Don’t get me wrong; no one is ever going to mistake Snow White for a feminist icon—not even I who managed to write an entire article explaining how Annabelle Andrews ought to be seen as one. I do think, however, that the poor girl—who is not, it’s worth noting, much older than Annabelle—gets caught up in a battle that isn’t fair to her. There are a few creepy bits to her story; her official age is just fourteen, making her the youngest Disney Princess, since Nala doesn’t count. But in a way, her age makes me want to protect her all the more from the anti-Princess backlash. Both because she is said to be fourteen and because the movie turned eighty last year.
I’d forgotten, before watching it for this article, that the movie just launches right into the story. The first thing we see is the Evil Queen (Lucille La Verne) before her Magic Mirror (Moroni Olsen), told that she is no longer the most beautiful one in all the kingdom. So she sends her Huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) to kill Snow White (Adriana Caselotti). He can’t do it, and he tells her to flee. She does, and the kindly animals eventually lead her to the home of the Seven Dwarfs (various). But of course the Magic Mirror cannot be fooled on this one, and the Evil Queen uses her magic to change into a hag and to poison an apple . . . .
I’ll admit a few things first. One, this is not the first animated feature. It is the first cel-animated feature; The Adventures of Prince Achmed was a series of silhouettes in more of a stop-motion technique, as were the lost features of Quirino Cristiani. (Interestingly, both of his seem to have been works of satire!) It is the first American animated feature, and certainly the first Disney animated feature. But overall, it is the fourth, which is less impressive.
Further, yeah, fourteen. That’s creepy. And the animation isn’t great in a few places; the folks at Disney were still finding their feet. And you could write a whole book about how coded the European standard of the Hag is and how rooted in both ageism and anti-Semitism. And people have, but I won’t. And, of course, Snow White is the first Disney Orphan, with a wicked stepparent to boot, and that’s a whole other conversation.
All that said . . . I don’t like the shaming that seems to surround the Disney Princesses. Yes, all right, they’re a blatant marketing tool for Disney, and the merchandise is a different conversation. (And my Gods, both alleged versions of the canceled prequel Dwarfs sound horrific.) But dislike for the merchandise and the merchandising seems to spread into “and you shouldn’t like the cartoons,” which does bother me. Because it feels like yet more policing girls’ tastes, and I’m awfully tired of that.
Yes, I was behind the movement to get Pixar to make a movie starring a female character who wasn’t a princess. Brave was Pixar’s thirteenth feature and the first to have a female lead—and she immediately joined the Disney Princess line. (Inside Out and Finding Dory have female non-princess leads.) I do think it’s important to show girls that there are stories other than “princess finds, or possibly doesn’t find, prince.” Representation matters.
But that doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with enjoying these stories, or with the characters themselves. You can like both Merida and Joy, both Snow White and Lilo. Honestly, a considerably bigger problem as I see it is that there are so few female leads full stop. In eighty-one years, Disney has released fifty-six features under their main studio banner. How many of them have female leads depends a lot on how you define things, but at the most generous interpretation, twenty-one would qualify. (I guess? Has anyone seen Home on the Range to confirm?) And that counts an awful lot of, “Well, I suppose this might count.”
There is nothing wrong with liking princesses and frilly dresses. I don’t think it’s hardwired into little girls generally, but I think it is hardwired into some little girls—and some little boys. Shaming them for it reads, to me, like shaming people for liking things coded as feminine, and I hope I don’t have to explain what’s wrong with that.
So beyond its innovation and its gender politics, what are we looking at, here? The film was nominated for Music (Scoring), losing to the deeply obscure One Hundred Men and a Girl. (Which starred Deanna Durbin, rejected for the voice of Snow White for sounding too mature; Leopold Stokowski, who conducted the orchestra in Fantasia; and Adolphe Menjou, whose final film was Pollyanna.) You couldn’t prove by me whether it deserved it or not!
I will say I’m glad that they moved away from trying to make it a comedy. That’s not to say it isn’t at times funny; this film was the origin of Walt’s “Five Dollars a Gag” policy, wherein anyone who contributed a gag that made it to the finished picture got five bucks. And that’s anyone—while the example IMDb gives is Ward Kimball’s suggesting that the dwarfs’ noses would pop up over the bedframe as they looked at Snow White, you could be a janitor for all Walt cared. If the joke was funny, you got the money.
Also gone in that, and this is shading back into gender politics, was the idea of the Evil Queen as fat and goofy-looking. Which doesn’t even make sense for the story, really, all other considerations aside. Before her transformation, the Evil Queen is one of the best-looking Disney Villains. Snow White is demure to the point of bland, and they didn’t give much personality to the Prince (Harry Stockwell, father of Dean), but you can see why Snow White’s father might have been drawn to his second wife.
It is also very scary in places. I don’t know if it’s true that Radio City Music Hall had to reupholster the seats after hundreds of little kids wet themselves in terror, and certainly my son did not seem so inclined, but he also downgraded the movie a half-star and didn’t give it a heart in his Letterboxd review because he didn’t like the part where Snow White died. And that doesn’t get into her flight through the forest, which is pretty unsettling for a little kid.
The learning curve for Disney was pretty steep; their second feature was Pinocchio, which is considerably better than this one. But as a place to start, with only two people getting there first, this is pretty good.
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