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The New Snow White: Kickass, Beautiful and Rotten to the Core

Posted: Jun 07, 2012

You can put the girl in a full battle gear and turn her into Joan of Arc but you cannot change what’s at the core of Snow White.

That core remains as poisonously rotten as the apple that sent her into a coma.

In Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow appears to get a feminist makeover. She doesn’t just sit around tending house for the jolly dwarfs and waiting for some prince to come and rescue her. She actually leads the troops into battle and gets down and dirty in a hand-to-hand combat with the wicked Queen.

In short she becomes Lara Croft. Athletic. Kickass. And beautiful.

But don’t be fooled. In the end the latest reinterpretation of Snow White is anything but radical.

Alonso Duralde sums it up pretty well in TheWrap.com:

It’s no wonder they keep remaking “Snow White,” since it seems like a male Hollywood mogul’s idea of a chick flick: Two women battle over who’s prettier, with the younger, hotter model eventually prevailing over the vain old soul-sucking, husband-killing witch.

It obviously works. The film raced to top spot in the US in its opening weekend mopping up $56.3 million, beating expectations by a hefty $20 million. The new Snow White is being hailed as a “darker” version of the timeless fairy tale, as putting the “grim back into the Brothers Grimm”, as saving the story from being eternally trapped under the enchanted curse of Disney.

But what it really does under its girl-power facade is insidiously reinforce the same old Fair and Lovely stereotypes. Listen up, women. Without beauty you have no power. Younger is good. Fairer is better. Younger and fairer is best. The only thing missing in this catfight between two white women about who is fairer is that ad for the Clean and Dry fairness vagina wash.

By not ending the film with Snow White conveniently paired off with either the Huntsman or her Duke Charming, this film offers the tantalizing prospect of choice, of a happily-ever-after that is not preordained. But that’s just a red herring. Neither the huntsman nor the prince were ever important. (Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it inherently creepy that Snow White’s choice of suitors is limited to two necrophiliacs who kiss her on the lips as she lies in her coffin.) Anyway as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar pointed out in their landmark book The Madwoman in the Attic the story of Snow White has always been about a (step)mother-daughter conflict:

Little Snow White, which Walt Disney entitled “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” should really be called “Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother,” for the central action of the tale — indeed its only real action — arises from the relationship between these two women: the one fair, young, pale, the other just as fair, but older, fiercer; the one a daughter, the other a mother; the one sweet, ignorant, passive, the other both artful and active; the one sort of an angel, the other an undeniable witch.

In essence, we are back to the old Bollywood stereotypes of the virgin in white versus the vamp in black but with an inter-generational sexual battle between the two that would be unthinkable in a Hindi film. And given that we now have a Bollywood where the virgin and the vamp have fused into Katrina Kaif, Snow White feels decidedly more old-fashioned.

As far as the mother-daughter relationship goes, this latest avatar of the Snow White story has nothing very reassuring to tell us. In earlier, truly darker versions of the story, the wicked queen was not a stepmother at all but Snow White’s own mother. The daughter is a threat to the mother’s beauty and therefore must have her heart plucked out. If there’s a lesson to be drawn, it’s what Queen Ravenna realises early on – she should have just killed Snow White when she was a child and not allowed her to grow up and become competition.

Just as it’s silly to pretend that fairy tales are really sunny innocent stories meant to lull children to sleep, it’s equally ludicrous to try and give an 18th century story contemporary resonance for a 21st century audience. But if Snow White and the Huntsman is supposed to be a fable about our culture’s obsession with youth and beauty, the depressing takeaway is this: there is no way to age gracefully.

Snow White does not win just because she is good. She wins because she is so beautiful that even a wicked snarling monster of the woods that is about to chew her and her huntsman up is tamed by her batting eyelashes. There is a rousing climactic battle to signal the final great victory of light (white) over dark but it’s a false ending because the film and the fairy tale never acknowledge the real mischief-maker behind it all – that mirror on the wall.

At the end of her poem Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Anne Sexton dares to suggest what the Brothers Grimm and Rupert Sanders never tell us: the cycle continues.

Meanwhile Snow White held court

rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut

and sometimes referring to her mirror

as women do.

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