Happy National Library Week 2014! Help us celebrate by visiting any Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh location this week to tell us about the books that changed your life.
Like most any kid, Disney animated films figured hugely into my childhood. My favorite one changed, depending on which villain scared my little brother more at the time. For a while I’d demand we watch The Little Mermaid over and over until, I guess, sheer exposure desensitized him to the terror of Ursula. Then I moved on to torturing him with Beauty and the Beast. When I was feeling magnanimous, we watched The Lion King, which we both enjoyed.
One Disney movie neither of us could get into, either to enjoy or be scared of, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We thought it was boring. And that the songs were meh. And maybe that the dwarfs were a little creepy.
So in high school, when I discovered Bill Willingham’s comic Fables, the story of basically every fairy tale character you’ve ever heard of living undercover in modern Manhattan, the character of Snow White did not interest me. I wanted to know more about Bigby Wolf, the chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing sheriff of Fabletown, who in his previous life went by the Big Bad Wolf and can transform into wolf form any time the situation calls for it.
Willingham’s portrayal of this fairy tale princess drew me in, though. Snow is the deputy mayor of Fabletown, the neighborhood of Manhattan the “Fables” created for themselves when they fled their homelands in front of an invading army led by a tyrant dictator known only as the Adversary. When we meet her, she’s already divorced Prince Charming for being a womanizer and all around terrible husband, and she just might be attracted to Bigby.
And then you find out that those dwarfs were definitely NOT helping Snow when she was lost in the woods, and that she forced Prince Charming to teach her sword fighting shortly after they got married so she could enact her revenge. She does so. Bloodily.
The latest trade paperback volume to come out, volume nineteen, is aptly titled Snow White and highlights all of this character’s strengths: She’s intelligent, she’s a fierce mother, she’s a loyal and loving wife, and she keeps those physical fighting skills sharp in order to protect her family.
But most of all, she is willing to make hard choices. In this volume, characters who are physically much stronger than Snow fail, and it is she who must save the day, using not only her master sword fighting skills, but her wit and strength of will.
No meek, pale princess, this, but a modern warrior woman.
Snow White has gotten makeovers in other media as well. In ABC’s Once Upon A Time, the fairy tale characters don’t know who they are because of a curse. In this version, pre-curse Snow White is a wiley woods woman who would do anything for true love. Her cursed alter ego Mary Margaret, though, does start out rather meek.
Mary Margaret doesn’t stay meek for long. Even before she recovers her memories, and therefore her true identity, she begins to stand up for herself and the things she wants. When her daughter Emma breaks the curse and Mary Margaret recovers her memory, her ferocity comes out full force.
Although I can’t help but look at the similarities between Once Upon A Time and Fables and think, a little possessively, “Fables did this first!” (I have been reading this series for ten years, so I’m just a little bit attached), I’m exceedingly glad that Disney’s version of Snow White is no longer the only visible version in our culture.
Excellent, woman-empowering retellings of Snow White and other fairy tales give us role models we can look up to, examples we can hope to follow. Willingham’s Snow and ABC’s Mary Margaret are much closer to real women than their fairy tale princess counterparts; they just have a few extra powers. But they have problems, they make decisions, they take actions, and they deal with the consequences themselves instead of always relying on others to protect them.
And when the situation requires, they pull out their swords and fight.