“Once upon a time…”
These words conjure up familiar images known from one end of the earth to the other. Every culture has their own fairy tales, and many of our favorites have ancient versions from around the world. These fairy tales have not remained static; from the very beginning of time our pet tales have been told and retold to reflect the changing standards and cultural mores of the time, often with the goal of reinforcing stereotypical male/female roles. This has led many to decry fairy tales as misogynistic rubbish, fit only to line bird cages. Nonetheless, that attitude does not serve the greater purpose or reflect the reality of what fairy tales are, or what fairy tales do.
One of the most common modern grievances with fairy tales is that the stories feature female characters in roles that are subservient, silly, ignorant, passive, helpless, naïve, pathetic, and weak. It’s rare to find a female character with the wit, courage, strength, and means to protect herself and her loved ones. Invariably, the damsel in distress (be it a simple miller’s daughter in “Rumplestiltskin”, a nobleman’s daughter in “Cinderella”, or a princess like “Sleeping Beauty”) must wait for her prince, her “knight in shining armor”, to rescue her. Once the (minimal) character development of our “heroine” is complete, generally with a few sentences describing her beauty and obedience, the female in question is placed in peril from which she can only be rescued by a brave prince or kind fairy. By this point you have a moralistic, didactic plot with any undesirable elements that would defeat the message stripped away.
That said, fairy tales reflect the society that tells them. While the modern “Disney-fied” princesses still fall into the predictable roles in which the male is always the hero and the female is always the victim needing to be rescued, this idea has historically been challenged during many different time periods, often with new stories that enter the lexicon of the fairy tale, such as Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. At the same time, the image of the helpless female in a male-dominated world met with opposition from the time of the earliest printed fairy tales. While in modern literature fairies can be either sex, by tradition the Faerie were all female. Procreation was accomplished by magic and by luring human men into Faerie-land. For example, a Welsh tale called the Mabinogion featured a goddess-like female named Rhiannon, who duped a human, Pwyll, into marrying her. Another example would be the fairy godmother in “Cinderella” who used magic to thwart the plans of Cinderella’s evil stepmother. Yet, fairies were not all beneficent. In “Sleeping Beauty”, a jealous and evil fairy gifted the newborn princess with a fatal curse; it was only due to the efforts of the good fairies that the child was saved. Women did have strong roles to play, but even these formidable women were unquestionably one-sided and the most powerful roles were often that of the villain.
For the last several decades, an entire culture of counter-fairy tales has blossomed, some written for children, but many written with adults as the target audience. All of them turn ordinary fairy tales on their heads. One of the most dramatic adaptations is in the character of Snow White. Long the archetype of what feminists have reviled about conventional fairy tales, the motherless little princess is sweet, beautiful, docile, and helpless. She is loathed by her stepmother and abandoned by her father. The reason for the neglect varies from one version to the next, the least offensive being the unfortunate man’s demise. Moreover, in the original tale her mother wanted her dead, not the stepmother of later versions.
Poor, pitiful Snow White is taken into the forest to be executed for the “sin” of being more beautiful than the Queen. Her innocence and beauty convinces the Queen’s minion to “spare her life” – although leaving a defenseless child in a forest is likely to fulfill the Queen’s command in short order. She endures long enough to find shelter for the night with a band of men who are complete strangers to her. These odd men (not always dwarves, in some editions they are thieves instead- even better!) inform the lass she may stay, as long as she cooks, cleans, and never, ever, talks to anyone.
Later editions often abbreviate what happens next, but the original tale is quite graphic. The Queen, after having eaten what she believes is Snow White’s heart, discovers from her Magic Mirror (which cannot lie) that she has been deceived. Snow White lives! She concocts three separate plans to murder the princess, each involving trickery and magic. Concealing her identity, she gives Snow White a set of magic laces for her girdle (sometimes described as ribbons for her hair), which tighten to the point that Snow White cannot breathe, and appears dead. The “dwarves” come back just in time, and cut the laces, rescuing her. The queen, once more disguised as a peddler woman, next brings a poisoned comb. The moment the comb touches Snow White’s hair, she falls down “as dead.” Again, the men arrive just in time to rescue this poor, beleaguered child. They remove the comb and she recovers. Finally, the evil Queen transforms herself into a hideous old hag… tempting Snow White with the most beautiful apple ever created, echoing the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. This time, Snow White’s guardians are too late; they cannot save her.
Placing her in a glass coffin, they cover her with white flowers. A prince, having heard stories of the beautiful maiden in the glass coffin, offers to buy the coffin, with the damsel inside. In the original story, the prince eventually has his way (as princes usually do) and when the coffin is moved, the coffin-bearers stumble and the bit of apple falls from Snow White’s mouth, awakening her. Later versions have her being roused by “True Love’s Kiss”, reported to be the most potent magic in the world.
As is customary, the prince and the princess are married and live “happily ever after”, but the demise of the queen varies according to the teller of the tale. In the 1937 Disney film, she falls off a cliff. In the original story, she’s forced to wear iron shoes heated in a fire until burning red and dances herself to death. Details of her demise are really irrelevant; her vain and malevolent nature is the source of her defeat.
Not your mother’s “Snow White”…
In contrast, several recent retellings of Snow White’s story reveal a very different paradigm: one in which the helpless and hapless little princess learns to handle her troubles herself. 2011 and 2012 could be termed “The Age of Snow White” with two feature movies and a television show released based on her tale.
“Mirror, Mirror”, starring Julia Roberts as the evil queen, was released Summer 2012 to mixed reviews. As New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis puts it, “Mr. Singh [the director] knows how to make performers and sets look good, he has trouble putting them into vibrant, kinetic, meaningful play, which effectively means that he’s a better window dresser than a movie director. ‘Mirror Mirror’ is consistently watchable, even when it drifts into dullness because Mr. Singh always gives you something to look at, whether it’s the Queen’s blood-red gown, the sailing clouds decorating her bedroom or the dwarfs’ woodland home. Everything looks as if it has been meticulously selected for this or that spot, including the performers. Ms. Roberts, Ms. Collins and Armie Hammer, as Prince Alcott, look as pretty as fairy-book illustrations, but their performances are similarly one dimensional, as if they had been art directed into place instead of cut loose.”
The plot is thin, and the characters who should have been the primary focus of the film (the Queen, Snow White, and the Prince), take a back seat to supporting characters like the dwarves and the Queen’s henchman, Brighton (rendered by Nathan Lane.) At the same time, “Mirror, Mirror,” intended to be a comedic family film, serves to audiences a much stronger Snow White than conventionally seen. After rescuing (kidnapping?) the ensorcelled Prince from his wedding to the Queen, Snow White and the dwarves realize that only true love’s kiss can break the spell; in this version Snow White does the kissing. Later, when she realizes that her new friends (not to mention her beloved Prince) are being attacked because of her, she locks them in the dwarfs’ house in order to protect them from the enemy that she feels she must face alone. At last the evil Queen, defeated but still vengeful, offers Snow White the poisoned apple on Snow White’s wedding day. Snow White refuses the apple, forcing the Queen to eat instead, taunting her stepmother, “Age before beauty. It’s important to know when you’ve been beaten.”
The significantly darker and more violent “Snow White and the Huntsman” was intended for a more mature audience. This take on Snow White’s story is very close to the original tales in tone, but did not wow the reviewers due to weak acting and occasionally pretentious dialogue. “This year’s second revisionist take on the Brothers Grimm classic, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’ is a visual treat with some expertly staged (if bloodlessly PG-13) battle scenes….But fails to realize the full potential of its ambitiously dark vision,” claims the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick.
While this Snow White gives the audience a young woman with a backbone and immense depths of courage, it still portrays the classic victim mentality in which she must be rescued by a male hero. Snow White defeats the Evil Queen, but only after being rescued herself repeatedly.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking treatment of Snow White’s character, and certainly the most multifaceted, has come from 2011-2012 ABC’s series “Once Upon A Time.” Produced by Disney, the award-winning show is now halfway through its second season.
“Once Upon A Time” requires a certain level of attentiveness just to appreciate the plot; attempting to jump into it in the middle is likely to give one a headache. Rather than the simple and straightforward retellings of classic stories audiences have seen in the past with series like Shelly Duvall’s “Fairy Tale Theater” in 1982, this series plots a different, and far more elaborate, course. Created by the same twisted minds that brought us “Lost,” “Once Upon A Time” presents us with an idea of what our favorite characters might look like in the real world, with a semi-plausible explanation of how they get there in the first place. This series makes a point of questioning the values of every original tale, and each character’s tale is told via flashbacks over the course of several episodes. There is no attempt to be chronological or linear; in one episode the audience may meet the adult Snow (rarely referred to by the full “Snow White”), but in the next it may be Snow as a child. Even after viewing nearly thirty episodes, the audience still finds out something new in every one about not only the main focus, Snow and her family, but background characters as well. The major discoveries include finding out how Rumplestiltskin became evil and that Red Riding Hood, called Ruby, is the wolf; her crimson hood helps her control her monthly transformation. Even when given a morsel of back story, the audience is often left with more questions than were answered. Newsday’s Verne Gay writes, “‘Once Upon a Time’ is cleanly told even as it toggles between real and fairy-tale worlds, where there are actual fairies, but it’s also probably worth noting that this is the creation of two former ‘Lost’ writers (Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz). Logic, in other words, is not necessarily a given. What’s best about ‘Time’ is its ambition; it glows with a near-theatrical shine, challenging viewers to think about TV drama as something other than boilerplate. There’s a softhearted romantic core as well, or, as Henry would have us believe, dreams really do come true.”
The Evil Queen (Regina) has a pretty substantial metamorphosis, forever altering her relationship with not only Snow and her family, but with the entire fairy tale realm. Regina and Snow do not begin as adversaries in the magical world, and young Regina is not malevolent; she’s remarkably gentle and kind-hearted. When they first meet, Regina instinctively saves young Snow White’s life; Regina doesn’t know Snow’s identity (or, more importantly, that of Snow’s father.)
Cora and Regina
Regina’s mother, Cora, does know and schemes to marry Regina off to Snow’s father so that Regina can be Queen. Meanwhile Regina is hopelessly in love with someone else, and wants to elope with him; Cora slaughters her sweetheart in front of Regina’s eyes when Snow naively reveals the lovers’ plan in an effort to help Regina marry the man she loves. Regina never forgives Snow for her “betrayal” and eventually this is the genesis of Regina’s decent into wickedness, and one might even say, madness.
The real character development for Snow comes after she reaches adulthood. Regina sends the Huntsman to kill Snow, and what changes his mind is not her innocence or beauty, but a letter she asks him to give to Regina in which she apologizes to Regina and accepts the retribution being dealt. Later, she goes on to meet those who will become some of her closest friends, among them Ruby, who teaches Snow many of the skills essential to be able to survive in the woods. In due course, Snow meets her Prince Charming, David, and they fall in love. Suffering many hardships before being reunited, it’s through these trials that the audience sees a new complexity to Snow White. When her beloved is threatened with death, she rescues him, repeatedly. One moment in particular stands out in stark contrast to what has been seen in previous versions: when Regina offers Snow the poisoned apple, Snow is told that the apple will not work if she does not eat willingly. Knowing what is going to happen, Snow resolutely choses to eat the apple in order to save her Prince from certain death.
Not a child tempted by something pretty or tricked into eating by evil, Snow is clearly an adult willing to sacrifice to save those she loves. Later, in the “real world”, the audience sees the Storybrooke version of Snow, an elementary school teacher named Mary Margaret Blanchard. Gradually progressing from the sweet, innocent young woman audiences expect Snow White to be, she becomes a formidable advocate for a young child in her classroom, fighting against the most powerful person in Storybrooke: the Mayor, Regina Mills.
Henry & Emma
This child turns out to be very important to Snow in ways she never could have imagined. Far from merely being an adored student, Henry will play a key role in bringing Snow and Charming’s daughter Emma to Storybrooke. Sent away at birth to protect her from Regina’s curse, Emma survives in the foster care system, living a rough life, and eventually gives birth to a child while in jail, a child she surrenders up for adoption. Henry was that child, and the audience quickly discovers his adoptive mother is none other than Regina. Convinced that Regina is the Evil Queen because of a book of fairy tales given to him by Mary Margaret, Henry tracks Emma down on the evening of her 28th birthday, the date prophesized as being when she would break the curse that sent the entire story book world into Maine.
Charming places Emma into the magic wardrobe in an illustration from Henry’s book.
Henry is a major character in this tale, for he serves as the catalyst for not only returning Emma to Storybrooke and breaking the curse, but for teaching the adults around him fundamental lessons. Regina is disinclined to do anything that would hurt Henry, because she actually does love him in her own limited way, and when she sees how her actions are impacting him she changes her tactics, as when a curse aimed at Emma harms Henry instead. She still wants to destroy Snow, Charming, and Emma, but she intends to do it in a way that will not further damage her adopted son or his relationship with her. In season 2, she even goes so far as to promise him that she will give up using magic. Regina’s conflicting motivations provide depth to the character not previously seen, and will continue to color the world of Once Upon A Time for a while yet.
Emma does succeed in breaking the curse at the end of Season 1, at which time magic comes to Storybrooke and the townspeople remember who they were back in their old home. Don’t count Regina out just yet, however. At the beginning of Season 2, she conjures an evil from the old world that attacks Emma. During the battle, Emma is sucked into a portal that sends her back to the fairy tale realm. Snow dives after her, telling Charming, “I’ve lost her once; I will not lose her again!”
Once there, Snow rescues Emma repeatedly, again proving she is a strong and capable woman. She also proves herself a leader when she stumbles over a remnant left behind when Regina cast the spell.
Snow and Emma shortly before their return to Storybrooke.
The audience knows Snow’s cleverness, wisdom, leadership, courage, and strength will ultimately save the day rather than a prince and a kiss. There are plenty of kisses (and princes!) to go around, but they are nothing but gilding on the mirror reflecting this saga to those listening. And that makes a pretty great fairy tale, one that adults and children the world over can enjoy. David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle tells his readers, “The show is not only great, fluffy fun, but note that it occupies a traditional family time slot on Sunday nights….Family fare is tricky these days – shows that are too G-rated aren’t usually sophisticated enough for older members of the family. But ‘Once Upon a Time’ is both family-friendly and smart enough to win viewers of any age and level of sophistication.”
The mother/daughter relationship is one of the adult themes explored.
Four generations: (left to right) Emma, Snow, Regina, and Cora
“Once Upon A Time” gives us a Snow White we can allow our daughters to look up to and admire. At the same time, the rich story arc explores profound themes that most children are not yet sophisticated enough to grasp. These include the results of children witnessing violence, the generational impact abuse can have on families, the effects of abandonment, adoption as a child’s “best chance” at a good life, marital faithfulness, addiction, and more. The audience sees one young woman go from being a genuinely good person, to a murderous sorceress because she witnesses the death of her beloved at the hands of her mother; another young woman grows stronger through adversity, gaining wisdom, courage and the willingness to fight when necessary, yet never becoming that which she’s fighting to overcome or losing sight of the truth that her nemesis is as brokenhearted as she is evil.
Regina shares a tender moment with Henry.
So sit back and enjoy the ride. In Disney’s Sunday night fairy tale series “Once Upon A Time,” we’re reintroduced to the stories of our childhood, but with a twist. No longer is Snow White a meek and mild damsel-in-distress patiently waiting to be rescued; she’s a courageous and resilient woman who will rescue herself, thank you very much!