Snow White has, once again, arisen from her magic sleeping death. Her tale is featured in two new movies: Mirror, Mirror is a light-hearted, family-oriented take featuring what has to be admitted is a pretty boffo Bollywood ending while Snow White and The Huntsman is a summer action-adventure version complete with massive battles and Snow White looking remarkably like Joan of Arc in many scenes.
If you don’t remember Bollywood, battle scenes or Joan of Arc in either the Grimm’s fairy tale or the similar iconic 1937 Disney animated movie, you are correct. The two remakes have little in common with the Grimm’s tale. However, I do believe that stories have a life of their own and that they emerge or re-emerge, sometimes in altered form, when they are needed. The two new movies have a stunning number of themes common to each other but not the original story or 1930s animation that seem to speak to the importance of women’s spiritual power in our troubled times.
If you haven’t read the original Grimms tale, you can easily find both versions (one from 1812 and another from 1819) on the internet. The plot is almost exactly the same as the Disney movie. However, the Grimm versions have enough goddess symbolism – black, white, red, mirrors, owls, hawks and ravens – to show a likely connection to much older stories of female divinity. The last scene in Grimm’s tale – the evil queen forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes – even invokes visions of wrathful goddesses. The story might even speak to the overthrow of the ancient religion: in the 1812 version the evil queen is Snow White’s mother, the dwarves refuse to bury Snow White in the earth, and “pure” Snow White is consistently spoken of as pious while the evil queen is “godless.”
Neither remake intentionally mines the rich symbolism of the original story to explore themes of women’s spirituality. In fact, the production notes of Snow White and the Huntsmen specifically state that it is intended to be a “masculinization” of the original story. Whuh? I think they are referring to the battles and action-adventure tone. This, to me, doesn’t speak well of perceptions of either men or women (if they think that Grimm’s passive, housewifely Snow White is “feminine” and violence is “masculine”), which makes the fact that both movies can be seen as strongly supportive and evocative of women’s deep spiritual and strong and timely political power all the more fascinating.
If we consider the commonalities of the two movies as a possible re-emerging of an ancient story that holds messages from some deep place within us, what do they say?
Both movies take place at a time of great desperation. The evil queen has rendered her queendom barren and repressed. The earth is being destroyed, people are starving, and despair and distrust are rampant. The connection to the Persephone and other similar stories is strong in the Huntsman movie, where Snow White is said to be life itself who will heal the earth. Again in the Huntsman movie, women are particularly endangered by the queen who has them kidnapped to steal their youth and beauty. While the 21st century is more hopeful than the queendoms in the two movies, what we do now environmentally, politically and socially could mean either salvation or doom and the threats to women’s rights have recently become especially vicious. Message: We are in times of great decision and danger.
In both movies, Snow White becomes a political leader, leading her people in revolution against the evil queen. In Hollywood’s action- adventure movies, leadership equals warfare and that’s the unfortunate path each takes. If we can look beyond this, however, we see that in each movie Snow White is followed by her people, men included, because of her personal qualities rather than her skills as a warrior or status as princess. She has an inner power that is irresistible and just what is needed at that moment. Message: The time for women leaders who will lead not by might in battle but by our spiritual strength, wisdom, and commitment to peace and justice has come.
Women’s communities are strong in each movie and provide Snow White with essential support. In Mirror, Mirror, it is the women servants who care for Snow White and teach her the self-confidence she needs when she grows into a woman. The Huntsman version has an amazing sequence of Snow White and her entourage being sheltered by a village of courageous veiled women and children who have mutilated their faces rather than be taken by the evil queen to steal their beauty and who are bravely committed to one another and Snow White. Message: An essential element of women’s true power comes from women supporting one another.
Ultimately, the Snow Whites and evil queens in both movies choose their spiritual power wisely or unwisely. Snow White and the evil queen can be seen as two faces of female power: one is dedicated to service, truth, and using inner resources for a better world and the other is consumed with fear, uses deceit and violence, and has no concern for the havoc and destruction her actions cause. In Mirror, Mirror, the evil queen even has an alter-reflection who warns her against using her power for evil instead of good. Though Snow White clearly has the strongest power, the evil queen is also able to create massive misery for herself, others, and the entire earth itself. Message: All women are powerful, but we must choose how to use our power wisely.
In both movies, learning to rewrite our personal stories is key. Both Snow Whites grow up being told by the evil queen that they are powerless, yet each finds her own power. The Huntsman’s evil queen grows up being told that her beauty is her only protection, and she never rewrites that story for herself, but lives it to her own and others’ destruction. (Interestingly, the evil queen in the Grimm stories is concerned only with Snow White’s beauty, not her youth. It’s only our youth-obsessed culture that has made old age a symbol of evil or female powerlessness in these movies.) Message: We must examine our personal stories and rewrite them when we must. We must also look at our cultural stories that have led to our global catastrophes and rewrite those, sometimes with the help of the ancient stories.
While these movies aren’t what I would have created as a Snow White remake, given their violence, especially, I have to admit that I wish I had seen either one of them when I was a child rather than the 1937 Disney version with its message of female powerlessness and the idea that charming princes are all women need. Even if the intent of making the movies was to sell tickets and they include lots and lots of fighting, I still love that they can both be seen as exploring women’s spiritual power and leadership as a force for great good. These aren’t the only movies that can be made from a retelling of Snow White. Perhaps the next one can speak of women’s power beyond the paradigm of violence as a way to solve conflict. Let this be a challenge for us to find new ways to retell old stories, or undo the changes made to ancient stories, of women’s power whether to ourselves, each other in small groups, or through the media. The time has come.