Friday, April 13, 2012

The Evolution of Snow White

One of the newest trends we’re seeing in speculative fiction is the revisiting of fairy tales, especially in a modern setting - they’re almost a unique sub-genre of the Urban Fantasy and Fantasy genres.

And, in many ways, this is very important to do as fairy tales are some of the very first stories many of us are exposed to as children. Unfortunately, they’re also very old stories - and contain a lot of very old and sadly prevalent tropes that have stayed with us over the years. Generations of children have grown up with stories of helpless princesses, passively waiting for a handsome (and anonymous - after all, any man will do if he’s in the right place at the right time) prince to save them from abject peril. There is no question that this iconic image - repeated over and over again in fairy tales, has had a profound effect on our culture, our society and our view of gender roles and there have been numerous excellent posts deconstructing the damaging messages of fairy tales.

There is no fairy tale that can be considered more centre stage than Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An ancient tale, it rose to prominence when it became Disney’s first full length animated movie and was forever cemented front and centre as not just a fairy tale - but THE fairy tale. The ultimate tale of the protagonist - poor, helpless, sweet and oh-so-fair Snow White is attacked by her evil stepmother, while she helplessly sings to wildlife and eventually resides in a glass coffin to be rescued.

This is clearly an image that needs challenging - and, appropriately, Snow White is front and centre of the fairy tales that are being revised for the modern world. Between Once Upon A Time, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman, we see a very different princess. The modern Snow White does not lay in glass coffins awaiting rescue. Her reaction is to attack, not to run away in fright, or maybe sing a little ditty to bluebirds. The modern Snow White kicks arse, she wields a sword, actively hunts down the Evil Queen and she stands shoulder to shoulder with her Prince Charming. One of the things that we love most about Once Upon a Time is that, while Mary Margaret may be the soggiest lettuce in town, Snow White is a highwaywoman, a fighter and a swashbuckler, every bit Prince James’s equal. Snow White is no longer a prize to be claimed, no longer an object to be won and no longer a passive element in what is supposed to be her own story. And if she needs rescuing, she is quite capable of rescuing herself, thank you very much.

This is both so very needed and very empowering. It’s powerful to not only create new stories that empower marginalised bodies, but re-examine these old tropes and challenge them in a way that not only sets a new paradigm but highlights how wrong the old paradigm was.

The problem, of course, is that strong woman still means straight, able bodied, cisgendered and White. Snow White may not necessarily be waiting in her coffin for true loves first kiss, but we do know that there will be a love interest and it will most certainly involve a man.

We always expect fairy tales to be 100% straight simply because they are seen as children’s stories (and pervasive bigotry holds that any GBLT inclusion is both sexual and obscene) and because they are often seen as historical (and, for some bemusing reason, there’s a stubborn idea that all GBLT people arrived from space in the 1970s or 80s) so any GBLT inclusion in this genre is always an uphill struggle. But nearly all fairy tales - and certainly most of the ones popularised by Disney - revolve around a romance. The Princess will meet her Prince and then there will be Happily Ever After. This story is repeated so often that it is written in stone - Happily Ever After with One Man and One Woman - and this is inviolate. Snow White could never look for another Princess. Prince Charming could never rescue Prince Down-Right-Sexy. It’s pounded home over and over again - True Love Conquers All, man/woman, happily ever after: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Princess and the Frog, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Disney’s Aladdin, Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid - need I go on? Our childhoods are wallpapered with incessant images of straight love.

But how dangerous is this? Particularly for small children these are the books about love. These are the romance stories, this is what love is supposed to be and what we’re all supposed to want and dream about. This is the ONLY form love can take and the ONLY form of love children get to see. And if that love doesn’t fit them? Well, there’s no story for them. Deviation from what we have come to view as the norm is only allowed within very small parameters.

Unlike the Disney version where Black is seen as negative through the clothing choices of the evil queen, modern incarnations of Snow White do have characters of colour.  These characters are always secondary and work to serve either the protagonist or the antagonist.  Their characters normally can be erased from the film or television show in question without being missed, making it appear as though the choice to include a person of colour was based in a hope to forestall critique based in a lack of racial inclusion.  The perfect example of this is the magic mirror in Once Upon A Time, who lives to follow the orders of Regina the evil queen. The actress who plays Regina is Latina, but nothing about the character of Regina reads anything other than White. Even taking her as Latina, when we then consider that Snow White is meant to represent the epitome of White female beauty and that she is battling a woman of colour to see who is the fairest in the land, definitely there is a problem. It suggests that no matter how conniving a woman of colour is that she will always and forever be second because she can never attain the true beauty of a White woman.

It is no accident that as the population demographics change that there has been a return to Snow White.  No matter the text, there are constant references to her pale skin and dark flowing hair.  Snow White is exclusionary from start to finish, no matter how many side characters of colour are included, simply because the role could never ever be played by a woman of colour.  If the desire behind it were to actually revisit folklore, there are plenty from cultures of colour that would make fascinating stories. The fact that these stories have been ignored to once again focus on a narrative that is exclusionary tells me that this is about upholding Whiteness as a standard for what is good and pure in this world.

A passive Snow White was always able bodied but this new active Snow White at times appears to hyper able. She fights using weapons and moves like an action hero that Jean Claude Van Dam could steal moves from. A disabled Snow White is far from the imagination because outside of very few examples in literature, disabled people aren’t considered beautiful, attractive or sexual. Disability is covered in Snow White by the dwarfs who all worship her without question. Having 12 men of short stature who have no real purpose but to uplift the hyper able Snow White hardly counts as good representation.

This is a problem that continually dogs fairy tales as a genre as a whole. While many are hailing the break from tradition that would require Snow White to be helpless and in need of rescue, those same voices scoff at the idea of tradition being “violated” to include marginalised bodies. There are few genres that are more erased than fairy tales. In fact, I’m tired of exclusion being assumed with fairy tales - if someone shows me a new fairy tale series or film or book I know it’s going to be totally straight and 99% white before I even look at it - often being excused through either a medieval setting and the fact that they’re aimed at children who are somehow unable to understand diversity.

But this latter, in particular, is why fairy tales need to be the most inclusive of genres. These are books consumed by children trying to discover the world, trying to absorb messages about the world and trying to see where they fit into the world. It seems silly to say, but marginalised people are children too - and just as women in general are hurt and demeaned by endless representations of the pervasive passive princess; so too are marginalised bodies by being told that they don’t belong at all - whether an active force to participate in the story or even someone worthy of rescue and questing for.

We do love how Snow White has evolved, and these were important, vital changes to her character and the pervasive passive princesses that has so glutted the genre and our culture.This needs praising, this needed to happen and we can find little fault with this. But we can’t take one advance in this one direction and declare victory. If we’re going to reinterpret these ancient stories and make them more inclusive, more representative and sending more positive messages then, great - let’s do that, but let’s do that universally. If we’re going to revisit these stories to remove some of the problematic elements, if we’re going to address some of those damaging tropes and we’re going to send a counter message - then let’s do that - but let’s do all of that for all of those damaging messages.

We say again, because it has to be repeated, these are the stories of childhood, these are the stories that shape the minds of children - and these are the stories that have damaged children and their ideas of where they fit in the world. If we want to do better by our children then we should do better by all of them.