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THE HORRORS OF HOUSEKEEPING:
A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS OF THE GRIMM FAIRY TALE AND
WALT DISNEY'S SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

I’m a perfectionist. As far back as I can remember I’ve always been neat, tidy, and organized. Since the age of five I’ve made my bed every morning and folded my own laundry. While other kids were racing their bikes, I was rearranging my desk drawers and wrestling with furniture in a pre-school, Feng Shui trance. Even now, at the age of thirty, I make sure all my appliances are turned off before I leave my house. I shudder to see creases in my bedspread, and I’ve been known to drive down the street after locking my front door, only to return ten minutes later and rattle the doorknob another five times. All the hangars in my closet must face the right direction, books are pushed back against the shelves, tallest to shortest, and my DVD collection is alphabetized.

I crave structure. I crave order. In my mind, life has a clear and definite path, whether it is school, family, or a personal relationship. When conversations go astray, when plans develop kinks, I become anxious and nervous, choking on panic like a dog on small bones. I need constancy. I need stability. And perhaps this is why I’ve always loved Walt Disney films, those vibrant fairy tales that pulse with clear distinctions between good and evil, characters that act according to their designated social standings, and endings that celebrate eternal happiness for fortunate souls who work hard and embrace positive values. As a child, Disney films comforted me with their predictable formula. There was never any doubt that Cinderella would go to the ball; there was never any doubt that Dumbo would earn the respect he deserved. Good always triumphed over evil, and every ending radiated with consumer glee and happiness. Disney films filled my childhood with Technicolor dreams, and I smiled as realism succumbed to romance in the wake of catchy songs and never-ending rainbows.

In the spectrum of Walt Disney characters, I’ve always admired Snow White. It’s not her ravishing beauty, or her ability to charm the animals. It’s not her undying patience with the seven dwarfs or her porn-star voice that crackles with girlish innocence. What I’ve loved about Snow White is her dedication to housework, and her compulsive need for organization! No matter how many times I watched Disney’s version of the classic fairy-tale, she ignited my passion for order when she waltzed into the dwarfs’ house, set her hands on her hips, and proceeded to sweep the floor, wash the clothes, dust the cobwebs, and cook a full course dinner. She acted with a purpose, and I respected that. Plus, she performed her work with such style and zeal, especially after escaping from a murderous hunter and fleeing for her life through a dark and menacing forest.

Recently, however, after rewatching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I realize how misogynistic the film is when compared to the original story. That necessity for organization, which I always admired, now seems more of a feminine requirement than a fully realized attempt to create order in the world. The original fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm is a battle between good and evil, peppered with morals; it concerns the theme of female jealousy, specifically an older woman’s vicious jealousy toward the youth and beauty of a younger one. The original fairy tale is a woman’s story that reflects female fears, the major one being that a woman’s worth is based on her beauty and appearance.

The 1937 film, however, is a thinly-disguised promo that advertises women as “the angel in the house.” Walt Disney transformed a timeless fairy tale about jealousy and innocence into an animated love story in which the male gender is yet again superior and dominant over the female gender. Disney has refocused the story to revolve around Snow White’s womanhood and her yearning for Prince Charming, the man of her dreams. This approach departs from traditional fairy tales, which, as Iona and Peter Opie state in their introduction to The Classic Fairy Tales, “are more concerned with situation than with character.” In a traditional fairy tale the time period is irrelevant, characters are often flat and one-dimensional, and endings are often unhappy. Such fairy tales often contain excessive violence, an impending sense of gloom, and continual suspense. Indeed, after reading many traditional fairy tales, especially those by the Brothers Grimm, we can see a thread of Gothicism that contributes to the tales’ gruesome actions and somber atmosphere.

As regards the story of Snow White, both mediums (the original fairy tale and the film version) employ the gothic to emphasize their morals. In examining the two mediums, especially Disney’s film, we must consider the relationship between gender and the gothic. The typical gothic situation involves the pursuit of innocence, usually in a romanticized female form, by evil, usually represented by an evil male who hides in his phallocentric castle and excels at sexual harassment. In the gothic novel, female innocence typically wins out over male dominance. Male villains in gothic fiction do not usually respect the woman, which illustrates the point of view that many women often expressed, especially those trapped within a male-dominated audience and culture during the Romantic era when the gothic novel flourished. For women, the gothic novel reinforced their submissive role in society, but it also liberated them from such roles by creating feminine heroes who triumphed over their male oppressors. Obviously, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs differs from many gothic stories in that Snow White is not being threatened by a man, but by a woman, namely her evil stepmother.

In the 1937 Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the gothic is not just being used to express women’s sense of imprisonment. While the original story of Snow White is often ambivalent to gender, and uses the gothic simply to illustrate the macabre results that often accompany evil deeds, the Disney film employs a domesticated, didactic gothic that designates boundaries where women are safe and unsafe, where they are placed into feminine roles. The film begins with a gothic atmosphere in which the queen consults her magic mirror. The mirror represents the inner voice of the narcissistic queen, a woman who treasures attractiveness like an Avon consultant. Yet the mirror also represents the voice of society, a population consumed by beauty and perfection, and it is no mistake that the mirror’s voice is masculine. This scene is steeped in blacks and reds, emphasizing the queen’s villainy and malicious intents. Even the queen herself appears gothic, sporting well-curved eyebrows, a gaunt face, and high cheekbones. Brenda Ayers believes the queen seems wicked because “she is not part of a family enclosure; and her own house, a castle full of skeletons, spider webs, and rats, represents a home deprived of domesticity.” After the queen learns she’s lost her title as the fairest woman in the land, the film then cuts away to reveal the viewer’s first glimpse of Snow White, a young child who hums and sings while she performs menial labor. The colors in this scene are bright and vibrant, a collection of whites, yellows and greens. In contrast to the queen, Snow White has rosy cheeks and a round face; she appears virginal and doll-like. As she scrubs the castle steps and fetches water from a well, the camera cuts to multiple close-ups of her beaming face, thus implying that not only do women love to perform such mundane household functions, but also that to dress in tatty rags and haul heavy buckets under a hot sun is pure domestic bliss.

Any child who watches Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will understand that the first two scenes are complete opposites. One involves an evil queen fuming in a dark and gloomy part of the castle; the other involves a beautiful girl who sings and smiles while working outside in the dazzling sun. This dichotomy prepares viewers for the film’s gothic elements and also relays an important message: women are happiest while working in a domestic element. As the scene suggests, the bright colors create a sense of relaxation and contentment, a sense of safety. The gothic elements, however, represent those distant lands and opportunities that women should not cross; Disney’s message is that the unknown harbors countless dangers, and also that women would do well not to stray too far on their own, away from security and masculine protection. In Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the gothic thus becomes a hindrance to a woman’s happiness and familial obligations.

Looking into the well, Snow White sings, “I’m wishing for the one I love to find me today.” Suddenly, Prince Charming appears, suggesting to children that not only can wishes come true, but only the male gender can supply them. As Snow White listens to the Prince sing his deepest affections for her, a flight of doves congregate on her body and fly into the air as though participants at a mock wedding. These doves symbolize peace and love, and when one of them lands on Prince Charming’s hand, it blushes coyly at his chivalric stance and musical talent. This connection between the Prince and the dove suggests that nature also has a plan for Snow White; not only does society expect her to marry the Prince and remain a faithful and obedient wife, but nature does, as well, thus illustrating that a woman’s place in society is not only cultural, but intrinsic and habitual. Naomi Wood reflects on this mix of humor and social values, writing, “On a psychological level I believe that Disney’s popularity is in part based on the way his movies explore the dynamic between controlled domestic moralism on the one hand and chaotic ‘gags,’ ‘sexual perversity,’ and polymorphous perversity on the other.” The cooing doves add romance and purity to the burgeoning love story, yet a subliminal message hints that every woman needs to be saved. Should the viewer assume that in order for Snow White to have a happy future she needs to make a wish?

There are many elements of magic in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but their main role is to foster the love story that Disney suggests is so important to the creation of the standard American family, which, in 1937, required the submissive wife to stay home and clean while the knowledgeable husband dashed off to work like a gallant knight. Folklorist Kay Stone believes that Disney “Americanizes” fairy tales “by making the heroines and heroes more interesting, adding humor, subtracting magic, and downplaying royalty.” This “Americanization” of the original tale, as Stone suggests, also implies that women need a man to fulfill their happiness, and that man alone can supply the magic and romance that so many women desire. This idea promotes the male gender to a higher position of power and awe, one that also implies dominance. That Snow White resembles a doll also adheres to the film’s presentation of her as an object who must constantly acquiesce to masculine desires.

The original bestselling fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm is quite short. The text announces Snow White’s birth, her evil stepmother entering her life, and the importance of the magic mirror in just a few short paragraphs. These are situations that set up the story’s themes of innocence and jealousy. The characters themselves do not develop and grow in the traditional narrative sense; they are mere caricatures, representative of the same emotions that reside in all human beings. Also, in the fairy tale, the queen orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and then return with her lung and liver. Anticipating Hannibal Lector by at least one hundred years, the queen salts the organs and devours them. The tale’s focus on the lung and liver corresponds with the scientific trend at that point in history, during which many scientists believed that while the lungs supplied the body’s necessary breaths, the liver was the principal organ of the human body and developed first among all organs. At that time, many scientists believed it was the liver, and not the heart, where blood was formed, and thus the liver was the center of the body’s circulation. By eating the lung and liver of Snow White, the queen symbolically ingests the girl’s life while also triumphing as the dominant woman, all so she can simply cancel out the serious threat to her beauty and happiness that Snow White unknowingly represents.

In the Disney film, however, the queen requests Snow White’s heart instead of her lung and liver. This change makes sense when we consider that Walt Disney wished to create a love story and focus the film’s attention on domesticity. That the queen is unable to have Snow White’s heart fits better in the film because her heart is only meant for Prince Charming. The queen, surrounded in her dungeon by spiders and cobwebs, and ensconced in perpetual gloom, does not deserve a man’s heart or his love. Here, the film suggests that women who deprive themselves of a domestic lifestyle will find themselves unable to develop and sustain loving relationships. Like the queen, they will spend their days angry and lonely, banished from all the familial responsibilities and household chores that Walt Disney implies so many women should yearn for as children. We must also remember the ancient belief that eating the heart of an enemy makes a person stronger. Clearly, the queen wishes to gain Snow White’s energy and beauty, as well as the constant adoration Snow White receives from her many admirers. It is this jealousy that drives Snow White from her bubble of domestic bliss and into the unknown gothic that symbolizes not only her independence, but also her much-needed adolescence.

Reflecting on the film, I have to question whether my interest in Snow White lies in my own private yearning for a fairy tale romance. Certainly, some might label me a misogynist, their claim being that because I admire Snow White I must therefore desire a woman who lives in the kitchen and treats me like a monarch. But the honest truth is that I see myself in Snow White, not simply as the compulsive organizer who cleans house, but as someone who craves a perfect future. It is important to remember that readers do not always identify with characters along gender lines. Also, I understand Snow White’s emotions when she stands over the well and wishes for the man of her dreams. Every day I bask in famous love scenes: the tragedy of Gone with the Wind and the ache of Love Story, the sacrifice of Casablanca, the fatalism of Romeo and Juliet. I realize that Disney films are part of the “manufactured dreams” of classic Hollywood cinema. I am a junkie for such manufactured dreams, coveting scenes where kisses land squarely and words connect in symmetrical meaning. These are snapshots of a life bursting with impracticalities, numbing the ache of realism. Challenged by passion, like my friend Snow White, I constantly duel with perfection. Like Snow White, I remain out in the open, avoiding the gloomy woods whenever possible.

Like me, Snow White flees the gothic because she believes it will not nurture her dreams. In Disney’s film, her dream is to shun independence and embrace marriage, thus her desire for order and security cancels out any feelings of female autonomy. I recognize that problem, and I understand how we can become trapped in such a situation. The unknown can be frightening because it often represents change. To embark on a journey alone, whether it is physical or emotional, requires courage and dedication. For a girl like Snow White, who spends her days in a safe and secure world, aimlessly performing chores, the idea of maturity can seem hostile and unattractive. The gothic represents a world where Snow White would have to think for herself, and Disney makes it clear that women straying into such territory is detrimental to both women and society as a whole. While both the story and the film illustrate a fundamental need to escape the gothic, the film version links it to domestic stability, whereas the fairy tale illuminates aspects of the human condition, mainly jealousy and wrath.

Snow White does not realize the gothic is a gateway to independence; to suffer is to learn, and Snow White must therefore suffer before she can escape the comfort and security to which she clings mindlessly. According to modern psychology, and also alluded to in the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, Snow White must rely on herself and assert her independence if she hopes for a bright future. Basically, she must find the courage to leave all that is familiar so she can experience her adolescence, which all children require before they can move into adulthood. Alas, Disney never allows Snow White the chance to taste such independence, surrounding her instead with small mammals and dwarfs who desperately need motherly affection. As Brenda Ayers states, “That Disney mirrors a Victorian tale is to say that Disney also perpetuates a nineteenth-century notion of domestic ideology: Women are to be submissive, self-denying, modest, childlike, innocent, industrious, maternal, and angelic – all traits that perfectly describe Snow White.” Thus, at the end of the film, Snow White remains an innocent doll, simply transferring owners from the queen to Prince Charming. It should also be noted that throughout the entire film, Snow White remains trapped within the confines of domesticity, moving from one enclosure to another, from the castle to a house and finally to a glass coffin. There she rests, suspended in childhood animation until Prince Charming eventually claims her and returns her to yet another castle where she will no doubt rejoice among piles of dirty laundry and stone floors in desperate need of scrubbing. Adolescent passion has now been molded into domestic submission.

In the original tale, Snow White exudes passion when she begs the huntsman to spare her life. She begs not only for her life, but for the chance to create a stable future. In the film, though, the huntsman, weakened by her innocence, takes pity on Snow White and commands her to run away and never return. In the fairy tale, Snow White’s begging not only represents a desire to live, but it also suggests she is capable of thinking for herself and forming rational decisions. In the film, however, Disney implies that the huntsman abandons his murderous act because Snow White is a poor, defenseless woman. By taking away the scene where she thinks for herself, Disney further objectifies Snow White. This decision allows the viewer to better understand why she becomes horrified in the dark forest and must then begin a new life in a brightly-colored domestic setting where, once again, she feels comfortable performing household chores.

Snow White’s frenzied run through the forest is one of the film’s highlights, as it clearly emphasizes that she is confused, alone, and scared when faced with the possibility of independence. The forest in which Snow White finds herself is a staple of Gothicism with its dense woods and claustrophobic atmosphere. In his text Gothic, Fred Botting emphasizes the effect that darkness often has on an individual: “Shadows marked the limits necessary to the constitution of an enlightened world. Darkness, metaphorically, threatened the light of reason with what it did not know. Gloom cast perceptions of formal order and unified design into obscurity; its uncertainty generated both a sense of mystery and passions and emotions alien to reason.”

The dark forest stifles Snow White because it is unfamiliar and represents the leap into adolescence she so desperately needs to make. To accentuate the gothic, Disney imbues the scene with black and dark blue colors; shapes are difficult to discern, and this uncertainty creates in the viewer the same sense of panic and paranoia that exists in Snow White. The forest, with its tall trees and dark colors, is masculine; nature there is hostile, as trees and bushes grasp violently at her clothes, angered at her trespassing into a territory that Disney suggests is not meant for the female gender. Furthermore, Snow White’s bright yellow outfit contrasts with the gothic forest, thus illustrating, yet again, that she is out of place and not meant for independence. Disney’s message is that Snow White is safe and happy so long as she remains childlike and embedded in a domestic setting. She can be associated with nature so long as that association is feminine, clearly marked by her maternal instincts towards the stampede of animals that follow her around like toilet paper stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

Snow White’s submissive need for domesticity continues throughout the film, especially after her flight through the dark forest. Sad and anxious, panicked and lost, the most obvious remedy is to arrive at the dwarfs’ house and indulge in some spring cleaning. Upon seeing the house she remarks, “It’s so adorable! Just like a doll’s house!” Again, Disney links the objectivity of women with quaint domestic settings in which the birds sing and the sun shines. No sooner does Snow White open the door and step inside than she has a broom in one hand and a sponge in the other. Walt Disney presents this cleaning spree as instinctual, an obsession that women must fulfill; indeed, the housekeeping calms Snow White, and she soon forgets her dangerous romp through the forest.

In the fairy tale, however, Snow White makes an agreement to cook and clean for the dwarfs in exchange for her room and board. The dwarfs don’t want a vagrant, and they know a bargain when they see one; they’re smart and intelligent, not the comic sidekicks that exist in the film version for eye candy and humor. In Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Snow White chooses to cook and clean; it is in her nature, and she cannot suppress this desire. Also, in the film version the dwarfs are symbolic of children, and Snow White becomes the mother figure able to unleash her maternal instincts, as seen when she refers to them as “seven untidy children.”

Though still in the dark forest, stranded far away from home, she can now cope with her trauma because she is once again immersed in a domestic environment. She is safe inside a house performing motherly duties. Her kissing the dwarfs on their way to work echoes the dutiful and obedient mother who kisses her children before they head off to school in the morning. This motherly attitude stems partly from Disney’s naming of the seven dwarfs. In the fairy tale they remain nameless, but in the film version they possess such creative names as Sleepy and Sneezy. Bruno Bettelheim argues against this textual change: “Giving each dwarf a separate name and a distinctive personality seriously interferes with the unconscious understanding that they symbolize an immature pre-individual form of existence which Snow White must transcend. Such ill-considered additions to fairy tales, which seemingly increase the human interest, actually are apt to destroy it because they make it difficult to grasp the story’s deeper meaning correctly.”

By presenting the dwarfs as children who cannot take care of themselves, Disney emphasizes the film’s issue of domesticity and implies that, for women, submissiveness and menial chores are an inescapable part of their lives. In the film version, the dwarfs become clowns whose constant care hinders Snow White’s blossoming intellect and ability to think for herself. By creating seven dwarfs who are fun, lovable, and extremely child-like, Disney suggests that they provide a happy and safe alternative to the gothic woods, thus reinforcing the message that women should remain home with their children and tend house.

In the fairy tale, however, the dwarfs continually chide Snow White for falling prey to the queen’s plots. They warn her of impending danger, and they must constantly save her from death. They understand she is a child, and they attempt to supply the necessary adult supervision that will allow her to make intelligent decisions and mature. In the fairy tale, they do not exist as mere comic relief. Rather, they act as moral and intellectual guides, trying to help Snow White develop so she can escape the fate that ultimately awaits her.

In contrast to the Grimm’s fairy tale, Disney implies that the need for independence and autonomy stalks women continuously, as illustrated when the wicked queen, herself symbolic of the gothic, discovers Snow White is alive and plots her murder. That the queen poisons a gorgeous red apple is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. Just as Eve was tempted by the tantalizing fruit, so is Snow White entranced by the luscious apple. The apple represents nature, the serenity and tranquility that often accompany domestic bliss. Or at least Snow White believes it does; with its gothic spell, the apple also seems to represent the sexuality of adolescence, which, according to the film, is exactly what Snow White should not possess. She is so innocent, however, that she does not recognize her need for such maturity. Because Snow White is associated with nature, though, the queen knows Snow White will find the apple difficult to resist. The apple, however, has been steeped in Gothicism, and Disney illustrates this when the queen casts her magic spell and a skeletal image covers the apple. Thus, it is not the apple itself, but rather the gothic spell encasing the apple, that places Snow White in her deathlike trance.

Clearly, the queen wishes to lure Snow White away from her domestic environment, one without which the young girl cannot survive. Although we cannot fault Snow White for falling prey to the lure of the apple, we can fault the girl for not sensing danger when the old beggar women, a grotesque woman with warts and stringy hair, appears at the window and interrupts Snow White’s daily chores. The hag’s arrival in the forest is as strange and out of place as a leper competing in a fashion show. Clearly, this is an example of the gothic invading the domestic household, yet Snow White does not realize it because she has never been given the opportunity to develop those rational thinking skills that might have allowed her to make those crucial connections. The scene’s climax, in which Snow White bites into the apple and collapses on the floor, seems to warn women that such independence can kill their lifestyle; Disney implies that women should be careful who they trust, lest they be corrupted by the need to break away from the nuclear family.

At the end of the fairy tale, the queen attends Snow White’s wedding and dies at the celebration when she’s forced to don a pair of hot iron shoes and dance. Certainly, such an ending is gruesome, but it is also well deserved and enhances the moral that evil acts breed evil consequences. The film version kills the queen by having her fall off a cliff in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. This gothic atmosphere, with its claps of thunder and peals of lightning, further enforces the idea that women should steer clear of independence. The queen herself is killed when lightning shatters the cliff. She plummets to her death, only to be crushed by a massive boulder. Here, Disney shows that Gothicism, hence freedom and self-determination, is deadly to all women.

Yet the viewer may wonder why such a death even occurs if the queen herself symbolizes the gothic. We can only assume that by leaving her own safe environment, albeit a dark and gloomy one, the queen places herself at the mercy of those very same forces that drive Snow White through the forest and deliver her into the dwarfs’ house. Just as Snow White should have remained alone in the household, so should the queen have remained alone in her gothic castle. The death of the queen could also indicate the defeat of the “dangerous” freedom that the gothic symbolizes. In either case, however, the scene conveys that not only should women remain in their comfort zones, but also that women should be mindful of each other, as there clearly exists a battle for domestic space and masculine attention.

To further the love story, Walt Disney has Snow White awaken when the Prince kisses her, whereas in the story she awakens when her glass coffin is moved and the apple falls from her lips. This change in the story emphasizes the film’s domesticity by suggesting that a woman can only be saved by a man, thus implying that men have power over women. Disney again stresses this idea at the end of the film when Prince Charming places Snow White on his horse and leads her away. He does not ride on the horse with her, rather he leads both her and the horse, thus accentuating the idea that, like the horse, Snow White is now merely a piece of property. As a result, the viewer perceives her as more of an object than as an individual woman, a doll to be shut in a glass case and constantly admired.

I can empathize with Snow White. I understand her need for compulsive cleaning, the obsession that drives her to organize her life, and the overwhelming desire to wish for a future bursting with bright lights and never-ending smiles. But I also understand that her plight is gender-based, as well as psychological. It’s taken me years to realize that Snow White doesn’t have a choice. She might be obsessive, and she might be compulsive, but she doesn’t know why. The gothic beckons to her, waiting in the shadows with a pencil and a notepad to offer her some much-needed therapy; it wants to help guide her toward some semblance of freedom and independence. In his film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney molds the gothic, much like the female gender, into socially acceptable stigmas that clearly delineate a woman’s place in society, and then he illustrates the dangers inherent in trying to break free from those boundaries. Although Snow White cannot be saved, her animated plight has taught me that an obsessive desire for order may not always produce happiness, nor may the days flow by effortlessly as though adhering to a written text.

Sometimes it is best to wander into the woods.

March 2007

From guest contributor Michael Howarth

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