Rachel Zegler said her Snow White won’t be ‘saved by a prince.’ Some Disney fans didn’t want to hear it

In 1937, Walt Disney’s Snow White sang “Someday my prince will come.” Recently, the actor set to play the role in a modern remake noted that her version wouldn’t be waiting for a prince, touching off a storm of controversy online.

Rachel Zegler said she was excited to bring a “new modern edge to Snow White” in a September 2022 interview with Variety.

“We absolutely wrote a Snow White that is not gonna be saved by the prince,” said Zegler about the movie, which won’t be released until next year. Instead, she said, her Snow White would become the leader she’s always meant to be.

WATCH | Rachel Zegler discusses her version of Snow White: 


 

Clips of the interview recently resurfaced on social media where people reacted to the changes Zegler said were coming to Snow White — the first Disney princess to grace the silver screen in the 1937 animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

One TikToker, @cosywithangie, said in a video that “not every woman wants to be a leader … and that’s okay.”

“Just because a woman values something different, does not make her any less valuable,” she wrote in her TikTok post. “Write stories about ALL women and depict them ALL as valuable and worthy, instead of trying to mould them into one specific image of what you deem worthy.” 

The backlash Zegler has received for her comments about a movie that doesn’t even have a trailer yet shows the challenges Disney encounters when it comes to making movies for modern audiences — the importance of featuring a diverse cast and female characters with depth without alienating those who love the original films, with their more archetypal princesses and traditional fairy tale endings.

Protecting beloved stories

Rebecca Rowe, an assistant professor of children’s literature at Texas A&M University Commerce, agrees that if Snow White wants to have a romance she should be able to. 

“The problem is, when you only have a few female characters, then every female character has to hold weight and has to mean so many different things.”  

Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and directed Barbie, is co-writing Snow White alongside Erin Cressida Wilson. Barbie, which was released on July 21 and has grossed over $1 billion, touched on this subject when actor America Ferrera’s character gave a powerful monologue about being a woman. 

Kim Snowden, an assistant professor at the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia says having someone like Gerwig write the script is an indication that Disney is open to telling the story in a different way.

“I hope that what we saw with Barbie, that kind of nostalgia and protecting that thing that is so beloved, but also opening it up in a way that allows us to see it differently is brilliant. 

“Most people can understand that the story needs to be updated,” said Snowden. “[It] doesn’t replace the old one, and there’s plenty of ways to engage with this without having to just kind of target Rachel Zegler.”

Some of the online vitriol levelled at Zegler, who is Latina, took on racist tones. Just a few years earlier, Lily James, who played the lead in Disney’s 2015 live-action Cinderella remake, expressed similar sentiments, noting that her version of the classic character didn’t need a prince. 

WATCH | Lily James on playing Cinderella: 

This Cinderella isn’t waiting for a prince,’ says Lily James

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Updating the classics to reflect current values

Toronto-based writer, editor and culture critic Stacy Lee Kong says Disney’s live-action remakes serve as a way for the company to update old-fashioned stories to reflect current values. 

One of the ways they do that is by casting actors of different ethnicities in roles originally depicted as white.

Headshot of culture critic, Stacy Lee Kong.
Stacy Lee Kong says Disney’s live-action remakes serve as a way to update old-fashioned stories to reflect current values. (Roberto Caruso)

“I loved every Disney Princess that wasn’t white solely because I had no option of someone who actually looked like me, there was no Caribbean Disney Princess,” Kong said.

When it comes to new Disney characters and remakes, she says the company has the power to make changes that resonate with people like her and still speak to the nostalgia fans of the originals expect.

“The choices that Disney makes here have to signal both a respect for tradition and history, but also to really demonstrate that since 1937 they have evolved as a company … that’s a really hard place to be.”

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From fairy tales to franchises

While debates about Disney remakes are nothing new, Snow White has sparked an important conversation around the retelling of fairy tales and how times have changed.

Fairy tales have been told for centuries, most notably by the Brothers Grimm, who gathered oral folk stories, reworked them and compiled them into written volumes.

Assistant professor Kim Snowden.
Kim Snowden, assistant professor at the Social Justice Institute at UBC is excited to see Greta Gerwig co-writing the Snow White remake. (Submitted by Kim Snowden)

Snowden notes that fairy tales were originally darker stories meant for adults. Newer adaptations eventually stripped away their complexities.

Snow White, or Schneewittchen appeared in the first edition of fairy tales published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The final version of the story, which can be found in the 1857 edition, features seven-year-old Snow White trying to escape the Evil Queen’s attempts to kill her, then finally falling victim to the poisoned apple. Later, she would be awoken by a clumsy servant who accidentally dislodged the apple from her throat.

Disney’s adaptation changed the story to better suit their audience. In their version, Snow White was a 14-year-old girl who fell victim to the Evil Queen’s poisoned apple and was awoken by “true love’s kiss.”

Disney’s Snow White was followed by Cinderella in 1950 and Sleeping Beauty in 1959. This trio of animated movies marked the origin of Disney’s “archetypal princess,” who are often seen as quite passive, according to Snowden.

She says revisiting Snow White’s character — giving her more depth and allowing her to choose her own path — is important when it comes to a modern remake. 

“I think it would be a really boring film if we were to just reproduce the animated version,” Snowden said. “What makes the animated version good is the groundbreaking animation for 1937 … Not the character of Snow White, who’s really quite flat.”

The Little Mermaid, released in 1989, was a turning point for how Disney princesses were portrayed, with Ariel taking a more active role in her story.

WATCH | Kids react to seeing Halle Bailey’s Ariel:

The big impact of The Little Mermaid trailer for young Black girls | The Moment

The first trailer for the live-action film The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey, has many young Black girls excited to see themselves as a Disney princess.

Beauty and the Beast, released in 1991 saw Belle, a well-read, intelligent young girl, convince the beast to let her stay with him in exchange for her father’s freedom. In 1992, Disney released Aladdin featuring Jasmine, the first princess of colour. 

With Mulan, released in 1998, Disney began a trend of princesses who openly defied the traditional roles expected of them and fought to make their own way in life. In 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, happily ever after for Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, wasn’t following her prince to his far-off kingdom, but having him join her as she opened her dream restaurant.

A Black woman smiles as she gestures to a poster of a cartoon character she is playing displayed on a wall behind her.
Actor Anika Noni Rose played Princess Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, released in 2009. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Among all the classic fairy tales, legends and live-action remakes, Disney has also been creating original stories for years, introducing new characters in movies like Brave, Frozen, Moana, Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto

Very few of these more modern films feature a prince. While there still may be romances, the characters are more developed and the princesses have more of a choice when it comes to their love lives, if they have them at all.  

What the future holds

While these changes show Disney is making efforts to reflect modern life, some say there’s still room for improvement.

“I think Disney is capable of making really amazing characters,” said Rowe, who noted she’d also like to see more diversity in body shapes and sizes and more variety in the kinds of abilities and disabilities characters have.

Rebecca Rowe in her offfice at Texas A&M University-Commerce
Rebecca Rowe is an assistant professor of children’s literature at Texas A&M University Commerce. (Tyler Holloway/Texas A&M University-Commerce)

Kong says Disney has a huge amount of power and influence that she hopes they use “to give kids other models of femininity and other models of beauty and other models of just being seen.”

Though Snow White won’t be released until March 2024, Snowden hopes that, based on Zegler’s comments, the film will be more nuanced.

She points out that there are other ways of retelling fairy tales that are less narrow than “Disneyfied versions.”

“Think about it as just another way to tell a Snow White story.”