How many cosmetic ads feature women looking into mirrors? And how do those women always look? Young, wide eyed, nubile, with perfect lips and unlined faces. That is the beauty standard for women right down the line: eternal youth and beauty. Some women rebel, but many spend most of their lives trying to live up to an internalised standard that has been drilled into them by their mothers, the cosmetic industry and, most commonly, men. Men can grow older, men are sexy with lined faces and greying hair. Women, however, apparently are not. They’re just old.
When I first watched Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at about the age of five, I liked Snow White. She was sweet and innocent, and also quite resourceful for a girl so young. And the Prince carrying her away at the end as the dwarfs tearfully waved goodbye and the forest animals chipped, was lovely, pure and good. But I was never drawn to her the way I was to the Queen. That dark, blood red lipped femme fatale, with the large lashed and flashing eyes, who was so obsessed with beauty that she not only communed with a melancholic mirror spirit, but also demanded the heart of a younger woman. And not just any younger woman, her stepdaughter, a girl she was supposed to nurture and protect, not savagely murder.
As I grew older I came to understand why I had always been drawn to the Evil Queen. Firstly my love of the gothic and “macabre” started at a young age, thanks both to my mother and grandmother, who despite both being gentle, lovely women, have and had a fascination with the strange, the sinister and abnormal. Probably because those things are and were the antithesis of themselves. Secondly, I came to understand that the Evil Queen was the more interesting and relatable character for a woman. While Snow White was pure and giving, she was young and innocent; she had not lived through the trials of life as her stepmother had. I have come to wonder now how she seduced the King with her beauty, how she probably dispatched him before he could grow tired of her and seek yet another younger wife. After all, what happened to Snow White’s mother? Did she die in childbirth or just become too old for the King?
There are many iterations of the Evil Queen, from Sigourney Weaver’s sensual portrayal, to Charlize Theron’s visually stunning ascent from beauty sustaining baths and Julia Robert’s more comical take. In editions of the tale, which has changed so many times over the centuries, until its origins have become an obscure, mist-like thing; the Queen is always beautiful and then the Crone. The story portrays the archetypes of women so powerfully: the Virgin, the Madonna, the Whore and the Crone. Snow White is on the precipice of sexual maturation, and it is not the dwarfs or the Prince who make her cross that line despite her childlike fear, but the Evil Queen, who makes Snow White realise that the only way to keep her life is to grow up. Become a sexually mature woman, play the game.
I am still, to this very day, transfixed by the Queen’s transformation in the bowls of the castle, surrounded by her ancient tomes of magic and various mysterious potions and occult ingredients. How she controls nature, how she harnesses its darkness to transform her, ironically, into what she refuses to become: an old, dismissed woman. Unlike the crow, her familiar, I can never look away. The image of the skull on the apple is one that still makes me hold my breath. That scene shows not only the most pure of evil, but also women’s transformation into one that is aged and therefore, despised. Old woman are expected to knit, be quiet, placid, accommodating. And the Queen must be destroyed because not only does she not make way for a younger, more beautiful woman and poisonously envy her; but because she refuses to be all the things an old woman must be. The Queen wants to be powerful, desired and maintain her beauty instead of fade into the obscurity of old age.
The tale is supposed to be a cautionary one: make way for the young or pay the price, especially if you are a woman, one who can no longer reproduce, provide a man with both sexual fulfilment and carry on his line. But I think it can be taken in another way. I think we can say that although the Queen is “punished”, she is not forgotten, she overshadows the young maiden of the title. There is nothing to be feared or loathed in growing older as a woman. Older women are the keepers of memories, the guides of young women who are made more canny by their older guide’s experiences. Older women are not only wise, but beautiful in a different way, because they can decide to live on their own terms, outside of a society that tries to control and dictate to them. They can not only play the game, they can make the rules.
This is my contribution for The Great Villain Blogathon being hosted by Shadows and Satin, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Please visit their blogs for more information and to read everyone’s contributions.