Last month, I posted a version of this article at Geek Speak. This is a redacted version of the whole article, and I highly encourage you to read it here. This is sort of my director’s cut. But instead of lengthening the piece, I’m shortening it.
Once in a while there is a pop culture perfect storm where movie execs fail to stagger an actor or storyline and an audience encounters the same thing everywhere. Sometimes this is good. I quite enjoyed the Year of Jude Law for example. Then there was that time in the late nineties where I heard Celene Dion in everything, and I felt my heart really wouldn’t go on if I kept having to listen to her power ballads.
But I digress. This year seems to be the Year of Snow White. This certainly isn’t the end of the world, particularly if it brings powerhouse actors like Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts out of the woodwork. And the fairy tale itself does bear repeating: The classically Euro-centric ideal of beauty with lips red as blood, skin white as snow, hair black as ebony (no tanning beds or caramel-colored highlights for our Snow!), and the evil stepmother who seeks to gain beauty by destroying her successor. However, as society grows, our fairytales grow with it. Today, there is an interesting confluence of themes in this ancient story, as the changing outlook of women in terms of work and power impacts society. In one way, the story adapts to what women think is more important. However, there is also the weight of how women have been treated historically that reacts in a negative way to these changes.
I read a recent article on NPR that speculated that the resurgence of Snow White over other classic fairytale imaginings such as Cinderella was due to fears of aging by baby boomers. I think that’s silly for a few reasons. For one, fairy tales don’t exactly duke it out for supremacy every generation or so. Can you imagine? That might be a UFC cage match I would watch! No hold barred between fairytale princesses! “And that Sleeping Beauty is *knocked out!*”
Not that I don’t think that there is something to the aging thing, just not that it’s solely on behalf of baby boomers. It’s a more universal truth, especially in modern-day society where a dichotomy exists between some older women wanting to look young at all costs and some who are comfortable in their own non-Botoxed skins. Decades ago, women were thought to have a brief ascendence of beauty in their twenties that was certainly thought to be extinguished by thirty. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in 1940: “The faces of most American women over thirty are relief maps of petulant and bewildered unhappiness.” But, as Naomi Wolf writes in her Washington Post article “A Wrinkle in Time”, that is no longer true. There has been a social shift in regards to the worth of women, and where that worth is placed. Women are considered for their successes and charisma rather than – or, at least, as well as – simply for their potential as arm candy. Nowadays, if you ask a woman in her thirties if she wanted to go back to her twenties, she would rarely even entertain the idea. So how does the portrayal of Snow White’s magical story across the years reflect changing attitudes, and do this year’s attempts follow suit?
Snow first appeared onscreen way back in 1902, in a film that appears to have left behind very little physical evidence of its existence. Next, in the 1916 attempt, the teenaged Snow White was played by 33-year old actress Marguerite Clark, while her Wicked Stepmother was played by the 21-year-old Dorothy Cumming; it was this sumptuous silent film that inspired Walt Disney to make the famously first full-length animated feature, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He said, when questioned as to why he chose this particular story: “I once saw Marguerite Clark performing in it in Kansas City when I was a newsboy back in 1917. It was one of the first big feature pictures I’d ever seen… I thought it was the perfect story. It had the sympathetic dwarfs, you see? It had the heavy. It had the prince and the girl. The romance. I just thought it was a perfect story.”
As I have previously mentioned in these pages, there’s not a lot of good I think Disney does for fairy tales. However, one of the good things Disney did do to the fairy tale that has lasted since the thirties was increase the age of Snow White from the age of seven or ten, depending on the source (really? The Prince falls in love with a seven-year old?) to at least a teenager. Modern tastes have increased this age further to being late teens and early twenties, a definite step up in the tale. And now we also see other motivations for the Queen, other than the power they can derive from physicality. The pursuit of revenge, of relationships and political power all play into it.
This year, multiple Snow White tales of note have or will hit screens; never has her winsome beauty been so popular in popular culture. These include movies Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, along with the TV show Once Upon a Time, in which Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin), Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) and the rest of their fairy tale contemporaries have been cursed to live out their seemingly immortal lives in the mundane modern world of Storybrooke, Maine.
It’s interesting to note that in the television show, the wicked queen, Regina (Lana Parilla), doesn’t seem to hate Snow for her beauty, but rather for something that happened to her long ago. In Mirror Mirror, the emphasis is more about reclaiming a lost kingdom and the desirability of the Prince (Armie Hammer) than whether or not Julia Roberts’ Queen is fairer than Lily Collins’ Snow. This is where the newest versions of the tale lighten the load, highlighting where and why latter-day Snows and Queens have slowly become less faithful to their source material, the Snows less helpless, the Queens less single-minded of purpose.
Pretty damned fair…
It’s only in the upcoming fourth 2012 iteration, the very dark Snow White and the Huntsman – in theaters now and featuring Kristen Stewart as Snow and Charlize Theron as the Queen, in truly a contentious piece of fairest-of-them-all casting – that we delve into the darkness of a woman so obsessed with youth and beauty that she’s willing to kill for it. And it’s this last version of the tale that is the closest to the original Queen, and one that really gets to the heart of the original story. The fairytale of Snow White was first penned in 1812, but had existed as a folk tale for centuries before that. So many women in history were essentially an extension of a man’s property and thus subservient to the whims of the men in society; like any group of people in this situation, they conformed themselves to be whatever would make them the safest, which is why women would focus on being beautiful, and why aging was terrifying. This, then, put them in the unenviable position of being derided in fairy tales for the vanity that many of them needed to survive a society hostile to their continuing existence.
This is the other side of the tale, the one that represents the historical pressures of beauty on women. As women in society become more successful, the pressure to also conform increases as well. It is to the point in this century where the standard of beauty has become so unrealizable that even pictures of women who are, objectively, the most gorgeous on the planet, are airbrushed to remove even the tiniest imperfection. True beauty, as the media would have us believe it, is clearly impossible to achieve – and to maintain – and yet even knowing this, women still punish themselves for failing to do so. And this is what Snow White and the Huntsman explores. The Queen will never be complete until she cannibalizes her stepdaughter. Women will never be everything to anyone until they do the unthinkable.
Princess in (not so) shining armor…
The tale of Snow White then changes its purpose. What was probably at one point a critique about the evil vanity of women, their innate competitiveness toward younger, prettier counterparts, and their insatiable need to be beautiful no matter what now becomes an even more pointed cautionary tale. In modern times, it warns women what the price is for putting too much of an emphasis on physical attractiveness as the seat of a woman’s worth or power. And that is, simply, that physical beauty is something you are rather than something you do. Beauty in and of itself is not success by any means. What makes a woman (or a man, for that matter) truly powerful are the accomplishments she has made, the strengths she has fought for and won, and the knowledge she has behind her eyes. If she bases her self-worth on the strength inside rather than on a constantly moving frame of reference that she will never truly attain, then she will also have never lost anything.
While at the heart of this Season of Snow is most likely bad planning on Hollywood’s part, the allure of Snow White remains because of these themes. Symmetry and aesthetics are lovely things deserving of attention, particularly if it involves a work of art or a pleasing tune. But beauty also teaches us that there is a slippery slope there, and the risks of obsessive focus are too severe to ignore. As society changes for (what we hope is) the better, as true equality comes closer and as we all continue to age, we must remember the things that are most important—of which eternal feminine youth and beauty are not high on the list.
No one, after all, tried to murder Prince Charming for being too hot.