Snow White, Walt Disney Corporation’s first full-length animated film, has received a bad reputation in the almost 80 years since its release, primarily from well-intentioned women’s rights advocates who see it as an all-around failure of female roles. And, really, it’s easy to see why.

Snow White has often been denigrated as the wussiest of the wussy canonical Disney Princesses. She is passive. She needs to be rescued, over and over, exclusively by men. She is capable of nothing but cleaning (and gathering woodland creatures around her). She wordlessly awakens from her sleeping death after a non-consensual kiss, and meekly embraces her Prince/sexual attacker before joining him on his castle in the clouds (literally. Take another look. His castle is in the clouds. Really, Prince Florian is like a white, uncool, completely asexual Lando Calrissian. Sidebar: How much cooler would that movie have been?? Lando and Snow White!). She’s good at looking delicate and warbling out songs that now, 80 years later, still get stuck in your damn head all day long. And that’s about it.

Meanwhile, the villain, the Queen, one of the scariest animated villains of all time (I still can’t watch that transformation scene without shuddering. It’s that part when her hands become all gnarled, and she gasps, “My hands!” It looks painful. It’s genuinely frightening. I grip my own hands every time), isn’t even awarded the agency of a name. She doesn’t have a true back story. She’s just another wicked stepmother. She is obsessed with looks. Because of her, the entire plot is centered around the superficiality of appearance, with the prettiest winning.


But I’m here to set up a defense of the “Fairest” maiden. To rescue her, once again, from people who keep wishing that she was someone else, something else.

First of all, I would like to start this defense with a quick re-reading of the story of Snow White. I believe that much of the animosity against Snow White (and the Queen) emerges when people take an altogether ahistorical look at the story, receiving it not as a retelling of a medieval tale—with all the linguistic and cultural baggage that entails—but as a modern story about a modern woman designed for modern audiences. When viewed from certain contexts, Snow White’s story becomes a complex grapple for power and a bildungsroman of the first quality.

“Fairness.” Fair is a complicated word. At a glance, it means a celebration or gathering of guilds, usually with games or sideshows included for entertainment (think about the lasting tradition of the county fair); pleasant weather (skies are fair today); a sense of justice or rightness based on a sense of honesty (fair dealings, fair trade); goodness in contrast to wickedness (“Fair is foul and foul is fair”); beauty (a maiden most fair).

And whiteness or paleness.

As Camila Domonoske so adeptly points out, “Fair/beautiful/good and black/not beautiful/evil – these aren’t just linguistic quirks. They’re cultural patterns.” The equation of “paleness” with “goodness” or even “justice” is certainly a problematic, pervasive, and persistent problem with standards of beauty in Western culture. It advances the racist assumption that white is right. Those who take issue with the Queen’s repeated use of “fair” to mean “beautiful” certainly have valid arguments. Yet, it is also important to remember that “fair” as a marker of not just beauty, but also power, in fact predates “fair” as equivalent to “white.”

It is no accident that the Wicked Queen asks her mirror, “Who is the fairest of them all?” As many of you already know, paleness was considered a sign of wealth and comfort as far back as the Roman Empire. Those who had financial security could afford to remain inside, shielded from the sun all day, while those whose lack of wealth or influence drove them outdoors to earn their keep were marked by their darker skin, their sunsoaked appearance. The Wicked Queen, in asking her Mirror about her shade and complexion, is not merely confirming her personal beauty, but also her position of power. She is the “fairest” and therefore, the Queen. The ruler. The one whose is rightfully/fairly in charge. The original Grimm tale (on which the 1937 film is loosely based) was published in 1812 (though the Wicked Queen was changed from a mother to a stepmother in a later edition, and this is the version that Disney uses), at a time when physical appearance was considered a reflection of one’s mental acuity (hence, why “fair” came to mean both “light-skinned” and “good” or “right.” Because our language is inseparable from the culture that uses it). The Queen’s pale skin and flawless complexion is just another sign that, though she had married into royalty (she is, after all, Snow White’s stepmother), she is, in fact, in the correct position of power. Her daily affirmation of fairness in front of her mirror must have been a daily confirmation of her position, and alleviation of her imposter syndrome. As a woman, without offspring or biological claim to the throne, the Queen’s grasp on her crown must have been, at best, shaky. The Mirror is a way for her to feel justified in her place, to drive off the doubt that emerged from what must have felt, for her, to be a tenuous rise to power. Just as she could be married into the power she enjoys, so too she can be cast off back into anonymity. By confirming her “fairness,” she is confirming that her unnatural (unbiological) closeness to the throne is merely a fulfillment of her natural (biological) inclinations. She is fair—the fairest—designed for a regal, leisurely life, even if she wasn’t born into one.

Until, that is, Snow White usurps her in the Mirror’s estimation. When Snow White takes over as “fairest,” she is not only surpassing the Queen in terms of looks or physical attractiveness. She is also reminding the Queen that Snow White is, in fact, the future rightful ruler. Snow White’s “fairness” is greater, even, than the Queen’s. She has an even great biological claim to power (reflected not only in her whiter skin, but also in her biological relationship to the King). She is the just—the “fair”—heir apparent. The Mirror telling the Queen that Snow White is “fairer” is a reminder to the Queen that her power begins and ends with her; that Snow White’s biological/natural ascent to the throne will ensure that the Queen will eventually be passed over, forgotten, a fruitless nub on the royal family tree.

The Queen’s initial response to Snow White’s usurpation is interesting. She does not immediately respond with murderous rage. Instead, she forces Snow White to perform chores around the castle, to act as servant in her own house. Doing so, the Queen attempts to reduce Snow White’s fairness. Literally. She sends Snow White outside, and forces her to perform manual labor (in the film, Snow White and Prince Florian meet while she is fetching water and singing to her own reflection in the well). Outside in the sunlight, Snow White won’t become any less the King’s rightful heir, but her appearance will more than likely become more hoary, more haggard, less apparently and obviously royal. If Snow White’s visage can be made to appear less fair, less regal, than at least the Queen would be able to live out her life, convinced of her own natural superiority.  Since the Queen would undoubtedly believe that one’s outer appearance is a direct reflection—Ha! Get it? Reflection?—of one’s inner worth and ability, the physically darker Snow White would appear not as naturally suited to her future position of power. She would not be a “natural” queen; just a biological heir. By making Snow White tan, the Queen can maintain the illusion of her ultimate power.

But Snow White never loses her fairness, in spite of her manual labor. This once again irks the Queen, for it proves again that Snow White has the advantage. She is “naturally” more fair than the Queen—nothing can remove her royal destiny.

Yet, the Queen retains a passable, if cool, relationship to Snow White until the day Snow White meets and falls in love with Prince Florian. When the two meet outside the wishing well and fall in love (they share a song together, which is Disney/musical theatre code switching for “romantic/sexual love.”  Generally speaking, the big waltz that Disney’s romantic duos share at the end of the movie is their act of sexual consummation—sex without sex on Disney terms), the Queen instantly becomes enraged, calling in the Huntsman and ordering him to murder Snow White. Though some bloggers would have you believe that this is a reaction to a burgeoning love triangle between the Queen, Snow White, and Florian (and there have been rumors that the original script included scenes where the Queen attempts to seduce Florian for herself), I contend that the Queen’s rage can be explained by, again, her uncomfortable, unstable grip on the power she wields. Snow White’s implied impending marriage to Florian is a reminder to the Queen that the time is rapidly approaching when her power will come to an end. Snow White is coming/has come of age. She is marriageable. She can and will inherit her father’s kingdom, have offspring, continue her family line, leaving the aging Queen nothing more than a forgotten dowager, with neither family nor power nor fame. The Queen orders Snow White murdered. Perhaps in order to create heirs of her own with the King. Perhaps to direct all attention on herself for as long as possible. Perhaps because, in her own diseased mind, the young girl’s murder will stave off the steady march of time. It’s hard to say, but it certainly is a power play.


But, then again, all of these complex, overlapping definitions of fair may all be hooey. After all, the Queen is looking into a mirror. A reflective surface designed solely for the perusal of physical attributes. “Who is the fairest of them all” appears to be about looks. Shallow, artificial, try-to-be-pretty-or-else looks. To that, I say that you may have a point. But I am inclined to believe the beauty-complexion-power story for myself. Why? If only because Snow White (and the Queen, for that matter) is not the fairest of them all. Snow White’s a brunette. She has “hair as black as ebony.” Fair when it is used to describe looks, is almost always exclusively used to describe a blonde. Think Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). She’s fair. Snow White and the Queen both have black hair. They would be described as being “dark.” The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “fair,” meaning light complexioned and blonde haired dates back to homilies dating from 1175, and has been used regularly and without break to mean “blonde” ever since (“fair-haired,” meanwhile, has been a compound adjective in use since the 16th century—Meanwhile, artist Claire Hummel claims “Snow White’s time period is pretty easy to pinpoint in 16th century Germany,” a time when “fair” would undoubtedly be used to mean, among other things, blonde). If we take both Snow White and Queen at face-value (oh, the puns just don’t stop on this blog, do they?), then neither one can be considered “fair.” It wouldn’t make any linguistic sense. Both Disney and the Brothers Grimm knew that. Fair, as it is used in Snow White, is not merely a reference to good looks. It is about power, about politics, about whether or not regality can be “natural” or can be adopted. And the Queen’s constant questioning of her own “fairness,” her constant doubt, shows just how complicated her relationship to those concepts is.

Someday My Prince Will Come. (Thank god for Miles Davis. He makes this song at least listenable. Snow White’s warble earns a bigger eyeroll from me than “Stand By Your Man.”)

Now it’s time to address Snow White’s supposed passivity. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do this a little bit more quickly, so that you (and I) can get back to scrolling through Facebook.

Again, I completely understand the arguments that have arisen against Snow White in the last 8 decades. First, she is sent out into the forest with the Huntsman, who warns her about the Queen’s hatred, and tells her to run away forever, intentionally deceiving the Queen (and basically sacrificing his own life) by giving her a pig’s heart instead of Snow White’s. Rescue #1. Then, Snow White is found by the 7 dwarfs, who take her in, care for her, and protect her so that she doesn’t starve to death in the wilderness alone. Rescue #2. The dwarfs, after Snow White is poisoned, chase down the Wicked Queen and push her off a cliff, killing her and ending her reign of terror over Snow White. Rescue #3. Finally, Florian finds Snow White in her glass coffin, and performs his weird, nonconsensual, necrophiliac kiss that just so happens to awaken her so that they can ride off together to Cloud City. Rescue #4.

This chick just can’t seem to take care of herself.

Except that she can and she does.

Firstly, the Huntsman who is ordered to murder Snow White initially objects to the Queen. He kills wild game, not women. But the Queen threatens him with, essentially, death if her orders are not obeyed. Already uncertain about his task, the Huntsman takes Snow White out into the forest, where she picks wild flowers, hums songs, and, finally, helps a baby bird back into the nest. What the makers of Snow White manage to do for the film at this moment is humanize Snow White for the Huntsman and once again prove her natural inclination to rule as a future queen. Seeing her interact with nature, the Huntsman sees how different she is from the wild creatures he kills daily. She appreciates beauty (picking flowers, singing songs). She is gentle (carefully picking up the baby bird). She is bigger and physically superior to the creatures around her, but she does not take advantage of their vulnerabilities like the Queen would (or like the Huntsman does, as we see him kill a pig later). She decides to use her greater strength and size to help those beneath her, demonstrating kindness. A uniquely human trait. In exchange for her gentleness, the woodland creatures gather around her, her now loyal subjects, and help her as she is lost in the woods (and later, in the dwarfs cottage, they help her clean). Seeing all of this, the Huntsman decides to sacrifice himself, not just because she is pretty, but because she is meant to be the ruler of the kingdom, the one-day queen. He warns her to leave the castle “and never return . . . for the sake of not only yourself, but for those who love you.” Even his warning to Snow White suggests that her life needs to be spared not just for her, but for others. Her people. Her kingdom. Though she doesn’t know it (because she couldn’t have known of his intentions to kill her), Snow White proved to the Huntsman that she is the rightful—the fair—future queen.


After being left alone in the forest, Snow White gathers her faithful woodland friends/servants/subjects around her, having gained their trust and loyalty through her acts of mercy and kindness (as any good ruler would). She then comes to the cottage of the 7 dwarfs, where she makes a deal with Doc to manage the entire household in exchange for their protection. Then, she sings the irritating “Whistle While You Work” and the soul-cringing, taking-the-feminist-movement-back-50-years “Someday My Prince Will Come.”

First, let’s talk about cleaning. Yes, cleaning and cooking are “all” Snow White does. They’re her particular talents (outside of singing and training chipmunks to mop). But let’s not underestimate, or undervalue, the incredible skill and resourcefulness Snow White is able to display at this point. She maintains a house of 8, arranging all of the cleaning, the meal preparations, the laundry, keeping the grown men around her on schedule, reminding them of their manners and civility, that they are a part of a community, that they need to work for something outside of themselves. I am a stay-at-home-mother for a family of 4, and I’m barely keeping my head above water most days. Snow White delegates, orders, enforces rules, teaches, and basically domestically kicks ass. That is impressive. That is skill. Genuinely. When we denigrate what Snow White accomplishes at the dwarfs’ cottage. When we rename her accomplishments to make them sound more impressive, more official, more valuable—management, administration, domestic CEO, sous chef, hospitality specialist—what we are really doing is saying that we don’t value the truly valuable work that she and so many other stay-at-home individuals do. Those words are a microaggression against what have traditionally been feminine roles, an attempt to align them with a patriarchal worldview where only those with the biggest titles and fattest paychecks matter. Snow White is domestic. She is a maid. She is a mother figure. She does take on the womanliest of the womanly roles. To claim that adopting these roles (and being good at them) somehow makes her a poor role model for my daughters is not a failure of Snow White’s imagination. It is a failure of ours.

And as for her songs? As irritating as they are, I can’t really find fault with them. “Whistle While You Work” is an excellent lesson for children to have growing up. Even people in their dream jobs have shitty days. I get to wear sweat pants and drink coffee just the way I like it at my job. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck sometimes. We all have to learn to take the good with the bad, and sometimes we have to dig in, elbows deep, into the muck. It’s good to stop and whistle, to remember to be happy for the work itself, or even to distract yourself from the yuck and think happy thoughts every now and then.

(Unless your name is Otis and you’re sitting on a dock, you are not allowed to whistle while you work.)

And as for “Someday My Prince Will Come”? Though it pains me to say it, I can’t even find fault with this. Because Snow White sings this song after she has already met and fallen in love with Prince Florian. She isn’t sighing, passively hoping that some nameless, faceless “Prince” will appear and whisk her away. She’s not just waiting for a man to rescue her. She is fantasizing about her prince, her love, the man she already knows and adores, making good on the implied promise of their song and marrying her. It’s cheesy, but it’s a lovesick fantasy, as so many lovesick fantasies are.


All told, including the Huntsman and Florian, Snow White has no fewer than 9 men gathered around her, helping her and supporting her throughout her story. Like the woodland creatures who also swear loyalty to her, these men are just another example of the natural leadership that Snow White displays throughout her story. When the seven dwarfs go after the Wicked Queen, they are essentially Snow White’s army, chasing down the aggressor who would dare to attack their princess. They all (with the exception of Florian, the creepy dead-girl-kiss-stealer) risk their lives for the sake of Snow White. True, much of this loyalty may be due to misguided sexual feelings or some masculine show of virtue (and we can see this playing out in comical ways with Dopey and his repeated requests for kisses), but there is also a sacred, reverential side to the loyalty these men display. The Huntsman kneels before Snow White and wipes his tears on the hem of her gown. The Dwarfs use their precious gold and jewels to construct a beautiful shrine to the sleeping/dead Princess, and gather around it in mourning. Snow White is somehow above them, even though she “only” cleans and cooks, “merely” acts kindly to small creatures.

Snow White is, truly, a domestic goddess. One that is worthy of praise.