Fairest of them all
Each retelling of Snow White holds a mirror up to contemporary attitudes to women. Sally Feldman ventures into the woods to find out more
There’s the talking mirror, the gang of dwarfs, a poisoned apple and a glass coffin – not, you might think, the ideal ingredients for a contemporary take on the human condition. So why all of a sudden are there two new Hollywood movies based on Snow White and a revival of Angelin Preljocaj’s ballet of the story?
The answer, as always, is the woman. Not the virginal goody-goody who gets cast out into the woods and whose main contribution to her survival is her mastery of the dustpan and brush. No, the real central character is, of course, the wicked queen, the stepmother from hell. Even the not terribly versatile Julia Roberts, in Mirror Mirror, manages to reek of malevolence, while Charlize Theron conveys even more menace in Snow White and the Huntsman, despite the attempts to dilute her satanic tyranny by giving Snow White a bit of girl power. In both films the monstrous queen retains that aura of evil that is so central to the classic story. And she’s caricatured with sadistic relish by Patrizia Telleschi in the ballet, where she descends from beautiful tyrant into old hag and then, gloriously, into lesbian vampire.
None of these interpretations, however, can rival the original Disney version. It is, of course, customary today for critics to frown upon Disney and all his works. Left-leaning purists like to dismiss the scene where all the woodland animals help Snow White to clean up the dwarves’ house as a paean to Henry Ford’s invention of the production line, while serious folklorists despair of the saccharine sentimentality, the sexlessness, the oversimplification that characterise Disney’s treatment of classic fairy tales. They fear they obscure the dark power of the stories.
But nobody ever did a better witch than Disney. And this portrayal of her as uncompromisingly evil, her terrifying transformation from beautiful queen to cackling crone, is part of a much longer tradition, according to Jack Zipes in his new book, The Irresistible Fairy Tale.
Western fairy tales abound with witches. Indeed, there’s hardly a fairy to be found in the Grimms’ Tales. Even the “wicked fairy” who curses the baby Sleeping Beauty is really just another witch. And in all of the stories these witches are uniformly, unequivocally evil. But, argues Zipes, this is still an historical simplification. In pre-Christian cultures witches were allowed to be far more complex figures.
“Witch is a word/concept/image that has undergone a process of ‘demonisation’ that is still potent today,” he writes. In earlier cultures older women were often depicted as goddesses, “and were worshipped because they had extraordinary powers that allowed them to perform miraculous acts such as making people and environments fertile, or destroying people and environments.”
So how did these complex and powerful figures come to be seen as one-dimensional, wicked and satanic? The change, argues Zipes, was wrought by Christianity. Its “great accomplishment”, he writes, was the transformation of women with magical powers into demonic and malevolent figures, whether real or fictitious.
He quotes the nineteenth-century folklorist Charles Leland, who suggested that the “diabolical” reputation of witches “is due almost entirely to the Church and the priests. This is the kind which caused witch mania, with its tortures and burnings.”
Christianity needed to expunge the pagan worship of un-Jesus-like goddesses, and also to reinforce the divine order, which demoted women to an inferior, subordinate position. Any woman who didn’t conform to the required new status was suspect, witch-like.
And certainly in the Grimms’ canon, all older women are pretty witch-like. Good older women are always dead. Mothers have no place (hardly surprisingly, since death in childbirth was very common until quite recently), but elderly stepmothers with cunning plans for their charges are a-plenty. So in Cinderella, the stepmother has a powerful fiscal motive for her monstrous cruelty: she wishes to safeguard her own daughters’ inheritance.
There is, though, no such motive in Snow White. Here the hostility is purely physical. The stepmother is riven with jealousy. According to Bruno Bettelheim, who offers a Freudian interpretation in The Uses of Enchantment, the two women are vying for the love of the father. This is made explicit, he claims, in earlier versions of the story, where the father has a more prominent role. “The oedipal desires of a father and daughter, and how these arouse a mother’s jealousy which makes her wish to get rid of the daughter, are much more clearly stated.” But even in the later Grimms version, Bettleheim suggests, this oedipal theme is a strongly present undertow.
But his analysis doesn’t really work. It’s not the father the queen desires in Snow White. He doesn’t even feature in most versions. No, what she’s jealous of is the young woman’s beauty. There’s no evidence of any enmity to Snow White until the mirror’s devastating pronouncement that the queen is no longer the most beautiful in the land. The younger woman has overtaken her.
The mirror’s declaration is the pivotal moment of the story. For what it conveys is Snow White’s arrival at adolescence. She is no longer a child but is on the brink of maturity, in the transitional state that defines the plots of so many fairy tales. All of the heroines are at the crossroads where one action or one decision will determine their whole future. And so the wicked queen is forced to face up not only to Snow White’s beauty but also to her womanhood.
So when she decides to get rid of the young upstart, it isn’t merely in order to regain her position as the most beautiful of them all. She also has to acquire for herself the very qualities that she’s losing. And when she instructs the huntsman to kill the girl and bring back her heart and liver, it’s not just for proof that the murder has been accomplished. It’s so that she can eat the innards – and thereby ingest Snow White’s youth.
This cannibalistic desire lies at the dark heart of the story. The real wickedness of the queen is her inability to accept the role of mother – her refusal to sacrifice her own sexual allure to her daughter. She is denying the natural order, and is therefore unnatural: a witch. By contrast, the maturing Snow White is passive, houseproud, the loving carer of those dwarfs who are not exactly men, but more like diminished, desexed children. Unlike the baleful queen, she demonstrates all the qualities of the good mother.
And this contrast has a powerful resonance for today’s women, something that helps explain the current spate of revivals. We mothers and grandmothers are no longer prepared to accept those traditional roles. Women now are earners and shakers; we don’t knit, except our brows when poring over boardroom figures or finishing some particularly tricky project. And most of us certainly don’t look our age. Defying wrinkles and greyness, increasing numbers of women are botoxed and fillered; we dye our hair, whiten our teeth, sculpt our fading bodies. We disdain frills and bows, or elasticated slouch pants, in favour of style and fashion. It’s telling that of all the ballet’s costumes, designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, the Queen’s are the most flamboyantly exaggerated. For, like her, we are often vain and overdone, and don’t mind showing off. We are not ashamed to be mutton dressed as lamb.
As for sex – we’re clearly not giving that up, either. Older women now demand satisfaction in the bedroom. They are more likely than men to seek divorce, are openly buying sex toys, even reading porn – or at least the 50 Shades version.
In other words, we are more akin to the wicked witch than to Snow White. And as a cautionary tale about the evils that await women who won’t grow old, the story has a new and almost urgent relevance.
But we don’t have to accept that stern verdict. Instead, let’s resist and rebel and assert, yet again, that yes, we can have it all. We can have careers as well as family; we can be equal to men, but still be womanly. We can walk tall in our Manolos, be proud of our toned muscles and smart looks. And we can rejoice in our beautiful daughters without relinquishing any of our style, energy, identity, fulfilment and power. And without having to eat their livers.
The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre by Jack Zipes is published by Princeton University Press