The Secret Power of Snow White
When I was eight years old, my mom took me to see Disney’s Snow White when it was re-released in movie theaters. By all rights, this should have been a good idea – I was already a confirmed fairy-tale fanatic, and, not too many years before, Beauty and the Beast had made such an impression that I’d danced around the house in a replica of Belle’s golden gown for months.
But once the lights went up in the theater, I had some opinions, and they were not glowing. I had no idea what the word “feminism” was at the time, but in retrospect, I can say that Tiny Sara delivered her very first Feminist Rant™ sitting there in her oversized chair with her feet still a solid foot off the floor. Snow White was so helpless! She spent most of the film running away and cleaning and being dead/ asleep! She barely knew the prince at all, and kissing (supposedly) dead girls is NOT GREAT (and I stand by this last comment. Super gross.)
I think my antipathy for Snow White probably would have faded with time if her fairy tale hadn’t…haunted me, for lack of a better term. As one of the best-known fairy tales in the Western world, Snow White is deeply embedded in narrative tradition and pop culture. And, even worse, adults around me commented on my resemblance to Snow White with startling frequency. Between my clouds of dark hair and my pale complexion, the comparison was probably inevitable, but I was also the kind of little girl who would wear long, lace-edged dresses to school and then play soccer with the boys at recess. With my wild hair and dirt-smudged dresses, I looked like Snow White emerging from the dark forest.
So the adults commented, and I quietly seethed. Because I wanted to be seen as strong, capable, and smart – everything that I thought Snow White was not.
It wasn’t until I started teaching Snow White tales in graduate school that my opinion began to shift. I always assigned the Grimms’ 1857 version of the text, and I’d ask my students to tell me what surprised them most about the story. Inevitably, conversation would turn to Snow White’s age: she is seven at the beginning of the tale. Seven-year olds are generally not well-equipped with survival skills, and my students generally concluded, and I agreed, that Snow White deserves a medal and a parade for managing to survive the dark forest, let alone the rest of the fairy tale.
After having this conversation several times, I began to realize that this is really the heart of the story: she survives.
Against all the odds. She survives the woods. She leverages what she can with the dwarves – her ability to tidy and cook, which is impressive for a small child, for a safe place to live and food to eat. These domestic tasks, which I scorned as a saucy eight-year old in the movie theater, kept a roof over Snow White’s head, kept her safe. And yes, in the Grimms’ version (and other versions of the tale), it’s easy to be exasperated with Snow White for opening the door of the cottage again and again to her step-mother in disguise…but when we think of her as a child who misses her mother, who maybe, maybe even sees through the disguise and doesn’t care because it’s her mother outside, it’s hard to keep calling her stupid or unable to learn. And even when she keeps opening the door, she still survives.
Even the poisoned apple can’t kill her, not really. She rises from the glass coffin, forcing the closed book of her life to spring open and re-write her as a queen. She endures loss, homelessness, violence, even death to emerge stronger than ever before. And that is amazing. Snow White, I finally realized, is the ultimate survivor – the girl who will not be crushed by anything fate or her family can throw at her, who flips her script from victim to queen. And that’s feminist as hell.
Nowadays, I like to dress up like Snow White on days that I know will be challenging. I wear a white lace dress, leave my dark hair down, and put on my signature red lipstick. And, when people say I look like Snow White, I smile and say “Thank you! She’s kind of my hero.”