I remember what could probably be named as my first terrifying experience in film. I couldn’t have been more than four. In the blue-pink twilight hours of the evening, a despondent Aurora had just been placed under the hypnotic spell of devil-horned Maleficent as she awaits her royal coronation in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). There, in the pitch black, walk-in fireplace inside a tapestried medieval bedroom chamber, nothing is visible but a bright green orb atop a sorceress’s staff and a pair of predatory green eyes. Accompanied by the soft, tonal chant of “Aurora!”, our bewitched golden-haired princess is beckoned up the dark tower to her doom.
I was petrified when I watched this as a child, and the thought of it still makes my chest tighten a bit. While this was my personal first horror experience, was it necessarily Disney’s first? I would argue not. From Dumbo’s “Pink Elephants on Parade” to a kidnapping scheme where boys are lured into a theme park only to be later trafficked as livestock, old-school Disney has never been a stranger to the darker themes of literature and lore. And my friends, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs– the OG of all Disney feature films, back in 1937 – is absolutely no exception.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has many of the makings of horror as we know it: a peculiar and dysfunctional family dynamic, domestic slavery, a family member with a thirst for violence, a terrifying haunted forest (or is she imagining it?), a dungeon, a den of witchcraft complete with a pet crow and appropriate books such as, well, “Witchcraft,” and of course, all the aesthetic elements of Gothic horror (skeletons, Gothic German castles, and the weird feeling that Vincent Price is hiding around the corner). It’s no surprise that the Disneyland ride is named “Snow White’s Scary Adventures”- there’s pretty much no other appropriate name for it, because we’ve got to warn the kids! But all that aside, I’m here to argue for something more important than whether Snow White is one of Disney’s horror films (and it is). I’m here to argue for Snow White herself.
If you’re not too acquainted with the process of ranking and selecting favorite Disney princesses (aren’t you?!), you should be aware that Snow White isn’t exactly the most popular choice. One recent, typical reviewer opines, “Snow White has to be the most passive heroine in film history.” It’s popular to deride Snow White as the lamest, the dumbest of princesses. She’s dainty. She’s naïve. She’s un-warrior-like. She’s sing-songy. She laughs too much. Her voice is too high-pitched. She willingly offers her housekeeping services to a bunch of men. And she falls in love with a guy too fast (though I don’t know what you’d expect of an abused teenage orphan when shown her first bit of kindness and affection by an attractive young dude on a horse).
Our same reviewer also claims, “… she does nothing in this film; instead, she’s protagonist as perpetual victim, getting saved at every turn by the woodsman, the dwarves and the prince without ever actively fending for herself.” Whew. Calm down, film guy. Yes, a huntsman decides to not surprise-stab her to death and throw her heart in a box, if that qualifies as “getting saved.” And no, she’s not a tough-chick-in-armor wielding a weapon or some last girl waging a Kevin McAllister-style assault in the woods with her chipmunks. She’s in hiding from an abusive stepmom, and she thinks she’s found herself a safe spot so she’s staying put. Pretty reasonable behavior. Also, stop demanding all victims to be architects of their own rescue. Anyhow, I angrily digress.
So while we can defend what she doesn’t do, is there anything worth defending that Snow White actually does do? Is she a character worth any admiration or respect, or is she merely a pathetic, useless instrument of her own plot?
In the film’s first scene when the magic mirror declares to the Queen that her reign as fairest in the land has ended thanks to her stepdaughter, it’s because “rags cannot hide [Snow White’s] gentle grace.” Hmm. Her gentle grace. It’s funny because – and I recall my grandma being the first to mention it to me – the Wicked Queen is actually beautiful. She, too, has “lips red as the rose” and “skin white as snow.” So what gives? Is it really Snow White’s physical beauty that has outranked the Queen? Or is there something more that we, as the audience, are meant to identify in Snow White that makes her truly beautiful? I would argue that in Snow White we see two gifts flourishing in the face of terror that make her a princess well worth our higher rank: a gift for community and a gift for mercy.
Part of Snow White’s personality we see early on is that she, despite having lived in isolation (or perhaps because of it), sincerely loves the company of God’s created beings. The throng of doves at the wishing well, the crowd of cautious animals in the forest, the seven men in their unkempt home: Snow White flourishes in community (and in fact, the only time she’s without it is the only time she’s terrified, lost and alone in the forest fleeing a death sentence). But more than just a love for community, Snow White has the distinct gift of creating it, of drawing in disparate individuals into a common home and purpose. She gathers and mobilizes her creature companions to first seek out shelter for herself, and to then clean and restore dignity to the seven dwarves’ neglected cottage. She becomes the heart and anchor of their home, making family of what once was a ragtag group of roommates. She gives her own literal command of “Dwarf, Wash Your Face” and introduces the men to something they’d evidently been deprived of: respectable cooking. She’s the bringer of song, exuberance, and good cheer to animal and man alike. She’s fiercely protected, truly loved, and deeply mourned. None of these things happen in the vacuum of life lived as a lone ranger.
Snow White is also merciful. Her compassion is displayed in her immediate pity toward what she assumes are orphans living in the dilapidated dwarves’ home (and after all, she is an orphan). But her merciful heart is witnessed most clearly in her demeanor toward the misogynistic Grumpy. She’s entirely unintimidated, if not bemused, by his contemptuous attitude toward her and women in general. She prays earnestly that his heart would repent, but pays no mind to his ignorant sniping. She foregoes indignant self-assertion in exchange for patience. And this is not weakness, it is the oft-forgotten virtue of meekness—restrained strength. As she sings about her longing for her prince she contentedly bakes a pie, but not to be thrown in the freezer until the prince rolls up to the rescue as you might think. No, the pie is for Grumpy. Snow White may be a daydreamer but she daydreams while staying busy focused on hospitality for those around her, particularly those that maybe haven’t quite earned it. And by the story’s climax our most cynical dwarf is repenting on his knees in tears as he grieves the death of his kindest friend.
So as for that “most passive heroine in film history … [who] does nothing” title, maybe we choose to reevaluate that. I mean have you seen Grease, my man?! I’m convinced there are far worse “passive” characters in literally all of film history. Even if we’re sticking with just Disney here, Aurora literally sleeps through half the movie. She bakes no pies for friends. She reconciles no misogynists unto herself. She restores no cottages to their craftsman’s original glory (can we talk about the insane woodwork detailing at the dwarves’ place?!). No, Aurora is born, picks berries, dances with a guy, throws a classic princess bed-flop tantrum when she has to return home, and then gets put to bed. And that aside, the expectation that a female hero must earn her respect by keeping up the one-tough-chick exterior, that she must ensure she’s never a damsel in distress, that she must never be a victim of her circumstances, is a tiring one. It’s exhausting, because it’s simply not how reality works. Blessed are the cheerful pie-makers living in precarious circumstances, for they shall inherit the German cottages with killer woodwork.
P.S. Some horror extras, just for funsies- We don’t get to see much of our Prince in this rendition of the fairy tale (though allegedly, Disney’s original plan was to feature him more prominently; he turned out to be the most difficult character to animate convincingly). However, in the original Grimm’s version, the Prince executes quite the creative punishment on the Queen. She, unaware that Snow White is no longer dead due to true love’s kiss, is surprised when the magic mirror declares that the Prince’s bride is now the fairest in the land. Curious to see the bride, she attends the royal wedding at the Prince’s invitation. There, upon beholding the living Snow White, she is ordered by the Prince to dance in hot iron slippers until she drops dead. After all, the Queen had ordered the huntsman to bring her Snow White’s heart not simply as proof of her death, but because she’d intended to eat it as well.
And they lived happily metal after.