For a generation of impressionable children, the Evil Queen in Disney’s feature-length animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves might well have been their first encounter with villainy. The jealous, merciless queen, desperate to be the fairest of them all, transforms herself into a hunchback hag and tricks Snow White with a shiny, poisoned apple, only to fall to her death trying to roll a boulder over the seven dwarves, the owners of the house in which the exiled Snow White resides. It’s a simple story, a riff on a Grimm Brothers tale, and one that has been reimagined and reinterpreted many times, both by Disney and other writers, filmmakers and playwrights.
Grimm purists might, not unfairly, dismiss the Disney version as sentimental confection, but the film was a critical and commercial success upon its release. At the Hollywood premiere, none other than Charlie Chaplin claimed the film ‘even surpassed our high expectations. In Dwarf Dopey, Disney has created one of the greatest comedians of all time’. The New York Times’ film critic Frank S. Nugent commented: ‘If you miss it, you’ll be missing the 10 best pictures of 1938’. Other critics were surprised that animated characters had the power to reduce moviegoers to tears. High praise was matched only by sell-out runs and high box office returns.
Of course, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was very much a product of its time. Appreciation of the film’s animated achievements might not have diminished over the intervening years, but the reading of the characters has changed. Much has been written about the ‘Disneyification’ of femininity, and indeed Snow White was the first in a long line of heroines to succumb to passivity. She’s a woman who needs a prince (and one she has laid eyes on only once) to ‘save’ her. She’s good at cleaning and keeping house – all admirable female qualities in the mid-1930s. Hard work (both Snow White and the dwarves have a Depression era work ethic) and good behaviour were the morals Disney preached. Perhaps the novelty of the animation stopped audiences from critiquing the plot; perhaps it didn’t even occur to them to try. In the 1930s, Snow White’s virtue was an aspiration. Anything that challenged her honour (in this case, the Evil Queen) would receive the ultimate punishment.
It’s fitting that the Queen’s image was an early archetype of the femme fatale. That wasn’t always the case – apparently, early versions of the character were fatter, frumpier and more comical, inspired by the Silly Symphonies. But after Albert Hurter, the art director responsible for the overall look of Snow White, introduced more realistic character designs to the Disney animators, it was decided that the Queen should be beautiful, cold and sinister. Were the Queen’s perfectly arched eyebrows, cut-glass cheekbones and rosebud lips inspired by Joan Crawford? The Disney studio never confirmed or denied the rumours, but it seems reasonable that the animators would have taken cues from one of the top-earning actresses of the decade. Similarly the Evil Queen’s attire, which shares visual similarities with a gown worn by Helen Gahagan in the 1935 film She. For the ‘hag’ transition, the animators worked from live-action footage of actors Don Brodie and Moroni Olsen, who apparently performed in drag. Perhaps those origins inspired the hag’s more masculine qualities and made the witch more masculine and aggressive than the Queen.
Whilst discourse around the treatment and depiction of women in fairy-tales was spearheaded by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (published in 1949), it took until 1979, and the release of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, for in-depth analysis of the Evil Queen. Gilbert and Gubar argued that Snow White, the childlike, docile and submissive heroine, actually has no story. She’s shipped off to the woods by the Queen, the huntsman saves her life, she waits for a Prince to ‘save’ her. It’s the Evil Queen – and her desperate desire to be the fairest of them all – that drives the story. When the huntsman fails to carry out her wishes, she resorts a more complex and sophisticated plot that subverts a typical feminine persona – that of the kindly, harmless pedlar woman – to trick Snow White. The Evil Queen is a schemer, an impersonator, an inventive plotter… and plenty more in between. There is a twisted irony in the knowledge that the Queen resorts to using feminine wiles (persuasion, a motherly figure) to get to Snow White, and that it’s a small act of disobedience (going against the dwarves’ advice to let strangers into the home) that allows the Queen initial success, but ultimately leads to downfall.
Snow White and the Evil Queen are inexplicably linked. They are two sides of the same coin, mirror images of the other. The Queen is self-absorbed, a slave to the mirror; Snow White is oblivious of her reflection. Where the Queen sees bad, Snow White sees good. Where the Queen seeks to advance herself, Snow White gives selflessly to others. Is the overarching narrative the battle for love and everlasting happiness through marriage? Disney might have wanted that to be the takeaway theme. But re-watching the film with a contemporary eye, it seems much more about reconciling the contradictions that can exist within the female psyche – or indeed anyone.
Uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, the Evil Queen’s emotions – if not her actions – speak to the very core of human behaviour. Jealousy, insecurity and anxiety are complex but all too familiar feelings. It’s possible to overlook Snow White’s docile passivity because the Queen is such a believable and plausible character. And that just might be why the syrupy sweet confection of Disney’s Snow White continues to resonate with children and adults alike. The animators might’ve been striving to create animated characters that looked and moved like humans but they also successfully created a villainous character with relatable foibles. In fact, the Evil Queen just might be the ultimate Disney villain. Her wicked ways, showy transformation and gruesome death are ‘evil’ enough for the kids but the fear that we might, on some level, be capable of her envy is enough to drive fear into the heart of even the most rational adult viewer. Fairy tales. They’ve never really been about the happy ever after….
This post is part of the Great Villain blogathon, hosted by the wonderfully wicked Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin. Be sure to check out all the posts as there are some dastardly entries!