Snow White and #MeToo: Reclaiming a Classic

I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Winter Garden, Florida, at the Garden Theatre, which was built in 1935 and conceivably could have shown the film on its original release. (An effervescent ticket lady told me that it did, and that it was the first theater in the state built for “talkies.”) I saw it only days after learning that Disney fired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn for the inappropriate Twitter comments he made a decade ago, which trivialized rape and made him a retroactive casualty in the #MeToo sexual harassment awareness campaign. There was a lady sitting behind me in the theater mocking Snow White’s girlish giggling and romantic willingness; a rape joke deriding the movie came up more than once. Old and new Disney collided inevitably in my brain.

On Twitter, I found “Once Upon a Time’s Up,” a #MeToo music video released for National Women’s Day in which Snow White mentions the fact that a man kissed her without her consent and that the dwarfs were noticeably aroused by it (they didn’t mention it but she’s certainly underaged too, by modern standards). I’ve read that some people (Alicia Keys was particularly outspoken on the subject) are concerned that stories like “Snow White” and “Sleeping Beauty” will make boys grow up believing they don’t need consent, and make girls grow up believing that they don’t have a right to ask for it. To sum up the atmosphere on the subject, I came across this passage in a TeenVogue article called “Why These Disney Films May Help Perpetuate Rape Culture”:

Stories like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Sleeping Beauty” were first written in societies with more patriarchal ideas of women as being inferior, servile, and dependent on men, and these notions seem to have gotten carried over into some contemporary adaptations, where they might end up contributing to rape culture.

The narrative against fairy tales is easy to agree with because it seamlessly melds a true statement about our past into a critique of the present, namely, that because fairy tales were made in a time of gender inequality they inherit the symptoms of their ailing era. So here’s a question. If you’ve seen classic Disney, then you should know that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a rosy-cheeked marvel, a beautiful escape. You should know that it has charm to last eighty years. But should we watch it? Does it contribute to rape culture? We live in an age of awareness – does Snow White contain anything that we should be aware of?

The question of Snow White as she relates to #MeToo is an interesting one because these stories were indeed written in a time when women were often portrayed as inferior (some of them even intended to perpetuate that image, like Beauty and the Beast, written originally to convince free-spirited young girls to put more time and effort into their undesirable arranged marriages). To consider Disney’s Snow White specifically as it appears today in the light of #MeToo, one thing should be clear: Snow White herself does not conform to trends in modern Disney protagonists. By comparison, she is weak, fearful, naïve. She hopes a prince will sweep her off her feet and she hopes for little else. Against the modern standard, she’s a coward and a fool, wishing for something that doesn’t exist.

Disney has been anticipating changing trends in our perception of true love for a while, with films like Enchanted that openly mock Disney’s historical earnestness, and recent animated films like Frozen and Moana, which go to no small effort to write Prince Charming permanently out of the fairy-tale equation. Never far behind praise for these films is another kind of praise, for representation’s sake, for strengthening the princess in her own fairy tale and kicking love to the curb. By comparison, Snow White seems like an antique, and she reminds us unfavorably of our antiquity.

But we shouldn’t forsake Snow White, and neither should #MeToo.

This awareness campaign desires to give victims of sexual abuse a voice and to stop blaming them for what happened to them. Why then do some of us treat Snow White as a victim, simply because she isn’t strong enough to defend herself? This is what we’re saying, when we praise the new warrior princesses as a step in a progressive direction away from the naivete of the past, as though the classic princesses were abused only because they weren’t strong enough to fight it off. The very essence of #MeToo would suggest that Snow White has a right to be weak and fearful and naïve, and even in being all of these things to not be a victim. We’re worried that the kinds of hopes and dreams in old Disney will encourage rape culture for our children, but they deserve these dreams and to not become victims for them, just as Snow White does. What child could think of that kiss as unconsented? The prince may kiss Snow White without consent given directly to him, but to us she has given it a thousand times: when viewing it, there can be no doubt about her good intentions, or his.

I don’t doubt there are people like Ms. Keys who will transpose their life experiences onto Snow White, knowing that the world sometimes takes things from us and that sometimes bad people get away with bad things. Yet I wonder: is that what kids should learn from their fairy tales? We are drastically shortening the amount of time in which they can still believe in nonsense like true love. And by treating rape as inevitable, in such scenarios as the one in which the way to “fix” Snow White into being worthy of our praise is to make her physically strong and cunning (see Snow White and the Huntsman), we punish children for their beliefs. We blame them for being victims.

Snow White’s frailty isn’t her weakness or her fault. Disney saw the child in her, and loved it well enough to accentuate and nurture it. Today, we present children with stalwart warrior princes and princesses who always do the right thing and are always very brave. So what happens when our children get scared and mess up? Who can they believe in then? We have changed the fairy tales to be better than they are (or at least, to be worldlier). With Snow White, they don’t have a role model for strength or ingenuity, but they have a person who is sometimes as scared as they are, and always as kind. They have someone who acts very little, as they act very little in the grand scheme of the world, but in response to which the whole world revolves and becomes better for it (you’d have to be a parent to know just how much). They have a prince who is not quite a real person and certainly not a rapist – while barely being in the film at all, he stands in for love in little hearts, who can feel it without knowing exactly what they feel, who know it as well as we know things that we can see.

And what does the Evil Queen have to say about it? “Love’s first kiss! Bah! No fear of that.” She could write for TeenVogue. It took eighty years, but wonderment is now sneer-worthy. Now in Frozen, Elsa asks Anna, “What do you know of true love?” and the film’s answer is, resoundingly: nothing. For fear of rape, it seems, there is no room for a child’s version of love. In other words, Disney is finally selling poison apples.

Writing about Snow White in this way is difficult, since so much depends on a response to the sum of our reaction to it and so little on the film itself. In truth, Snow White is hardly even about Snow White, as most films would be about a main character. She is the energy behind a thousand tiny transactions, in emotion and character, but she isn’t much of a protagonist. Disney constructs his world out of details, with an inactive heroine at the center of a lot of things about her that don’t necessarily concern her. So why have I gone to such lengths to justify her existence, to revive her in our hearts? Because being in it less would not make a harmful thing better. No matter how little she is in the film, I am unapologetically a citizen for Snow White, for her right to be charming and naïve, to not be a victim for it, and to not have to be physically strong to ensure it. Around her, Disney builds a world that vibrates with emotion, around a character that it doesn’t focus on or force on us. Nothing, not even awareness, could make it less wonderful.

Disney knew things about the art he was paving. He knew that animation didn’t allow him to cheat life, but to exaggerate it. By putting drawings in front of the lens instead of people, he was more responsible for knowing their tiny reactions, for telling little stories within the jokes that used to take up a whole short film. By knowing this so well, he made an animated film in such a way that all others would owe it their lives. Anyone could have made the princess and put her in one of the haywire romances of the era, complete with long monologues and erratic musical numbers (and this in turn probably would have preserved the servility and dependence the era implied). Only Disney could have made a film that puts her in the center of an ecosystem of beautiful little things, with feelings in every nook, with no corner left unpainted, elevating her from a weak-willed lover in a zany romance to the idea of falling in love, whatever that is to little eyes.

The animals in Snow White are instrumental to this understanding, and they, not Snow White, are the elemental creation that made the animated film possible in the form that we know. (Snow White, played by a real actress named Adriana Caselotti drawn over and made to look real, is a creation stuck in the ’30s, while the animals proactively recall the Minions and the Toy Story toys; the logic of their visual personalities became an entire film with Bambi … and Zootopia.) Disney had his animators master animal-ness, true, in every floppy bunny ear and crinkly nose. But then they moved on: the forms of their little bodies contain the energy of their character. Rabbits and chipmunks scrabble over each other in plush little piles; deer are often seen literally chewing the scenery. The animators interpret a squirrel’s energy as a will to giggle, and a bird’s curiosity as a willingness to be helpful. There’s a turtle that spends the whole movie studiously catching up with the rest of them (on a flight of stairs, for instance) and gets lapped as the animals come back from whatever just happened, for which the poor thing is never present. The laughs are very real here, and timeless (you can always tell when someone is seeing a film for the first time: precise laughter makes them the ideal audience). Racoons work the laundry with their tiny fingers; insightful quails go “tsk, tsk” at the sight of a dirty broom. Early on, doves listen to Snow White’s song, leaving and coming back to hear the whole story. One goes down to the prince and kisses him for her, and blushes (this is, perhaps, the closest we get to consent).

Disney must have decided to base these personalities on their appearances, a decision that requires animation to work. Consider the haunted forest, where split logs come to life as wicked crocodiles and tree branches grope at Snow White’s blouse, all made possible not by magic but by the personality of the forest’s shapes, as Snow White sees them, or as Walt sees her see them. With the dwarfs, Disney put this to a full test. He imitates life to exaggerate it. Snow White herself announces the effect, satisfyingly naming them all by sight alone, just as we can (“Oh, you must be Gr-umpy,” she says with fake seriousness that I don’t think has failed to procure a laugh in a century).

The dwarfs are low to the ground, possibly the better to refer to all the five-foot masters of comedy but probably the better to fall down. They spend a lot of time on their bums in Snow White. But falling down alone isn’t funny: it has to be pushed by human nature. It’s funny when Grumpy falls down because he’s a self-centric bumpkin who takes it too personally. It’s funny that Doc, whose self-appointed leadership never seems to hold up, rarely falls down at all, because he probably should. It’s funny when Dopey does it because he’s so used to it. Like Chaplin, Dopey is better than the world he falls down in, but not better at it. He is personality comedy extended to a full artform, drawn into the medium itself, which may be why Chaplin called him “one of the greatest comedians of all time.”

It is barely an exaggeration to call Snow White Dopey’s movie. Perhaps Disney felt comfortable with him. Dopey is most like the characters of the old shorts: silent, clumsy, fearful. When the dwarfs (that is the correct spelling: “dwarves” is a race that lives in Middle-earth) are scared to check for monsters in their bedroom, of course they send their pint-sized Harpo to check it out. The candle shakes in his hand and in his shiny eyes, his floppy shoes squeak. He quakes like Steamboat Willie, wordlessly sweating, cheeks wobbling, tongue panting. You’d be wrong to call him a sidekick, with the least character because he says the least. He is the film’s silent mouthpiece. He has a particular shuffling gait as the dwarfs return home in file (singing “Heigh-Ho!”). He’s trying to imitate his more confident brothers by staring at their shoes, seeming to draw attention to how he’s falling behind in the medium too: the new cartoons are ahead of the silent ones, who strain to keep up. But Walt is true to his roots because it’s Dopey who contains the real magic, who thinks of stacking another dwarf beneath him so that he can dance with Snow White in the film’s most charming sequence.

Why is it so good? It’s where the film’s elemental emotions combine into movement. Instead of a stoic courtship between a prince and princess in some ballroom, Snow White’s real affections come out for Dopey, for the act of seeing these characters personify themselves in response to her. She doesn’t have to do anything to draw out the best in them (or in Walt). The final testament to this is beside her coffin – the dwarfs even cry according to their personalities (Grumpy, sniffling regretfully behind his hands, Dopey weeping uncontrollably). Imagine sitting in the theater in 1937, watching war veterans and working mothers sob over drawings. I’m sure it was moments like these, when a soul was written into a drawing (that’s the animism in animation), that made Eisenstein call Snow White the greatest film ever made.

I couldn’t end without coming back to that Evil Queen, now our equal in scoffing at youthful dreams (Woody Allen even mentioned falling in love with her in Annie Hall). Like the best fairy tales must be, this one is made scary by her, and we need this fear to appreciate its special magic. When Snow White dances with Dopey, we aren’t being discarded from the story into the comedy, but supported in feeling good about being safe for a moment in a scary world, a world in which people are so vain that they will become ugly just to prove it. When the Queen, disguised as that gnarly hag, seduces Snow White with her poisoned apple, she calls it “a magic wishing apple.” She tells her to speak her deepest wishes and take a bite. She seems to enjoy it too much, hearing Snow White’s quaint fantasies, the fantasies of “a young girl’s heart,” which the queen reminds her that she knows too well. Her prince never came, it seems (or else, he wasn’t what she thought he’d be). And now we're advocating her perspective on true love, as though the witch knew the score all along.

But the best way to understand Snow White is to realize that all those wishes do come true, and they would not have done so without the witch and the apple and the sleeping death. I’m not even remotely condoning the Queen for seducing her, nor the prince for being bold enough to kiss without asking. These are the actions, and like the animation they are nothing without character. Disney made a world in which a kiss may become true love if the people are good enough; a poison apple is made a wishing apple by the goodness of the person holding it, magic even the witch couldn’t understand. A drawing can become a person the same way. Snow White has been humanizing us with goodness for a century. I think it works on me too.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Orginally appeared on Bright Lights Film.

Cast & Crew

David Hand (supervising)

William Cottrell

Wilfred Jackson

Larry Morey

Perce Pearce

Ben Sharpsteen

Ted Sears

Richard Creedon

Otto Englander

Dick Rickard

Earl Hurd

Merrill De Maris

Dorothy Ann Blank

Webb Smith

The Brothers Grimm (book)

Snow White Adriana Caselotti
Queen Grimhilde/Witch Lucille La Verne
The Prince Harry Stockwell
Doc Roy Atwell
Grumpy/Sleepy Pinto Colvig
Happy Otis Harlan
Bashful Scotty Mattraw

Official Trailer

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