One of the things that we love most about Once Upon a Time is that, while Mary Margaret may be the soggiest lettuce in town, Snow White is a highwaywoman, a fighter, and a swashbuckler—every bit Prince James’s equal. Snow White is no longer a prize to be claimed, no longer an object to be won, and no longer a passive element in what is supposed to be her own story. And if she needs rescuing, she is quite capable of rescuing herself, thank you very much.
This is both so very needed and very empowering. It’s powerful to not only create new stories that empower marginalised bodies, but re-examine these old tropes and challenge them in a way that not only sets a new paradigm but highlights how wrong the old paradigm was.
The problem, of course, is that strong woman still means straight, able bodied, cisgender, and white. Snow White may not necessarily be waiting in her coffin for true love’s first kiss, but we do know that there will be a love interest and it will most certainly involve a man.
We always expect fairy tales to be 100% straight simply because they are seen as children’s stories (and pervasive bigotry holds that any GBL&T inclusion is both sexual and obscene) and because they are often seen as historical (and, for some bemusing reason, there’s a stubborn idea that all GBL&T people arrived from space in the 70s or 80s) so any GBL&T inclusion in this genre is always an uphill struggle. But nearly all fairy tales—and certainly most of the ones popularised by Disney—revolve around a romance. The Princess will meet her Prince, and then there will be Happily Ever After.
Unlike the Disney version where Black is seen as negative through the clothing choices of the evil queen, modern incarnations of Snow White do have characters of colour. These characters are always secondary and work to serve either the protagonist or the antagonist. Their characters normally can be erased from the film or television show in question without being missed, making it appear as though the choice to include a person of colour was based in a hope to forestall critique based in a lack of racial inclusion.
The perfect example of this is the magic mirror in Once Upon A Time,who lives to follow the orders of Regina, The Evil Queen. The actress who plays Regina is Latina, but nothing about the character of Regina reads anything other than white. Even taking her as Latina, when we then consider that Snow White is meant to represent the epitome of white female beauty and that she is battling a woman of colour to see who is the fairest in the land…definitely there is a problem. It suggests that no matter how conniving a woman of colour is that she will always and forever be second because she can never attain the true beauty of a white woman.
It is no accident that, as the population demographics change, there has been a return to Snow White. No matter the text, there are constant references to her pale skin and dark flowing hair. Snow White is exclusionary from start to finish—no matter how many side characters of colour are included—simply because the role could never ever be played by a woman of colour. If the desire behind it were to actually revisit folklore, there are plenty from cultures of colour that would make fascinating stories. The fact that these stories have been ignored to once again focus on a narrative that is exclusionary tells me that this is about upholding whiteness as a standard for what is good and pure in this world.