Kissing a sleeping girl isn’t fundamental to Snow White. It’s a 20th-century addition.
Actual Disney princess Kristen Bell has some issues with her fellow Disney princess Snow White. In an interview with Parents magazine, Bell revealed that when she reads Snow White to her kids, she makes sure to talk them through some of the story’s creepier elements — especially the kiss of true love that awakens Snow White from her poisoned sleep.
“Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?” Bell says she has asked her daughters. “Because you can not kiss someone if they’re sleeping!”
But to some observers, Bell’s critique seemed nonsensical. “Oh well if Kristen Bell is uncomfortable we should probably discard centuries-old fairy tales,” tweeted conservative writer Ben Shapiro.
Leaving aside the fact that Bell did not actually suggest that anyone should discard Snow White from the canon, Shapiro’s take is worth digging into. Shapiro is correct in pointing out that Snow White has existed for hundreds of years — but he’s wrong to suggest that it has existed in its current form for hundreds of years. Snow White has changed and developed over time. In fact, the true love’s kiss that bothers Bell so much is a very late addition to the story.
That’s because fairy tales don’t have a stable form. Every era rewrites its fairy tales to fit a specific agenda, because that is what fairy tales are for. When Bell critiques our current Snow White, she’s got centuries’ worth of tradition backing her up.
The idea of waking up Snow White with true love’s kiss is a historical aberration
There is no one true original Snow White, but the Snow White that most American audiences think of as canonical was collected by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, and then steadily revised into its most widely distributed form over the course of 17 editions, until 1864.
But the Brothers Grimm weren’t revising Snow White to try to get it as close as possible to the version of the story that was being passed back and forth between households throughout Europe. They were revising Snow White to make it a more moral children’s story, so that it would better adhere to the childrearing norms of their time.
I’ve written about the Brothers Grimm and their revision process for Vox before. As I explained in 2016:
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm originally intended for their collection of stories to be scholarly, a patriotic attempt to study and reclaim German folk culture. They recorded the folk tales they heard with minimal edits. But after the first edition was greeted with a lukewarm reception, they decided to revise. And revise again.
Between 1812 and 1864 they published 17 editions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, working diligently to make the stories ever more appropriate for children. That meant the book had to reflect the Grimms’ particular 19th-century German bourgeois family values. And so wicked parents became wicked mothers acting on their own, and then wicked stepmothers; fathers were rewritten to be either virtuous but ineffectual or absent; trickster children were erased entirely. And virtuous women, ever so slowly and gradually, lost their voices.
In 1812, the evil queen who menaced Snow White was her own biological mother. But in subsequent editions, the Grimms decided that a wicked mother was too immoral for children to deal with. They replaced her with a stepmother instead.
And between 1812 and 1864, Snow White’s awakening changed — but at no point is she ever awoken by true love’s kiss when the Grimms are telling the story.
In 1812, Snow White wakes up when a surly servant beats her corpse. Here, the prince happens upon Snow White’s glass coffin and, falling in love with her apparently dead body, asks the seven dwarves to give her to him, so that he can “honor her as his most cherished thing on earth.” Here’s what happens next, as translated by D.L. Ashliman:
The prince had it [the glass coffin] carried to his castle, and had it placed in a room where he sat by it the whole day, never taking his eyes from it. Whenever he had to go out and was unable to see Snow-White, he became sad. And he could not eat a bite, unless the coffin was standing next to him. Now the servants who always had to carry the coffin to and fro became angry about this. One time one of them opened the coffin, lifted Snow-White upright, and said, “We are plagued the whole day long, just because of such a dead girl,” and he hit her in the back with his hand. Then the terrible piece of apple that she had bitten off came out of her throat, and Snow-White came back to life.
Starting in 1819, the Grimms substantially pared down the prince’s fetishistic obsession with Snow White’s dead body. In later editions, he still falls in love with her when he sees her lying in the glass coffin, and he still asks the dwarves to give her to him — but now, Snow White wakes up before they reach the castle. Here’s how Ashliman translates the 1819 version:
The prince had his servants carry it [the glass coffin] away on their shoulders. But then it happened that one of them stumbled on some brush, and this dislodged from Snow-White’s throat the piece of poisoned apple that she had bitten off. Not long afterward she opened her eyes, lifted the lid from her coffin, sat up, and was alive again.
The Grimms’s prince isn’t exactly practicing great consent here (what is he planning on doing with this poor girl’s dead body?), but there’s no element of a kiss. That comes later, with Disney — as does the idea that the prince and Snow White should perhaps have met early in the story, when Snow White is awake, in order to really sell the idea that they are in love at the end.
In 2018, we tend to accept the Disney additions to the story as the status quo, unthinkingly, as just the way the story goes. But the idea of the prince kissing a sleeping Snow White without her consent isn’t fundamental to the fairy tale. It’s a historical aberration.
The awakening of Snow White has changed multiple times already, because Snow White, like all fairy tales, is a reflection of the time that tells it. If people in our own time decide to start telling a version of Snow White that reflects the sexual politics and morality of our own era, they’ll be following in a centuries-old tradition.