Revisiting Disney: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Several years ago, a friend of mine wrote a series of reviews, revisiting the Disney princess movies. It gave me the idea that it could be interesting to write a similar series looking back to see what lessons these movies may teach kids in their formative years. I decided the best place to start would be with the very first Disney full-length animated feature: Snow White.dance3

Here’s a summary before we proceed (skip ahead for some thoughts and analysis):

            The movie begins with a book, which opens to tell us of how Snow White’s stepmother is scared that Snow is going to become more beautiful than her, so forces her to become a maid. Currently, the main conflict is defined by competition between these two women – whether Snow White has elected to participate or not.

            The first we see of Snow White, she is scrubbing some steps outside while singing about how she wishes for her true love to find her and say sweet things to her. She appears happy since she is smiling and interacting with the birds, so servitude and her stepmother’s contempt don’t seem to bother her much. This is when the prince rides up and startles her. She runs inside, but sticks around by a window to hear him sing; it’s clear she’s smitten in only a matter of seconds. When I was a child, I thought that this was the first time they met, because she was scared. This time around, though, it seemed that he already knew exactly where she was and that they had probably sang together before. Continuing to watch the movie, Snow White is pretty jumpy, which explains why she reacted as if he was going to attack her when he came up behind her.

              Anyway, the queen sees little Snow White getting some admiration from a man and tells the hunstman to go kill her. Next, Snow White is in the field, happily picking wildflowers and rescuing a baby bird. The hunstman raises his knife to kill her – Snow White screams – and he drops the knife, saying “I can’t.” This is the first time Snow White’s beauty and kindness save her. The hunstman warns her about the queen’s plot, so Snow White runs away and the woods instantly turn scary; Snow White’s imagination transforms the trees into grabbing hands, logs into alligators, et cetera. Is she just scared without the manly protection of the huntsman (as she had seemed carefree in the exact same woods only a moment before) or is the threat of the queen making her feel – understandably – paranoid? Regardless, it’s too much to take and Snow White falls down, crying. Some woodland critters come out to comfort her – she’s again startled, but quickly apologizes for causing a fuss. She actually manages to cheer herself up quickly with some singing, and then asks the critters to find her a place to sleep. They bring her (and what seems like half of the forest creatures) to a cottage, which Snow White simply enters when nobody answers the door. She remarks on how dirty the place is and, assuming that it’s a house full of orphaned children, becomes sad and decides to clean for them in a very maternal way.

             Next, we finally see the dwarfs in the mine, listening to their voices echo the same way Snow White did in a well at the beginning of the movie. When the dwarfs get home, they see things lit up and get reasonably scared that something is in their house. They sneak in with their picks raised and ready to attack, then make Dopey climb the stairs to check out the “monster.” I can’t tell you about how conflicted I felt watching them bully the little guy into doing the dangerous job… Eventually they all get up to the bedroom and prepare to kill the monster, but stop as soon as they realize it isn’t a beast, but a beautiful girl. This is the second time Snow White’s beauty saves her. (Here also is where Grumpy says girls are poison and full of wicked wiles!)

             Snow White wakes up and starts talking to them as if they’re children, which must be aggravating for grown men. They recognize that she’s the princess, though, and agree to let her stay. She instantly begins mothering them with such Mom-isms as: “if you don’t wash up, you’ll go to bed without supper.” Again, I think this would be maddening to adults in their own home! Is this in place due to an assumption that men are childish, or that women are matronly and obsessed with cleaning? Either way, the dwarfs trepidatiously comply and force the lone dissenter, Grumpy, as well. (They even tie bows in his beard and decorate him with flowers to add insult to injury!) Although I do find the other dwarfs ganging up on Grumpy amusing, it is slightly concerning to me that all of the dwarfs are treated so childishly. It’s important to remember that a person’s worth doesn’t come from their size or conventional attractiveness, and we continue to live in a world in which people with dwarfism are mocked by some. One Dopey already exists in the group; I don’t think there needs to be six more.

             Meanwhile, the Queen discovers she has been tricked and goes down to the dungeon, which is full of skeletons of people she has presumably killed or left to die. Her secret room is bright and crammed with alchemical equipment, a raven, and books on Black Arts, Witch Craft, Sorcery, and more. We already know to dislike the queen because she is jealous of Snow White, because she attempted to have her killed, and now because we see that she works with magic. Now, we know that Snow White is a Christian film (later on, there is a scene of Snow White praying by her bedside and asking for a prince) so that is one argument for anti-magic sentiment, but Disney movies are full of magic, so that is not a reasonable explanation for why magic is one of the signs that the Queen evil. One explanation is a fear of powerful women, but as this is an isolated example, we don’t yet have reason to assume that pattern. The best assumption we can have at this time is that her magic is evil because of how she uses it – for vanity instead of for helping others.

             Back in the cottage the dwarves are singing and dancing with Snow White. They ask her to tell a story and she tells them about the prince who was “so romantic I could not resist.” I was instantly reminded of all the times growing up I was warned against ‘falling for a guy’ (read: having sex with him) just because he was sweet, so for some reason I was startled to hear this line. I have to say: my advice to my potential children will be “It doesn’t matter how many rose petals there are or how well he plays guitar; romance is good, but hold out for respect.”

             The next morning, Snow White kisses all of the dwarfs goodbye (again, very motherly) and starts making a pie when the queen arrives in disguise. She has vultures following her, because they know death is coming. The woodland critters try to attack her, but she fakes a heart attack and Snow White brings her into the house. The queen tells her the apple is a magic wishing apple and we know Snow White is going to fall for it, because they only thing she’s talked about the whole movie – aside from cleaning – is how much she wishes her true love could carry her away to his castle. She takes the bite and the queen (apparently forgetting she still has to do a counter-curse to reverse her disguise) yells “Now I’m the fairest in the land!”

             The dwarves at this time come back and chase her off and the vultures follow. Did they know the queen’s evil would be her downfall? Did her feigned heart attack get them hopeful? Either way, she is struck by lightning while standing on a cliff and then falls into a chasm. Payback.

             Snow White is still in the sleep of death, though, and the dwarfs are standing a perpetual guard at her bedside in the woods. Word of this reaches the prince who has been looking for her. He finds them, kisses her forehead, and then bows his head to mourn when – surprise! – she sits up. This is the final time her beauty saves her. The dwarfs are ecstatic, she says good bye to them, and the prince takes her immediately off to his castle in the clouds. The end.

The main focus of the movie is beauty. Beauty is the source of the only conflict between the Queen and Snow White. It’s the only attribute of Snow White’s that is described by other characters (although we can observe several more.) Snow White’s beauty is what saves her multiple times throughout the story. From this, a young watcher could deduce that beauty is important and worth striving for, which may be dangerous in young girls when the image of “beautiful” women projected is so often different from what their own bodies look like. This is probably the most common criticism leveled at the Disney princess movies. What other attributes does Snow White have?

Snow White’s personality, as we witness it, is comprised of beauty, cheerfulness and hard work, a touch of flightiness (think of how often she screams and runs!), and kindness. Kindness and hard work are certainly attributes with few downsides, and I think her ability to cheer herself up while alone in the woods is pretty admirable. However, she does apologize for making a fuss the one and only time she loses her smile, which I think is an unreasonable burden to put on young girls. These girls are going to grow up and have complete strangers come up to them and tell them to smile when they’re lost in thought while walking down the street. Or when they’re feeling down due to the death of a friend, or stressed about a job interview or exam. I think it’s important to learn early that it’s not a bad thing to have negative emotions from time to time, because occasionally feeling down is a part of life. Sometimes you have to accept those feelings before you can move on and dealing with guilt for negative emotions doesn’t make going through hard times any easier.

Aside from these attributes, the only other significant trait she expresses is to wish for a prince. There is, of course, nothing wrong with romance, love, marriage, and all of those good things. However, there is perhaps a concern in making your only goal in life dependent on someone else sweeping you off your feet. It is a passive goal and doesn’t provide Snow White with any impetus to make a story for herself, so to speak. In addition, it primes her to fall in love with the first man she lays eyes on, which has the potential to be dangerous and irresponsible.

Snow White’s most important character trait in the film coalesces from the previously mentioned traits and is arguably, more important than her beauty, although it is never mentioned. Without her inclination towards being affiliative, she may not have had the love of the dwarfs and therefore their protection after the incident with the apple. Snow White manages to create a community from a just-functioning group of men and bring companionship and joy to their home. This quality is important, but often overlooked. It is mirrored in another movie in which a friendly young girl brings together a group of men – previously alone and known only for cowardice, lack of brains, or lack of a heart – and forms a strong friendship. It is, of course, “The Wizard of Oz.”

Although the “Disney Princess” brand is aimed mostly at girls, young boys do watch the films, too. What about the lead male character do we know from the movie?

The prince sings well and he has a castle. That is all we know about him. We don’t even get his name in the film. Young boys watching the movie learn: join a band and make money –all of your other qualities are interchangeable. The other attributes boys or men can choose from are: Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, Dopey, or somewhat incompetent (found in Doc.) Young boys have even less to emulate than Snow White, all things considered.

So what lessons can children take from the movie? Firstly, to clean their rooms and keep a positive attitude about work. – my mother used to sing “Whistle While You Work” and “Hi Ho, It’s off to work we go” to get us to do our chores with limited success. Good job, Disney.

Secondly, kids may learn that positive characteristics for a girl are cleaning and cooking, kindness, and beauty. It doesn’t matter much that Snow White consistently can’t handle herself in a crisis, because her beauty will cause others to protect her. This is not a beneficial modus operandi for young girls to have in life for two reasons: one, it seems like it could lead to an attitude of helplessness and two, because an alternative to a helpless personality (when beauty is thought to be the best solution to problems) is a manipulative personality. It seems to me a little sad that from the time young children watch this movie the two characteristics that are portrayed as being the most helpful and worthy to strive for are also the most unrealistic: beauty and the ability to talk to animals.

The final lesson is that it doesn’t matter much what kind of a man you are as long as you can be romantic and provide enough money for a castle. Luckily, boys do have a wider array of role models in literature and film than girls do.

Would I choose this as a movie to show my future children? I can’t say I would object to kids watching a classic like this, but at the same time, I don’t think I would be rushing out to make sure they have it when there are plenty other quality children’s movies out there. Perhaps if parents talked with their kids about the associativity Snow White shows by forming a cohesive group from a rag-tag conglomeration, being a Disney princess may take on a whole new meaning of work ethic and leadership.

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