Animated Children’s Films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The History and the Legacy of Disney’s Original Fairy Tale

This is a guest review by Stevie Leigh Cattigan.

‘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 at 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 a 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 tales. Often 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 old fairy tale clichés, 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 spin-off 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.


Stevie Leigh Cattigan lives in Glasgow, Scotland and has just graduated with a degree in English and Comparative Literature. Tired of ranting at anyone who would listen about the lack of decent female characters in films, she decided to start at blog about just that called Calm Down Dear (which currently no one reads so take a look if you can!)

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).

  • I just wanted to point out that there are three genders in German grammar: male, female, and neutral. A young woman or girl (das Mädchen) is grammatically speaking neutral… an ‘it’. Also the diminuitive ending ‘-chen’ (as in Schneewittchen) also makes every word a grammatical neutral (der Hund -> das Hündchen; Mädchen itself is a diminuitive of the grammatically female word “Magd” or “Maid”). So the prince referring to Snow White as ‘it’ does not sound weird in German because he is referring to “das Schneewittchen” which grammatically speaking is neutral. Older translations might have unwittingly ignored this and falsely kept the neutral in their English version.

  • Hi Fritzoid, that’s very interesting. I wasn’t aware of that so thanks for pointing it out. The verison of the tale I was using was from a fairly recent collection, and was translated by Maria Tatar who is a leading scholar in fairy tales and Germanic studies. I think perhaps she left it as the neutral ‘it’ like you say, because the prince is really talking about the coffin, not Snow White – (My bad) The point I was trying to make though is that he doesn’t even refer to Snow White as person- he just comes alone and demandes ownership of her dead body – very romantic!

  • “Snow White as person- he just comes alone and demandes ownership of her dead body – very romantic!”

    Agreed! Thank you also for the great posts on your blog.

    I also thought you might be interested in this article discussing how the Bluebeard fairy tale morphed from a story about a plucky young woman into a morality tale about knowing when to just listen to authority:

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