The trailer for Disney’s newest princess film Raya and the Last Dragon dropped last week. Raya and the Last Dragon will continue the trend started in 1989 with the release of The Little Mermaid of badass princess heroines. Modern day princesses play an active role in their story, have complex personalities, and pursue their dreams.While this is certainly a great example of a role model character, it comes at the expense of putting down the older Disney Princesses. There’s a popular trend of hating the older Disney Princesses because their stories largely center around kindness and romance, which are stereotypical ideals for women from patriarchy. Everyone from moms to celebrities like Kristen Bell who voices Princess Anna from Frozen thinks the older princesses aren’t role models. Thankfully, Cinderella’s reputation has made a significant comeback in pop culture thanks to those pointing out she’s an abuse survivor; however, Snow White didn't get that same redemption. People who defend Cinderella say she’s strong in the face of her circumstances and people shouldn’t dislike her just because she’s not like the modern Disney princesses who tend to promote independence and strength. The same arguments in defence of Cinderella should apply to Snow White, too. Instead, the people who critique Snow White people claim she’s bland, waits for a man to rescue her, and is passive in her own story. Quite frankly, the arguments against Snow White as a character and film are hypocritical and antifeminist. Critics fail to recognize the development of film animation, historical context, nuanced romance, and strength in kindness and hard work.
Historical Context of the Film
For those who don’t know the Disney animated film, here is the basic plot. Snow White’s stepmother (the Evil Queen) feared that some day Snow White’s beauty would surpass her own, so she stripped Snow White of her luxuries and forced her to be a scullery maid. One day the Queen’s magic mirror told her that her stepdaughter would become the fairest of the land so she sent a huntsman to kill Snow White. The huntsman was unable to kill Snow White so he, on behalf of the Queen, banished Snow White into the forest outside her kingdom. Snow White sought refuge with the seven dwarfs. The queen was still jealous of Snow White so she disguised herself as an old lady and fed a cursed apple to Snow White, causing her to fall into a forever sleep. Only true love’s kiss can break a sleeping curse. A prince who had met Snow White before she was banished to the forest kissed Snow White, waking her up. Snow White and her prince lived happily ever after.
Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs is recognized as The Walt Disney Studios’ first feature-length film. No major studio at the time in the 1930s attempted to create a full-length animated film. In fact, during production, executives called the film “Disney’s Folly” because they believed no one would pay to watch a feature-length cartoon in theatres. When people defend the film they often only argue that Snow White should be respected because it’s the first theatrically released animated feature in history; however, it’s important to realize the implication of the previous statement. Since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first theatrically released animated feature in history, animators didn’t have anything to look to when creating the film.
The Walt Disney Studios has since released fifty-eight animated films (not including Pixar) and the technology has significantly advanced. Additionally, other studios and storytellers have also applied the medium of animation to filmmaking, allowing everyone to learn and be inspired by each other. As a result, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can look bland compared to Frozen both in terms of animation and personality and story of the titular character. In other words, the story and Snow White herself aren’t complex because the animators were figuring out how to animate and tell a story through that medium. No one hates or thinks cave paintings are “bland” because they aren’t Van Gogh paintings; we marvel at and respect cave paintings because they were the first of their kind.
Since Snow White was the first of her kind, of course her story is simple. The storytellers are taking the first step into feature film animation. Animators on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were concerned with trying to replicate the animation techniques used for 5-minute shorts and having it be both efficient and attention-grabbing for 88 minutes. With each new animated film, animators built off the previous one. We see this progression with Cinderella as it was released 13 years after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the 13 years between the films, the art of animation advanced considerably, giving Cinderella the advantage of higher-quality animation. This meant that audiences got to see Cinderella interact more with her environment and the other characters allowing her to be a more interesting character. The audience gets to see her stepsisters and stepmother physically abuse her. They see Cinderella’s kindness towards animals even though she just did hours of chores. On the other hand animators could only have Snow White interact with her environment and characters to limited extent because of the immense time it takes to get a consistent hand animated shot. Therefore we only see Snow White scrubbing the steps of the castle once. Most shots of Snow White interacting with the Dwarfs and forest animals are ones where they stand apart from each other which makes Snow White look very passive in her own story.
Simply put, the lack of variety of animation techniques and technology limited Snow White’s character and story. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full length animated film which meant the animators had no “instruction manual” or examples in which to build or improve upon. However, with the release of Cinderella, Disney animators had 13 years, 10 theatrical animated feature films, and numerous animated shorts to help them hone their craft and develop film animation technology so the next Disney princess film could be more dynamic and interesting. As a result, Cinderella was animated to be a more complex character, full of personality and action. In other words, if animators can only animate simple scenes like Snow White walking in a forest instead of Cinderella picking a lock to escape her room, then it makes sense that Snow White will look boring. More ways of animating and more ways you can animator your character then the more complex your character will seem.
Hard Work, Kindness, and Circumstance
The most common (?) critique of Snow White is that she is basic. Some say her only strengths are that she is kind and hardworking. Snow White’s strengths pale in comparison to Tiana’s ambition from Princess and the Frog or Belle’s from Beauty and the Beast. No, Snow White isn’t as developed as the modern-day princesses but what we do know about her speaks volumes. Snow White is a princess but is stripped of her crown and when her father passes and her stepmother reigns with a cruel hand. Instead Snow White is subjected to a life of servitude. The very first shot of Snow White is of her dressed in rags cleaning her castle. The film softens the blow of her role as castle custodian by making her sing and talk to animals, but she still is forced to do painstaking work.
When she is banished to the forest and finds the dwarfs’ cottage, she cleans it, reasoning, “We’ll clean the house and surprise them. Then they’ll maybe let me stay.” She uses her limited skill-set to earn a chance for lodging. One of the biggest criticisms of Snow White and the older princesses is that they encourage girls to be housewives and wait for a show-up. However, Snow White does not want to clean but she does it out of pure desperation after losing everything. In order to clean an entire house in less than one day, she takes the initiative to ask the forest animals to help. Snow White becomes a leader delegating the right tasks to each of her animal friends.
Snow White, despite having cleaned their house, she still asks the dwarfs for permission, not assuming that her labor entitles her to anything. When the dwarfs debate about their safety concerning harboring someone the Queen wants dead, Snow White convinces them they are safe and negotiates a deal. She will wash, sew, cook, and clean if they let her stay. This is essentially her same living situation as before except the people in charge aren’t trying to kill her. The difference is she is cleaning and cooking on her own terms. She negotiated the deal with the dwarfs. Yet, at the same time she is still trapped as a servant with the threat of being kicked out. But, Snow White isn’t a pushover either. Snow White exhibits her kindness when asking the dwarfs to take better care of themselves, but she also holds her ground when they try to refuse. For example, she demands that the dwarfs wash their hands before eating the dinner she cooked for them. When they lie about washing their hands and don’t want to wash up she stands firm regarding her request.
Snow White isn’t flawless, which is important. Her stepmother exploits Snow White’s kindness to kill her. The queen disguises herself as a sick old woman who sells apples. When the two meet, Snow White is baking a gooseberry pie for Grumpy in a bid to win him over. Snow White needs to win over Grumpy as he is the decision maker amongst the seven dwarves. If Grumpy doesn’t like Snow White then he could kick her out. Knowing Snow White’s desire to win over Grumpy the Queen convinces Snow White that “It’s apple pies that make the menfolks’ mouth water.” Snow White’s fatal flaw is her greatest strength: her kindness. Death by kindness serves as a lesson to treasure it and not give it out to people haphazardly. This is a nuanced and important lesson, especially to audiences in the 1930s. Women were expected to not push back when men asked them to do something and accept everything with a smile on their face. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs warns women to push back even in a domestic setting.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1937 during the midst of the Great Depression in the United States of America. The Great Depression influenced the film's main theme of roles and finding happiness and control in your current situation. As YouTube channel Big Joel explains the film’s theme, “There are certain roles people should fill and these roles have a life of their own.” Today’s Disney movies claim that our identities are in our own hands and if we don’t like our life then we have the power to change our fate. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs takes a less idealistic approach with the message that you won’t always have control over your life; but its underlying message of finding the little ways to have joy and take back the narrative is still powerful--for audiences back then and now. Snow White is a role model not because she does things or has ambitions; she is impressive because she rolls with the punches and still treats everyone with kindness.
Waiting Around for a Prince
Snow White is also criticized for waiting around for a prince to save her when in reality she did not. Instead she was in trouble and the prince happened to save her. This point is especially critiqued by people who defend Cinderella, citing the differences between the two characters’ biggest songs, “Someday My Prince Will Come” versus “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes.” Snow White does not wait around for her prince. At all. She has a chance encounter with the prince 5 minutes and 21 seconds into the film. The prince is mentioned again at the 56:42 mark. That’s more than 50 minutes later and the movie has less than 30 minutes left including credits. It’s important to understand the context in which the prince is mentioned. The dwarfs ask Snow White to tell them a love story. Considering Snow White is very young and her mother and father are nowhere to be found, Snow White’s only basis to tell a love story is her two-minute encounter with a prince who made her day because he sang to her in her dreary life of servitude.
The lyrics of “Someday My Prince Will Come” reveals Snow White’s wants for freedom and happiness; the prince is simply how Snow White can achieve happiness and freedom. Before and after the song’s scene, Snow White is going about her daily life and does not expect the prince to come rescue her. After she sings the song where the prince would be on her mind, Snow White goes to pray before bed. But instead of praying about her prince coming to rescue her, she gives thanks for the kindness of the dwarfs and expresses concerns about Grumpy still disliking her. As previously mentioned, Snow White must win over Grumpy for her to stay at the cottage. Furthermore, the fact that Snow White’s prince does have a name suggests that he is not important to Snow White. Rather, he was a means to an end for her--her way out of her otherwise dismal life. This is a similar characteristic to Cinderella. In other words, although the prince came to save her, and although she was enamored by the prince, her life doesn't revolve around him, and she never expects him to come save her.
Another criticism regarding the romance in the film is the age gap between Snow White and her prince. A Twitter user claimed that Snow White is 14 while her prince is 31. The tweet went viral with numerous news publications reporting it as cannon. A romantic relationship between a 14-year-old and a 31-year-old is not okay in any circumstances. It is important to note that the original tweet based the ages of Snow White and the prince on an editable fan-made wiki page. Since then the tweet has been deleted, and nowhere in the cited source are the ages of the two characters. The age of the prince is not stated in the 1937 film nor in the Grimm Fairy Tale which the Disney film is based upon. Unless their ages are buried deep on the internet or hidden in the Disney vault, the claim that Snow White is 14 and the Prince is 31 is invalid as of writing this article.
Snow White only had one interaction with the prince before he woke her and they escaped together. There’s a lot of disdain for “love at first sight.” Even Disney made fun of it in Frozen, saying, “You can’t marry a man you just met.” Snow White has been denied love and affection for nearly all of her life, so we shouldn’t be so quick to attack her for going off with the prince at the end. Many people refuse to look past the fact that they just met each other to see the prince for his function in the story. He is the person who will finally give Snow White the love and affection she was cruelly denied for so many years. When we consider her history of neglect and abandonment (as well as her stepmother trying to have her killed), her choice to go with what looks like love is less open to such instant criticism.
Does It Matter?
So what if Snow White wanted her prince to save her? So what if she wasn’t hard-working and instead obsessed with material objects? That would be okay, too. Feminism at its core is about allowing any opportunity for anyone. In other words, part of the movement is about allowing women to choose to be housewives or badass lawyers. Just because Snow White is kind and wants love doesn’t mean she is “below” the other princesses. There’s a difference between having a favorite princess and hating on the other princesses. Not everyone will grow up and become an independent, strong, kick-ass fighter who doesn’t need anyone’s help. Female representation in fictional stories means showing a diverse set of traits, strengths, and dreams. Having a princess with a work ethic who strives to be kind to others is good because anyone can work toward and admire that. Regardless of how you identify, we can admire Snow White’s kindness despite her bleak situation and her determination to give 100 percent of her effort in all tasks.
The film is far from perfect nor would many choose Snow White as their favorite Disney Princess (she’s certainly not mine). Many of the modern-day princesses reflect qualities we find aspirational like being adventurous, independent, curious, and ambitious. Who’s to say that in 100 years the badass princesses like Moana or Anna will be considered boring and outdated, just as today’s society views Snow White? The point is that Snow White’s qualities of kindness, hard work, and optimism have been perceived as obvious, naive, and simple. In reality, these qualities are rare and undervalued in society. Snow White is feminine and has a quiet strength to her. She doesn’t have to resort to fighting to achieve her dreams. Disliking Snow White and comparing her to other princesses is an example of internalized misogyny. There’s a fine line between celebrating the more complex characters like Moana or Elsa and hating on characters who aren’t as explicitly free-spirited. Society’s need to oversimplify Snow White’s story to a boring girl who waits for a prince to save her reflects hidden disdain for various tropes of girlhood.