Once Upon a Time there was a boy called Jack who traded in his cow for beans in order to demonstrate the merits of agri-entrepreneurship. But a wicked giant lived at the top of the beanstalk and all the exceedingly tall people were offended, so the story was banned.
And Once Upon Another Time there was a sweet-natured girl whose stoical forbearance enabled her to triumph over a wicked stepmother and two ugly sisters, but her tale must never be told because all the blended families and body-shaming activists took umbrage.
And now, Once Upon This Very Time, a live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has come under pre-emptive fire because, although it isn’t yet in production, it is already an affront to people of small stature and should be set alight with torches on the village green.
The Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who has a form of dwarfism called achondroplasia, has decried Disney for “hypocrisy” after it trumpeted its diversity by casting a Latina as Snow White, at the same time as telling a “backwards story of the seven dwarves living in a cave”.
Generations of children may have been enthralled by the fable of Snow White – one of fortitude, friendship and the potentially fatal consequences of accepting unwashed fruit from strangers – but in our literal and hypersensitive age, the depiction of dwarves within this enchanted fantasyland is now an apparently justifiable cause of outrage.
This is by no means the first time this favourite fairy tale has been castigated. In May of last year the newly revamped Disneyland ride, Snow White’s Enchanted Wish, fell foul of cancel culture because it mimicked the classic cartoon with an animatronic prince kissing his princess to rouse her from her poisoned slumber. Complaints about this supposed sexual assault went viral, as ill will so often does.
We appear in these moments to forget the original intention of these stories. Snow White serves for the entertainment of little children who still believe a kiss makes things better. This one was a classic long before the early 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm set about collating these “crucial repositories of human understanding and culture”, as the fairy tale academic Marina Warner puts it, that were passed down in an oral tradition that predates mass literacy.
To obsess over the identity politics of Snow White’s dwarves – or, say, the “sexism” of evil stepmothers and wicked witches – is to ignore the simple fact that fairy tale characters are all cartoonish caricatures whose real purpose is to serve as vessels for far deeper moral lessons.
Fairy tales are full of life lessons and stern warnings about the fate awaiting those who break rules or transgress a community’s boundaries. Little Red Riding Hood’s troubles begin when she ignores her mother’s instruction to keep to the path. Beauty and the Beast is a moral primer on not judging people by their appearance – especially when they are excessively rich. We lose the importance of these lessons if we begin to tamper with the characters that deliver them.
Viewing ancient myths through a modern lens should enhance our understanding of our forebears and societal mores. Redacting their folk tales of evil queens and gallant knights is worse than letting daylight in on magic; it is to drive a fairy coach and horses through a fantastical world that still has the power to bewitch us today.