Famed is thy beauty, Majesty. But hold, a lovely maid I see. Rags cannot hide her gentle grace. Alas, she is more fair than thee.
Among tales of cannibalism, violent murder, and all manner of unpleasantries, the Grimms brothers' "Schneewittchen," literally "Little Snow White," manages to stand out as a rather gruesome tale. The Disney adaptation, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is largely pretty bright and happy, though some of the grittiness of the source material made it in.
The earliest versions of the story feature no stepmother; in the 1810 and 1812 editions, Snow White's own mother grows jealous and fearful of her daughter's growing beauty in contrast to her own waning attractiveness. The prologue including the mother's death and the introduction of the stepmother was added in the 1819 edition in order to preserve the sanctity of the mother figure. Evil stepmothers weren't exactly unheard of; higher mortality rates, particularly in childbirth, meant lots of widowers taking subsequent wives, and those wives often prioritized their own children and themselves over their new husbands' old families in order to secure their own futures. But evil mothers were also (and are also) not unheard of. It just wasn't pleasant to think that one's own mother could be so cruel and ruthless.
Disney's Evil Queen (unofficially known as Grimhilde, which I'll use here) is entirely superficially motivated. Her focus on beauty is essentially all there is to her. This is partly because the characters to whom she is a reactionary figure in the Grimms' story are missing in the Disney film, the Huntsman aside. The mother in the early Grimms' versions and other versions from various parts of the world is jealous of her husband's (sometimes wildly inappropriate) attentions to the child. In one of the versions collected by the Grimms, a count and countess find a child on the road and the countess, seeing the count begin to ignore her in favor of the child, makes several attempts to leave the child alone in the woods or kill her outright. In some much earlier variants, the husband's lust for the child is made much more explicit, which motivates the wife's jealousy of the beauty the child has, which the wife no longer has or is quickly losing. Invariably, the woman dies at the end. In the Armenian "Nourie Hadag," the mother dies of shock when she finds out her daughter is still alive and more beautiful than her. The Grimms' queen dances to her death in hot iron shoes at her (step-)daughter's wedding feast. Disney's Grimhilde falls off a cliff and is crushed by a boulder. However it happens, she does not survive. She is unarguably the Bad Guy here, and she cannot win. And when we only see the superficial motivations, that makes sense. Her persecution of a child is never excusable, to be sure, but when her livelihood and future depends on a man who has the hots for said child, it's a little easier to understand why she's upset. One wonders why she wouldn't take it out on her husband rather than the child, but the male editors of fairytales and the patriarchy as a whole benefit more from pitting women against other women rather than women against their oppressors. As in many fairytales, the men are excused their horrible actions while women are often gruesomely punished for their own equally horrible actions. Again, not to excuse what Grimhilde does, because murderous jealousy and abuse of a child is never excusable. But Disney's Snow White's father is absolutely nowhere to be found, and in many versions of the fairytale he either disappears unscathed, dies unpunished, or lives happily ever after after raping a 7 year-old.
Snow White herself is largely regarded as rather dull. She hardly gets any personality in either the Disney film or most of the fairytale versions. What she is, though, is unfailingly good-hearted and kind. The Huntsman finds himself unable to kill her because of her "innocent heart," she happily helps the dwarfs by doing their housework, she lets in the witch even after being warned it might be the queen in disguise simply out of the kindness of her heart. She is trusting and seems to want to help everyone in any way she can. In discussions of what positives we find in the Disney princesses, Snow White's one positive aspect is often listed as her kindness, and I don't think anyone would argue that kindness in and of itself is not something to which one should aspire. However, Snow White's downfall is her kindness. Snow White's kindness lets the witch into the dwarfs' house and leads to her death. We advocate kindness even as we illustrate that it can open one up to terrible harm. It feels a lot like being told we should smile when harassed on the streets, be friendly and cheery to people who assault us, be kind and loving to stalkers who feel entitled to our time simply because we are women. How do we find the middle ground between Snow White's kindness and Grimhilde's self-preservation?
The men in the story are the only middle ground between the two extremes portrayed with Snow White and Grimhilde. Snow White is gentleness and Grimhilde is outrage, while the Huntsman is mercy and the dwarfs are sensibility. There isn't a woman in the story who occupies that middle space on the spectrum. The dwarfs tell Snow White not to trust any strangers who come by, as they might be the witch, and if Snow White had only trusted them, she might not have died. The Huntsman, much like the father in Hansel and Gretel, refuses the (step-)mother's horrifying demands, and serves as the tempering device for her outrageous cruelty.
The kiss at the end of the film is a departure from the published Grimms' versions, but a hearkening back to the much more sexual overtones of the older variants. In "Schneewittchen," the prince has the coffin carried off, and in the process the carriers trip, the apple piece dislodges from Snow White's throat, and she wakes up. It's more by chance that she wakes up rather than a plan by the prince. Whether that's more or less disturbing is entirely up to your interpretation. But Disney at least gives us text in the story that Snow White actually wants to go away with the prince; in the Grimms' version, she's more or less stuck with him once she wakes up. In Emma Donoghue's "The Tale of the Apple" in her collection Kissing the Witch, Snow White runs away from the prince upon waking up. Perhaps that gives us some insight to Snow White's possible take on the prince.
Going from The Princess and the Frog all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while a chronological hiccup, really illuminates how far we've come in representation of women in Disney fairytale films. I actually do enjoy Snow White, all evidence to the contrary: I think it's a beautiful film, the songs are cheery and Adriana Caselotti's voice is gorgeous, the animation is stunning. But it's nice to see that Disney's women, while still not perfect, are at least improving from the origins of 'one side of the spectrum or the other.' Fairytales and folk tales come from real people trying to tell stories that speak to their audience. It's hard to really identify wholly with either Snow White or Grimhilde because they're both caricatures, not real people or even believable representations of real people. I think that's why we find so many more people identifying with modern princesses like Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Tiana, and Rapunzel than the older princesses like Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora. And we'll get to all of that, with Cinderella up for next time!