When it comes to Pablo Berger’s 2012 cinematic interpretation of the classic fairy tale, the Snow White story has never been creepier.
Except…no. It turns out, it’s always been that creepy. And that is precisely Berger’s point.
Blancanieves is, in many ways, a spectacular film. It’s beautifully shot, for one thing, and the silent-film format puts the focus on those arresting images. This is visual storytelling at its best; though there are a few sparse intertitles conveying key information, it’s the editing, acting, and cinematography that really do the narrative work.
It’s also a fun and inventive twist on the classic fairy tale. Berger’s film provides a creative reinterpretation, while retaining the plot structure and many of the trademark tropes of the classic story. This Snow White lives in 1920s Spain, and her story is intertwined with the culture of bullfighting; the film’s imagery imbues the story with a darker, more perverse mood, with corpse manhandling and BDSM, but the familiar elements are still there: wicked stepmother, dwarves, poison apple, true love’s kiss.
However, while this version of the story keeps the plot intact, it plays with the narrative logic of the tale in significant ways.
My students are quite intrigued by the feminist twist on the traditional heroine. This Snow White figure, named Carmen, doesn’t wait to be rescued by the kindness of strangers; she fights off her attackers and strikes off on her own, meeting up with some dwarves, but proving her own strength and independence when she is the only one brave enough to distract a charging bull to keep her new friends from being gored. That feat of daring is no isolated incident; once revealed, she cultivates this talent for bovine battle, becoming a renowned bullfighter in her own right. She discovers that she has inherited her bullfighting skill from her father, a famous toreador, and she becomes his successor, stepping into the male position and excelling in her own career. And instead of a romantic love, it is her love for bullfighting that transports her to a new life.
When we begin our unit on Snow White in my course on Fables and Tales, alongside reading the Grimm version of the story and watching scenes from the Disney film, we read excerpts from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Though Friedan focuses on the 1950s, the concept of the feminine mystique, as she defines it, applies perfectly to Disney’s depiction of Snow White. Our class discusses the apparent joy Snow White takes in doing housework for the dwarves, singing as she sweeps, cooks, and washes dishes. She is content to stay inside the home while the dwarves leave the domestic space to go “off to work” and earn in the public sphere, as Snow White kisses them goodbye. The girl and the men sing parallel songs outlining the gendered division of labor: while Snow White’s song emblematizes the feminine milieu of housework (“Just whistle while you work / And cheerfully together we can tidy up the place”), the dwarves’ song outlines the role of masculine breadwinning (“It ain’t no trick to get rich quick / If you dig dig dig with a shovel or a pick / In a mine”). Moreover, the film uses Snow White’s character to condense many aspects of the feminine mystique into one overdetermined figure. Snow White plays the role of not only wife but mother, admonishing the dwarves to bathe, clean up after themselves, and wash their hands before eating. Many of my students, who saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at some point in their childhood, are astonished to return to the film as adults and recognize the conservative gender roles it depicts. Thus, when we move on to Blancanieves, they find it gratifying to see Snow White reimagined as having more agency, and less locked into a role of nurturing domesticity.
But does the structure of the Snow White plot really allow for female empowerment? Berger’s film reveals how feminine agency in fairy tales is often a chimera. In the first place, Carmen’s life is subsumed by the Snow White plot when she allows herself to be named by the dwarves in the film: it is they who suggest that she should be known as Blancanieves. This act suggests both that the female heroine cannot fully escape being defined and determined by the perception of the male subject, but also places her into a story structure whose narrative logic depends on the helplessness of this heroine. Though Carmen’s actions and choices attempt to take control of her life, it is Snow White’s destiny to be victimized – and this time, not only by her wicked stepmother but also by a devious impresario who promises to make the heroine a famous bullfighter in exchange for total control over her and the dwarves’ performance.
This ominous contract furnishes the final blow, as Berger ironizes the classic Snow White ending. After being poisoned by her stepmother, Blancanieves is cared for by the dwarves, and placed in a glass coffin, but this time it is in the context of a carnival sideshow. The greedy impresario asserts his prerogative to direct Blancanieves’ career as a performer – an entitlement that allows him to continue to manage the exhibition of her comatose body. He advertises the opportunity to wake the sleeping Snow White, and strangers line up and pay the admission fee to kiss her inert lips. To spice things up, the impresario has a trick up his sleeve: a mechanism that jolts the prostrate body upright, producing the illusion that some randomly designated Prince Charming has actually woken the insensate damsel. In this case, however, the chosen one is aghast, and almost falls over himself bolting out of the tent. It seems this Prince Charming preferred making his move while the object of his advances was unconscious.
Not only does the scene mock the fairy tale romance promised by the classic tale, it points to disturbing issues of power, consent, and objectification, which are already there in the original tale, albeit wrapped in the mystification of the fairy story. The Disney film, in particular, embeds the prince’s kiss in a romance plot that is projected from the beginning of the story.
Snow White‘s insistence that the heroine is always already wishing and waiting for her prince to come seeks to evacuate the undertones of sexual assault from the final scene in which the Prince kisses the unconscious Snow White; if “true-love’s kiss” is destined to be, the fulfillment of both the narrative’s promise and the heroine’s desire, Snow White’s consent to the kiss no longer seems necessary, since it is always already assumed. Thus, Berger’s interpretation merely hyperbolizes the prince’s act, bringing into relief the perversity and violence of his use of her insensate body; the trope of “true love’s kiss” is taken to the extreme, and yet this extreme is at the same time a natural extension of the logic of the original story.
In the same way, the freak show is the natural extension of the glass coffin from the classic tale. Snow White’s glass coffin has always gestured toward the essential spectacularity of the heroine. From the beginning of her life, Snow White is defined by the gaze of others, with her appearance determining her identity – down to her name – and the response of others to that appearance determining the trajectory of her story. Everything that happens to Snow White is motivated by the perception of and reaction to her beauty by various characters: the stepmother’s jealousy, huntsman’s pity, the dwarves’ affection, and finally the prince’s attraction. Her final encasement in the glass coffin encapsulates this essential spectacularity, as her body and her beauty are preserved to remain as objects for the male gaze (the dwarves, the Prince), and like a work of art or rare specimen she is arranged in a display case so that each can have a good look. Selling tickets was simply the next natural step.
Ultimately, Berger’s film brings into relief a number of sordid themes that lurk under the shiny surface of the classic Snow White story, serving as an important commentary not only on Snow White, but on the construction of femininity within fairy tale logic more generally.
If you’re interested in learning about more variants of the Snow White story, see my other Snow White posts: