Is Snow White A Princess of the Past?

People did not receive the announcement of a live-action adaptation of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs well, with some even going as far as asking Disney to cancel the film. The controversy surrounding the project poses some interesting questions about Disney’s first princess, including what her role is and if she’s still relevant today.

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Rachel Zegler side-by-side with a still of Snow White from the 1937 film "Snow White and The Seven Dwarves."

When Disney announced a live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they received mixed reactions. Disney’s previous live-action adaptations have had a spotty track record of audience acceptance, with their latest, the 2023 film The Little Mermaid, being an unexpected crowd-pleaser.

The biggest source of contention was who Disney had chosen as their live-action Snow White. When the studio announced award-winning actress Rachel Zegler as their leading lady, many diehard fans feared this was a sign that Disney was sacrificing authenticity for “wokeness.”

Although Zegler announced her excitement for her project and thanked her fans for their support, she also had criticisms of the original material, which she voiced publicly. In a 2022 interview with Variety, Zegler stated:

It’s an 85-year-old cartoon, and our version is a refreshing story about a young woman who has a function beyond ‘Someday My Prince Will Come.’

Still from upcoming live-action movie "Snow White."

Zegler’s comments in that interview sparked backlash, with many calling for Disney to recast her or cancel the movie altogether. Protesters claimed that Zegler’s comments against Snow White were proof she didn’t want to be in the film or that for her to agree to take on the role, the writers changed the character too drastically.

But this is not a new debate — in fact, Snow White’s status as a role model and princess for kids has been questioned for years, long before Disney ever proposed a live-action adaptation of her story.

Is Snow White an outdated princess?

Everyone knows Snow White is the first Disney princess, the first character in what would prove to be a successful and fruitful Disney Princess franchise. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made Disney and film history with its premiere in 1937 as the first full-length animated feature film.

Still from 1937 movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

Although the film itself was a technological feat, the story itself abided by traditional fairytale elements, offering no new writing techniques to go along with its film innovation. And the leading lady herself is a product of the time she was written. During the 1930s, women’s role in American society was widely domestic, focused on the household and the social circles of their families. Snow White’s role as a housemaid to the dwarfs and her kind, gentle-hearted nature made her an ideal version of the average 20th-century American woman.

Snow White’s merit to modern female characters has been up for debate, even more so after the comments made by her actress Zegler.

Some people agree with Zegler, explaining that nostalgia and sentiment for the original Disney version shouldn’t distract viewers from how antiquated the story is:

“The overarching theme of her fairytale was waiting passively to be rescued and fall in love with, quite literally, the first man to come along.”

But other people think that it’s not fair to limit Snow White to her romantic desires, as her personality and genuine good nature make her the hero of the film:

Snow White’s best characteristic is her kindness; she wasn’t just fair in looks, but in her heart as well. Throughout the film, she does her best to see the good in people (whether they be humans, dwarfs, or animal companions).

The answer to determining her worth as a character may not lie in Snow White herself or even in the plot of her original film. It’s up to Disney to decide how they are going to frame Snow White’s story through the new, female-centric lens they’ve adopted in the past two decades.

Where does Snow White fit in the present?

Historically, Disney princesses have not had ambitions outside of love in their movies. The first time Disney introduced a Princess in their line-up where her romance was not the majority of the plot was with Mulan in the 1998 film Mulan. Before Mulan’s debut, movies about Disney princesses followed the formula Snow White laid out for them in her story: a princess escapes the evil queen; the princess seeks solace amongst animals and some kindly, quirky forest-dwellers; the evil queen schemes an evil plan; the prince swoops in and saves the princess; the couple has their happily ever after, the end. 

Promotional poster for 1998 Disney movie "Mulan."

Mulan’s debut was the first instance of Disney shifting their Princess projects from being love-centric to female-centric and exploring the depth and complexity of their princesses beyond their relationships. Some would assume this new direction renders their preceding princesses obsolete, but Disney’s experiments with live-action adaptations have shown their willingness to put their older princesses in the spotlight.

In 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, both Cinderella and Belle kept the core of their characters while also seeking ambitions outside of their love interests. The studio could take the same approach with Snow White, expanding the film’s narrative to give her character room to grow and be properly appreciated by the audience.

In an interview with Collider, Rachel Zegler spoke about her and the director Marc Webb’s vision of Snow White in this new movie:

Then something that kind of emerged was this leader within her that I was so happy that the writers wanted her to be, and the fact that it’s born out of her upbringing, but she finds it within herself throughout the course of the film and throughout the people that love her in the film and show their love for her.

Zegler, like many other women, knows the significance Snow White had not just in film and animation but in shaping the lives of the millions of children who watched her story. The demands for an updated story are not criticisms against the character itself but a call to Disney and the film’s writers to give Snow White an adventure that shows her worth as a well-rounded, complex princess.

The live-action Snow White is slated to premiere on March 21st, 2025.

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