Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Article: "Passive and Dumb" Heroines?

The New York Post recently printed an article about how Snow White went from being "passive and dumb" in the older interpretations to a girl-power icon in the three recent incarnations of the fairest of them all (Full Article).

I always kind of cringe at the "passive and dumb" interpretation. It is always assumed that Snow White was duped three times by the same woman in disguise, selling a comb, a corset, and then an apple. Fool me once, am I right? No one ever thinks of mitigating factors, like perhaps she was left alone in the house all day, and not allowed to talk to anyone. The other times she is surrounded by men. Maybe she desperately needed someone to talk to. Speculation, yes. Or, she was SEVEN YEARS OLD, and we should cut her some slack. I think perhaps my favorite interpretation comes from the mini-series 10th Kingdom (which I will post separately on later). Snow White tells an incredibly faithful re-telling of her story to Virginia, the heroine, and adds a little bit of the "why" at the end in a way that tugs at my heart every time.

Embedding has been disabled, so here is the link: The 10th Kingdom: Virginia Meets Snow White.

Everyone always rails about the anti-feminist message of fairy tales: Snow White was docile, stupid and domestic, and then looked good dead. Sleeping Beauty was conned into pricking her finger and then was asleep for most of the story. Cinderella cried when she was abused, and had her fairy godmother do everything for her. Very rarely do we talk about the good qualities of these characters, or allow them to have normal human frailties.

Snow White was thrown out of her home at a young age, hunted, managed to convince the huntsman not to kill her, and had to survive in the forest until she found the dwarves. She had to live with the shadow of "going to be murdered" while cooking and cleaning, and being left alone all day.  (And btw, cooking and cleaning, not a bad thing. People always thing those are the sign of the evil patriarchy, but I quite enjoy doing them.) Snow White earned her keep. She learned the value of work, after living her life as a princess. Each time the evil queen came, Snow White grew more clever with how to handle strangers. At first, she doesn't suspect the woman with the ribbons. The woman with the comb, she refuses to let in to the house at first. Finally, she watches the woman with the apples eat a bite of the apple first before she takes a bit. Seems pretty shrewd for a 7 year old.

Sleeping Beauty was naturally curious. She explored the castle, and when confronted with an activity that she did not know, she asked to be taught. A great quality, in my opinion. She just suffered from her parents'mistakes.

Cinderella is the most remarkable of all. She was horribly abused by her stepmother and stepsisters, and yet managed to be true to her kind and good self. An amazing feat. When you are confronted by evil every day, it is hard not to turn evil and bitter to protect yourself. And crying is not a weakness. It is a natural human reaction in the face of despair. When given the opportunity to change her stars, she doesn't hesitate, and grasps it with both hands.

While I love the more active heroines, like the girls from East of the Sun, West of the Moon, Donkeyskin, or Wild Swans, I think we shouldn't discount the more traditional princesses from being positive role models just because they don't swing a sword, or go off adventuring.


  1. *applause* Thank you for pointing these things out. Snow White is a favorite of mine and I admired her at a young age for many of the reasons you said precisely because she was the same age (then younger) than I was. The tale has also been a lifelong reminder to not manifest the undesirable qualities I saw in my own mother too, especially as I watch pretty young things grow up all around me. (Even though I don't remember being told as a child that one of the original versions had the evil queen as her mother, rather than her stepmother, I always thought of her as being blood related.)
    On a slightly related tack - something you said about Cinderella prompted me - I found myself very bothered by Once Upon A Time's portrayal of Snow White losing herself in darkness when love was removed (via forgetting potion). As you mentioned earlier, I think you largely have the choice about such a thing, but the fact that Snow became this horrible person when memory of her true love was taken away? That just says to me she's a horrible person to start with (and that if she and Charming ever have issues down the line - as every marriage is prone to do - they are in serious trouble...). Does all niceness disappear when there is no love to have? No. And thank goodness, otherwise the rate of violence and murder would be a lot higher. :/

    1. I'm glad you liked it!

      I dunno, I think in Snow's case it's not too far of a stretch. Her stepmother had her father murdered, tried to kill her, has been hunting her, and has been oppressing a kingdom that should be rightfully Snow's. Snow has been powerless to stop her, and all she is currently doing is keeping house for dwarves, with no real direction in life. It doesn't seem like too much of a stretch for me that dwelling on this situation would make her resentful and bitter after a while. With Charming, she has a future to think about: finding him, rescuing him, being with him, loving him, getting married, raising a family. She has a focus, a purpose. If she doesn't have Charming, her future is a lifetime of cleaning for dwarves (who are her friends, yes, but that is not enough of a future for a girl with Snow's spirit). If she kills the queen, she regains her throne, saves her kingdom from a tyrant, and has purpose again. It could seem like the easy solution to all her problems. I completely agree that we should never say that a life without love turns you evil, cuz, look at the world, that is not the case. But, psychologically, in Snow's case, I can see it making sense.

      With Cinderella, I think it is a remarkable feat that she can keep up her good nature and not let herself be tainted by bitterness. However, I don't think that those who can't are horrible people. I have been known on occasion to let other people's cruelty towards me make me bitter and cruel back. I think Cinderella has amazing strength, and those who let it get to them are not horrible, but normal and fallible.

      Just my thoughts. What say you?

  2. Honestly, Snow becoming truly bitter I don't understand. She has a live-in support group and day-to-day life may not be palatial but it's good. She even has a best girl-buddy in Red to talk girl things with. She's self sufficient and getting better at it - always an empowering feeling. The absence of Charming (because with the forgetting potion she didn't "lose" him, he was removed from her memory) may create a distant-yet-constant ache, being the 'true love' that he was/is but she was doing fine with all the queen crap before meeting Charming and though she may be different after - despite having no memory of it - her essential nature, especially with such a strong support group, may be changed but not to become mean in that way. I just don't buy it (speaking from personal experience of having had zero support system at one point and being stranded in a different country when it happened). Turning on a bird (or any animal) is an extremely bad thing and it made absolutely that these lifelong friends of Snow were now being treated as vermin. (If you want your audience to hate a character, have him kick a dog - it works every time.) It's also inconsistent with Snow having lost her memory of her love in the real world as Mary Margaret. She's melancholy and tends to avoid rather than confront but she still nurtures those around her: children, students, patients, Emma and yes, a lost pigeon. When her heart was broken in the real world she didn't end up being violent or nasty either, though she is making more bad decisions that good (which makes sense).
    Cinderella, on the other hand, is psychologically beaten down every day in addition to the physical abuse and labor. It's a miracle she isn't jaded at least. (This is Cinderella of the Perrault tale - since Ashley/Cinderella is rather more the complaining sort). It takes a unique individual to keep your "self" intact through that kind of thing. I don't believe anyone comes through such an experience truly unaffected - it just manifests differently in different people. It's a testament to the love given in her early childhood (esp. in the Grimm version) - and being schooled by her godmother (who turned out to conveniently be a fairy at the right moment) in graciousness. That Cinderella had the presence of mind to remember and hold on to that through it all helped her essentially sweet nature prevail (though in the Perrault tale it's clear she also has a strong sense of self and a sense of humor too - both excellent armor!). It's still rather a miraculous story of survival, even when you include a godmother and a fairy intervention.

    Just my two cents. (I guess that would actually now be four cents.. :D )

    1. I do agree that Snow's reaction was a bit extreme. I can't help thinking there was something else in that potion that pushed her in that direction. Rumpelstiltskin works in mysterious ways. Or the show writers don't know how to stick to the rules of their universe. Either way. I just can't give up on Snow yet. I really don't like Emma. Red is my favorite, but she's on the fringes.

      And hellz yes for Cinderella!