It’s the first of March.
And do you know what that means?
This is the month that will see the release of Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast!
I’m so excited I could cry.
But I’m not going to cry. Instead, I’m going to get myself excited by talking about Disney movies. And Disney princess movies in particular – starting with the very first one, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Now, these reviews are going to be slightly different from my reviews of the Star Trek series, just because… well, I’m not unbias here. I really love Disney, you guys, and I’ve grown up with a lot of these movies. So I know, right off the bat, that I’m going to be looking at these movies with rose coloured glasses to a certain extent, but that doesn’t mean that I forget to wear my feminist hat to these shows, or that I’m completely incapable of critical thought when it comes to them. All that it means is that I’m more willing to forgive the flaws that I am completely aware of.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a good example of a movie like that for me. Because, let’s face it, this movie was released in 1937, and a lot of cultural changes can take place in the span of eighty years – especially considering we’ve had two waves of feminism between now and then. So when it comes to the number one question we need to ask about a movie this old, the question of how well it holds up, it pains me to say it but I sort of have to say that it doesn’t.
There is a lot of sexist writing on display here. There’s the pure and innocent virgin who’s just expected to clean house and remain domestic (Snow White), and she accepts this without question, and all the while, she’s being persecuted by the cruel and powerful older woman who’s jealous because the virgin is prettier than her (the Evil Queen). But at the same time, I have a hard time completely faulting the movie for this because… well, all of that is true of the source material.
And of any Disney princess movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs most resembles its original fairy tale. Almost nothing is changed – the story remains the same, the majority of the characters are about as fleshed out as they are by the Grimm Brothers, the entire world operates solely by fairy tale logic (ie. a handsome prince and a beautiful princess are totally meant to be if they meet once over a wishing well you guys, everyone knows that). More than any movie I can think of, this movie feels like a Grimm fairy tale taken straight from the page and put up on the big screen, and considering how much time and energy I’ve spent studying folk and fairy tales, that is sort of fascinating to me. And just because it isn’t realistic, that doesn’t mean it’s bad – it just means that it operates under the logic of a slightly outdated mode of writing.
So what does that mean then, if the movie isn’t bad but outdated? Does that mean that I still recommend children watch it today? Well… I have a hard time with this question. Because, on the one hand, this is a brilliant movie with a very classic story that I love, but it is a product of its time and it does represent some pretty outdated modes of thought, so it’s not really a movie that you can just plop your kid in front of the TV for and let them soak in the messages. No, if you’re going to show this movie to your child, then you need to be willing to talk to them, to tell them that, yes, Snow White enjoys her domesticity, but that isn’t the only option for girls, and that the Evil Queen may see herself in competition with Snow White for her beauty, but that’s just a story, and in real life, women should not see other women solely as competition for male attention. If you aren’t willing to have this conversation with your child, then you might not want to show your child this movie (though I really suggest having this conversation with your child either way).
What about for adults then? Full-grown people who have either learned these lessons already, or have otherwise formulated their own opinions on the matter? Well… that’s another complicated one.
More than any other Disney princess movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is intended for children. I will actively fight against this claim for any other Disney movie, but I don’t really have a leg to stand on here. Most of the film’s runtime is dedicated to the dwarfs doing their cute little comedy routines, which you might enjoy if you’re capable of looking past the fact that it was clearly written for children (personally, I can tolerate it fine, but it does get old fast). But that doesn’t mean that the film is completely without merit for adults.
As I mentioned before, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is fascinating to me because I’m so very interested in folk and fairy tales, and it does feel like the most accurate representation of one I’ve seen in film. If you’re interested in animation history (which I am as well), then you might find this film appealing knowing that it was the very first first feature-length work of animation (which, in my opinion, makes it a very important movie that I do not have the heart to say should just go ignored by modern audiences). And when it comes to the characters themselves, the Evil Queen is a beautifully drawn piece of animation with a wonderful wickedness about her that’s difficult not to love, while Grumpy is the shorter, conventionally unattractive version of a romance novel hero (without the benefit of actually getting the girl in the end), which is a lot of fun.
Overall, my opinions around Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are sort of muddled. I find it fascinating and don’t want to see it slip out of memory, but I don’t know if I can particularly defend it as ‘good’ by modern standards. It’s the story that we all know and love – the simple fairy tale of a girl who acts just the way that the patriarchy demands her to being persecuted by a jealous, older woman, chased out into a forest full of singing dwarfs, fed a poison apple (always an iconic image), and then woken up with true love’s kiss. The way that you feel about this movie will be highly affected by the way you feel about the fairy tale itself.
Personally, I’d say that if you haven’t already, give it a watch, but don’t expect perfection from it. After all, it was only the first Disney princess movie, and they had to iron out the wrinkles somehow.