Snow White: From Sexist Tale to Feminist Film

Gender roles are constantly being changed and reassigned with each passing decade. What men and women were expected to do ten years ago is starkly different to the roles expected today. Back in the day, women were to be homemakers while men were the breadwinners. Nowadays, although women are empowered and have access to the same opportunities as men, there is still a disparage in gender roles, where females are expected to upkeep their looks and essentially satisfy the male gaze. This is especially evident in modern day cinema.


There are, however, those few film exceptions that choose to keep their female protagonists fully clothed and powerful. One such film is Rupert Sander’s Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). Ironically enough, the film is based on the tale originally recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Their version of the tale adheres to a more “traditional” (or, bluntly put, sexist) female gender role when it comes to Snow White.

Snow White is, as is typical in most tales collected Brothers Grimm, a beautiful young girl who has a jealous stepmother. After asking her magical mirror who the fairest one of the land was one unfortunate day, it replies “You, my queen, may have a beauty quite rare, but Snow White is a thousand times more fair.” Had the mirror lied, and continued to satisfy the queen’s vanity by responding with the usual “You, my queen, are the fairest of all.”, poor Snow White would have been spared the cruel treatment that ensued. Shortly after receiving this utmost terrible news, Snow White’s stepmother hires a huntsman to take the young girl to the forest and kill her. If killing a child because of a mirror’s opinion isn’t outrageous enough, the stepmother also wants her lungs and liver to be delivered to her as proof of her murder.

Luckily, the huntsman had something close to a conscience and decided to let Snow White get lost in the forest and killed by some wild animal rather than killing her by his own hand. As for fulfilling the stepmother’s organ requests, he kills a wild boar and takes its lungs and liver to her (because a boar’s organs look identical to human’s). Meanwhile, Snow White falls upon the seven Dwarf’s cabin, forgets all common courtesy and eats their food, then proceeds to sleep in their beds. The dwarfs find Snow White and choose to let her stay in exchange for maid work. Snow White is to cook, clean, and sew and knit for the dwarfs in exchange for their hospitality.


This is the point where the tale takes a hard left toward sexism and gender roles. Snow White is apparently so dim that the stepmother manages to dress up as two different personalities and trick her into her own death. The tale makes it clear that the female brain cannot process anything more complex than cleaning and knitting. The male hero sweeps in and saves the day by accidentally dislodging a piece of poisoned apple from Snow White’s throat and bringing her back to life (somehow, in fairy tale logic, being asphyxiated by a piece of fruit stuck in your wind pipe doesn’t permanently kill you).

Rupert Sander’s film changes Snow White to a modern day, intelligent and strong character which defies cinema norm even in today’s standards. In the film Snow White and the Huntsman, Snow White’s stepmother, Ravenna, pursues Snow White to drain the youth from her and maintain her beauty. She hires a huntsman to track her down in exchange for the resurrection of his dead wife. However, upon learning that she did not have the power to bring his wife back, the huntsman helps Snow White to escape. After a series of close calls with Ravenna, Snow White eventually eats a poisoned and falls into a deep sleep, from which a kiss from the huntsman awakens her. Having nearly died, Snow White kicks into her empowered female role and makes it her goal to exact revenge on Ravenna. She trains in combat and takes command of the Duke’s army. Snow White leads them to battle with her evil stepmother, and, using one of the moves she learned from the huntsman, kills her.


What makes this version of the tale satisfying is the new look being given to the female character. She is no longer completely dependent upon the male character to help her out of her predicaments, rather, she takes it upon herself to learn the skills others have to offer and help herself. In other words, Snow White can fight her own battles. The film, however, offers a fair balance between complete independence and co-dependency. While Snow White was the one to kill the enemy and save the land in the end, she still worked with her male counterparts and male and female battled alongside one another.


Sander’s take on the tale is a welcomed change from the Grimms’ tale. Little girls and boys won’t be given the message that females are pretty but incompetent and males are the brains and power of any operation; rather, they will be told that males and females are equals that can empower one another by working together.

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