Friday, July 21, 2023
A neutral look at a battle of the culture war
Frank Zappa once said that “A mind is like a parachute. It doesn't work if it is not open.”. The fundamental difficulty of discussing culture war issues is that most people interested in discussing that don't have an open mind, while many open-minded people are sick and tired of the media barrage on culture war issues and don't want to discuss them. But in this forgotten corner of the internet, where I am basically talking to myself, I still want to talk about the occasional culture war story.
Our story today starts with the Brothers Grimm, two German academics of the early 19th century. They were part of the Romanticism movement, which revived interest in traditional folk stories. So they set out to collect and publish that folklore, fairy tales that had been told in villages for centuries. They believed that these folk stories had value, and should be preserved. But beyond the German cultural sphere their work might have been forgotten, if it hadn't been for Walt Disney, who with a keen eye for copyright issues saw a great source of copyright-free source material. Half of the characters we today think of as "Disney princesses" are in fact Brother Grimm princesses. Thus folklore and history were preserved for eternity, and everybody lived happily ever after. Or not ...
To a neutral observer it is obvious that folklore stories from the 19th century and earlier reflect the values and beliefs of that era. And a 1937 American movie of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs reflects both the values of the source material, and that of 1937 America. Which are unsurprisingly different from the values and beliefs of 2023 America. And it turns out that the values and beliefs of 2023 America are so much divided, that there is no possible version of Snow White that doesn't cause outrage with one side or the other.
For the progressives, the 1937 movie or the source material are unacceptable for many reasons: The very name of Snow White, based on a wish by her mother, comes from her having "skin as white as snow", which is seen as racist. The seven dwarves are considered to be insulting to people with dwarfism, and are too male. And with Snow White "dead" in a glass coffin, and thus unable to give consent, Prince Charming is considered to be part of rape culture. Not to mention that Snow White isn't exactly a very strong feminist role model, her part in the fairy tale is rather passive.
The new live action version Disney is currently filming thus has a Snow White that isn't snow white. Dwarves that aren't dwarves, but multi-gender magical creatures of various heights and sexual orientations. And apparently Prince Charming got completely cancelled and removed from the story. The new version is unacceptable to the conservative side of society. Not only do they believe that the Brothers Grimm had a point in conserving traditional stories; they also fear that their children are being targeted by media with progressive values that they don't share.
I understand the worries of both sides (which sets me apart from 99% of the internet). I totally believe that we should have fairy tale movies with progressive messages and an inclusive cast. The part that worries me is calling that movie "Snow White". I am a hobby historian, I do not believe in revisionism. It reminds me of George Orwell's "the one who controls the past controls the future". Stories from the past are full of important reminders on how the world was different back then, and how people were formed by and adapted to the conditions they were living in. I think the progressive thing to do is to annotate historical culture goods, not trying to revise them. Parents absolutely should watch movies with their children and discuss the values presented in them. But we should also create new, modern, progressive stories instead of trying to revise the old stories, while simultaneously milking them for their brand value.