Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Snow White :: Disney vs. Grimms, Round 5

About Disney's modern self-parody and the Grimms' male chauvinism

The DreamWorks production Shrek features a scene strongly reminiscent of Snow White’s forest song with the animals ("With a Smile and a Song"), in which Snow White seems to bind especially strongly with a small bird singing with its full might and sounding off key in the effort.

Shrek's wink at the famous forest idyll possesses less of a romantic charm. Due to Fiona’s artistic enthusiasm the Princess-Bird response aria comes to a tragic end. (Sorry I had to link to the video, embedding was disabled.)

Enchanted is clearly another laudable attempt at self-parody. The most recognizable original Walt Disney elements include the cleaning scene with the help of the animals featuring the "Happy Working Song," a parody of the 1937 Snow White’s "Whistle While You Work".

In Enchanted, the Princess lovingly enlists the help of the most repulsive city critters, including dirty pigeons, rats, and cockroaches as a parody of the “zoo” surrounding Snow White.

In Enchanted, similarly to Snow White, the heroine’s single goal in life is also to be wed and take up her role as housewife and mother. Needless to say, the happy ending consists in the fulfillment of this dream, even if the Prince does not turn out to be The One. It is easy to explain this desire as the ultimate success for the pre-19th-century women, the traditional storytellers (and even for most American women of the 30s and the two subsequent decades). As Zipes encapsulates the idea: “the classical fairy tale for children and adults reinforced the patriarchal symbolic order based on rigid notions of sexuality and gender.”

The Brothers Grimm, who apparently shared the popular notion that women should maintain the household and make sure all the men's desires are fulfilled, reinforced this model of happiness in Snow White--and many other tales. Their body of work, but especially their own biography gives ample evidence of their patriarchal attitude. As they collected their fairy tales, their most often used and most trusted sources were women. These women very often did all the footwork and wrote down different versions of fairy tales, then sent it by post to the Brothers, whose work as collectors was thus greatly facilitated.

However, other than a brief mention of one of them, Frau Viehm√§nnin, in their introduction to the Kinder-und Hausm√§rchen, these diligent and devoted sources were overlooked and all credit was given to the Brothers. The women’s efforts were all the more laudable, seeing as female education of the times was lacking at best, and for the same reason many withdrew from contributing. As cited by Valerie Paradiz, a formerly devoted contributor suddenly ceased to show interest in the project and turned her full attention toward “her husband, and [was] afraid, like most females, about her writing mistakes”. On the same page she makes mention of another valuable source withdrawing from submitting tales because “she was embarrassed when she learned that male scholars would be scrutinizing the stories she told” (emphasis added).

The 1796 death of Dorothea Grimm, the mother of the Brothers, was a huge loss for the already fatherless family, and the five adolescents remained alone in the world, dependent on each other only. The weight of household chores, according to the age’s standards, now had to be shouldered by the only girl, the 15-year-old Lotte. However, according to Valerie Paradiz, she refused “to replace their mother as the family nurturer” and sunk into deep agony upon being considered little but “a domestic servant”. Her resistance outraged the brothers but this did not change the girl’s mind:

"Her resentment was strong. Jacob and Wilhelm had their privileged status as educated men of letters to make up for whatever material lack the family suffered, but Lotte had nothing. She faced this painful fact every day in a house of brothers who acknowledged her for little more than her utilitarian purposes."

It is then of little surprise that Snow White is only allowed to stay in the house of the dwarfs as long as she cooks, cleans, sews, and does all housework as needed. In the Grimm version the dwarfs make this the condition of her stay, and she diligently attends to her chores. Disney, however, made the girl start working voluntarily as soon as she’s stepped over the threshold. She even voices her hope, prior to the arrival of the dwarfs, that if she offers to “be their mother,” they might let her stay. When they discover her sleeping across the beds, she repeats the offer and it is, of course, readily accepted.

Even though not in this particular tale, the Grimm brothers frequently use the expression “sich verdingen” for stepping into such services, which in literal translation means “to make a thing out of oneself”, “to reify” oneself. Understandably, Lotte Grimm did not want to make an object of herself in a household of four men. It is little surprise, then, that Snow White’s ready self-sacrifice was much more desirable in the Brothers’ eyes than their sister's resistance.


  1. Goodness, you know even though I enjoy being in a clean environment and cooking quality food, this attitude of the Grimms, ... well, geesh, and then kind of reinforced as a model by Disney,... *angry emoticon* I am lost for words.

  2. Yes, there is a huge difference between the two. Looking at this from a Disney/Folk tale POV fascinates me. You'd never think. When I was a wee girl I always hoped to be like Snow White one day. *shakes head*