Fairy Tales 2010

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cruel Intentions

Is it significant whether or not we see Snow White's stepmother before she becomes the stepmother, or has anything at all to do with Snow White?  

Take the version we watched in class on Wednesday: we were shown a woman who wanted to be beautiful, and sought the (mis)guidance of a witch who wanted Snow White's head.  The woman's initial desires had nothing to do with Snow.

Then think about the Disney take on the story, in which right away we are confronted with a villainous version of that same character, and the woman jealous of Snow White's beauty is already the stepmother.  We never see her character or intentions out of connections from Snow.

Does this seemingly minor change do anything to the story?  I think so.

The Disney version, in which the stepmother is after Snow White from the start, gives credence to the idea that there is a parent out to get the child.  Like we read from Bettleheim a while ago, it is possible that children want to believe that.  Versions in which the villain is already the stepmother allows for that thought trail, because her intentions are against Snow White.

In other versions of the story, the future stepmother's cruelty is less of a focus, because it all falls in the master plan to become beautiful.  Since the witch is the master of the plan against Snow, the stepmom-to-be loses some of her agency as a true villain.  Her intentions are solely to be beautiful - Snow is simply an unfortunate stepping stone to achieving that goal.

What do you think?

Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother

Last semester, I took a WGS First Year Seminar in which we spent one week discussing the grossly misogynistic aspect of several problematic fairy tales that Disney popularized:

the Little Mermaid (lose your voice and be pretty!)
Cinderella (cut off your toes; you won't need them when you have a man!)
Sleeping Beauty (worst princess)

but we spent the most time of all discussing Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic, and specifically their take on Snow White.

When watching the 1937 Snow White, I couldnt help but view it through mostly a feminist lens. Gilbert and Gubar describe the competition between the women: "the one fair, young, pale, the other just as fair, but older, fiercer; the one a daughter, the other a mother; the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other both artful and active; the one sort of an angel, the other an undeniable witch." The main problem that this raises--why do women have to be either an angel or a demon? Women in fairy tales are either categorized as angelic or bitchy, and I don't think any REAL woman can be given exactly one category in which to live her life. Through the films, we see the stratification between angel and witch very clearly through makeup, figure, and sexualization.

One interesting character evolution we can see in film is of the wicked stepmother. In the 1916 version, she is given a name as Queen Brangomar and is more realistic. She conspires with a witch for more beauty, who kills Brangomar's sister and makes her queen. This somewhat lessens the severity of her evil by splitting the character of the Wicked Stempother into three different women. In Disney's, the Stepmother is much more interesting than Snow White. Dark makeup and a slinky figure show that she must be evil. She relies on some demonic magic and her dangerous beauty to get what she wants. Enchanted uses a real actress to embody this stereotypical evil woman.

Disney downplays Snow White's lack of agency in the tale by giving her working songs, and a previous "relationship" with the prince. But in the tale, Snow White is purchased as a beautiful thing by the prince. She is simply passed from a literal to a figurative glass coffin- a life of domesticity and happiness living with a Prince.
I found todays class discussion very interesting, how cinema, while although the new primary medium to tell fairy tales, will always rely upon textual material. Walt Disney establishes early on the cultural connection to his Snow White and the Brother's Grimm version by crediting the adaptation to the Grimm's version, and the iconic "Book" opening image. But while he credits this early literary form of the tale, Disney himself re-writes the tale, and through cinematic popularity, makes his own the "grand version." Disney accomplishes this by both keeping to the storyline, and by also making his specific and unique, Which is evident through the personification of the Dwarfs. In the Grimm's tale, the seven dwarfs are described as merely just that: 7. They have no individual characteristics or personalities. Yet Disney gives all 7 of them, a character trait unique to their own. Such a decision not only allows for theatrical entertainment and diversity, but in turn distinguishes the Disney form from the more vague and simplistic folk tale from the Grimm collection. Bashful, doc, dopey, grumpy, happy, sleepy, Sneezy: these names have become perpetually bound and synonymous to the identity of the Snow White tale, thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of Walt Disney to create something new, yet also traditionally familiar.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Absence of Parents

In reading the Grimms version of Snow White and watching the Disney version, I noticed that Snow Whites parents play a very insignificant role in both versions. The Grimms version mentions Snow White's parents in the first paragraph and then the mother is killed and the father disappears, not to be mentioned again. With the Grimms version, the mother is only used to give birth to Snow White and give the reader a background as to how Snow White got her name. The king is used even less than the queen with his role being the character who introduces Snow White and the readers to the evil queen/step-mother.

Disney chose to skip Snow White's parents altogether. When we meet Snow White, she is already in her late teens/early twenties and the Evil Queen's jealousy and hatred for her is almost at its tipping point. We never know where Snow White comes from, nor is it ever really established that the Evil Queen is Snow White's step-mother (as far as I can remember, I could be wrong about this but since it doesn't immediately stand out in my mind, I'm going to assume that it's never established). The Evil Queen simply becomes a crazy woman who is jealous of Snow White for a vain reason. Disney is notorious for using orphaned or single-parent characters (Bambi, Pinocchio, Jungle Book, Cinderella, and more recently Princess & the Frog, Lilo & Stitch, Aladdin, and the Little Mermaid). I read, but I can't remember where, that he did this in order to gain the sympathy of the audience for his animated characters. Yes, Aladdin is a street rat who steals but he also doesn't have any family!

It's interesting to see what a small role parents play in this fairy tale, particularly since Snow White doesn't seem to be as bright as other characters in fairy tales that we've read such as Hansel & Gretel and the Juniper Tree. These characters, who had present parents, were able to outsmart their step-mothers and prevail while Snow White falls for every trick the queen throws at her. If it weren't for the dwarves intervening, the queen would have killed Snow White much easier. It's strange, but it would appear that present parents equate to smarter protagonists.

The Queen's Identity

In the silent film, the Queen is given a name which makes her more human like and relatable rather than evil. But, this is the only element that suggests this. She is flat and there is not much evidence into the vision of her as a character in general. As the audience, we do not know much about the Queen and what she represents in they story. There become three women against Snow White later in the story, the queen being two of them. Her character was split into two roles, one of the queen and one of the witch.

The Queen in Walt Disney's version has no name, but the scenes that present her as a character show the strength and qualities of her. The entire movie opens up with a scene of following the queen into her mirror and seeing her from the mirror's point of view. She is displayed in the shot with dark hair and eyes, red lips, and a womanly silhouette. These elements show the sexuality of her character and the power that is behind her. This version of the film gives more depth and dimension to the Queen than the silent film did. It makes the viewer question who their loyalties are toward in the way that we are introduced to her as a being and a person rather than a flat figure in a film.

Snow White as An Object

I know we have addressed this at length in class, but I can't help writing about how, in all the incarnations of the story, Snow White ends up as an object. This is most notable when she is in her glass coffin, and when her mother wishes for a child "white as snow, red as blood and black as the window frame" (which, in a side note, if taken literally would make her look completely unnatural). We see this especially in the earlier version of the Grimm's Snow White, and it is a concept central to Sexton's poem and the china-doll blue eyes of Snow White. I think it is safe to assume that Sexton is writing a commentary on the "fairy tale" version of Snow White, and after reading that poem I cannot really think of Snow White as anything other than a doll, a piece of art created in the medium of the human, rather than a beautiful human. Because of this fact I loved how the silent film began with the characters all represented as dolls, because I think it really holds well to the theme of Snow White as an object, not a person or even a character. I think this also highlights a tension in the stories, one that is obvious in the silent film and the Grimm's edited version: there is something uncomfortable about admitting that humans can be treated as objects, so in the film everyone but the stepmother recognizes Snow White as a wonderful person, and in the Grimm's story, the Prince really has romantic feelings for Snow White (or fell in love with her prior to her slumber, in other versions), he was not just obsessed with a dead girl in a glass coffin. Granted, I think history is a fine place to look for numerous examples of where humans have treated other humans as objects, so it is something the human psyche is capable of, it just does not seem to be something we really wish to discuss. In Sexton's version, and in the Gilbert and Guhbar writings, this issue of course is tackled head on as the patriarchal objectification of women, but in the silent film, all the characters are objects, so is not there the possibility anyone can be turned into an object, rather than a person?