So Beautiful, Even in Death: Snow White, Disney, and “Innocent Entertainment”
Our culture hates children. The process of growing up, never easy at the best of times, has been made much more difficult and dangerous than it needs to be. The thieving education industry which herds them like animals in a zoo to keep them from becoming adults for many years after they are physically mature is all of a piece with the entertainment, clothing, toy, and advertising industries which try to make them sexually precocious beginning before the age of reason so as to be better marketing targets for bikinis and Barbie dolls. Getting through adolescence with chastity intact is hard enough in itself, but the purveyors of movies, magazines, and TV shows, with which kids often spend far more time than with their parents, are bent on making it well-nigh impossible. These marketers’ prime targets are of course those in the early years of adolescence, but they prepare their chickens for slaughtering for years before that time comes. Therefore, it behooves us to take a good hard look at children’s entertainment.
Some of these points were brought up in Zachary Rohrbach’s article in the last issue of this publication, “An Appeal to Future Fathers: How Hollywood is Destroying the Family.” That article contained a passing mention of the moral decline of Disney films. However, it seems to me that this topic needs more attention. It’s no secret that many relatively recent Disney movies undermine the family not only with negative parental images, but also with subliminal sexual imagery, but many people do not understand how deep the cancer is or where it came from. Since a very deep cut will be required to remove it, that is all the more reason to be careful to cut in the right place.
“An Appeal to Future Fathers” singled out Snow White as an example of the “innocent” entertainment provided by Disney in former decades. The choice was very natural: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Disney’s first high-profile feature film, and one of his greatest. It towers above the cinematic landscape, different from everything that came before and everything that came after. Technically, it made wonderful innovations, but artistically, strange as this may sound, it has hardly even been imitated, even by other Disney films. It, together with Pinocchio, represents the ancient Edenic splendor of the Disney company, from which their colossal fall is the stuff of legend. From that fall the recovery has never been more than partial. What other movie has ever taken a fairy tale so seriously? Where else can you find a wicked queen so austere, so proud, and so beautiful? Where else such an ugly hag mixing up potions from such old, sinister books in such a dank castle dungeon? Where else such an unembarrassed acknowledgement, as is provided by the old-fashioned language and gold leaf of the title cards in the movie, of a debt to ancient traditions and old tales? But this great story takes a lot of flak these days. Many over-wise people, including many friends of the family who are as disapproving of Hollywood as anyone, are suspicious of a contrast between modern corrupt fare and “innocent” entertainment such as Snow White. The very use of the word seems incredible. Surely Snow White cannot be as innocent as she appears. What really was it that attracted the prince’s lips to her sleeping face? What secrets is the glass coffin lid hiding from us?
Unfortunately, such questions cannot be ignored. Our generation is never content to simply take a walk in the woods and admire their beauty; we have to turn the rocks over and see the grubs and maggots. It was the same way in Disney’s generation, but he could successfully defy the Freudians. We can’t. Therefore, let us jump right in and play the game. What is the real meaning of Snow White?
If you try doing some scholarly research to answer this question, as I did, be aware that it requires a strong stomach. Scholars just have dirty minds. The whole problem is pithily summed up by one writer (full citations available upon request) like this: “The Freudian imagination, by contrast, leaves little to our own.” Some have gone about the problem by simply going back and forth between a copy of Snow White and a copy of The Interpretation of Dreams with pencil in hand. Others have seen the wicked queen as the heroine of the story because she is a feminist, and glumly concluded that her defeat means that no “balanced selfhood within the patriarchy” is possible for women. And so on. I will spare you most of the details. A good deal of it is raving lunacy, but some of it will have to be engaged with.
For example, I encountered one article by N.J. Girardot that seemed to persuasively argue that the events of Snow White contain an “initiatory” theme dealing with female puberty rites in ancient tribal religions. This makes sense to me; after all, fairy tales deal with all of human life. In these rites, girls who were on the threshold of womanhood would be separated from the community for a time, perhaps off in the forest. During the time of separation, they would be instructed in various form of feminine learning, including practical crafts needed by wives and also “feminine sexual and religious lore.” Snow White does something very similar: she is separated from her old life, isolated in the dwarfs’ hut and warned to let no one enter, and there she gains the experience that will complete her.
To fully appreciate the power of this interpretation, we must use not the Disney version, but the Grimm brothers’ version, in which Snow White was only seven years old when she went to live with the dwarfs. This may seem a little early, but it was at age seven that Snow White became more beautiful than the queen, and therefore at that time comes the symbolic moment of transformation and the crisis point: “She must give up her comfortable innocence as only ‘Snow White,’ the childish ways of self gratification, and face the painful task of refining the separate white, black, and red parts of her nature. Only then will she achieve her complete identity as a woman and creator of life.” She must be hidden away (in the dwarfs’ cottage) for a time, and undergo the ordeal of the poisoned apple. She then symbolically dies, like adolescent girls had to in the ritual, and lies in the glass coffin for—the original story only says “a long time,” but the article assumes it is seven more years, so that Snow White emerges from the coffin at fourteen, in the full flower of her beauty and ready to be married off.
Some readers may complain that all I’ve done is reinforce their conviction that Snow White is the ultimate chick flick. Does this have any relevance to Wabash students? I think it does, not only because many of us will have children of our own, but also because, my fellow college students, we were young once ourselves. Thinking back on your own experience, you will realize that many difficulties in your life were caused by the fact that around the beginning of your teens or a little earlier you had to be in a sense born again. In order to be a fully integrated person, one must get past the stage in which one’s body has the fascination born of novelty. Unfortunately, everyone has to go through this process twice: once shortly after birth, and once during and shortly after puberty. It is the second time that most often presents a problem, for chastity and for overall psychological health. The real solution to this problem, as to all problems, is in the blood of Christ, the original Snow White—the spotless sacrificial Lamb. However, being human, we can receive further help, at any age, from stories which face the human condition honestly: not by assaulting us with coarse literalness while we are too young to handle it, but by suggesting fruitful channels for the mind and imagination to operate in, so that, perhaps years later, if there comes a time when mind and body seem hopelessly confused, the heart will still be right.
If Snow White does not speak to your experience, you may substitute Jack and the Beanstalk, Theseus and the Minotaur, or any number of others. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a particular story that is needed, but a particular feeling of what life is like. We need to avoid shallow optimism or pessimism and look at life honestly. First of all, we might as well admit that life is hard: it is a series of ordeals to be passed. Once one of these ordeals is completed, we have been “initiated” into a further degree of humanity—that is, we are given just a little more justification for considering ourselves men (with apologies to Snow White for the sexist language). We are then generally allowed a very brief time to feel good about ourselves before we have to move on to another ordeal. After we climb the beanstalk, we have to fight the giant. This will go on until the end of the story—which, for an individual person, will come at death. What happens then is a question you must answer for yourself.
Yet it would be horrible to think of someone going through life fighting all the time. Life is more than a beanstalk or a battlefield, it is also a glass coffin—beautiful, sterile, and transparent. Every human soul is beautiful, starting at birth, or rather at conception, simply because it was created in the image of God and is an object of the love of God. As the person grows in mind and body, the beauty is (hopefully) developed and increased. However, the beauty exists to be seen; it must be shared with others. This means the person in question must find a way to deal with other people. There is a spiritual problem here corresponding to the physical one discussed earlier: in the very earliest period of life, the sheer novelty of its own existence so arrests the attention of a soul that it can hardly attend to anything else. Eventually a baby realizes that there are other people in the world, at which point its interactions with others become more meaningful. However, they do not yet become fertile (spiritually or otherwise). This requires another metamorphosis: a change from mere congeniality to actual love. Sometimes this can be done effortlessly for a few others by those who experience either friendship or what the prince experienced on first catching a glimpse of Snow White. But even if the beginning is effortless, the totality of the process is never without pain, and that goes double for the ones (always the vast majority of the people we meet) for whom we receive no help from nature, but must slowly build up the edifice of charity brick by brick with no help but grace.
Since we are dealing with other people, from the nature of the case the difficulty of the activities involved is compounded with stage fright: hence the coffin is made of glass. It is impossible to forget that while we do our best to love others, we are also influencing their decision on whether to love us. If we cannot attract the love of another, we remain entombed in crystal—imprisoned in our own beauty like Narcissus in his pool. Children surely need to know that, but they will not understand it if they are told. They can only learn it when they are unaware that they are doing so: watching the prince bend down to kiss the maiden who sleeps in the glass coffin, and then seeing her awaken, though they may themselves not realize they have learned anything, the whole content of this article will be planted in their minds. They will then be fortified against the assaults of life. A young mind filled with the sacred images of fantasy will have no room for dark and harmful pictures, at least not until later, when it has grown enough. That is why we should lament the passing of “innocent” entertainment like Snow White. Such stories have enough life in them to teach children—or anyone—about life without disturbing their peace of spirit.
Therefore, the moral decline of Disney films started long before they started containing scenes which made parents start and rub their eyes, wondering if they just saw what they thought they saw. It started as soon as they stopped taking fairy tales seriously. Cinderella, now—that girl is a ghost. Snow White had red lips and black hair, but Cinderella is an albino. Her pale pink cheeks and blonde hair are a death mask. In Disney’s Cinderella, a king is not a king and a fairy not a fairy. No one could possibly reverence the dumpy old man in the palace with the mustache and monocle, or believe in the dumpy old woman in Cinderella’s garden, singing an annoying little ditty while she transforms the pumpkin. The lovely woodland animals that comforted Snow White are turned into fat singing mice; the ominous black crow that accompanied Snow White’s stepmother is turned into a fat, buffoonish house cat. There is no life in the whole movie.
From Snow White to Cinderella—the distance is like that between heaven and one of the upper circles of hell. Who knows why they made the jump? Perhaps they were afraid, not realizing that the banishment of good spirits will not invite a state of blissfully austere nirvana, but only dark gods. Perhaps they thought they had discovered their true calling in being “funny” instead of meaningful. Perhaps they didn’t think at all, and were only going where the culture pushed them. But as Wabash men, it is our job to think. Not only as future fathers but here and now as practitioners of the liberal arts and of humane living, let us never cease to be vigilant in guarding against the culture which would have us forget the value of a good story, a pure heart, and a loving God.