This photograph forced me to rethink what I thought was a harmless “princess story” (with the privilege to never have to feel or consider the “un-mirroring” racial messages) as something a good deal more disturbing and remarkably destructive (Hobson 114).
The mirror in Weems’s work is the location of “mistaken identity,” of “struggle for visual self-representation that is divorced from white aesthetics” (Ibid 114). Snow White, “‘signifying ‘woman,’” displaces the black female subject from herself—cursing her with “‘erasure;’” binding her to the experience of her body as “the ‘paradox of being’” (Doane quoted in Hobson 115). The “‘symbolic absence’” of the body, an idea at the core of white feminist theory, does not describe, Hobson argues, the black female subjectivity. Snow White is an object: one of many beautiful dead girls, the object in the glass (or frozen) coffin, who is revived by the kiss of a prince (without consent) or adored, pitied, mourned, and painted. But a beautiful white princess’s gaze “demands a becoming”—or, in Snow White’s case, the evil queen’s. The black female subject, Weems seems to communicate, looks not at herself as an object with transformation potential, with a particular value, with “fixable” substance. Instead, Weems’s subject finds herself “un-mirrored:” “Not you, you black bitch, and don’t you forget it!!!” (Ibid 115). She cannot, Hobson emphasizes, “demand a becoming” (115).
As I felt around for information about Weems’s photograph and the origins of Snow White, I came across something I never expected to find: a black “Snow White,” or rather “So White,” of Bob Clampett’s Merrie Melodie Coal Black and de Sebbin Dwarfs produced by Leon Schlesinger and released by Warner Brothers in 1942. If you are wondering how you never heard of such a movie, that’s because in 1968 it was added to the Schlesinger/Warner Bros. “Censored 11:” a list of the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes cartoons –“considered offensive or politically incorrect by today’s standards because of their depictions of African-American racial stereotypes”– withheld (along with the other 10) from any kind of reproduction, distribution, and/or transmission.
The “hypersexed black womanhood” of the Hottentot Venus, the “‘T & A’ spectacle” of her showing is even in this cartoon. I would like to point out that it is a body part that is the first thing the audience can see of So White: her butt is our introduction to her. So White is also bending over with her face away from us, and her legs are spread apart. Compare this to the first frame where we see Snow White engaged in a similar activity:
Unlike Snow White (spawned by the queen for her beauty)– who is found by the hunter while picking flowers and then chased into the nightmarish woods where she eventually collapses weeping—So White (spawned by the queen for romancing the man she wants) is kidnapped by a van of black men hired to “blackout So White” (by the evil queen). When So White is set down on the ground (“Ok boys, set the body down easy”), she thanks them flirtatiously (“you sure are sweet”) to their kiss-covered faces.
But how does this relate to the “un-mirroring” in Weems’s photograph? What do the differences between Snow White and So White’s feminine character roles in the animations say about the black female subjectivity?
So White’s “coal black” hair is what gives the title its “coal black” (to distinguish it from the Disney film) and what sets her apart from Snow White, but it is the unmentioned but obvious difference in race that makes them such incredibly different portrayals of femininity. Like the winner of Harlem’s 1947 Miss Fine Brown Frame title, Evelyn Sanders, So White is “defined by desire” (Craig 56). Like Sanders, who won the beauty contest for her “sassy walk [and] revealing bikini,” So White’s undisguised sexuality (“Some folks say I is kinda dumb, but I know someday my prince will come”) and suggested lack of intellect is what defines her comical attractiveness and role in the plot. In addition, Snow is performing and this wish declaration for the audience and as an introduction to her character; unlike Snow White’s private moment of wishing that is directly witnessed only by her entourage of little birds (Ibid ). Between Snow White and So White, it seems, is “the dominant white culture’s association of purity with white women and uncontrolled sensuality with black” (Ibid). When we try and put together the images that construct Snow White’s femininity we might think of day-dreaming, motherly interactions with massive amounts of baby animals, fear of the woods and the unexpected arrival of the prince and the huntsman, and being “the fairest of them all” over the ugly, old, queen-turned-witch. For So White, it is her chest, her butt, her red lips, her braids, her flirtatiousness (and generous kisses, at least, the ones that are consensual), and her winning of the sexual rivalry imagined by the queen.
The grand romantic climax of each film is produced in the action of a male character upon and through the living (again) body of its female character.
While Coal Black is, I think, meant to parody of Snow White, I wonder at the pretty intense sexual overtones—and whether that would have been considered “appropriate” if this were a parody of Snow White with a white “princess.” In the animation, we see many of the black female stereotyped characters, including So White herself, easily a product of the “Jezebel.”
The “simplistic stereotypes… manufactured as ‘controlling images’ in systems of power,” such as those which make up the cast of Coal Black, “create the process of ‘un-mirroring,’ in which struggles for black female subjectivity constantly grate against the distorted images of the dominant culture” (Hobson 14-15). So White, romanced first by the prince, next by Murder Inc., is most profoundly affected, at last, by the kiss of an American soldier (about the size of a newborn). She kisses, dances with, and flirts with a number of men, but American pride claims her—it is what awakens her from her second time being referred to as “the body.” Her body is used to prove the potency of American “military secrets” and pride– flags actually appear to plant themselves on either side of her wide eyes. She is an object beyond that of Snow White’s kissable, carry-on kind– no mirror looks at her and allows her “becoming” she is a sex object and her sexuality is commodified for the cause of American pride and wartime morale.
Hobson, Janell. Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2005. Print.
Craig, Maxine Leeds. “Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Representing the Ideal Black Woman.” Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 45-64. Print.