Why Are The 'New, Modern' Interpretations Of Snow White So… White?


Snow White And The Huntsman and a second Snow White project, now called Mirror Mirror, are set to hit theaters next year. Both claim to offer a new “twist” on the centuries-old tale. But despite looking at the story in a new way, both films feature overwhelmingly white casts. How new and twisty.

Fairytales can be powerful stuff. The original volumes — published by the Grimm brothers — were called “children’s tales,” despite being regarded as completely unsuitable for children. Still, for almost two hundred years, Sneewittchen (Snow White) has endured as a popular story, with many retellings amping up the good and evil and jealousy and gallantry and, of course, dwarves. Disney’s Snow White — the first animated feature film produced in America — came out in 1937, and became an instant classic.

To be sure, a lot of the language of Snow White is Eurocentric and racist. The queen asks her mirror who is the “fairest” of them all, “fair” meaning pale-skinned and therefore beautiful. Pitting the older woman against the younger is also a problematic (though ancient) trope; as is a prince rescuing the damsel in distress from the crafty old hag. In a modern telling, the queen could represent society and aging and the pressures to remain wrinkle-free and beautiful; Snow White’s life in the forest could represent living outside of society, where youth and nature and singing and animal friends are all that matter. But as a kid, I just loved the fun innocence of the story. There’s a certain charm in a young girl raised in the woods, with critters and friendly little non-sexualized playmates. It’s sweet.

As a little black girl who loved stories, I did not question why all of my favorite fantastical characters — including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Alice and Dorothy — were white. But as a black woman who loves fantasy fiction, witches, vampires, princesses and wicked queens, I am dismayed that these modern Snow White stories retained the all-white characters of yesteryear. The filmmakers missed a chance to bring a truly new perspective to the story by integrating it. Snow White is a made-up story, taking place in a made-up land. Why can’t the handsome prince be black? Why can’t the queen be black? There seems to be an Asian dwarf in the Mirror Mirror project, but none of the major characters in either film are of color.

Last year around this time, an actress went to a casting call and was told she was too brown to be a Hobbit. It’s infuriating to think that a world that includes orcs, elves and dragons cannot include brown-skinned people. With Snow White, you could argue that the titular character must be white. But it would be a much more modern, interesting, true “twist” if she had been Asian. Or Latina. Or a black princess living high on a mountain white with snow, and no, I am not talking about cocaine.

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