Snow White & the Evil Queen: who is the wickedest of them all?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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20 thoughts on “Snow White & the Evil Queen: who is the wickedest of them all?

  1. A fine post highlighting an unforgettable villain. I like that you consider her an early femme fatale. She is the black widow consumed with the foibles of humanity. Jealousy, greed, envy. Great read!

  2. Loved knowing which actors and actresses may have inspired the design of the queen. The Madwoman is fascinating–how poorly inventive, active, strong, creative women have been treated in fairy tales…(Of course the queen had to be motivated by feminine jealousy, not a desire to rule) I think that’s why my aunts were always sending me feminist reinventions of them.

  3. Yes, that’s true – the Queen and Snow White are two sides of a coin, the Queen being the much more interesting character.

    It’s been years since I’ve seen this, but I want to watch it again now that I’ve read your analysis. The Queen is someone who speaks to the very human side in all of us. (I’d never thought she might have been based on Joan Crawford, but now that you mention it…)

    Thanks for coming to the blogathon and for bringing your top-notch post with you! 🙂

  4. I’m so glad you’ve included the most glmaorous villainess of all in the blogathon. Just bought the Blu-Ray of this film and watched for the first time since I was a kid. The Wicked Queen is absolutely fabulous, and bone-chilling. I remember being terrified when she asks the woodsman to cut out the heart of poor Snow White. The film, and the character of the Queen, are true works of art.
    -Chris

  5. I adore archetypes, so Queen Grimhilde is a favorite even though I haven’t seen the movie since I was a kid. She just resonates that strongly. I also wonder how much the Queen’s jealousy is survival motivated – beauty is power, power is survival. And Snow White is young, beauty comes easy to her. Queen Grimhilde is growing old and must work for her beauty. And I wonder too…when Snow White grows up and her beauty is no longer effortless…will she too become ruthless in her pursuit of preserving her beauty, her power, her only source of social value?
    Great post, thought provoking.

  6. Snow White was my Mom’s favorite movie. She saw it as a little girl when it first came out in theaters. She would tell me when the Queen would come on screen she would hide behind the curtains along the walls of the theater. I think she bought every copy that came out over the years from VHS to DVD. Great article.

  7. I haven’t seen this movie since I was child. I must re-visit it. I have the vaguest memory of being attracted to the Queen because of her beauty…but she was soooooooooooo mean I wanted to run away. Ahhhh, the pattern of my life set so young. In some quarters, we’re still judged by our looks. Some things never change. Nicely done!

  8. I totally agree that the Evil Queen is the force that drives the story and makes it interesting. She is a much more interesting character, and since childhood I always rooted for her (although I considered Snow White pretty, I thought she was too silly). I loved how you put: “Perhaps the novelty of the animation stopped audiences from critiquing the plot; perhaps it didn’t even occur to them to try.”
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!
    Le

  9. All I can say is wow – this is my first visit – but I will definitely be back. What a thought-provoking and interesting post! The Queen terrified me as a child (even years later, she’s still pretty scary). And even as a kid I thought that Snow White was kind of a sap. (I liked Cinderella far better, who seemed to have a little more backbone). I never thought that Disney’s goal was to reinforce society stereotypes of what a woman should be (just to tell a good story about Good vs. Evil) but now that I’ve read your post I have to wonder… Funny how the men in the story have a little more leeway. The prince seems a bit sappy, but then we have characters like Grumpy, who are good but hardly goody-two-shoes. By the way, now that I know about the possible Joan Crawford connection, I totally see it!

    Don’t know if you’d be interested in doing a post on this, but I love to hear your take on Cinderella (the motherly figure is evil, the daughters do ladylike stuff like [singing lessons] but are unattractive, and yet again we have the good girl winning love and lasting happiness).

  10. The Evil Queen… she totally made the movie ♥ One of my favorite vilain in Disney movies.

  11. When my oldest two children were a kindergartner and a preschooler, I bought the dvd of Snow White, imagining years of enjoyment watching it with them. When we did sit down and watch it, I had forgotten how truly bad the queen was, demanding the huntsman cut out Snow White’s heart and put it in a box!!! My daughter was scared by the hag, so we put the dvd away for quite a while!! Now that those two kids are 24 and 22, it’s probably safe to get it out!!!

  12. This is a fantastic post! I’ve always thought that portrayals of women in movies throughout the years have been interesting. Especially around the time period when Snow White was made. I’m anxious to watch it again with this new perspective!

  13. Great post! The evil queens actions are very similar to human behavior…maybe she is just an evil human, with a crown on her head.

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