I've been thinking a lot about Snow White lately. I have a 3-year-old daughter, and I'm steamed about what all this Disney nonsense is doing to her.
The classic cartoon movie came around again this year, as predictable as cicadas. Being dutiful parents, we immediately hustled little Adorabella off to see what our own twisted memories recalled as a merry and charming movie about dwarfs and love and things like that.
It's not that she didn't like the movie. On the contrary, Walt Disney and company pushed every one of her little buttons. Her attention span was astonishing, and she asked questions that didn't involve things like how candy gets sticky, and why don't you eat popcorn off a cob -- her usual conversational fare at the movies.
She was enchanted by the film -- and she's had nightmares ever since. Worse, she has developed a whole new idea about how females are sappy little victims, and men are so all-powerful that they can even raise the dead -- if the corpses are pretty enough (would Snow White have been rescued if she'd been a pimply burger-slinger at Roy Rogers?).
This isn't meant to be a feminist diatribe, but the fact is, Snow White is full of bad messages for vulnerable little girls. If it's true, as psychologists tell us, that fairy tales are a kind of rehearsal for real life, then what Snow White is preparing them for is a lot of trips to the battered women's shelter.
The story gives girls what is probably their first intimation of mortality. But it's a peculiar sort of mortality; it comes at the hands of a jealous queen who wants to be the foxiest lady in all the land, and doesn't shrink at homicide as a way of winning the national beauty contest.
Then there's the message of female stupidity. The wicked queen is the only smart woman in the story, but her intelligence is all evil and petty. This echoes the canard of sexist culture that regards smart women as shrewish or conniving, and not people you'd want to ride off into the sunset with.
As a role model, Snow White elevates willful ignorance to an art form. She blithely enters a strange house and takes a nap on a bunch of little beds, apparently certain that anyone who sleeps in a little bed can't be bad. Then, she innocently accepts an apple from this crazed-looking old lady.
The dwarfs, of course, can't bear the idea of Snow White dying. They at least, don't love her just because she's pretty. Their love is based on something deeper, namely that she's sappy and maternal and a cheap housekeeper. They're eating well for the first time in years.
The relative status of the sexes is clearly laid out here. Women are nincompoops, but redeemable if they're pretty and vapid. Men are strong, even able to defy the laws of death. Women are born victims, but their vulnerability makes them attractive. The only way out of their perilous state is to find some prince charming to rescue and protect them. If you're too ordinary looking to catch a prince, you're out of luck.
Then there's the whole issue of death. Supposedly, death is pretty much an irrevocable life event. Not with Snow White; poison or no, she comes back for an encore when the prince puckers up. This puzzled my little girl no end. Why didn't they bury her, she asked? Why did the dwarfs think she was dead if she wasn't? Could that happen to her, and if it did, wasn't it possible that, in the absence of dwarfs, someone might bury her? What is there about a kiss that restores life? Will it work with the possum down the street that was totaled by a car? Can Daddy make dead people live again? (No need to ask about Mom, of course.)
The worst thing about these kinds of popular images is that they have a universal quality to them. If I refused to take Adorabella to Snow White, she'd still know the story -- through her friends, through school, through lunch box decals.
So what's a parent to do? Maybe it's time we started paying attention to the messages that underlie some of our most cherished children's stories.
The fact that the story appeals to 3-year-olds isn't necessarily a sure indication that it's good for them. If left to her own devices, my Adorabella would eat a fine, balanced diet of chocolate bars and all-day suckers.
Children's literature should be empowering. Instead of frightening them with an ideology of vulnerability, it should be teaching creative ways of dealing with life's vexing problems. Instead of reinforcing restrictive old roles, it should be helping them understand the vastness of their potential.
We're in the '80s, not the '30s. My kid is going to face enough problems in this life without an ideology of victimization taught by some fool named Snow White.
James David Besser is a Washington writer.