As winter at least starts to think about turning to spring, let’s get Walt Disney’s Snow White a nice rocking chair, a cozy mohair throw, and settle the old dear up in her room. She’s all tired out. And no wonder. She’s been dancing with the birds, running around with Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy, Dopey and the rest of the seven dwarfs for decades, not to mention living with her prince since he rejuvenated her with a kiss about 75 years ago.
One thing, however, seems strange: In all those years of smiling and singing, I’ve never seen her pick up a book. Not one book.
Maybe it runs in her family. Her wicked stepmother didn’t care for books either. She liked looking in mirrors. And she caused all sorts of trouble when her mirror, with a mind of its own, told her that she was no longer “the fairest one of all.”
Imagine what Estee Lauder or some other cosmetics queen familiar with the wider world of business could do with a mirror like that. Picture the advertising, television endorsements, pageants, competitions and online sales pitches. But Snow White’s wicked stepmother did nothing at all. Nothing positive, that is.
And aside from lying in a glass casket, in a kind of suspended animation, Snow White didn’t do much either. She waited for her prince to come. And when he did, she went off to his castle to sing and dance some more.
That apparently was the big dream of glory in 1934 when Disney’s “Snow White” was conceived and began production.
We can all understand why. When work on the film began, Disney had his hands full, crafting an animated “Snow White” on the voice of a real girl named Adriana Caselotti and dwarves on the likes of comedian Billy Gilbert, the voice of Sneezy. He was using animation in a different way, capturing the fluid movement of human beings in a medium that had long focused largely on animals. And everything was complicated – from the camera work to the names of the little men themselves. Among names that didn’t make the cut were Stuffy, Tubby and Nifty.
In the mid-’30s, too, universities and colleges and booksellers didn’t worry much about women’s advancement in the workplace. The economy was mired in recession, jobs were scarce and the people competing for them were mostly men. “Breadwinner” was primarily a singular noun, with today’s familiar plural version another world war down the road.
As writer and poet Meghan O’Rourke notes in a recent issue of New York magazine, “We seem to worry most about girls when they’re doing best.”
And they are doing better now. “Today they have more opportunities than ever and outperform boys in college admissions,” O’Rourke notes.
Then she drops the other shoe, telling us that girls, despite these gains, “live in an ‘egalitarian’ culture that nonetheless bombards them with damaging messages about their social and intellectual worth.”
That’s tricky ground for any young person to maneuver, but it’s particularly hard for young women dealing with mixed messages from their own bodies and from the world around them.
And it’s why Snow White, with her pliant ways and endless patience, may be a luxury that girls can no longer afford.
A young woman competing for a college scholarship that rewards scientific creativity has no time to lie down and wait for a male who won the same award a few years earlier to drop by and show her the way. She’s on her own. Nor can a college student, about to choose a major and, by extension, a life’s worth of work, depend on a dwarf named Happy to assure her all will be well. She has to believe it because she’s put her mind to work and dealt with her doubts.
Snow White doesn’t have the knowledge to help her. A good library does.