Now that I have discussed the creepiest aspect of “Snow White, I will move on to another problem with this story. This problem is present in both the Disney version and the Brothers Grimm version. Yes, I am talking about that infamous “Whistle While You Work” scene! All this woman is good for is cleaning up after men! This sentiment is pretty similar in the two versions, the only difference being that in the Disney version, she keeps house for them because they’re helpless slobs who can’t cook and clean for themselves, but in the original version, they can cook and clean perfectly well, but she does it for them in return for food and shelter.
In my opinion, her reason for cooking and cleaning for the dwarfs in the Disney version is much worse than her reason for doing so in the original version. I mean, in the Disney version, they basically let her stay just so she can do their dirty work! This makes the dwarfs much less cute and lovable than Disney wants us to think. Their relationship with Snow White is made even creepier when she acts as a maternal figure to them, like when she makes them wash up for supper or go to bed. Acting as a maternal figure to grown men might be a slightly better situation for women than having them treat her like a little girl, but it is still far from ideal. Treating a woman like a little girl is the most common way women were and are mistreated throughout history and, sadly, the world today. It isn’t even unheard of in this story, according to Sheldon Cashdan, who says,
Consider the warnings they give Snow White before they leave for work. “Don’t talk to strangers,” they tell the child. “Don’t let anyone you don’t know into the house.” These are precisely the kinds of things mothers tell their children when they leave them alone. It doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to see that the dwarfs are maternal icons, symbols, as it were, of the good mother (Cashdan, 51).
Yes, the dwarfs certainly do act as parental figures to Snow White while she is living with them. But note that I said parental figures, not maternal figures. Men can be parental figures, too, and, when playing an active role in their lives, fathers say the exact same things to children. This would be okay if the dwarfs only spoke to Snow White this way shortly after she came to live with them, when she was only seven. The trouble is, though, they say these things to her right up until the queen gives her the apple! The story doesn’t say anything about how long Snow White lives with the dwarfs, but considering she marries the prince shortly after biting into the apple, she’s at least of marriageable age by then. No matter what time period they’re living in, women who are old enough to get married should not be treated like little girls. They shouldn’t need to be either, but that, sadly, is the case with Snow White.
Oh yes, Snow White is stupid. She is especially stupid in the original version, where she lets the queen in her various disguises come into the house and then accepts gifts from her not one, but three times! The dwarfs are even clever enough to figure out each time that this person is her stepmother and tell her, but not even that keeps her from making the same mistake again! What is the matter with her? This isn’t just stupidity! This is either short term memory loss or a death wish! Sheldon Cashdan tries to justify this several times. He claims children need a character like Snow White, who both defies authority and gives in to flaws such as vanity, which, he argues, is her reason for accepting both the poisoned comb and the ribbon the queen puts around her neck before the apple, two incidents which were omitted in the Disney version. I can’t buy this. Sure, children need characters who aren’t perfect. I would even agree that they need characters who defy authority and give in to their own flaws. But here’s the difference between Snow White and good children’s characters: Good children’s characters learn from their mistakes! Snow White never learns; all she does is get lucky when the prince’s servant happens to drop her! Snow White is a passive character, because everything that happens to her, good and bad, happens at the hands of others. Passive characters are not interesting for children or adults.
She’s stupid in the Disney version, too, since she lets this mysterious old woman into her house and takes an apple from her after being warned many, many times by the dwarfs not to do anything like that. While this isn’t as bad as her making the same deadly mistake three times, I will note that in the Disney version, Snow White seems to think she’s much cleverer than she actually is. After all, she seems certain that her stepmother will never find her at the dwarfs’ house, but how can she know that? She’s being naively optimistic here, not clever.
Snow White cooking and cleaning for perfectly capable dwarfs is, in my opinion, the lesser of two evils, especially since they give her food and shelter in return. Regardless of gender, deals like this are made all the time, even today. In fact, just one simple detail would have made this a decent part of the story. The detail would be Snow White doing something else in addition to cooking and cleaning for the dwarfs, something that relates to her strengths, not just women’s work. This could be playing music, telling stories, using her artistic skills to decorate their house and/or design objects for them, or anything else of that sort. Alternately, if, like in the Disney version, they don’t know how to cook and clean, she could teach them. In return, they could teach her how to dig up precious stones in their mine and use the stones for designing beautiful artifacts. This, in fact, is the premise of one of the “Snow White” retellings I have toyed with.