ONTD Political

Snow job that's the unfairest of them all

9:21 am - 04/19/2012
Fairytales are forever. Last week, we saw the release of the first of two Snow White movies this year. Mirror Mirror stars Lily Collins and Julia Roberts as Snow White and the evil Queen, and in June, Snow White and the Huntsman will revive the story yet again.

Disney would tell us that this tale is as old as time. In fact, this year marks the 200th anniversary of its first publication. In 1812, the Brothers Grimm published Children's and Household Tales, a collection of stories that included Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White.

Two centuries later, much of the English speaking world grows up hearing the stories Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm compiled. The ubiquity of fairytales raises concerns for some parents, especially parents of girls. Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, was dismayed to find her little girl's fixation on princesses, particularly the Disney princess clique, was part of a larger trend towards ''princess culture''.

But the corner of popular culture where fairytales are the most influential and sometimes the most harmful is the contemporary romantic comedy. Romantic comedies are, in fact, grown-up fairytales, complete with Cinderella transformations and hideous beasts who are revealed to be handsome princes.

Without Cinderella, for example, there would be no Sabrina, and - heaven forfend! - no Pretty Woman. When I say fairytales are forever, I mean that, as adults, viewers relate to and understand romantic comedies because of the foundations laid by fairytales. When it comes to shaping our ideas about love and romance, rom-coms simply pick up where fairytales left off. These early lessons shape us, and stick with us: if you've heard Cinderella as a child, you're far more likely to ''get'' Pretty Woman as an adult.

As for Snow White, the trope of the jealous older woman who makes life hell for the beautiful young heroine shows up again and again. Think about the beloved modern classic Working Girl: Sigourney Weaver is the evil Queen with a corner office instead of a castle, and Melanie Griffith is Snow White in a suit jacket. Or what about Monster-in-Law, the 2005 Jennifer Lopez vehicle that casts feminist icon Jane Fonda as the passive-aggressive, meddling modern-day monarch?

At the end of Snow White, the Queen gets her comeuppance, and Snow White lands the man (well, ''lands'' is a generous interpretation: she lies there comatose until he comes along and kisses her back to consciousness). Despite this happy heterosexual ending, though, the core lesson of the Snow White narrative is actually one about relationships between women.

The Queen is obsessed with being fair because she is vain, sure, but also because she wants to remain relevant and powerful. The world of the Grimms valued a woman's beauty just as much as our world does, and it's no surprise the Queen turns evil and homicidal in her quest to remain the fairest of them all. Snow White is a story about what happens when we tie a woman's worth to her physical appearance: we toss ageing women aside and encourage all women to cut each other down.

In the Snow White narrative, the more physically beautiful woman always wins. She is rewarded for being beautiful as well as for being pure of heart: she'd never stoop to a poison apple and she just wants to live - if that means sharing a house with seven dudes, she'll do it!

But what often gets overlooked about the Snow White narrative is the vitriol levelled at women who try to be, or remain, beautiful. Think of the scorn we heap on women who ''try too hard'', who wear ''too much'' make-up, or who have visibly ''had work done''. Instead of criticising a system that pits woman against woman, teaching us as children that to be relevant we must be the fairest of them all, we mock the individual woman. It's a brutal double-bind: you will be rewarded for being beautiful, but you will be punished for trying to be beautiful.

For another example, look at Beauty and the Beast. The moral of the story, we tell children, is that looks can be deceiving. A man who is outwardly ugly might be a handsome prince in disguise, and the power of requited love will melt his hideous exterior to reveal the true self within.

But in its romantic comedy incarnations, the moral gets twisted. In popular contemporary rom-coms such as The Ugly Truth, As Good As It Gets, You've Got Mail, we stop teaching girls to look beyond beastly appearance and start teaching women to look beyond beastly behaviour.

Scholars of the romantic comedy call this kind of story a ''cold-hearted redemption plot''. Many of the stories we tell ourselves, as a culture, perpetuate this idea that if a man treats you badly, the correct course of action is to stick around, love him, and wait for the power of your love to change him.

But some of the things men in romantic comedy cold-hearted redemption plots do are downright awful. At worst, they come dangerously close to abusive behaviour.

Study after study has found that the media we consume shape the way we think about the world around us. So it's time we took a good hard look at how the stories we tell ourselves as a culture, from fairytales to ''chick flicks'' are shaping our attitudes about love and gender.

When it comes to romantic comedies, fairytales needn't be forever. We need new narratives that don't trap women and men in outdated roles and that provide a less 17th-century vision of a woman's worth. It's 2012, not 1812, and it's time to stop telling ourselves the same old story.

Chloe Angyal is an Australian writer based in New York. She is writing a book about romantic comedies.

ivysaur 19th-Apr-2012 09:50 am (UTC)
Thanks! I actually did read this version, but while I was aware that Snow White's age was mentioned to be 7, I always assumed that there was a timeskip after the dwarves took her in (probably because of a non-Disney adaptation in which she was a little kid in the first half of the movie, and a teenager after the timeskip), but now I realize that there probably is no timeskip, and she's 7 the whole time. O_o
quizzicalsphinx 19th-Apr-2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
In the Disney version, she's supposed to be fourteen (I don't know if this was explicitly mentioned in the film but it's part of the literature surrounding the Disney version). I don't know if doubling her age/still making it a multiple of seven was done deliberately or if they just wanted to make it less creepy for her to marry a prince who seems to be an adult. Point still stands that she's still really freakin' young. In the original cartoon, she's also pretty flat-chested and slim-hipped, although it's anyone guess if that was just them modeling her on then-current beauty standards (though the flapper look was out by 1937), or if they were deliberately trying to suggest a prepubescent girl. Even in the current Disney Princess line, she still looks less-developed and younger compared to the other princesses, although they gave her a small bust and a more defined waist.

...god help me, I just revealed my observations about Snow White's bra size in public.

lil_insanity 19th-Apr-2012 05:25 pm (UTC)
Hah, I've totally noticed the same things.
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