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Explained: The controversy around Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Actor Peter Dinklage had recently criticised Disney for its upcoming project Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Written by Benita Fernando , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: January 26, 2022 10:56:30 pm
Snow White was the first of Disney’s canon of princesses, followed by Cinderella in 1950, Aurora of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and Ariel of The Little Mermaid in 1989. (Photo: Disney.com)

In this week’s episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, actor Peter Dinklage, best known for his Emmy-winning role in the series Game of Thrones, shared his shock regarding the upcoming film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Disney is set to make a live-action film of the fairytale, based on their 1937 animated film. It stars Latina actor Rachel Zegler in the title role and Gal Gadot as the evil queen.

Dinklage told Maron, “Literally no offense to anyone, but I was a little taken aback when they were very proud to cast a Latina actress as Snow White — but you’re still telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs…It makes no sense to me. You’re progressive in one way, but then you’re still making that f***ing backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together?…Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough.”

Disney responded to the actor’s comments, saying it was going to “avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film”.

“To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community. We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period,” a Disney spokesperson said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.

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Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was an animation classic.

In 1937, Walt Disney Productions released their musical version of the fairytale, featuring seven adult dwarves named Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey. This was the second time that the characters were given names (the first known instance was a Broadway musical from 1912, where they were called Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, and Quee).

Other names were suggested, such as Deafy, Baldy, Lazy, Puffy and Shorty, which were rejected. The leader was named Doc, indicative of a bossy character, and the others had names that were reflective of their dominant personality traits.

The film was nominated for best musical score at the 11th Academy Awards. It also won an Academy Honorary Award for Walt Disney in the form of one full-size Oscar statuette and seven miniature ones.

Snow White started the Disney princesses, so why did it become unpopular?

Snow White was the first of Disney’s canon of princesses, followed by Cinderella in 1950, Aurora of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and Ariel of The Little Mermaid in 1989. The romantic storylines in the films reflect those of the original fairy tales but have found their share of criticism in recent decades.

Many of these are centred on damsels in distress, waiting to be saved by a prince. With MeToo, Snow White has been a prime example on the subject of consent—a princess deep in sleep is kissed by a prince as “true love’s kiss”, without checking with her if that’s okay, sending the wrong message to children.

The fact that the Snow White storyline rests on beauty and white-skin and a magical mirror that insists that Snow White is the fairest of them all has also drawn criticism.

There have been reports that celebrities like Keira Knightley, Alicia Keys and Kristen Bell have banned the Disney classic in their homes. The Disney animated version also managed to eclipse several other adaptations. Feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar once wrote that the Disney title should have been called Snow White and Her Wicked Stepmother because that is the central action in the tale.

The original Grimm fairytale was nothing like Disney’s

Disney popularised Snow White among cinema-viewing masses, and, in true Disney style, made it a lighter storyline than the original Schneewittchen” or “Little Snow White”, published by The Brothers Grimm in 1812 (the title did not mention “dwarves”).

In the Grimm story, the prince doesn’t kiss Snow White in order to resurrect her. An accident knocks the prince’s servant on the coffin, dislodging the piece of apple from Snow White’s throat. The evil queen is sentenced to a punishment of dancing with red-hot iron slippers until she drops dead—a conclusion that Disney’s version avoids. The dwarves were not named in the Grimm version.

Representation of dwarfism

Some analyses of the fairytale indicate that though the dwarves failed to protect Snow White always, they were meant to represent kind and nurturing people who looked after orphans in that time. However, the characters have found to be portrayed often as childish, farcical and impossible to take seriously.

“Dwarfs are prominent in films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Austin Powers (1999, 2002), Time Bandits (1981), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971, 2005), where their dwarfism is their main feature and is played upon as comedy or fantasy…A person with dwarfism is rarely represented as an ordinary human being, but rather a mischievous being—happy to be ridiculed and laughed at rather than with. In mythology, again dwarfs play a prominent role along with elves, leprechauns, imps, dragons, and unicorns,” write Erin Pritchard and Robert Kruse in the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies in 2020.

Peter Dinklage plays more empowering roles

Pritchard and Kruse note that since there is a changing representation of dwarfism emerging, powered by actors with dwarfism, Peter Dinklage is a fine example. The actor refuses to play stereotypical roles associated with dwarfism, such as elves and leprechauns”. Dinklage, who was born with achondroplasia, a condition that affects bone growth, has often refrained from commenting extensively on the subject, but there have been instances when he has brought to light some of the biases and exploitation of people with dwarfism.

Despite its problems, Snow White has had several adaptations in Hollywood

The fairytale, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, has been a favourite plot in Hollywood, with adaptations. In 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman replaced the prince with the huntsman, who was originally entrusted with the job of killing Snow White by the evil queen. The film featured seven dwarves, played by actors of average height and then digitally altered. The film found opposition from a non-profit called Little People of America. Another film, also in 2012, called Mirror Mirror, Snow White lives happily ever after with the dwarves, who are named Grimm, Butcher, Wolf, Napoleon, Half Pint, Grub, and Chuck. Beyond Hollywood, and also in 2012, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is set in 1920s Andalusia, in which six dwarves (including one who cross-dresses) teach Carmen how to bull-fight. Snow White has also been seen as Betty Book in 1933, with the Three Stooges in 1961, and in The Simpsons in 2009.

Will Disney rethink the seven dwarves?

The latest Disney adaptation is still years away from a release. In a statement to the press, a Disney spokesperson said, “To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community. We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period.”

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