The culture of fairy tales has changed with time. Today, they are considered children’s stories by adults. The only way in which fairy tales have survived is through parents reading them to children, but these adults have been disapproving of those parts of fairy tales that make them serious literature. The marchen, or fairy tale, has evolved into simple happily-ever-after romance as parents have pushed stories for children away from violence and irrationality. Stone argues that adults should not censor out the parts of fairy tales that make them literary. The brutality and unreality does not affect young readers negatively. In fact, it is the parents, rather than the children, that are most disturbed by such stories.
Marchen used to conjure up images very different from those conjured by fairy tales today. They used to force readers and listeners to consider the balance of good and evil and the necessity of overcoming obstacles before ultimate goal achievement. The romance was rarely an integral part of the story, but rather a symbol of maturity. Often a small act of disobedience was necessary before the protagonist may reach maturity.
The marks of reworked Marchen began as early as Perrault’s version of “Cinderella” in 1697, emphasizing romance, strongly contrasting good versus evil, and muting the violent pieces. However, the Grimm brothers told stories that were closer to original Marchen, where romance was not the solution to most tales and where violence was a comment theme. The Grimms expected their stories to be taken seriously, and they were.
Disney’s Snow White is a clear example of today’s reworked Marchen. Compared to the original Grimm version, there is little distasteful content. The stepmother does not eat Snow White’s liver and lungs in the film. The romance is emphasized in Disney’s version, as the prince meets Snow White in the first scene, and kisses her in the final one. In addition, good and evil are blatantly contrasted in Disney. The stepmother’s uses black magic and has a menacing cackle, while Snow White has a sweet, innocent demeanor. In addition, the seven dwarves play secondary characters that provide humor and yet another contrast to the villainess.
Steven Watts argues a positive view of Disney’s importance in American history, although acknowledges the difficulty of understanding his impact on modern American culture. Many critics believe that Disney’s commercial success and popularity mean that his films cannot have cultural significance. In addition, the strong contradictory opinions of Disney make it difficult to simply look at his impact in order to gain understanding rather than to criticize or admire his work. Watts looks at Walt Disney as an artist of sentimental modernist films and as a promoter of American ideals, qualities that are evident in Disney’s rendering of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
America’s original perception of Disney was of a serious artist, inspired by both modernist art and sentimental realism. These two often contradictory influences show in his work. He blurred the line of reality and imagination by creating worlds where animals could talk, plants were animated, and household objects felt emotion. In Snow White, the forest through which the banished girl flees has trees which try to grab and trip her, but nearby, kind animals prepare to comfort her. In addition, he incorporated dreams often in his work. Walt Disney encouraged naturalism to a degree unheard of in animation and cartoons. He insisted that his animators take evening art classes and he invented the multiplane camera, which created the illusion of depth in Snow White and his other animated feature films.
Disney also used his films to imbue hope and to promote certain virtues to his audience during the depression. His films in the 1930’s remind Americans that they will overcome the hard times through vigor and virtue. Two Disney films in the ‘30s stand out in particular for encouraging the persistence and courage of underdogs. Three Little Pigs (1933) features the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” while the dwarves in Snow White (1937) merrily sing “Heigh Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go.” Snow White, too, exhibits a hard-working demeanor both in her house and the dwarves’. Disney claims that “wisdom and courage is enough to defeat big, bad wolves of every description, and send them slinking away.” Through his films, he encouraged self-reliance, a quality that he had exhibited since his youth.
This is the original Grimm Brothers’ version of “Snow White,” on which the Disney movie is based. The tale begins with the colors that have become a signature of this classic story. From the finger of a queen who has just pricked herself with a needle, three red drops of blood fall out the black ebony window frame and upon the white snow outside. She gazes longingly at the blood and thinks to herself that her dearest wish is to have a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood of the window frame. When she gives birth to such a child, she dies just after naming the girl Snow White. Her widower the king then marries a jealous woman who cannot stand the possibility of anyone more beautiful than she. For years, her magic mirror confirms that she truly is the fairest in the land. However, at age seven, Snow White surpasses her stepmother in beauty. Enraged, the evil woman orders a huntsman to kill Snow White in the woods and bring back her lung and liver as proof of death. The huntsman nearly follows through, but is struck by Snow White’s beauty and allows her to run away.
She escapes through the chilling forest and stumbles across a small cottage. Famished and exhausted, she eats from each of the seven dishes on the kitchen table (so as not to take all from only one) and sleeps in the bed closest to her own size. When the dwarves in whose house Snow White has invited herself return, they feel awe at her loveliness rather than anger at her intrusion. They allow her to stay as long as she cares for the house while they work in the mines.
Meanwhile, Snow White’s stepmother discovers that the girl is alive. The stepmother makes three attempts to kill her: constricting her with a beautiful lace outfit, brushing her hair with a poisoned comb, and tempting her with a poisoned apple. The first two times, the dwarves return and are able to revive Snow White. However, the stepmother’s third attempt stumps the seven little men. Unable to bear to see such a beautiful face be obscured by dirt, the dwarves place her in a transparent coffin. One day, a prince sees Snow White’s lovely face through the casket and asks the dwarves to give her to him. They agree when they see his love for her. While carrying the coffin, one of the servants slips and the jolt brings the piece of apple out of Snow White’s throat and she is revived. Snow White and the prince are married and live happily ever after. The couple then force the stepmother to wear shoes of fired-iron, and she dances in pain until she dies.
Bacchilega examines the similarities and differences in three different written versions of “Snow White”: Barthelme’s Snow White, Carter’s “The Snow Child,” and Coover’s “The Dead Queen.” It is not unusual to change and embellish upon a traditional story; people have been doing it for centuries. However, fairy tales maintain their key characteristics. In the case of “Snow White,” those include flat characterization, supernatural setting, and isolation of characters in a strange, exaggerated world.
“Snow White” dramatizes the association of the good angel-like character with the evil devil-like one. This interaction is monitored and incited by a male voice: the mirror. This man in the mirror defines the identity of both the main characters as well as their relationship. The protagonist is “the fairest of all” and the antagonist is the former bearer of that title, and their interactions are marked by rivalry and jealousy.
Most folklorists interpret the story as a female initiation tale, symbolizing the process of sexual, psychological, and social maturation in women in general. Snow White’s story shows the necessity of culture in the transformation of self, but also illustrates the boundaries beyond which she cannot venture. Snow White is stifled by her obligate domesticity. The men’s influence in Snow White’s life is clear. The huntsman, dwarfs, and prince all aid in her socialization. This implies that her initiation will only be complete once the white and red parts of her life – semen and menstrual blood, representing male and female opposites – unite through her black ritual “death.” In this way, the thematic colors of the story (skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony) apply to Snow White’s personal growth.
The three versions of “Snow White” analyzed here differ in point of view, adherence to the original storyline, and even primary message. Disney’s Snow White is more similar in all three points to the Grimm version of the tale.
Girardot explains the tale “Snow White” in the context of the main character’s initiation and transition into adulthood. Fairy tales, she argues, are not simply for amusement and escape, but also for gaining knowledge and broadening the imagination. Folklorists place “Snow White” into a “Banished Wife or Maiden” tale category. Fairy tales cannot be removed from the magical and religious spheres, as some critics have tried to do, because they are not simply meant to teach readers how to adjust to adult reality. The magic plays an integral part in “Snow White,” as well as other fairy tales. As for religion, fairy tales place angels inside heroines and fairies, and devils inside villains. Girardot acknowledges that Disney’s Snow White maintains the darker side of the original tale, especially in the evil stepmother character.
It is necessary to analyze multiple versions of a piece of folklore before creating an overarching analysis on the story’s meaning. For “Snow White,” this is a more difficult task, because many of the versions have been influence and changed by the Grimms version. However, the basic framework of the story has remained the same throughout the years. The message that the tale promotes, for example, has remained unchanged. On the surface level, the meaning of the story concerns the triumph of a beautiful and good heroine over the evil, jealous stepmother. However, the story goes deeper than that. It is a tale of maturation, the transition between childhood and adulthood, natural to cultural life, and asexual to sexual life.
Girardot analyzes “Snow White” by placing the girl’s story into five steps associated with initiation rituals: Prologue and Problem, Separation, Liminal Period, Reincorporation and Rebirth, and Epilogue. The first step is the introduction of the tale, from Snow White’s birth to her banishment into the woods. The Separation period entails her trek through the forest and eventual discovery of the Dwarfs’ cottage. Snow White’s stay with the dwarves and her “death” encompass the Liminal Period, and her revival and marriage to the prince are her Reincorporation and Rebirth. The last step is Snow White’s revenge on her stepmother during the wedding ceremony. Disney’s version of Snow White involved these steps as well, making it also an initiatory tale of a girl’s transition into womanhood.
Koven gives folklorists’ negative perspective on Disney films. Most theorists see film, especially Disney, as threats to the authenticity of the original fairy tales. They worry that audiences will begin to view the Disney version as the first and only. Not only that, but they suspect that the Disney Company is trying to make their stories appear the definitive variant by publishing Disney storybooks. Some think that the alterations from the traditional texts may hamper transmission of the stories by eliminating many of the motifs that make the tales memorable. The sanitation of the stories renders them meaningless. Without real conflict, the tales do not display the tragic parts of life, the battle to between weak and strong, or the good in the human spirit.
Koven does acknowledge that some folklorists appreciate film as a method of story dispersion. One folklorist cites Snow White as a prime example of animation as a successful medium for fairytale presentation. He sees Snow White as a way to re-interest adults in traditional folk imagination.
Wood examines how Disney uses his film Cinderella to “civilize” his viewers by presenting models of proper behavior while entertaining them. Snow White, like Cinderella, sings while she does her household chores. In analyzing Disney’s conservative ideology, she touches upon how his views affect his other works, such as Snow White.
To keep his films entertaining, Disney reworked European marchen. He included well-loved romantic plots and added comic relief through subplots involving animals and secondary characters, such as the dwarves in Snow White. Marriage is based on love, rather than family constraints. “Love’s first kiss” wakes both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty from their slumbers. Disney used realism in his animated films to present a sense of immediacy to his audience. He included a solid plot and clear personalities to the characters so that viewers would feel a deeper connection with the story. The seven dwarves in Snow White each have their own unique name, temperament, and appearance. The recurring gags, often in the form of handicaps, also keep children viewers interested. For example, Dopey is mute and clumsy while Doc has a stutter and is absent-minded.
Disney supports wish-fulfillment, as is evident in his films. Dreams in Cinderella are similarly important in Snow White. While Cinderella sings of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” Snow White opens her story with “I’m wishing / For the one I love / To find me.” Disney reassures viewers that with good effort and self-control, one will get the desired result. According to him, the ultimate wish for girls is to marry the rich and handsome Mr. Right.
Shortsleeve tries to articulate the fear that Disney inspires in critics, and from where this fear originates. He views it as a slippery slope process. Beginning in the 1930’s, criticism of Disney’s corporate, artistic, and public influences worsened with time. Disney’s personal ideology, reflected in the way he worked with people, appears in his films.
Walt Disney elicits a range of complaints from critics. The primary one that appears is of the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales, the simplification of stories. Many critics view the Disney versions as patronizing and overly sentimental. Disney has created a form of entertainment that restricts thought-provoking expression. Others argue that the racial stereotypes Disney shows in his films encourage racism in viewers across the world and further US imperialist agenda. Feminists claim that depictions of Barbie-like heroines give young girls negative body images. Some say that Walt Disney has unacceptable labor practices in his studios and that he displays a false innocence to the media.
Shortsleeve believes that what frightens people is that the Disney Company has remained unchanged from its glory days in the 1930’s. After bitter arguments with his animators in 1941, Walt Disney lost his confidence, and the company ideologically stalled in the “magic” of the ‘30s. The company still exhibits contradictory values, with heavy-handed management of employees, yet support for the common man in its films. The incongruity of its totalitarian tendencies with its democracy attractions at its amusement parks leads to confusion from critics and the general public alike. This confusion has led to tension, suspicion, and paranoia.
Despite his criticism, Shortsleeve acknowledges the positive impact Disney has had on America, especially during the Great Depression. Audiences wanted to escape their dreary lives for two hours, to enter a fantasy world where everything ends happily. When Disney decided to create his first full-length animated film (Snow White), even his oppressed employees regained new hope and excitement at the thought of being involved in such a ground-breaking project.
Snow White exhibits the “Disneyfication” about which so many critics complained. It diverges from the original Grimm version toward simplification and sentimentality. Disney’s clear belief in self-reliance and hard work are evident in the dwarves’ “Heigh Ho, It’s Off to Work We Go” song, as well as in Snow White’s agreeable temperament while doing chores. Disney expected his animators to work just as willingly, but they were unhappy that they would not receive screen credit for their efforts, and so began the strike in ’41 that destroyed Walt’s confidence and locked the company in its ‘30s mindset.
Stone argues that Walt Disney has created household names of heroines in his films, but in so doing, is encouraging passivity and inaction from female viewers who are influenced by the pretty-but-dumb characters. Disney has changed the role of women from the original stories for the worse in his films. The Grimm brothers have 40 heroines in their tales, and not all are passive and pretty. Their villains are not always women, either. While Grimm heroines are often not rewarded for having spirit, Disney females are even less so. The three Disney films based on other fairy tales (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) all star an innocent, beautiful girl who is victimized by a jealous, evil villainess.
Disney encourages the image of a perfect housewife in his heroines. They all exhibit patience, obedience, passivity, diligence, silence, and beauty. To become a heroine for Disney, one must have all those qualities. To mute the heroine inside oneself, one must simply don dirty rags. While in Disney, Cinderella is only a heroine when properly cleaned and dressed, in traditional fairy tales, the heroines may be unattractive and disheveled. Their appearance does not affect their success. In Snow White, it is her beauty that eventually leads to her success. It is because of her face that the prince falls in love with her and frees her from sleeping death with love’s first kiss.
In recent tales, there is great disparity between hero and heroine characteristics. Heroes are judged on their ability to overcome difficulties. They succeed by acting. Heroines, on the other hand, do not develop throughout the story because they start out perfect, without defects. All they need is their beauty and passivity to succeed. This is apparent in both the Grimm and Disney versions of Snow White. Snow White’s beauty is emphasized, as is her kindness toward others and chipper attitude toward housework. She does nothing in either version, except clean house and look pretty, qualities that Stone believes Disney is encouraging in women throughout the world.