Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Blizzard of Snow Whites

Why is Snow White the fairy tale princess who rose to prominence in the early part of the twenty-first century? And what do we consequently collectively call our cohort of contemporary Snows?

One of the factors at play in Snow's current popularity is her reinvention as, alternatively, 'feisty' and 'bad-ass'. Often this personality change is achieved by putting a sword in her hand. Bill Willingham gives her the Vorpal Sword in Fables and ever since the new Snow Whites have added a blade to their ensemble.

Obviously, this is all an effort to re-imagine Snow White as an assertive, proactive heroine and I won't here debate the feminist implications, which are complex.

But why Snow? Why make Snow, in particular, a feisty, go-to fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century?

In the Grimms, where she properly emerges as Snow White - or Schneewittchen - she does very little about her predicament, apart from some house cleaning and knitting.* Perhaps that's it. Since she does so little - since so little is known of her life beyond her tricolour lottery win in the fairest stakes - it's easier to fill in the blanks and reconstruct her as a fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century. Plus, she comes with name-recognition and a scenery-chewing, evil stepmother. Much is made of the dark origin of fairy tale in the Grimms...

There's a problem, of course. In the popular imagination, the Grimms are still viewed as the earliest source for ancient oral tradition. Their tales of dark woods, creepy witches, and innocent maidens are seen as the core of fairy tale. Oddly, at times they are evoked in contrast to the twentieth century authority of Disney, but as Once Upon A Time illustrates, Disney was highly influenced by the Grimms and really simply updated their tradition.

The Grimms, however, came to the fairy tale stage comparatively late and in the attempt to rehabilitate their passive, innocent and boringly virtuous heroines, contemporary writers are overlooking earlier sources of smart-alecky, cunning, often violent women. I blogged last about Finette, but she's just the tip of the iceberg. Often in glittering palaces, bucolic fields and overcrowded, bustling towns, these streetwise heroines earned their livings and demanded equality in marriage. The Violas, Rosellas and Sapia from Basile, for instance, are all able to assert their worth.

As we see fairy tales again become a vogue, it's worth reminding people that we don't need to simply rehabilitate the often mawkish heroines of a Romantic yore, but that we can rediscover a host of feisty princesses and working girls who, ironically, fell out of favour precisely because of the authority given to those like the Grimms.

* Of course, knitting and housework isn't doing 'nothing.' Such labours were essential to the running of a home economy. More than a few heroines were able to turn their clever fingers, used to ply needles or spin spindles, to good use, but we don't even know what knitting Snow White does and it doesn't appear to achieve anything. This is possibly, simply, because the Grimms didn't know a great deal about it, whereas writers like Basile picked up a thing or two about the value of a spindle or the cut of cloth.

No comments: