Behind These Castle Walls, Part I: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Ever since I read J. Zornado’s revolutionary important book Inventing the Child, in which he examines children’s fiction and its underlying messages, I looked at books and movies in a different way. Among all the brilliant things this book achieves, what spoke to me in a special way was how he dissected Disney movies, specifically The Young Mermaid and The Lion King. Uncovering their themes of parent authority, gender politics and identity manipulation was a big revelation to me. And ever since then I wanted to look at Disney movies, which are so beloved and popular until today, and see if I could figure out which ideas they sell to kids. So, today I’m starting a new series in which I’ll chronologically go through every major animated Disney movie and try to analyze it closely. I’m not the first one to do this, but I hope I have something new to say anyway. I have seen most of them already in the past, but I will watch them again with different eyes now.

And the first one is the classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from 1937. It is a masterpiece for cinematic reasons, being the first animated feature. There is no question that the movie still looks beautiful after almost 80 years. It is an impressive technical achievement and invented one of the most successful genres of all time. The story is a different beast, based on one of the Grimms’ classic fairytales, which are problematic enough by themselves (maybe a future topic), but Disney (the man and the company) added even more problematic issues. Let’s take a look at the film in detail (watch out, this will be really detailed).

The movie starts out with the evil stepmother talking to her mirror about her beauty. This starts a long line of female villains in Disney movies and this one paints a particularly bad image of women as her main motivation is vanity. She wants to be the prettiest, this is the main reason for all her evil plans and it is a motivation that reinforces some of the worst female stereotypes we know, right from the start. It won’t be the last one in this movie.

When we meet Snow White herself, she sings a song about being loved by the one as this seems to be her only dream, to wait for the right man to pick her up. So much for female stereotypes, which are reinforced by her doing house work while singing. And because we are in Disney reality, “the one” appears as a prince and claims her as his own the moment he sees her. That’s what women want and that’s what men are allowed to do.

Once the Evil Queen learns about Snow White’s beauty, she sets up a simple plan: she orders the Huntsman to kill her and take her heart. The movie has such a shiny, glittery surface, full of cute animals, dwarfs and songs, but right in the beginning we have this very cruel plan that, although we never see it, plants a haunting image in every kid’s head. Why? Because while they should live in ignorance of the real problems in the world, they should also be “hardened”, to be tough, to survive in this cruel world (which we don’t actually admit to being cruel here). On the surface, we see the songs and cuteness and harmony, but underneath violence, hatred and malice is shimmering.

Snow White is the embodiment of the ignorant member of our culture. She was almost killed, has no parents and is lost in the woods, but when she finds a baby bird which is in the same situation as her, she is all cheery and optimistic, telling it “Your mama and papa can’t be far.” She doesn’t allow her sadness to come out at first, but when she learns the truth of her only parent (the stepmother) being evil and plotting to kill her, the trauma comes out. The forest becomes the scary representation of her psyche, trying to get and hurt her, which she runs away from because she doesn’t want to accept this truth (and can’t because all her demeanor shows us that she is still a child, unable to cope with such trauma).

Does she deal with the trauma in the aftermath? Well, when she wakes up, the scary trees turn into cute animals, who are now scared of her. She faces her trauma in the face of the animals and her reaction is like the literal explanation what movies like these try to communicate:

I won’t hurt you. I’m awfully sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you. But you don’t know what I’ve been through. And all because I was afraid. I’m so ashamed of the fuzz I made. What do you do when things go wrong? Oh, you sing a song!

When you feel sad or scared, you have to feel bad for it and have to suppress these negative emotions. These feelings are wrong and you have to feel ashamed for them. Instead, pretend to be happy. It’s one of the most dangerous lines of the movie.

She then also shows that she is totally helpless alone and relies on the help of the animals. She, as a young girl, cannot sustain herself. When she finds an empty house, she calls it an “adorable […] doll’s house”, emphasizing her child-like mind. She naturally starts cleaning it immediately. The animals help her and in a first notion of the dichotomy of good and bad animals in the Disney universe they even clean spiderwebs that have no spiders in them (because spiders aren’t cute).

We are then introduced to the dwarves, who embody a different kind of ideology. They represent the working class, digging in a mine all day, but of course they are happy to do it since you don’t want kids to think work is a bad thing. They also sing about it of course, showing how happy they are with their extremely dangerous job, because, as the song goes, it’s a way “to get rich.” It’s one of those absurd images sold to kids here, the American Dream, as if those dwarves and the lowly workers they represent will ever get out of their mines. While they celebrate their work ethic, they also celebrate the end of their workday, establishing another one of our culture’s conflicting paradigms: Be happy if you have a job, but also be happy if you have time off.

The dwarves are specifically seven diverse characters that routinely are reduced to simple character traits, which they are even named after, as if children can’t deal with complex personalities, as if reality shows them anything else. One is called Dopey, he never talks and seems to be mentally challenged, but everyone treats him like an idiot. When they enter the house and are afraid there is a ghost inside, they push him up the stairs to investigate, showing no signs of a communal or tribal feeling you would assume for a group like them. But since they are representatives of this culture, they only think of themselves. Likewise, their first instinct is to kill the ghost.

Another character is called Grumpy, but he should be called Womenhatey, since his first thoughts about Snow White are: “She’s a female. And all females is poison. They’re full of wicked wiles. […] I’m agin’ ‘em.” He is a misogynist, through and through. I’ve read people argue that the movie makes fun of him and misogynists because he is so over the top, but I find that very problematic. Yes, the others don’t approve of his ideas and eventually he likes her too, but his ideas are so at the forefront, it’s hard to ignore them. The others later punish him for his “grumpiness” (an euphemism if I ever saw one) by washing him and dressing him like “a girl.” (My notes at this point read “this is all weird.”) The biggest problem with his misogyny and the supposed disdain of the others is that the movie proves Grumpy right! The two women we meet in Snow White are either evil or stupid and helpless. Either way, they are a problem for everyone involved. The movie does criticize Grumpy for saying out loud what it quietly communicates itself.

Snow White asks the dwarfs for protection by staying at their house and she offers them to clean and cook for them. They agree and no other possibility is ever considered or even seems conceivable. She then becomes a kind of mother figure for the dwarfs, telling them to wash their hands and cooking for them, while they act like children. On the other hand, they all seem to have a crush on her (throughout the movie they ache to get a kiss from her, it's cutified horniness to the max) and are there to protect her. That is a strange mix of a mother-child- and a romantic-sexual relationship that sets certain rules how women and men are only able to deal with each other.

The queen meanwhile turns herself into an old, witch-like woman, again proving Grumpy’s assertion of women you can’t trust because of their evil agendas right once again. And in Snow White’s reaction the other side of the stereotype is maintained too. The old woman is so obviously evil that it hurts and all the animals try to warn Snow White. But she is so dim-witted that she gets angry at the animals and trusts the sinister old lady because (wait for that punchline!) she offers her the secret of the right pie for men! The evil woman tricks the stupid woman with her willingness to please men. Spot on, Grumpy! Oh, and of course this only happens because the men have left her alone and she can’t think for herself.

Snow White eats the poisoned apple because she is caught in the contradictions of the culture she grew up in. She thinks if she eats the apple, she will be with her dream man. On the one hand, this is exactly what she is supposed to want as her role as a woman dictates that she has to wait for the right one to take her. But on the other hand this desire is punished as she basically dies for it. In her mind, she has no right choice to make. Denying the apple would mean denying her predetermined role in this culture, which is impossible to imagine, so she rather dies than developing an independent thought. Neither the good guys (the dwarfs) nor the villain (the stepmother) encourage her to do anything else but to wait to be married. She does exactly what she is supposed to do and is punished for it. It is a typical absurd logic in fairy tales that puts obedience over reason at all time.

The evil queen then is punished with all the cruelty we have seen her force upon others, justifying it even more for the viewer. She is hit by lightning, falls off a cliff, is hit a big rock and then eaten by vultures. Again, death is the only option here, there is no room for redemption or reflection. These birds, by the way, fall into the good and bad animal paradigm by being portrayed as evil and ugly because they are scavengers, as if this behavior is worth less than that of other animals. We will see that vilification of certain animals again and again in Disney movies.

The movie ends inevitably with Snow White being rescued by the prince. She is saved with a kiss and stretches out her arms to him, giving in to him completely, fulfilling her passive destiny as an object to the very end. As it is common in fairy tales, there is no alternative here, no getting to know each other, she is married away without question. The movie ends with the ultimate happy ending, a vision-like image of a castle in the sky where she will spend the rest of her life.

So, what do kids learn from this movie? Women are either evil and dangerous or stupid and helpless, you cannot escape the working class and should be happy for it, cute animals are good, ugly animals are bad and a shiny surface is more important than the cruelty hidden underneath.

Next time: Pinocchio