The Evolution of Snow White

21 posts / 0 new
Last post
Catchfire Catchfire's picture
The Evolution of Snow White

One of the newest trends we’re seeing in speculative fiction is the revisiting of fairy tales, especially in a modern setting–they’re almost a unique sub-genre of the Urban Fantasy and Fantasy genres.

And, in many ways, this is very important to do as fairy tales are some of the very first stories many of us are exposed to as children. Unfortunately, they’re also very old stories–and contain a lot of very old and sadly prevalent tropes that have stayed with us over the years. Generations of children have grown up with stories of helpless princesses, passively waiting for a handsome (and anonymous–after all, any man will do if he’s in the right place at the right time) prince to save them from abject peril. There is no question that this iconic image–repeated over and over in fairy tales, has had a profound effect on our culture, our society, and our view of gender roles, and there have been numerous excellent posts deconstructing the damaging messages of fairy tales.

There is no fairy tale that can be considered more centre stage than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An ancient tale, it rose to prominence when it became Disney’s first full-length animated movie and was forever cemented front and centre as not just a fairy tale–but the fairy tale. The ultimate tale of the protagonist–poor, helpless, sweet and oh-so-fair Snow White is attacked by her evil stepmother, while she helplessly sings to wildlife and eventually resides in a glass coffin to be rescued.

One of the things that we love most about Once Upon a Time is that, while Mary Margaret may be the soggiest lettuce in town, Snow White is a highwaywoman, a fighter, and a swashbuckler–every bit Prince James’s equal. Snow White is no longer a prize to be claimed, no longer an object to be won, and no longer a passive element in what is supposed to be her own story. And if she needs rescuing, she is quite capable of rescuing herself, thank you very much.

This is both so very needed and very empowering. It’s powerful to not only create new stories that empower marginalised bodies, but re-examine these old tropes and challenge them in a way that not only sets a new paradigm but highlights how wrong the old paradigm was.


The problem, of course, is that strong woman still means straight, able bodied, cisgender, and white. Snow White may not necessarily be waiting in her coffin for true love’s first kiss, but we do know that there will be a love interest and it will most certainly involve a man.

This is a problem that continually dogs fairy tales as a genre as a whole. While many are hailing the break from tradition that would require Snow White to be helpless and in need of rescue, those same voices scoff at the idea of tradition being “violated” to include marginalised bodies. There are few genres that are more erased than fairy tales. In fact, I’m tired of exclusion being assumed with fairy tales–if someone shows me a new fairy tale series or film or book I know it’s going to be totally straight and 99% white before I even look at it–often being excused through either a medieval setting and the fact that they’re aimed at children who are somehow unable to understand diversity.

But this latter, in particular, is why fairy tales need to be the most inclusive of genres. These are books consumed by children trying to discover the world, trying to absorb messages about the world and trying to see where they fit into the world. It seems silly to say, but marginalised people are children, too–and just as women in general are hurt and demeaned by endless representations of the pervasive passive princess, so, too, are marginalised bodies by being told that they don’t belong at all–whether an active force to participate in the story or even someone worthy of rescue and questing for.

Boom Boom Boom Boom's picture

Thanks for starting this thread, CF. I've seen previews of the new Snow White and I went "what the hell was that???".  Surprised

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Once Upon a Time is great fantasy and I like its Snow character. Empathetic school teacher in our world and serious fighter for justice in the fantasy world.

I have no idea what the new movie "Snow White and the Huntsman" is like. It will have to be excellent to equal the Burnaby production team's take on the genre.


Interesting that you should post this on the same day DC comics announces that one of its longstanding characters has come out as gay. Of course, Archie comics beat them to it, as did Marvel, by changing the race of one of their major characters. And I don't think anyone is making copyright takedowns over Bert and Ernie. And if you happened to have caught either of the Sherlock Holmes movies you might have noticed a little bit of sexual tension.

I get the drift of the article; I think it is a good one. On the other hand, I think fairy tales have always been used and adapted in ways that criticize the ideals they promote - if only because they are such easy targets because of their negative stereotypes.

Never mind that we're not actually talking about the original stories, but rather Disney's version of them.

There is nothing in Disney about the evil queen being tortured to death with red hot iron boots, and the cartoon version of Cinderella leaves out the part where her sister cuts off part of her foot to make it fit into the slipper (and is given away when it fills up with blood). Or what one researcher says is the true story behind Hansel and Gretl - an woman murdered for her gingerbread recipe by a brother and sister, who got away with it by claiming she was a witch.

So ultimately those who claim tradition is being messed with don't really know what they are talking about.

 But really, I care less about people holding to these supposed unchangeable stories than I do about the fact that literature - kid's literature, specifically -  is far more wide open now than it has been in the past. So while I think the article is a good warning, I don't think things are quite as absolute as it makes out.

Jacob Richter

Having seen it, this film reeked too much of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe.


Seems like the Harry Potter characters changed the most:


We've been watching Once Upon A Time, and it's not too bad.  It was starting to get a bit slow for me in a few episodes, but I really enjoyed it up to the season ender.  Nice to see that it was renewed for another season.

I like the way that show really doesn't stick to the traditional fairy tale stories.  The book that the kid has includes many of the fairy tales we know, but the stories even in the fairy tale book have a lot of tweaks and twists to the traditional stories.  I loved their treatment of Red Riding Hood, for instance!

Lachine Scot

If we're talking about Snow White and also comic books, I'm surprised that no one has mentioned Fables. (As far as I can tell.)

Fables cover



It's an excellent comic book series put out by Vertigo which has been going on for some time, and is the inspiration for a lot of the so-so TV shows coming out these days about fairy tale characters living in modern times.

Pretty much every social theme is explored along with some pretty creative treatment of many classic characters.

Even if you don't like comics much, I recommend it, it stands out as a better work of art than most!

Jacob Two-Two

Don't like comics? Do those people really exist?


Traditional fairy tales were violent, often sadistic cautionary tales that frequently warned young girls of the consequences of not conforming. Quentin Tarantino would've approved of the original Sleeping Beauty story.  I'm all for any retelling that turns the tradition of the helpless/useless/ornamental female on its head.


I have an over century old edition of Grimm's fairy Tales. They are vicious.

Jacob Two-Two

I always find it hilarious when people complain about preserving the integrity of the traditional tales. There's no such thing, really. These were oral tales passed around through many different hands, and changing a little every time they did. The "original" versions aren't original at all. They were just the latest incarnation that had come about at the time that the Grimm brothers decided to start collecting them, and in many cases there were several versions of the same tales, leaving the brothers to make a call about which to choose based on their own preferences.

On the subject of the misogyny in these stories, it's important to remember that the time period that the brothers compiled these stories was a really low point for woman's freedoms in western culture, when females were little more than the property of men. It's highly likely that the older versions of these stories were not quite as sexist as the ones that were written down. It's also not unlikely that the brothers themselves favoured the more misogynist versions.

So really we are remiss in not constantly updating these tales, and in fact, by fixing the more objectionable elements within them, we may actually be closer to the spirit of the stories as they were "originally" told. But even if we aren't, it doesn't matter. Something like "Finnegan's Wake" you want to preserve in it's purest form, because it's all about the way the words are used, rather than the broad elements of the story. Things like fairy tales, parables, and superhero stories, are meant to be constantly changed so that archaic details don't distract from the more primal building blocks that speak to us.


And then there's Struwwelpeter - stories designed specifically to scare the shit out of little kids.


Jacob Two-Two wrote:

On the subject of the misogyny in these stories, it's important to remember that the time period that the brothers compiled these stories was a really low point for woman's freedoms in western culture, when females were little more than the property of men. It's highly likely that the older versions of these stories were not quite as sexist as the ones that were written down. It's also not unlikely that the brothers themselves favoured the more misogynist versions.

Thank you for your edifying remarks.  Has it occured to you that perhaps your remarks might be arrogant to the point of offense to the few women left on babble?

Jacob Two-Two

I have to admit that hadn't occurred to me. I'm willing to listen if you want to explain more fully. I just meant that, in my understanding, the 19th century was more oppressive towards women than say, the 16th century, and so the folk tales would have reflected that prejudice, as they tend to reflect all cultural baggage. There is no "official" version of Snow White. The fairy tales we know are just a snapshot in time of constantly changing stories, taken in a very misogynist age. It's possible that a thousand years ago there were versions of the story where the princess saves herself, but we can't know because nobody wrote it down.

None of that is meant to refute how misogynist the Grimm brothers stories are or the corrosive effect they've had on our culture. I'm just musing idly.


Jacob Two-Two wrote:
I have to admit that hadn't occurred to me. I'm willing to listen if you want to explain more fully.

Actually, women have been 'explaining' this to men for years. Decades. Centuries even.  If you're really interested, I would suggest doing some reading. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets is entertaining and a halfway decent reference book.  Not heavy on scholarship, but a fun and interesting feminist perspective on myths, fairy tales and historic female archetypes in literature, religion and society.

Timebandit Timebandit's picture

Maria Tatar has done some interesting work in folklore, looking at European fairy tales in particular, especially the Grimm brothers.  Here's a review of one of her books that I find really interesting:

Jacob Two-Two

Rebecca West wrote:

Actually, women have been 'explaining' this to men for years. 

I believe you, but I'm not "men". I'm me. And I'm still not sure what you were objecting to. You don't have to write me an essay, but you could tell me what it was that upset you. Is it the notion that earlier centuries were less sexist than the one the Grimm brothers lived in?


Speaking with authority on historical sexism when one has no personal experience being at the receiving end of it might be construed by some as arrogant, and by others as appropriation of voice.  Something you might want to consider the next time you speak with authority on an issue to people who actually have a much better understanding of the issue.

I will, however, ask you why you feel I'm "upset"?  Am I using emoticons? No. Am I using language that is emotional? No. If I were a man, responding in a similar manner, would you still say I'm "upset"? Only you can answer that.

ETA: More on appropriation of voice


Voice appropriation happens all the time, and it's always the more powerful taking the voice (or the culture, etc) of the less powerful and co-opting it in various ways. Speaking on behalf of an absent voice, in the context of leftist progressives, is so naturalized that when challenged can result in huge affronts to the assumed "expert" position


Jacob Two-Two

Thank you for engaging me Rebecca. I will think about what you've said.


You're welcome.  Thank you for considering an alternative perspective.