Everybody wants a piece of Snow White this year. We've got two movies that retell the iconic fairy tale this season — Mirror, Mirror (released last week) and Snow White and the Huntsman (coming in June). Hit TV series Once Upon a Time centers on an updated version of the Snow White story. Another TV series, based on a comic about the Evil Queen's mirror, is in production. This is more than just a Hollywood trend. Judging from Once Upon a Time's throbbing fandom, it's a cultural obsession.
Why can't we get enough of the Wicked Queen and her princess rival? Put simply, Snow White is one of the few fairy tales about a political struggle between two powerful women. It may be the perfect fairy tale for an era when Americans can't decide whether women should control nations, or lie locked in glass coffins awaiting a prince to release them.
We're All So Depressed
The creators of hit series Once Upon a Time suggested recently that their show is so popular because times are so tough that people just want "comfort" stories. It's a good theory. Disney's wildly successful animated Snow White was released in 1937, after the worst years of the Great Depression. Americans ate up Disney's tale of a princess rescued from an evil, rich queen by hard-working coal miners. It's easy to imagine audiences of the 1930s wanting to flee the horrors of the dustbowl famine by plunging into Snow White's psychedelically green forest, full of friendly animals and song.
Though today's economic downturn may not be as dramatic as the Great Depression, it has left millions poorer than they were, and many without the homes they thought they owned. So a fairy tale show like Once Upon a Time might be a welcome respite. Except — is Once Upon a Time really an escape from today's problems? Like pretty much every variant of Snow White that's sailed across both the little and big screens of late, the show updates the fairy tale to include a fairly harsh picture of reality. And that reality always features women who are at war with each other.
A Fairy Tale For Mean Girls
The plot of Once Upon a Time centers on the idea that the Wicked Queen has cast a spell to hurl Snow White, Prince Charming, and a stable of other fairy tale figures into the contemporary world. They exist in a state of perpetual now-ness in an enchanted Maine town. None of them remember who they really are, and their lives are anything but magical. Snow White has been consigned to the role of mousy school teacher and nurse, having a painfully furtive affair with the married Prince. The Wicked Queen is the evil town mayor who constantly schemes to undermine Snow White — mostly using weapons from her mean girl arsenal, but occasionally doing more dramatic things like framing Snow White for murder.
At one point, the Wicked Queen Mayor unmasks Snow White's affair with the Prince by having minions spray paint the word "tramp" on Snow White's car — a classic mean girl move. In this show, Snow White is trapped in an endless soap opera bitch fight with the Wicked Queen. Rather than escapism, this is more like an allegory about the bloody battleground where female relationships are forged and broken.
Why Do You Keep Asking "Who Is The Fairest of Them All"?
Modern Snow White stories extend this battleground beyond social backstabbing and slut-shaming, however. In Mirror, Mirror, for example, Snow White never becomes a pseudo-corpse imprisoned in glass. Instead, she becomes a kind of Robin Hood figure, and the dwarves her Merry Men — they steal from the Wicked Queen (Julia Roberts) and give to the poor, thus recruiting more loyal followers for Snow White when she eventually becomes a queen herself. Meanwhile, Mirror, Mirror's Wicked Queen has become an evil politician something like Once Upon a Time's mayor. Roberts' Queen is all about unfairly taxing the people to fund her insane quest for beauty products that will keep her looking "the fairest."
While older tellings of Snow White suggest that the Wicked Queen's power is basically magical, these new versions of the tale are explicitly about her as a politician. And her only true rival has a political role to play too. In Mirror, Mirror, Snow White basically becomes an insurgent (though this is played for laughs), while in Once Upon a Time she becomes essentially the mayor's political prisoner. What I mean to say is that the rivalry between the Wicked Queen and Snow White goes beyond catty mommy-daughter issues. The two are political rivals, who fight with money and the law, not magic and bird-on-the-finger sweetness.
And yet, if you listen to what the Wicked Queen asks her mirror in every retelling of the story, the whole rivalry is really over who is the prettiest. Why would a politician care whether she's the fairest? She can crush an armored soldier with her fists. She uses bee stings as lipstick. She cuts people's hearts out. I mean, why retain the "who is the fairest" question at all, if you're going to completely rewrite other aspects of the story? The answer is that these fairy tales — like the rest of American pop culture — are struggling with how to represent powerful women.
Historically, women gained power through sexual desirability. Today, we have enough female politicians, CEOs, military leaders, and media moguls that it's clear women can take power without looking like Julia Roberts. And yet when Hillary Clinton was running for president, her haircuts and suits were the subject of ridiculous media scrutiny. VP candidate Sarah Palin was once a mayor and a beauty queen. Like Once Upon a Time's Wicked Queen, Palin tried to be powerful and yet she bent over backwards to retain her "feminine" attractiveness at the same time.
As a culture, we are trapped between our history of relegating women to "hot or not" status, and a future world where feminine power is not about who is the "fairest." Snow White is a fairy tale that explores what this means.
At the Border Between the War Movie and the Bitch Movie
None of today's Snow White stories dramatize the conflict between the old and new forms of female power more than Snow White and the Huntsman.
Though the movie hasn't come out yet, Snow White and the Huntsman is already wowing audiences with its intense, violent trailers showing Snow White as a commander of armies and the Wicked Queen (Charlize Theron) as what amounts to a female version of Darth Vader. When Theron asks, "Who is the fairest of them all?" it's clear what the real question is: "Who is the most badass of them all?" This is a rivalry between two powerful women that's verging on Game of Thrones territory — all the bluebirds and bunnies have been stripped away to reveal nothing more than the clash of steel on steel.
It's as if Snow White and the Huntsman is struggling for a narrative adequate to explain what it means to be a powerful woman. Is this a war movie, traditionally a male genre? Or is it a bitch movie, full of snarky putdowns and fashion, designed to appeal to women? I think it's likely that shifting ideas about female power have helped create a strange hybrid genre where female and male rivalries start to look awfully like the same thing.
Fairy tales are, by definition, stories that get retold. They do not exist as static texts, but rather as variants on a theme. Like fairy tales, our social conventions change when we rethink old ideas. To bring women into positions of public authority, we've had to revise old laws and tweak our traditions. Maybe that's why a fairy tale, retold in many new ways, is the perfect vehicle for working through cultural transformation. As Snow White's story changes, so too does the social understanding of female power — along with women's understanding of our own potential.