As children growing up, my sisters and I adored the Disney films. We must have watched them dozens of times each. I also had an extensive collection of Ladybird books – it’s safe to say that the combination of Disney and Ladybird probably gave me my love of fairytales. Even now, I enjoy reading them and I’m waiting in anticipation for the day I can sit Corliss on my knee and read them to her.
However, as a young girl, I never particularly liked ‘Snow White’ the fairy tale. At the time, I didn’t really know why… I did have a thing about ‘silly children’ – can you imagine what the other kids must have thought of me with comments and phrasing such as that – and Snow White, as a character, did always seem a bit ‘silly’. As an adult, I’m able to examine the story and articulate why I felt that way about her. Having found this 1969 copy in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, it gave me the chance to read it again. Here, the story is retold by Vera Southgate and illustrated by Eric Winter.
Most people know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Reading it as a modern woman and mother, the set-up of the story highlights some of the main issues of the tale for me. Snow White’s mother wishes for a daughter of great beauty. As Snow White grows older, her beauty invokes jealousy in the Queen; the threat is so great that the Queen plots to murder Snow White before she can become so beautiful that she usurps the Queen’s position as ‘the fairest of all’. Well! Let’s tick off those issues, shall we? Firstly, are good looks the only attributes that you would wish for in your unborn child? Above kindness, intelligence, confidence, good humour? Secondly, it then perpetuates the stereotype that good-looking women can’t abide the sight of other good-looking women (re: Samantha Brick, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”)
To make matters worse, it appears that Snow White’s only usable feature (I was going to write ‘skill’ but it’s not, is it?) is her beauty. Luckily, this means the huntsman can’t bear to hurt her, and off she pops into the forest to make sure the Queen can never find her.
Here we move onto the next issue I have with the story: that to keep the beautiful Snow White safe, she has to stay hidden away and not talk to anybody else other than the Dwarfs, just in case she gets hurt. Dwarfs, have you considered the other possibilities for keeping Snow White safe? How about letting her come and work down the mine with you all? Teaching her how to defend herself? Equipping her with some skills that might mean she’s got a bit more nous about her than to keep letting in the old woman with the poisonous goodies? What’s that? It’s easier to keep a woman at home, where you know where she is… I’d love it if the next part of the story showed Snow White setting up traps around the house, Home Alone style, for when the Queen inevitable comes a-knocking. Alas, what actually happens next in the story serves to perpetuate yet more myths surrounding women.
I’ll explain these simply. Old women = ugly and evil. Young women = beautiful and stupid. They can’t win. We can’t win. Can we be beautiful and clever? Old and beautiful? Not in Snow White’s world. At least Cinderella’s sister were young and ugly, and Cinderella is kind and willing to do her best even in adverse conditions. Snow White opens that front door three times – three times! – despite nearly croaking it the first time. Why didn’t she set up some kind of defensive system in the house? Learn to say ‘no’ to the pretty things, grow a back-bone, tell the dwarfs where to shove it and march off to the nearest town to tell the local law-keeper what had been going on.
You know the ending – Snow White gets saved by the handsome prince and they live happily ever after. The dwarfs: well, they can’t save Snow White, what with being physically challenged and all; they don’t even get a chance with her in return for their misguided attempts to look after her. Instead, the handsome, golden-haired Prince swoops in and snaps her up. He doesn’t even need to speak to her, he knows from her great beauty that Snow White is the gal for him. Comatose, for all intents and purposes, she’s dead. It’s a perfect combination: beautiful and quiet. She’s been looking after the dwarfs’ home , never leaving the house either just because they gave her those instructions, so the prince knows she’s subservient too. Perfect wife material. Here she is, thanking the dwarfs for being so kind to her:
Thanks, but no thanks, little fellas… She’s off to make beautiful babies with the handsome prince and live a happy, beautiful, quiet life together as King and Queen. What happens to the original Queen? She dies from her jealousy:
The Queen does have a fit at their wedding feast because she’s so jealous; so she might not be the fairest of them all, but she certainly knows how to spoil a party in style. Is that the moral? Don’t be jealous if other people are better looking than you because it might kill you? Or, if you’re really, really good-looking then no matter what happens, you will eventually get rescued by an equally as good-looking man and become a princess. Or, marriage is the only viable option for a good-looking woman? What happens when Snow White gets older and starts to lose her looks? Will she then become consumed with jealousy over another young contender to the title of ‘Fairest of them all’ and the cycle will start again?
Obviously, as a young girl, this internal debate did not happen. I didn’t agonise over the morals of these stories, but I rarely read the story of Snow White. I didn’t like the Disney film and I’ve not been tempted to watch the more recent re-makes (although I’m probably not really the target audience anyway). I feel that subconsciously, my distaste for the tale stemmed from my antipathy for the Snow White character (she’s not a heroine), resentment for the resolution of the events (marriage) and frustration that there was nothing in the story I could relate to. My positive skills were: a super reading speed, making things, writing stories, being nice to people and remembering facts; not just being a pretty child with nothing to say.
Eric Winter’s illustrations in this edition are in the usual Ladybird style of the time. Yet, looking at them, I can’t help but feel they lack something of the liveliness and passion of some of the other fairytales from the same series of books. They feel flat and colourless; there is no single iconic image from this edition that everyone instantly recognises. Perhaps the illustrator also felt the antipathy for the story that I did and still do feel. We’ll never know, but it’s safe to say, that Snow White is not a story I will be encouraging my own daughter to visit in the future.