Snow White’s Dark Forest of the Psyche

Snow White’s popping up all over with two movies, a popular TV series and another on the way. A graphic novel centered on the Snow White fable is out. Even indie rockers and Snoop Dogg are flocking to Snow.

What’s up?

As one of our earliest childhood memories, Snow White has a certain primal appeal. But the lack of plot leaves room to explore the dark forest of the psyche, that shadowy, terror-filled place of dreams that Snow White, and all of us, must make our way through.

As these regions are reflected in Snow White, matters of beauty, power and love loom large. How have they evolved since Disney’s Depression-Era version?

Beauty is crucial both now and then. Though then it was the whole story. Now there’s more.

In Once Upon a Time Queen Regina is less concerned with being fairist than seeking to avenge the lost love that Snow unwittingly took from her.

In Snow White and the Huntsman Snow’s death would bring Queen Ravenna immortality. The Queen is also wounded and angered by a patriarchy that commits sexual crimes without penalty. She thinks herself a righteous avenger.

But beauty does weigh heavily. For much of history this has been a rare source of female power, a lesson Ravenna learned as a little girl. But the pursuit of beauty destroys her.

Which provokes questions: What will we do to gain allure? And might we destroy ourselves chasing beauty?

Certainly, the pursuit of beauty messes with our health as some live on diet coke and cigarettes, becoming malnourished, anorexic or bulimic, which can end in death. Implants too often deaden sensual nerve endings. Some die on the plastic surgeon’s table.

When beauty feels evasive we can get depressed and down on ourselves, a spiritual dying.

Queen Ravenna devours raven hearts to gain eternal youth. An LA Times reviewer suggests this is frighteningly reflective of our times.

Those bloody little raven hearts she seems to be munching would sell like hotcakes if they had half of the rejuvenating properties we witness on screen.

The evil Queen has been deemed a female Darth Vader who loses her humanity, capturing beautiful women and seeking to consume Snow White’s heart so she can remain “fairest of all.”

In our envy, women become alienated from each other. We demean and slut-shame those whose beauty seems to threaten our own, not seeing that the shaming dampens our sexuality. We scorn others’ flaws even as the distain highlights our own blemishes.

No wonder Ravenna, angry at male dominance, directs her wrath at other women. Too often we do so ourselves.

Or, in one village women disfigured themselves to avoid Ravenna’s evil. How often do women diminish themselves to appease power?

But we find women becoming empowered, too. Disney’s Snow White needs to be rescued. Today’s Snow kicks butt. Sometimes she’s saved. But she saves too. She’s strong, she battles, she defeats Ravenna, ending her reign of terror.

And then there is love. Throughout the decades love remains the most powerful magic. “Love conquers all” is both trite and true. Trite, because we hear it all the time. But maybe we hear it so much because it is true. Love overcomes alienation, reconnects us to one another, brings back our humanity, empowers and offers deep fulfillment.

Perhaps we may have a happy ending, after all.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych, women's psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State University. And I have blogged for Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos.

Posted on June 13, 2012, in body image, feminism, gender, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I wonder about the ‘slut shaming’; I have seen too many young women posing for provocative pictures on many social media sites. It seems that many young women have their self-esteem tied up in their sexuality, while not developing any other aspects of their person. I often think that that is all they feel they have to offer. Am I ‘slut shaming’? I hate to think so.

    • re: It seems that many young women have their self-esteem tied up in their sexuality

      I agree. It’s something I discuss with my students, and here on this blog. I want women and men to think about this, since it is limiting.

      I feel there’s a difference between getting people to think more broadly and insulting them. It’s largely in the presentation. In fact, this post I wrote critiques the over-focus on beauty, even while warning against treating women hurtfully just because they’re very attractive.

  2. I grew up loving Disney’s Snow White, it was my Grandma’s favorite movie when she was little, and so she took me to watch it in theaters and bought me a beautiful Snow White book. Recently, I watched it again, at home, after I watched Snow White and the Huntsman, and the other Snow White movie that came out this year, Mirror Mirror.

    In the Disney version, Snow White escapes and finds a cute little cottage, which we see, her clean, while looking beautiful. She ends up needing to be rescued by true love’s kiss. This happens and they live happily ever after.
    In the Huntsman version, Snow is a fighter and she leads a rebellion against the evil queen. I thought it was very interesting when the film shows the young women being killed and the village of women who scarred themselves so they would not be threatened by their beauty. Snow White ends up killing the evil queen and she rightfully takes her kingdom

    In Mirror Mirror, Snow White escapes and is attacked by the dwarfs who then later help her and teach her how to sword fight, once they realize who she is. This snow white actually ends up saving the prince and the queen kills herself from using too much magic.

    People have always told me I am like Snow White because I am pale with black hair. The Disney princess is not my favorite, but I think these new modern Snow White films are very inspiring. They both show women leading the fight, and that is a very empowering role model for young girls to see.

  3. This is an amazing, thought-provoking post. I really enjoyed reading it.

  4. I watch “Once Upon A Time,” “Mirror Mirror,” and “Snow White and the Huntsman” and I don’t know why America (film industry) is obsessed with Snow White. I did not grow up watching Snow White and come to think of it I have never seen the Disney cartoon version of it. However, I do know that all Disney Princess movies have to do with falling in love and the men being mesmerized by the beauty of the women.

    What will we do to gain allure? And might we destroy ourselves chasing beauty?
    We live in a society that constantly bombards us with what beauty is and how it can be achieved. Being that women are targeted, we know the risk of plastic surgey, extreme diets, but will disregard those risk for a chance at being beautiful. Just how perfection is an illusion to reality, America’s perspective of what beauty is is an illusion too. Beauty is tied to the stereotypes that women are placed in “dainty, weak, just for show…” and these 3 Snow White shows, depicts Snow White being beautiful yet strong mentally and physically.

    I think once women learn to understand that beauty is more than the outside appearance, they will appreciate who they are. My mom always tells me “a person can a beautiful on the outside, but ugly on the inside.” And just like the poisonous apple, people can have a poisonous spirit no matter what their outer shell is looking like.

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