The Fairest of Them All: How Postmodern Fairytales Fail at Diversity (and How to Fix It)

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Mirror Mirror is about as postmodern as a postmodern version of a fairytale gets these days – “It’s been focus-grouped!,” the prince protests, as the princess defies tradition and sets out to save him. So why is it so very white? It’s especially jarring when Indian director Tarsem Singh ends the movie with a Bollywood-inspired dance number – it’s a Technicolor celebration of cultural diversity by a cast that doesn’t seem to have any, save a dwarf or two who barely stand out from their pack.

A fairytale about a heroine named “Snow White” is always going to require imagination, or daring, in casting for diversity, but I was surprised at how little Singh and his studio bothered trying to push the envelope. Not that they’re alone – most of Mirror Mirror’s competitors in the current fairytale fad, from last year’s Beastly to this spring’s dueling Snow White and the Huntsman, have shown very little imagination about race. (Brownie points to Catherine Hardwicke, who let Shiloh Fernandez win the affections of her Red Riding Hood last year.) In the interests of avoiding further whitewashing – and maybe seeing some updated fables with real edge – here are four ways Hollywood should rethink diversity in all these postmodern fairytales.

1. Paying lip-service to feminism is no longer enough.
I love seeing movies with strong roles for women and heroines who actually get to do things. And yes, it’s great that Lily Collins’s Snow White learns to defend herself and beats Armie Hammer at flirty swordplay, and that Chris Hemsworth is going to teach Kristen Stewart how to fight the evil queen in her version of Snow White. All of this would be way more impressive if Drew Barrymore hadn’t done the same thing fourteen years ago in Ever After. If you want to be edgy, Hollywood, let’s move beyond grudging admissions that women can stick up for themselves and find something new to say about race or sexuality or all of those other Gender Studies words the Brothers Grimm didn’t have to deal with. I liked some of Mirror Mirror’s lopsided efforts to give its dwarves separate characters – one has a crush on our heroine while another wants to help her pick out a fabulous wardrobe – but maybe the next round of big-budget Snow White movies could even explicitly acknowledge why seven unrelated men might live together in a rustic lodge and get freaked out by the appearance of a girl.

2. Stop appropriating culture without showing the people who made it. (Otherwise known as: Every rant I have stored up about Chinese tokenism in Joss Whedon’s Firefly.)
The color in Mirror Mirror is amazing, but it’s not even skin-deep. For much of the movie, the brilliant costumes and set designs hide the fact that there are very few nonwhite people wearing Eiko Ishioka’s crimson peacock dresses and gumdrop courtier costumes and black accordion stilts – which makes the final scene stand out all the more. The Bollywood homage is a fun break from tradition on one level, but it’s also deeply weird considering how little evidence there is that any non-WASPs actually inhabit this magic kingdom. Which is a missed opportunity: Like Snow White and the Huntsman, like Red Riding Hood, like next year’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (yes, really), we are talking about stories that can be set anywhere, any time – including somewhere completely imaginary. It’s not like directors and studios have much room to hide behind the excuse of casting for “historical accuracy.” Which brings me to...

3. Think outside the casting box.
I saw Mirror Mirror a few days after racists came out of the woodwork for The Hunger Games, which dared to cast black actors to play characters who were originally described as “dark-skinned.” As Anna Holmes pointed out at The New Yorker, that ugly reaction highlighted how many movie viewers expect characters to be white until explicitly proven otherwise – and Hollywood reinforces those expectations all too often, even when casting fantasies about imaginary lands where, you would think, anything goes. But no, it’s still sticking to the sidekick sidelines. The dwarves provided Mirror Mirror with pretty much its only diversity; at the very least, the movie could have included more people of color among the speaking courtiers and villagers and downtrodden castle servants. Snow White and the Huntsman, from its latest trailer, is going even more pasty-Eurocentric with its crowds of faux Crusaders. That’s not even considering the television variations; despite its modern setting and larger cast and serialized format, ABC’s Once Upon a Time has made room so far for only one regular non-white character. (NBC’s rival Grimm is doing a little bit better.) Just think what could happen if Hollywood got really radical and reconsidered how it casts its fairytale leads. In fact...

4. Dare to rethink who’s the “fairest of them all.”
It could be problematic and somewhat predictable to cast a person of color as the main villain in a fairytale, especially if all of the heroes are white. (Though I think Michelle Yeoh or Angela Bassett could mop the floor with Julia Roberts.) Future fairytale filmmakers could also consider looking for a prince who’s slightly less Caucasian than Armie Hammer – he’s charming and nice to look at, but I suspect there are plenty of attractive young actors out there capable of handling a role where the heavy lifting entails imitating a puppy. But the most interesting possibility, and the one I’d most like to see the next big-budget, postmodern Hollywood fairytale attempt, would be to cast a young woman of color as Snow White or Belle or Red or any other virginal, virtuous, smart and beautiful heroine, especially if she’s a character whose beauty has traditionally been defined by the paleness of her skin. These stories have been told for centuries, and by now they’re desperately in need of some real reinvention. Challenging their most outdated assumptions about who and what is beautiful would be the easiest – and most interesting – way for Hollywood to make its next round of adaptations far more worthwhile.

Maria Aspan is a writer living in New York whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Reuters and American Banker. She Tweets and Tumbls.



Comments

  • KitC says:

    Hollywood already tried with Princess and the Frog. Wasn't a huge hit esp. when compared to other animated films.

  • David says:

    While I see the need for more diversity and such, the princess is named Snow WHITE, and it's explained because of her complexion, so would it make sense to cast an actress of different race? I could see the queen, or the prince being cast differently (although I though Julia Roberts planned the role perfectly), but not the lead.

    • Yojimbo says:

      Make sense? In a story with a magic talking mirror and house of dwarves and enchanted sleep, I think we can expect the audience to buy into a woman of colour playing Snow White. Maybe White could be the family name? Maybe it could refer to the purity of her spirit (and I know white = pure is a troubling concept in and of itself)? Maybe her favourite dress could be white? In a world with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and sparkly vampires, this is not an impossible deviation from the story.

  • dukeroberts says:

    Casting a woman of color as Snow White would be rather silly due to, as David said, her name being derived from the complexion of her skin. Other fairy tale heroines may be fair game, though that move may come across as cheap pandering. Here is an idea: Let's create some NEW fairy tales and cast them with whoever instead of "reimagining" previously and oft-told tales. I'm getting tired of seeing "a modern retelling" of this or "...with a new attitude" or whatever. It's unoriginal to be so unoriginal. Let's get original, people.

  • Patrick Hallstein / McEvoy-Halston says:

    Re: Lily Collins’s Snow White learns to defend herself and beats Armie Hammer at flirty swordplay.

    I'm fairly certain there are some teenage girls out there sophisticated enough to know this was but the equivalent of daddy buying you a car or a pony -- it had nothing to do with what you really could do, but with your being enfranchised with someone eager to place the world at your feet. "You want to be the greatest fighter as well as the most beautiful princess in the world? (Perhaps not the most plausible thing, but) Chamberlain, make it so!"

    If I was a totalitarian determined to cement my rule, I would create a film industry that each year leaves aside more and more white WASPS, replacing them with what-not people of color. The hippies that would want to challenge my rule, I would reveal as from privileged backgrounds, of mostly white heritage, and from all the old world spots, and so therefore obviously so self-absorbed they think they know what's best for everyone else out there. Then I'd laugh my ass off as a group of people who pride themselves on their egalitarianism, would in horror find themselves summed up as the true elitists out there.

  • Erica says:

    Picking fairy tales/fables from places other than Europe would greatly help this also.

    • Morgo says:

      Oh god, this! Telling the same old white stories, but putting coloured people in them is not "how to fix hollywood."

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  • Madelyn says:

    Im no expert, but I think you just made a very good point point. You definitely comprehend what youre speaking about, and I can seriously get behind that. Thanks for staying so upfront and so genuine.

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