Judging from the dialogue about various tellings of Snow White at places that concern themselves with gender themes in film, finding a properly feminist way of telling the story is the holy grail, a constantly pursued but always elusive quest. Based on the Brothers Grimm tale of Snowdrop, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937 and 2012’s Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman are the three major film adaptations, with each increasingly tilting the story in a more modern, feminist angle.
Were it not for the important place that the story of Snow White has taken in popular culture, the tone of the original story would certainly lead one to question why even bother about twisting it in a more gender progressive direction. Admittedly there is at its heart, a comment on the destructive power of valuing only beauty in women. Still, except for the profound effect that her beauty has on everyone but the Queen, Snowdrop is a completely useless character as created by the Grimms. Contrary to the Disney version, she doesn’t even find the dwarves’ cottage in a state of mess, though they do ask her to stay on to perform the domestic duties. They are more than capable of keeping the place up. While it could be sold as a hint of natural goodness, Snowdrop is some pathetic combination of naive, lacking willpower and having suffered brain trauma. She falls for essentially the same trick from the Queen on three different occasions, unable to resist a shiny object, finally giving in to the sleep of death. The prince shows up and without talking to her offers to buy her beautiful corpse. It’s all a bit creepy.
Disney’s telling does very little to encourage support. While they spare Snow White the indignity of thrice falling for the Queen’s trick, they make the gender distinction between the dwarves and Snow White much stronger by having them be essentially children when it comes to domestic skills, saved by White’s feminine graces. It may be a film that has earned classic status due to it’s place in animated film history, but as a story it is quite a mess. Still, one might try to excuse both the Grimms and Disney as their works were of a different time. The more important contrast is to see what two directors do with the material in 2012.
One big step that Mirror Mirror makes is in eschewing the poison apple altogether. Snow White is no simpleton in this world. There will be no idle princess waiting for a man to save her. At different times it is she that saves both the prince and the dwarves, and heading toward the climax she insists on facing her challenge alone, not willing to shirk her duties off onto men, though it importantly suggests that there is valor in being willing to still accept their assistance. Less optimistically, the use of beauty within the story is not really expanded upon beyond the basic premise and the film does infantilize the dwarves, turning them into slapstick characters only marginally able to manage on their own.
If Mirror Mirror showed hints of what could be done with the story, Snow White and the Huntsman goes almost all the way. While Mirror Mirror‘s Snow White gets to act tough, she’s still portrayed as a fairly typical beauty. SWatH certainly states Snow White’s beauty, but spends the film holding little concern for expressing this in a visual way. Our first sighting of the adult Snow White is of her dirtied up in a cell, engineering an escape that would lead through the sewers. This is no prissy girl having to be taught grit only after getting into trouble, she has it born within her. It is this grit that eventually gives her the strength to lead her people in a fight to reclaim the kingdom, recalling Joan of Arc.
However, it is the evolution of the supporting cast that really sets SWatH apart. Though still not fully developed and undercut a bit by the performance, the queen is humanized as we see into her history. The way she was indoctrinated into the vicious cycle of placing the utmost importance on physical beauty, in this case having her very strength be magically linked to her beauty, at least gives us pause in judging her. Having once been the young woman who took the place of an older woman, she has a grave fear of being usurped by a younger model herself. Seeing her as a victim and not just a perpetrator is important.
The huntsman is similarly included in the main theme, having become a widower, his wife a victim of the queen’s obsessions. Thus he is crafted, though looking the part of the macho man, as a male feminist, intimately connected to the battle. Indeed, the contrast between him and the more effete but somewhat less committed Duke’s son William, Snow White’s childhood friend, becomes very clear. William’s telling line is when he wishes he could just keep her safe, in part diminishing her and her cause. A fascinating addition is a small community of women, their husbands off to war, who have scarred their own faces to avoid the peril of the queen. In just one short scene, it provides an exceptional expansion into the film’s world and its commentary. Finally, the dwarves are allowed to be competent characters and while they still often act as the comic relief, they are not forced into one-dimensional roles.
The bravest act of SWatH is the manner in which it completely dismisses the love story. Largely absent from the telling, the one moment where romance enters most directly to the fore reveals it to be a weakness. It is not personal love that is celebrated here but love for a cause, love of purpose. Perhaps this is a lunge too far toward the other extreme, but it does effectively show us the Snow White story taken about as close to a feminist ideal as can be imagined. This doesn’t necessarily make it a great movie, but it at least avoids those aspects of the original story that made the prior renditions hard to like.