Sunday, 11 December 2011

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): The History and the Legacy of Disney's Original Fairy Tale

This post first appeared at Bitch Flicks as part of their Animated Children's Films series.

‘Hell, Doc ... we just make a picture and then you professors come along and tell us what we do.’     Walt Disney, Time Magazine (1937) 

With the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as their first feature length film in 1937, The Walt Disney Company began negotiations for the complete buy-out of the fairy tale genre. Their venture paid off with profits in excess of $66 million. They capitalised upon this success adapting no fewer than seven more fairy tales to the big screen, and built an entire theme park empire around the idea of their enchanted kingdom whilst making a bomb through the marketing of princesses to little girls. Unsurprisingly, given the seventy year monopoly on fairy tales afforded Disney, many forget the original source tales for these works. Straparola, Basile, Perrault and Madame de Beaumont go unmentioned while Disney still hog the spotlight. 

As for the Brothers Grimm, whose tale ‘Schneewittchen’ provided the source for Disney’s adaptation, they fare slightly better in popular culture. In many ways Disney are the natural successors to the Grimms, sharing many of the same conservative values and imparting similar messages about good girls and heroic boys to their audiences. But there are also several differences between the two versions, especially concerning the role of the prince. As is the case in many of the Grimms’ tales, the prince is barely even a character, he just shows up the end in order to whisk the princess away to his castle. In Disney’s version however the prince has a more prominent role. As discussed by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work The Madwoman in the Attic, women’s stories are often framed through male discourse and they are, ‘(enclosed) in his texts, glyphs, graphics’. Disney’s prince is the beginning and the end of Snow White’s story; he literally frames her narrative. Then there are of course the dwarfs, so much more prominent in the Disney version than the Grimms’ that they are included in the title. Snow White’s character is so massively one dimensional and underdeveloped that she needs seven little men as a supporting cast (and the Evil Queen) in order to make the film even remotely interesting.

But of course, Snow White is not supposed to be an interesting character. She is a template; a parable for how girls should behave. In the Grimms’ version she is just seven years old. I’m presuming she is older in the Disney version, but the point is irrelevant really. No matter her age she is supposed to be childish, innocent, naïve, unknowing. But most importantly she must be domesticated. In the Grimms’ version the dwarfs tell Snow White, ‘If you will keep house for us, cook, make the beds, wash, sew, knit and keep everything neat and tidy, then you can stay with us, and we’ll give you everything you need’, to which Snow White replies, ‘Yes, with pleasure’. In the Disney version she offers to ‘keep home’ if the dwarfs let her stay with them. She also shows that cleaning is darn good fun, and I imagine it really would be if you had a troop of woodland creatures doing most of the work for you. Disney’s Snow White is good and obedient, she does what she’s told and she says her prayers before bedtime. Her only act of disobedience occurs when she ignores the strong warning given to her by the dwarfs: beware of strangers! She is tempted by the old hag’s red apple, and we all know by now that there are always disastrous consequences when it comes to disobedient women and apples. Unable to bring themselves to bury her in the ground, the dwarfs creepily decide to display her dead body in an ornately decorated glass coffin, so they can always enjoy her beauty. In the Grimms’ tale the prince, who has searched high and low for a dead chick in glass coffin, says to the dwarfs, ‘Let me have the coffin. I will give you whatever you want for it… Make me a present of it, for I can’t live without seeing Snow White. I will honour and cherish her as if she were my beloved.’ Note how she is simply referred to as an ‘it’ here; she is a mere possession for the prince. In the Disney version Snow White is then awoken by ‘love’s true kiss’, another deviation from the Grimms’ tale and presumably an element borrowed from Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps it appealed to Walt’s romantic side – his creepy, bordering-on-necrophilia romantic side. As a reward for her unrelenting submissiveness Snow White gets to spend the rest of her life in a giant castle with a man she barely knows who calls her ‘it’. Believe it or not the evil Queen’s fate is far grizzlier.

Despite the pervasiveness of the ‘evil step-mother’ as a stock character in popular culture, it is actually the biological parents who play the villains in many fairy talesOften the Grimms would alter certain tales they had collected, substituting birth mothers for step-mothers, so as not to shock their readers and tarnish the image of the motherhood. In Snow White, her good biological mother dies in childbirth at the beginning of the tale, paving the way for a truly monstrous step-mother. In Disney’s version they go even further by eradicating Snow White’s birth mother from the narrative all together, leaving us with just the good, pure and passive Snow White contrasted with the evil, jealous and powerful Queen. The whole virgin/whore dichotomy thing, which Western culture still cannot get enough of, is prominent in the original tale but is amped to the max by Disney. In versions of the tale pre-dating the Grimms, most notably Giambattista Basile’s ‘The Young Slave’, much is made of the Queen’s jealousy of Snow White’s suitors. Once fairy tales became more exclusively aimed towards children sexual themes began to be repressed, and although The Grimms and Disney still focus on Snow White’s step-mother’s jealousy in their tales, the psycho-sexual undertones are far more subtle. Competition for male approval could be seen to be the most prominent theme of the story. Whether it be for the affection of young suitors, or for the attention of the absent father (In the Grimms’ tale Snow White is not an orphan, but her father is only mentioned once in the text. Child psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim suggested that the rivalry between Snow White and the Queen was oedipal.) Or, as Gilbert and Gubar suggest, for the approval of the patriarchal voice of judgment in the mirror ‘that rules the Queen’s – and every woman’s – self evaluation.’ The Queen’s obsession with beauty merely reflects patriarchal society’s own obsession with it. This is still relevant today, and it is still an issue which pits women against each other. Again, Gilbert and Gubar highlight this, ‘female bonding is extraordinarily difficult in patriarchy: women almost inevitably turn against women because the voice in the looking glass sets them against each other.’ Of course, for the Queen there is no happy ending, and she meets a sticky end in both tales. In the Grimms’ far more horrific version she is forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she drops dead. In the Disney version the violence is more sanitised, with her death taking place off-screen. However, her treatment is still harsh and she is pursued by the dwarfs onto a cliff where she falls to her death, destined to be pecked at by wild vultures.

2001 welcomed an alternative to the Disney fairy tale with the release of Shrek, an animated comedy which made fun of the old classics. To date there have been three more Shrek films, as well as other similar animated features such as Hoodwinked and Happily N’Ever After. Even Disney jumped on the bandwagon with the release of their live action feature Enchanted, which tells the story of a fairytale princess transported to modern day New York. In these films fairy tale tropes are lampooned and mocked for being old fashioned and out of touch. In one scene in Shrek the Third the princesses find themselves trapped in prison. Their solution to this problem is to ‘assume the positions’ which means sit around and wait to be rescued. And there is of course the scene where Snow White, accompanied as always by her posse of cute creatures, enchants two guards with her beautiful singing voice, only to then take them surprise by unleashing her song birds as weapons, all to the tune of Led Zeppelin. In Disney’s Enchanted they mock their own little Snow White with a city version of the ‘Whistle While You Work’ scene. This time it is a host of vermin, clusters of cockroaches and swarms of flies that help her with chores. Despite these films making fun of the old fairy tale cliché, and trying to create a more modern outlook, they tend to reinforce the same values. They still end happily ever after with a wedding, and they continue to focus on hetero-normative plot points.

After gaining little success with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, Disney announced in 2009 that they would no longer make fairy tale adaptations. Which I’m guessing they are starting to regret right around now as it seems fairy tales are once again en vogue. There are two new TV shows, Once Upon a Time and Grimm, which deal with the genre and a whole host of new movie adaptations on the horizon. These include the Shrek spinoff Puss in Boots, and not one but two new Snow White adaptations. The first, Snow White and the Huntsman, seems far grittier with Snow White in armour and a supposedly more active role. Despite this, not one line of dialogue does she get to speak in the trailer. The other adaptation, Mirror, Mirror takes its cue much more from Disney and seems more whimsical and light-hearted. Yet in this trailer Snow White actually gets to speak, and fairytale clichés are made fun of with the prince needing to be rescued instead. However, both trailers still fixate on the monster/angel dichotomy of the two female characters, with no one seeming to understand that this is the most outdated idea of all in the tale. These trailers have prompted much debate over both films’ lack of racial diversity. Considering the wealth of different variations of fairy tales available, from a multitude of different cultural backgrounds, it is completely ridiculous that the only versions we still pay any attention to are those that have been manipulated by upper-class, white guys from the 18th and 19th centuries to suit their own religious and social morals. It would be so easy to put a real spin on the tired old tales, using a more diverse cast and less passive women, because these tales already exist. They are there in the form of traditional folk tales that collectors and publishers chose to ignore, and in the form of post-modern fairy tales, where authors have written out the elitism, racism and misogyny in order to create more exciting tales. Fairy tales are meant to be adapted, manipulated, toyed with and allowed to evolve and to grow. They have travelled from the workrooms of peasants to the literary salons of Paris. They have settled in the nurseries of children and have been adapted to the big screen. They are not meant to be left to stagnate, tracing the same old stories in the same old style. It’s time for change.

'Fair fair fairest- white white whitest'  Hilarious video from Second City Network 

Texts used:
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother’ and The Brothers Grimm, ‘Snow White’ both contained in The Classic Fairy Tales, ed. by Maria Tatar (New York; London: W.W. Norton, 1999) .

Friday, 9 December 2011

October/November Film Catch-Up

I watch a lot of films. But I also have a serious problem with procrastination so here are some observations on the films I have been too busy/lazy to write about in the past month or so: 

Contagion (2011) Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Female Characters: 5 (Beth/Dr. Orantes/Dr. Mears/Dr. Hextall/Jory) 
Male Characters: 7 (Mitch/Dr. Cheever/Alan/Sun Feng/Roger/Dr Sussman/Lyle) 
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No. 

Much of the buzz about this film revolved around the fact that MEGA-star Gwyneth Paltrow dies within the first few minutes (and Kate Winslet follows not all that long after). Women are already massively underrepresented in film, do we really need to start killing off the few women who get big parts as a gimmick? Where are the films where Tom Cruise gets the axe within the first five minutes, huh? Because that can really only be an improvement to any film. And of course this whole virus mess is spread by a woman, and they really labour the point that she had been having an affair. The downfall of this society will inevitably be caused by those slutty, adulterous vessels of venereal doom called ‘women’ - For heaven’s sake don’t touch her, you don’t know where she’s been! Then follows the pretty schlocky, and almost voyeuristic, spectacle of Paltrow’s head being cut open and oozing goop (get it?) all over the operating table. The film does redeem itself a bit by having the only female scientist discover the cure, and truth be told it was a decent watch. I can’t be too hard on Soderbergh though - he still scores major brownie points with me for Erin Brockovich (2000).

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I (2011) Dir. Bill Condon
Female Characters:  7 (Bella/Alice/Renée/Esme/Rosalie/Jessica/ Leah)
Male Characters: 7 (Edward/Jacob/Charlie/Jasper/Carlisle/Emmett/Sam)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

Isn't it every girl’s dream to wake up the morning after her honeymoon ‘decorated’ (Actual word used by Meyer in the novel) with bruises because her husband is such a voracious sex beast he just could not control his passionate strength? Twilight thinks so. It also thinks that even if you have a demon vampire baby growing inside you, slowing sucking all the life out of your frail, emaciated body, abortion is WRONG! Honestly, there are not enough hours in the day to explain all that is wrong with the Twilight saga and the messages it sends to young girls. However, despite this, I feel the need to defend the series as I hate the way it’s sneered upon mainly because it appeals to a market of teenage girls. Even Twilight was not able meet the extraordinarily low standards I held for it, and I was impressed that they managed to deal with the shit-load of weird crap contained in that last book. Funny how censors manage to turn a blind eye to blood and guts when vast sums of money are involved, eh?

In Time (2011) Dir. Andrew Niccol
Female Characters: 2 (Rachel/Sylvia)
Male Characters: 3 (Will/Raymond/Philippe)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? No.

This is a fairly cheesy film, with some truly ridiculous dialogue. But for me it is science fiction at its best because it exaggerates themes in order to create an analogy about real world problems, instead of you know, making robots fight either other. This is a dystopian thriller set in the year 2161 where people stop aging at 25, and in order to stay alive they must work to earn more time. There are those who live from day to day, hand to mouth, and there are those with so much time that they are effectively immortal. There are really only two significant female characters, both white. One plays the lead’s mother and dies early on, and the other is a spoiled rich kid who plays his love interest. She does play a big part in helping start the revolution, even if she does do it wearing ridiculously high heels. The film makes light of the fact that everyone is young, but focuses on only how this affects men with several cheesy jokes how you can’t tell whether a woman is a man’s wife, daughter or mother. There are no observations on how this would affect women’s lives. I mean, how would the rigid standards of beauty be enforced without age as a factor? And will someone please think of the poor anti-wrinkle cream companies!! Overall though, still some fairy radical ideas about society’s greed and the general inequality of the times we live in, for a mainstream, big-budget film at least. Occupy Hollywood anybody?

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) Dir. Lynne Ramsay
Female Characters: 2 (Eva/Celia)
Male Characters: 2 (Kevin/Franklin)
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

Made by an excellent female director(and a Glaswegian too – Hooray!)Lynne Ramsay, with an excellent performance by the female lead Tilda Swinton. I was disappointed that it didn’t deal as much with issues surrounding the social expectations of motherhood, and the taboo of not bonding with your child, as I really loved this aspect of the novel.  I also felt that the novel lent itself to the possibility of some truly gory, and very shocking, scenes. However, Ramsay did not do the obvious thing and for a film with such a controversial subject matter there is very little blood on screen. Instead, she used the colour red to stunning effect and also created some genuinely uncomfortable moments through the use of what I can only describe as ‘audible gore’ – for example the scene where Kevin eats a lychee after the incident involving the loss of his sister's eye. I'm a big fan of Ramsay's previous work Ratcatcher (1999) and Movern Callar (2002), and trust me, I would much rather have saw her adaptation of The Lovely Bones. This film, and Ramsay herself, should definitely be nominated come Oscar time. The chances however are slim, with this film and others by female directors already being overlooked.

 The Help (2011) Dir. Tate Taylor
Female Characters: 11 (Aibileen/Skeeter/Hilly/Minny/Celia/Elizabeth/Mae Mobley/Charlotte/Constantine/Missus Walters/Yule Mae)
Male Characters: 2 (Johnny/Stuart) 
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Yes.

One film where I don’t have to complain about the lack of women. But perhaps still about the lack of women of colour. There are seven white main characters to just three black main characters – isn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of the help? However, unlike the book, which is narrated mainly by a lead white protagonist called Skeeter, the film shifts the focus onto Aibileen (stunningly portrayed by Viola Davis) and her account of what it’s like to me a maid in civil rights era Mississippi. Still, a decent adaptation and side-splittingly hilarious at points … especially when it comes to the topic of pies.