Thursday, April 14, 2011

“Snow White”—Disney’s First Feminist?

Disney's First Animated Feature - 1937
Does Disney’s Snow White hold its own among today’s “girl power” films? It seems unfair to expect a film made in 1937 to communicate modern, empowered themes, but Snow White actually delivers timeless and positive messages to today’s girls.

Let’s examine the content: The wicked Queen—Snow White’s stepmother—is evil because she is obsessed with physical appearance. She squanders her position and spends her days gazing into her mirror, obsessed with her place as “the fairest one of all.” She isn’t nice; she isn’t generous; she isn’t just. She’s beautiful, but at what price? Her obsession with physical appearance is shown up for what it is: an unhealthy, ultimately “ugly” characteristic. I certainly prefer this depiction to, say, Disney’s Cinderella, where the “evil” stepsisters were—let’s face it—physically unattractive.

Snow White, the object of the Queen’s compulsive jealousy, is just as physically attractive as the Queen, but she’s filled with kindness and sweetness. Prince Charming falls in love with her when she’s dressed in rags, working as a scullery maid. The animals—cinema’s own lie detectors—are naturally drawn to Snow White’s gentle ways.

When Snow White runs away to the cottage of the Seven Dwarfs, she earns her keep by cleaning house and preparing food; she doesn’t expect a handout. And I refuse to denigrate Snow White’s contribution to the household because it’s traditional “women’s work.” Housekeeping and cooking make the world go ’round. And some of us—men and women—downright love it.

What else do you get in this film? You get a piece of history. Snow White was the world’s first feature-length animated synchronous sound film. Walt Disney had no idea if audiences would stand (or rather sit) for it. And he hedged his bets with his animators. In order to ensure that Snow White would be a visual feast, he paid his creative staff bonuses of ten dollars for each clever idea that would enhance the visual interest of the script. Details such as Dopey’s little “hitch” step or any number of sight-gags among the woodland creatures were just such moments. And heaven is in those countless little details, those winning “ten dollar” moments. And remember—this was all hand-drawn and looks it. Every frame is filled with movement and life and evidence of the human hands that crafted it.

Here’s another thing I love about Snow White: Grumpy the Dwarf. He’s a bad-attitude cynic, but he’s still a GOOD person. Lesson? Don’t judge a book, a small person, or a gorgeous Queen by their superficial, outward appearance. Snow White is a game gal—then and now. Virtually anyone would do well to emulate Snow White’s courage and grace. She was lovely—inside and out.


  1. Snow White was the dimmest of dim bulbs. How many times was she warned not to open her door to any evil witches, but she eats an apple - unwashed,no less - from the first old crone who comes knocking.

  2. You've got a point; the dwarfs certainly did warn her. But if she didn't eat the apple, there would be no story. The very moment she's so thoroughly warned against talking to strangers, we KNOW she's going to talk to strangers. That's what drama is. People (animated or not) never take the warning.

  3. When the evil stepmother decided to turn herself into the old ugly hag, she simply revealed her REAL appearance that was there all along. Even if her plan to kill Snow White had been successful, I highly doubt that she could return to her former self because she failed to see if the spell could be reversed. Thus, the Queen would have remained an ugly old hag for the rest of her life. The price for knocking out the competition.

  4. I certainly agree that the character of the evil Queen was depicted as ugly in every scene. Whether or not her spell could be reversed? You're going deep now. Impossible to answer.