Snow White is told to flee to the forest, she’s told to eat the apple, she doesn’t even create her own “happily ever after,” the prince wakes her from the spell. What is Disney’s lesson for girls? If you let others dictate your life, you’ll be rewarded with a handsome prince and financial security. If you make goals and work hard to achieve them, you’ll be crushed by giant boulder during a thunderstorm.
Ageism permeates the movie. The Queen sits on a throne that resembles a peacock, a symbol of vanity. The only other characters she communicates with are the magic mirror, an object she uses to validate herself, and the Huntsman. It is implied that she is highly materialistic, seeing as she has no human contact outside of her subordinates and possessions. Physically, the Queen’s voice is raspier than Snow White’s hyper-feminized voice, enough to suspect that the character might be approaching or past menopause.
When the Queen transforms into the old hag, the movie truly reveals its age bias. “Ugliness” is associated with aging. The spell the Queen casts whitens her hair, completely de-feminizes or “ages” her voice and employs mummy dust to “make her old.” Ironically, the Queen’s “old hag” disguise is an example of an extreme cosmetic procedure that she hopes will ultimately make her the “fairest in the land.”
The Queen’s character represents another double bind. Women and girls must obsessive over beauty, but cannot show vanity. If beauty and youthfulness are the most valuable qualities a woman can possess, the goal for woman and girls is to attain beauty and youthfulness by all means necessary. Still, women and girls must be effortlessly beautiful. Gigi Durham makes note of this phenomenon in the second chapter of The Lolita Effect, except here, “hotness” replaces beauty and youthfulness. Perhaps there is truth to Orenstein’s worries about “a ‘Hundred Years’ War of dieting, plucking, painting and perpetual dissatisfaction with the results” (2006, p.39)