There’s no shortage of awful lessons hiding in the Disney cinematic universe. Belle’s Stockholm syndrome towards her verbally abusive captor in Beauty and the Beast. Ariel giving up her voice and family to pursue a guy she’s never spoken to in The Little Mermaid. The confusing sexual politics of The Lion King. But the most horrifying message of all the Disney animated filmography has to come from the movie that started it all: Snow White. Now, it’s probably been a few years since you’ve actually sat down and watched Snow White, so take a minute and really think about that movie and what it’s about.
Snow White is a pretty young princess who doesn’t have a care in the world until the Queen, her evil stepmother, decides she needs to die when a talking mirror tells her Snow White is hotter than her. Snow White then escapes to the forest and befriends a group of dwarfs and exists happily until the Queen, disguised as an old woman, gives her a poison apple which puts Snow White in a coma. All hope seems lost until a handsome Prince appears to revive her in the form of a kiss and the two live happily ever after.
If you’re having trouble picking up on any clear message (outside of the creepy implications of the Prince kissing an unconscious body), that’s because Snow White doesn’t seem to have any real message. At least not on the surface. There are vague lessons about not trusting strangers and believing in the power of love but the real message from Snow White is as sinister as it is subtle: being beautiful is the best thing a person can be. It all starts with that magical mirror, which lets the Queen know that she is no longer the fairest maiden in the land. The minute she learns this, her goal is clear: whoever is more beautiful than her must die.
Now, at this point, you might try to argue that the Queen’s obsession with beauty was a bad thing but in the movie, her belief system is never dispelled. In fact, it seems to be subtly encouraged every step of the way. Consider Snow White as a character. While she is one of the most recognizable fictional figures of the last century, she doesn’t really have any characteristics, traits, or values that define her in a tangible way. She doesn’t have the brains of Belle, the determination of Ariel, the heart of Cinderella, or the courage of Mulan. She is kind of nice but not in a way that informs her personality. No, instead of a personality, the entire foundation of Snow White’s character is that she’s beautiful.
We all know that Snow White’s beauty is what makes her an enemy of the Queen, which is what forces her to escape into the forest in the first place. But the only reason she is able to escape is due to the fact that the huntsman who is hired by the Queen to kill Snow White has a change of heart when he sees how beautiful she is. From there, Snow White finds the home of the seven dwarfs and decides to take a nap without asking (which is honestly pretty rude but we’ll give her a pass since she’s currently being hunted by her stepmom). When the dwarfs come home, they are ready to kill the intruder… until they, like the huntsman, see what a goddam smokeshow Snow White is and they all simultaneously fall in love with her.
Snow White seems to have found a life of domestic bliss but once the Queen finds out her stepdaughter is alive, she decides to take matters into her own hands by turning herself into an ugly old maid to give Snow White a poison apple. But why turn herself into a genuinely hideous person at all? Why not just turn into a normal looking old lady? Because in this world, beauty is a virtue and a currency, so, in the Queen’s mind, she literally cannot commit such an act unless she looks ugly. It’s like her own weird version of people who pray for forgiveness right before they do something terrible. She becomes ugly to allow herself to commit an ugly act.
And finally, that problematic kiss. Setting aside the larger moral implications for a moment, the unnamed Prince had only been seen in the movie once before where he, you guessed it, fell in love with Snow White as soon as he laid eyes on her. He then disappears for pretty much the entire movie until he shows up at the very end to give her a ‘true love’s kiss’, which he would definitely not be doing if she wasn’t objectively the hottest person in the entire world. The two then ride off into the sky, presumably to whatever magic kingdom all the hot people get to hang out far away from the uggos. Because beauty always wins.
To be fair, the concept of beauty essentially being a superpower isn’t exactly exclusive to Snow White. In fact, plenty of Disney movies — including but not limited to The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, Hunchback of Notre Dame — reinforce the underlying message that prettiness is what ultimately matters. But it was Snow White that laid the foundation of physical appearance being the primary measure of a person’s worth and no other movie has it as the primary takeaway the way Snow White does.
Now, to be fair, the chances that a kid actually absorbs this lesson and uses it to shape their worldview is pretty unlikely but given how prominent of a theme the power of beauty is in Disney movies, it may be worth mentioning to your kid that a person’s looks have no bearing on how they should be perceived or treated. Otherwise, they may end up scared for their life anytime a less-than-beautiful person offers them food.