The Moral of Snow White
Snow White remains one of the most morally ambiguous of Disney’s films, and because it is the first animated feature-length movie, one wonders why the message seems so vague. Obviously the lines of good and evil are clearly demarcated within the first moments of the film, but arriving at a definite moral standpoint after watching the movie is difficult. We have the obvious triumph of good over evil, less a theme than a necessity for any movie targeted primarily for children. We also have themes of jealousy, vanity and good-natured hospitality at the heart of the tale. But all of this seems to obscure any over-arching maxim presented within the movie’s framework, and leaves us puzzled because of the didactic nature Disney films have acquired since that point. However, reading this movie less as a children’s film and more as a subtle case of war propaganda allows us to uncover themes obstructed from view.
Interpreting an animated musical as war propaganda seems somewhat ludicrous. However, we must see the movie within its historical context to understand its real meaning. Walt Disney, as was discovered painfully in the HUAC and McCarthy hearings many years later, was a staunch conservative who loathed the very idea of communist ideology and its threat to the United States. Snow White was released in 1937, during the war in the Pacific which precipitated the second World War. Around this time the United States was nervous about walking into another global conflict, and the social climate was filled with anxiety and hesitation to join in the effort. Which leads us to the making of Disney’s first movie, Snow White, a virtual call-to-arms operating at the subconscious level of symbolic signification.
But what does a cartoon with a fair maiden, dwarves and a witch have to do with a rallying cry against the encroachment of the Left? We must begin by examining the approach Disney takes towards stocking the film with this subconscious method. The movie deals with an evil step-mother who is queen of a kingdom, and loathes her step-daughter Snow White. The queen’s ritual is asking her mirror who the fairest of the land is, and her mirror surprises her one day by proclaiming Snow White ‘the fairest of them all’. Angry, the queen orders a huntsman to kill her innocent step-daughter in the woods and bring her the heart as evidence. Instead the huntsman warns the princess, who flees into the woods and eventually collapses in fear. Resuscitated by the woodland animals, she is led to a house occupied by dwarves who are currently working in the mine. The dwarves arrive to find her, they fall in love with her, and all is well until the queen realizes that she is not dead, and disguises herself as a witch to deliver her a poison apple. Her plan succeeds but the dwarves find and defeat the witch, and then the prince who Snow White is in love with awakens her with a kiss. And they live happily ever after.
The heart of Disney’s message lies within the function of the seven dwarves. One of the main departures Disney takes from the original Grimm Brothers’ text is giving each dwarf a personality which is revealed in their name. It is only within the movie that the age-old tale mentions the dwarves distinctly from each other, and therefore more realistically functioning as a community or brotherhood. We meet the dwarves for the first time in their mine, working happily excavating diamonds until it is time to gather their things and head home for the night. What we see here is the dwarves’ world prior to Snow White’s arrival, a world inhabited only by males. Examining this pyschoanalytically we find the dwarves to be in a state of homo-erotic bondage within their edenic paradise before the creation of woman. Perfectly content in this world, the dwarves make their way to their cottage, where woman has already began impinging on their reality. They arrive to find their house completely cleaned by Snow White and her animal friends, and are in a state of shock, upset that their house doesn’t remain in its usual disheveled state.
Immediately the function of Snow White on the dwarves is apparent- her infiltration of their world will lead to their ultimate downfall. At first the dwarves expect the house to be inhabited by a monster, and they are hardly far from the truth. Upon uncovering the sleeping princess, awakening her and meeting her, most of the dwarves seem ecstatic that she will be staying with them. She can cook all of their favorite meals, and will clean their house while they are away. A feminist critique of the film or fairy tale (such as Gilbert and Gubar’s criticism, Mad Woman In the Attic) is quick to point out the creation of a subordinate role for the woman by the paternal male hegemony. This would lead feminists to label the film as anti-feminist, with the usual paternal ideology driving the story. However, this view is too quick in jumping to conclusions, because ultimately Disney was creating a film with a far more complex and modern message. While most of the dwarves welcomed Snow White’s presence, Grumpy was firm in his stance against the princess from the start. It is Grumpy’s role that provides the key to Disney’s underlying thematic intent.
In the scenes between the dwarves’ mining sequence and their introduction to Snow White, the audience is given a glimpse into their relationship with each other. If one analyzes the structure of the dwarves’ community carefully, very disturbing patterns arise. Even very young children understand that Doc is the leader of seven dwarves, and that the other dwarves are happily led by him. It seems that once Doc is connected with his position as leader, the rest of the dwarves only function within the characteristic of their names. This is more or less true, with a single exception. Grumpy is blatantly shown to be the machavellian manipulator behind Doc’s inept and unarticulated autocracy, whose suggestions always become Doc’s orders, until Snow White interferes. And once Snow White begins living with them, it is evident that she is trying desperately to win Grumpy over. Critics have long interpreted a romantic tone in Snow White and Grumpy’s relationship1, that is not reciprocated until later in the movie. One must question why Snow White craves Grumpy’s acceptance so obsessively throughout part of the movie. It is principally because only Grumpy understands exactly what kind of damage Snow White will prove to the world of the dwarves.
Grumpy is the alpha male of the dwarves; he is the only one completely competent and aware of their situation throughout the film. For physical evidence one need only look at his nose- the largest of the seven- an obvious phallic representation of his power. As has been stated, Doc is simply a more charismatic channeling of Grumpy’s intent, and strictly speaking, his dupe. The rest of the dwarves are a sad lot indeed. We have Sleepy, who is apathetic, ineffectual and unaware. Sneezy is permanently and incurably ill. Happy is painfully naive and ignorant of his surroundings. Bashful is obviously traumatized by some past experience, and cannot function normally in society. And Dopey is the mentally retarded numskull who is the butt of the dwarves’ jokes, and performs as the dwarves’ gimp, sexually speaking. Before Snow White, Grumpy had control over the dwarves, and realized his homo-erotic sexual fantasies by isolating the seven of them from the world of women to conduct their own bacchanalian homosexual orgies. As twisted as this may sound, Disney is merely portraying the societal structure of a world at war, when the male and female spheres are divorced from each other by distance, and homo-erotic bonds grow between the males and separately between the females.
Once Snow White is introduced into their lives, she forces the dwarves to bathe themselves, maintain tidy surroundings, and more or less civilizes the lot of them. The male dwarves had been apart from women long enough to revert to their primal, id-driven, rightful selves. Snow White’s coming was nothing less than the encroachment of the super ego, and the arrival of civilization. In biblical terms, Snow White was the temptation that would force the dwarves into original sin, expelling them from their garden of Eden. (Why else the blatant symbolism of the apple later in the film?) One may argue the point that the dwarves are happier once Snow White is introduced into their life, but again that is an oversimplification. Snow White’s presence creates sexual tension between her and each dwarf, and as a result of that, tension arises between the dwarves, causing animosity where there was only fraternity before. The weakening of the dwarves due to woman’s interference is most evident with Dopey, as his primitive mental state transforms him into a slobbering creature of lust and animalistic desire every time Snow White is near. While the other dwarves don’t follow suit so obviously, their idolization of the princess tears at the fabric of their relationship with each other.
But Snow White isn’t merely a threatening force for the dwarves- she is perceived as dangerous by her entire kingdom. Is the queen’s jealousy really the driving force behind her desire to do away with Snow White? Though Snow White’s looks may be somewhat threatening to the queen, her motivations for killing her are rooted in Snow White’s sexuality. Notice that Snow White is identified with nature since the beginning, and that all the woodland creatures love her and accompany her throughout the movie. This is something unique to Snow White; the queen/witch and the dwarves loathe nature- in one scene the animals are trying to warn the dwarves about the witch, but they shoo them away, swatting at them in disgust. This is because the dwarves are aberrations of nature, not only because of their dwarven stature, but because of the homo-eroticism that disallows them from fitting into nature’s procreative framework. Nature’s procreative urge is a direct threat to the dwarves lifestyle, which is why they work in a mine where they don’t need to deal with the natural.
Early on in the movie Snow White sees the charming prince, and becomes immediately desirous and lustful of him, exhibiting her heterosexuality. But what of the queen? She is said to be Snow White’s step-mother, who must have done away with her husband because she is the sole ruler of the land. Being that she is not Snow White’s biological mother, the movie leaves it ambiguous whether or not the queen ever engaged in the sexual act. When she asks the mirror “who is the fairest of them all” is she necessarily asking “who is the prettiest”, or perhaps instead using another definition of ‘fair’ by asking ‘who is the most chaste’? It is obvious the queen hates men- the only one in her court that we see is the huntsman, rudely ordered to do the queen’s bidding as a slave. The queen operates as the dominant matriarch in a system purged of any sort of patriarchy. Men seem all but expelled from her kingdom.
And that is Disney’s message in the end. That the world must have another war, whether the motivation be to destroy communism’s presence or to segregate the genders and have men revert to their primal selves. For man has only experienced his isolation from women in two instances: during any major militaristic conflict, and in those moments before God introduced women into the garden. And from Disney’s vantage point, the only way towards utopia is to anull any transgenderal bonds and cheat nature of its procreative spirit by taking society back to its earliest form, when it was only one man and his world. Though Disney would rather it be that the world be inhabited by many like-minded creatures whose fraternity and carefree joi de vivre balanced with their practicality would create the perfect world. And on another planet, or perhaps another continent on the earth, woman could exist with no idea that somewhere else there lived a creature who could introduce their phallus into her system, and destroy her, making her subordinate to the whims of his penis.