Commentary: Snow White and Her Multiple Personalities

By Adam Bicksler

Snow White: the quintessential Disney Princess. What more can be said about her?

snow_white001Apparently, a lot.

One of Tor.com’s recent pieces, titled “Snow White: The Blankest Slate of Them All” by Natalie Zutter and Emily Asher-Perrin, concludes that Snow White is ultimately the most relatable Princess of them all. As noted in the title, Snow White owes her relatability to her characteristic, or should I say non-characteristic, of being a blank slate.

Snow White’s character has morphed over the centuries since her first published appearance in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Indeed, her character has changed from the demure princess in the classic Disney film to the strong feminist-type as portrayed in ABC’s Once Upon A Time. The examples don’t stop there. She can be found in diverse media ranging from comics (Fables) to movies (Snow White and the Huntsman).

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, why is Snow White the most reimagined of them all? Because, when you boil it down, she has no personality—you can project anything you want onto her. -Emily Asher-Perrin, Natalie Zutter

Problematically, this blank-slate quality does little for the character’s agency. Agency is the capacity for which one can act freely and without constraint. Snow White has very little (read: no) agency. Her character doesn’t have any outside her reader’s agency and authorship. She is constantly being written and re-written with characteristics being bestowed or stripped from her, a type of literary violence. Literary violence can be defined as the act of manipulating a character to fit certain tropes, adding or stripping certain characteristics on a whim. Violence does not necessarily have to be physical; it can be psychological as well. Authors have the capability and often exercise this type of agency when writing characters. Snow White is a hapless victim of this type of literary violence. Her lack of agency leads to economic exploitation (i.e. her blank slate is used to relate to readers in a way that will make them spend money).

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Readers need relatable characters to offer a form of escape. These days, the hectic hustle-and-bustle of our technology entrenched world offers little respite by way of relaxation. A good book, with characters we can identify with, make the real world seem a little smaller and less frantic than it actually is.

I’m reminded of a commentary written about the Twilight novels. The series became such a phenomenon because of the nondescript, generic appearance of Bella: brown hair, brown eyes, wholly average in appearance. In other words, roughly half the world’s female population. Stephanie Meyer herself admitted to making Bella’s appearance generic in order for the reader to “more easily step into her shoes.

But I repeat: that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bella’s generic appearance allows her character to be relatable, something we all need desperately. Meyer’s choice was definitely economically savvy (another indication of economic exploitation): the Twilight series has gone on to sell over 120 million copies as well as being adapted into five commercially successful films.

The Snow Whites and Bella Swans of the literary world will continue to be written as long as there is a need, a void to fill, and we welcome these characters because of the good they do.

Image credit: Liliane Grenier

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