Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snow White :: Disney vs. Grimms, Round 3

It gets feminist.

Later on the Father/Hunter figure is substituted by the protective (if ineffective) presence of the Seven Dwarfs who caution Snow White against the Evil Queen and bring her back to life as long as possible. When the dwarfs have failed, another dominant male figure is required to protect the feeble princess, and he turns out to be the savior Prince. Snow White’s ultimate goal, the goal unto itself, seems to be being wed to a Prince, and once that is achieved, there is not much else to do than “live happily ever after.” In this aspect at least the Grimm version harmonizes with Disney’s, even though the latter gave the Prince a much more significant role. He is seen in the first scene at the Wishing Well, which makes the ending more logical than in the Grimm’s case, and he is also the one who wakes the dead Princess with “true love’s first kiss.” This idea is rather reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, and contrasts with the accidental revival (a servant stumbles) in the Grimm version. In Zipes’s words, “the film follows the classic ‘sexist’ narrative about the framing of women’s lives through a male discourse.”

Robert Coover parodies this simple-minded and innocent approach in his revisionist fairy tale The Dead Queen. In this 1973 writing, Coover addresses the most avoided aspects of this tale, namely the absurdity of a young girl living with seven elderly men; the Evil Queen’s fatal dance in the hot-red iron shoes; and Snow White’s supposed innocence. In the tale told from the point of view of the bewildered Prince, the Evil Queen rules the stage, and all males are mere puppets in her hands: “I knew then that it was she who had composed this scene, as all before, she who had led us … hers the design, ours the enactment.” Coover portrays the dwarfs as sexually aroused klutzes, in the latter clearly being influenced by Disney’s individualization and comicalization of the creatures. He also goes out of his way to dissolve the Snow White innocence myth. He portrays her mercilessness in detail as she enjoys the stepmother’s obscene and tragic dance, as well as her less-than-virginal behavior on the wedding night. As a punch line to the story, he makes the Prince fall for the dead and mutilated Queen, and like a parody of Sleeping Beauty, he makes him kiss the decomposing carcass a magic three times.

Back at the abandonment scene, we again have a classic case of archetypal imagery: wandering out in the woods alone is a metaphor for trials in the unknown realms of life.

With the Grimm Fairy tales, the image of a little child (especially: girl) exposed to the dangers of the forest (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Marienkind) is ever present. This seems to resonate with female initiation, whether sexual, moral, or social. It also manifests the child’s fear of abandonment and starvation, as suggested by Freud’s observations and Bettelheim’s further work in the area. (More on this fear in another essay, to be posted later.) Both of them agree that finding a house in the woods equals coming across a source of nutrition, as exemplified by Hansel and Gretel, in which case the house was literally consumable. Furthermore, the object of nutrition is understood by Freud as the image of the mother, which image is represented by the house. Therefore Snow White’s escaping into the woods and taking refuge in the house can be potentially seen as a type of regression to the mother figure, a step back in childhood. Two instances of the tale seem to support this theory: first, she displays no features of an independent, responsible, or grown-up person all through the progression of the story; and second, her first act upon entering the house is calming her hunger.

Again, in the Disney version this is radically different. She enters what she calls a “Doll House” and immediately starts cleaning the house with the help of her little animal companions. The sense of orderliness seems to be stronger in this case than the basic instinct of survival. This smells strongly of didactic purposes, programming the values of a housewife into the minds of little girls. In fact, throughout the feature Snow White is rarely seen as doing other than housework or being on the run (as a vulnerable is ought to do). The only instant she is depicted as ingesting food is when she bites into the poisoned apple and dies, and even that is not shown on the screen, but the repulsive grimace of the witch is displayed instead. Nowadays it has become a sort of a trend to discover subliminal messages encouraging eating disorders in unlikely places. Even though it would be far-fetched to argue that Disney communicates false ideas about women’s eating habits, the female is definitely portrayed as satisfying others' needs at the cost of denying her own luxury and entertainment (or even basic needs).

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