This parent-child discussion guide for Walt Disney Studios’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a supplement to The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937): A parent-child discussion guide
by Lori Day, M.Ed.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More.
Common Sense Media recommends Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for children ages 5 and up, due to frightening scenes involving the wicked queen/old hag, the order given to the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring back her heart, and Snow White’s subsequent flight through the dark, enchanted forest. The review notes that the film may be appropriate for children as young as two, though. “Know your child,” they say; “some content may not be right for some kids.”
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is based on the well-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The movie, released in December of 1937, was the first feature-length animated film by Disney, and indeed in movie history. Snow White is the original Princess in the Disney lineup.
In the opening scene, Snow White’s step-mother, the wicked queen, gazes into a magic mirror and asks one of the most famous questions in all of children’s literature and film: “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” Accustomed to receiving reassurance from the mirror that she, the queen, is most beautiful in the kingdom, the queen flies into a rage when she is informed that Snow White has become the fairest in the land. The vain and jealous queen then orders one of her huntsmen to kill the princess and bring back her heart as proof of the deed. However, the man disobeys orders, takes pity on Snow White, and tells her to flee. He returns to the queen with a pig’s heart to cover his betrayal.
As Snow White runs through the woods, forest animals befriend and help her, until eventually she discovers the cottage of the seven dwarfs, who take her in and protect her. But the queen learns from the magic mirror that Snow White is still alive, and sets off to find her and complete the unfinished work of the huntsman. She will stop at nothing to rid the kingdom of her only rival.
The queen uses witchcraft to turn herself into an old hag who tricks Snow White into eating a poisoned apple and succumbing to the Sleeping Death, a curse of eternal sleep whose only cure is a kiss from her first and one true love, the handsome prince. The trademark Disney happily-ever-after ending ensues when Snow White is awakened from her slumbers by the prince’s kiss, and then is literally carried off to his castle and the future of her dreams…the one she had wished for and waited for since the beginning of the film.
Here are some suggestions for discussion, roughly categorized by age level. Use these as a rough guide: tailor them to your own child’s level.
- The Pretty Princess Mandate
The Pretty Princess Mandate originated with Snow White, whose fair skin, raven-black hair, and rosy cheeks and lips are the reason her step-mother at first forces her to be a scullery maid and later tries to kill her. Beauty is the most important attribute the queen clings to, and the rivalry presented by Snow White’s emerging womanly beauty is what propels the story. Youth is equated with beauty throughout, while middle age is called “old” and is equated with female ugliness, wickedness, jealousy and cattiness.
Snow White’s beauty is in many ways different than the beauty of other the Disney princesses who followed her. Her short hair, primary-colored gown, rather flat chest, legs of typical length, and relatively realistic waist-to-hip ratio were emblematic of the 1930’s, an era that was not yet sexualized for girls, and not yet pinkified either. She wore capped sleeves as well. The bare-shouldered look came later, leading many of today’s young girls to believe beauty is sleeveless!
You can help your children recognize the ways in which beauty ideals are conveyed in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and how this movie created the archetype of girls striving to be “fairest in the land.”
With children ages 5 and 6, as you watch the movie together, here are a few things you might wonder about out loud:
“It seems like being the most beautiful in the land is very important to the Queen. That’s too bad. Girls and women should be judged for their insides, not their outsides!”
“I notice that in a lot of Disney movies, the people who made the movies make mothers and other older women look ugly. They also make them be bad people.” (If you’d like, you can use an example from another movie your child already knows, like Ursula in The Little Mermaid.) “I don’t like the way the wicked queen becomes an old hag in this movie. What do you think of that?”
Make it real: You might ask, “Why do you think the queen is so jealous of Snow White? Do you think that Snow White is beautiful in part because she is younger? Let’s think about the moms and aunties and grandmothers we know. They’re not ugly, and they’re really nice! I don’t think women really get ugly and mean just because they get older. I wonder why this happens in the movies…”
Also, let your daughter know: “I think that what a girl does is a lot more important than how she looks. How girls look is just how they are born, but girls can choose to do whatever they want.”
With children ages 7 and 8, you can take these points even further after the movie ends. For example, offer commentary followed by questions like these:
“In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the people who made the movie made it seem like young women are beautiful, but middle-aged or elderly women are ugly. Snow White was rewarded for being beautiful—her dreams came true. But the queen was punished for being ugly—she died at the end of the movie. Did you notice that?” Give your child some time to react—see if she understands your point and, if so, ask what she thinks of it.
“You know, in Snow White, I noticed something interesting about the story. The first thing you learn about the queen is that she is very vain and jealous. You see that she tries to remain the fairest in the land by dressing Snow White in rags and making her be a servant, to hide her emerging beauty. Why do you think beauty is so important to the queen?”
Make it real: Take some time to talk to your child about how important it is not to become too focused on how they look, and to have fun being a child—learning, playing, and developing talents and interests. Be a good role model and avoid talking too much about beauty, weight, and so forth. Help focus your child on inner beauty. You might ask: “I think it’s more important to be beautiful on the inside than on the outside. What do you think?”
With older girls, you can also connect the rivalry the Queen feels towards Snow White to the rivalries between girls and women in reality. “Do you think that in real life, rivalry between girls and women over who is more beautiful ever happens? I think our culture teaches females that physical appearance is the most important thing about them, and makes them competitive with each other about it. Can you think of any ways you see this happening?” Let your daughter know that you think these rivalries are unhealthy—that it’s better to focus on what we can do, rather than to constantly compare ourselves to other people.
- The Gender Stereotypes
Snow White is the youngest in the princess franchise, about 14 years of age. As the movie opens, she is singing with white doves, symbolic of her purity, gentleness and peaceful nature. She is classically passive, dreamy, wishing and waiting for dreams to come true, and is a static character who lacks true agency in her own life. She is a damsel in distress throughout the movie, albeit one who has mastered cooking, cleaning and nagging the dwarfs that she mothers!
With children ages 5 and 6, after the movie is over, you can discuss the stereotype that girls are passive and put their own needs last by referring back to specific scenes. For example:
“It seems like Snow White is always daydreaming and wishing for things that she wants, but that she doesn’t have any power of her own to get what she wants. Even the queen understands this. When she turns herself into an old hag, she knows she can get Snow White to taste the poisoned apple if she calls it a ‘wishing apple.’ Do you think it’s better for girls to wish for things and hope it works out, or to take more control of their lives? I want to make sure you grow up knowing that you are in charge of your own life.”
“Do you remember the scene when Snow White was running through the dark forest and seeing all those eyes looking at her, before she realized they were friendly animals? She was very scared, and she was crying on the ground. But when the little animals came out to comfort her, she said, ‘I’m so ashamed of the fuss I made…I really feel quite happy now…everything’s going to be alright.’ I didn’t think she needed to apologize to the animals for feeling afraid and crying. It’s okay for her to have her own feelings! Sometimes I think girls are taught that other people’s needs and feelings come first, before their own. Do you think that is fair?”
With children ages 7 and 8, you can discuss some of the more pernicious gender stereotypes about females that were most apparent in the relationship between Grumpy and Snow White:
“Wow, Grumpy sure seemed suspicious of Snow White, didn’t he? He was always grumbling about how she was using her ‘feminine wiles’ on the dwarfs. What does that mean?” Explain it to your child if necessary.
“How did Grumpy think Snow White would use her gender—the fact that she is a girl—to take advantage of the dwarfs? Do you think boys and men worry about this with girls and women in real life? I think this stereotype is used a lot because females are supposed to ‘know their place’ and not challenge males. Is that fair?”
“The scene when the dwarfs were getting washed up before dinner was interesting. Do you remember when they called each other flowers and put flowers in each other’s beards? What was that all about? It seemed like being clean was made out to be a girly or feminine thing, and a way for the dwarfs to tease each other about being feminine. I don’t like when ‘feminine’ or ‘girly’ characteristics are stereotyped like this, or when males act like being feminine is the worst thing in the world. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being a girl!” See what your child says; then you might add, “Can you think of any other examples of this?”
Make it real: Make the connection between Snow White’s activities in the movie and what is sold on the toy aisles. Ask, “Why does it seem that things like cooking and cleaning are only for girls?” Explain that the world of play for a child shapes who he or she becomes as an adult, and that gender stereotypes like this one about who does the housework are very old-fashioned and unfair to both genders.
Watch Rebecca Hains discuss why all toys are okay for everyone—boys and girls alike—on Fox & Friends, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKj3MV4y5Qg.
- The Original Disney Romance Narrative
When Snow White first encounters the handsome prince, she is dressed in rags and singing into the wishing well. The prince sees her natural beauty despite her clothing and joins her in song, but she runs away into the castle to hide, and watches him from the window of a parapet. This one brief and chance encounter sets the foundation for Snow White’s daydreams for the remainder of the film. She has fallen in love at first sight, and now assumes the traditional female role of waiting for her dreams to come true by the male protagonist’s actions. He must find her, save her, and take her away from her troubles.
Unlike in later princess movies, in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the relationship between the princess and her paramour never develops. There are no ups or downs or hurdles to be overcome because love at first sight negates the need for either character to evolve, either individually or within the relationship. It is both literally and figuratively a fairy tale. Snow White’s happiness depends entirely upon her needs being met by a man.
With children ages 5 and 6, discuss that romance usually involves people knowing each other:
“What did you think of Snow White and the prince having love at first sight? Can you be in love with someone simply because they are attractive and you see them for a few minutes? I think it’s really important for people to know each other before being in love. Why do you think that might be a better idea?”
“For Snow White, romance is a dreamy thing that doesn’t really involve her. It is all about wishing and waiting. Do boys wish and wait for girls to come along and make their dreams come true? Hmmm…I wonder why only girls have to be passive and just wait.”
With children ages 7 and 8, you can dig in a little more about the damsel-in-distress trope.
“Do you notice how Snow White seems to stumble from one stressful situation to another, always needing to be saved? First both parents die, then she is a servant, then she is faced with the big huntsman with his knife raised over her, then she is running through the eerie forest, then she ends up cleaning up a filthy cottage, then she gets poisoned and winds up in a glass coffin. All along the way, she relies on help to save her from the chaos of her own life. The huntsman spares her life, the animals guide her, the dwarfs protect her, and the prince rescues her. Do boys and men need this much rescue? What is the male equivalent of the damsel in distress?”
“Why is it considered romantic in this movie (and other Disney princess films) that the females are so helpless and the males so powerful? Is it like this in real life? I think it’s a lot more romantic when both genders are equal in the relationship.”
Make it real: This is a good time to talk to your daughter about future romantic relationships and gender equality within them. Ask, “When you are much older and begin to date, do you want to be helpless? Or do you want to show that you are smart and skilled and can be an equal in your relationships?” See what your daughter can express to you about why it hurts women to be stereotyped as in need of rescue, and why some girls and women are willing to play this role.
- Teaching Children About Media Creation
In so many ways, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs codified various aspects of the princess formula. For example, the happily-ever-after ending showed up again and again, very similarly, in Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. The iconic romance narrative—with some modifications—cycled through most of the rest of Disney’s princess films.
When Walt Disney made Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it was very important to the director, David Hand, that female grace and daintiness be illustrated with great care, and thus a famous dancer was the movement model for the animators to study. Slender arms and tiny feet and hands were considered the ultimate in femininity, and if these physical attributes have changed at all in recent years’ animation, they have only become more exaggerated, along with waists that are smaller than heads and eyes that are bigger than wrists!
Many parents notice that Snow White sends a very regressive message to girls (and boys) about the domestic role of women. She spends as much time sweeping, dusting and cooking as she does daydreaming about love, and it is interesting to note that this represents a deliberate change from the original Grimm fairy tale. In that version of the story, Snow White discovers the dwarfs’ cottage, goes inside, and sees that it is neat as a pin. It is her own rummaging for food and a bed that messes up the cottage and alerts the dwarfs to her presence when they arrive home from working in the mine, much as Goldilocks’s visit to the house of the three bears left them wondering who had entered their home and left all those traces. You can explain this to your child, and perhaps ask:
“Why do you think the Disney movie changed that part of the story to show Snow White as the perfect housewife, cleaning up after the dwarfs? What stereotype did this reinforce about women—and men? Also think about the way Snow White was ‘bossy’ with the dwarfs, making them wash up before being allowed to have dinner. Do you see that this stereotypes males as dirty and sloppy, and in need of women to ‘civilize’ them? Why do you think these messages about males and females are so deliberately created and presented?”