Our first Princess was not created to break any gender norms. She is a classic damsel in distress needing the help and protection of the men around her. She is sweet, ‘simple’ (Walt’s word, not mine), and pretty. That’s it for character. She cooks, she cleans, she sings, that’s it. She seems to have no goals other than to wait for her prince. One wonders what they might have to talk about since she is very limited in her interested. Of course that doesn’t matter since she’s pretty. In fact, her good looks are her defining characteristic. She is so pretty she must die. She is so pretty she must be sheltered. She is so pretty the Prince must fall in love and kiss her. Happy ending! I wonder what her life would have been like if she was just normal looking. Would she have been allowed to live in the castle and do princes things? Would she have been married off to someone she had known longer than a 3 minute musical number? We will never know.
Snow White is not a feminist icon. She is not the hero of her own story. She is the object of the plot, not the actor. She is incidental. You might be able to argue that the same story could be told about a piece of jewelry or a work of art. An actual real person is not necessary for story telling purposes. There is a temptation to blame this on the time in which the movie was created. Women were pretty and decorative, not expected to contribute in any major way to the work of society. However in 1937, Eleanor Roosevelt was firmly ensconced in leadership at the Federal level. The heir to the British throne was female due to the actions and influence of another woman, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. The nation was shocked by the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, one of the most famous pilots in the world. Mae West was so scandalous in an interview that she was banned from the radio. Women throughout the country are working on farms, in gardens, and at their sewing machines trying to stretch their family incomes and keep everyone fed. Sweet, naïve Snow White was a fantasy. Perhaps something to dream about the way we now dream about winning the lottery.
I believe Disney knows this and knows, as well, that her appeal is not what it once might have been. In the current TV series, ‘Once Upon a Time’, the Snow White character is a fighter who rescues her Prince at least as often as he rescues her. This contemporary Snow is a leader and a politician as is appropriate for a girl who grew up in the halls of a palace. S
he can handle a sword and a town hall meeting. She is devoted to her family while still needing a break from them every once and a while. She is still a fantasy, but she is a much more impressive fantasy.
So, how does Snow White measure up? I guess it could be worse.
Bechdel test: Snow White is the only named female. In fairness, however, only the eight title characters have names. Everyone else is referred to by title only. Even if the queen had a name, she and Snow White only converse once and then it’s only about love. Result: FAIL
Percent of words spoken by women: 50%. While this doesn’t seem like much, breaking even is fairly impressive for a movie with a cast ratio of 2 women to 9 men. While Snow and the Queen don’t really talk to each other, they definitely pull their weight in the dialog.
*The Bechdel Test evaluates film based on whether there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
** The data comes from linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer, who have been working on a project to analyze all the dialogue from the Disney princess movies. The project was reported in The Washington Post by Jeff Guo.