The question, "Who's the fairest of them all?" is one of the most recognizable in existence -- but it's not too often that you get to hear the original "Pretty Woman" ask it.
The line conjures up childhood (probably Disney) images of Snow White, the Wicked Queen and seven dwarves -- and now it's being brought to the big screen once again in a big way, with major star power behind it. "Mirror Mirror," starring Julia Roberts and Lilly Collins, opens on March 30, while the Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron-helmed "Snow White and the Huntsman" is set to come out in June. Because I am a sucker for beautiful costumes and grew up both loving and hating princess culture, I was pretty excited to see how Tarsem Singh's "Mirror Mirror" would portray Snow White. To my surprise, I left the theater completely uninterested in fair Snow, and fascinated with the Wicked Queen and what the character's contemporary reincarnation was saying about how women think about the aging process now.
Collins' Snow White surely looked the part -- the 23-year-old is stunning and does have what could be called "hair as black as night," whatever that means. She was also, happily, more forceful than Disney's damsel ever was, matter-of-factly stating, "I read so many stories where the prince saves the princess. It's time we changed that ending." And (spoiler alert) save him she does. But she was boring; the type of girl you tell your friends is "nice," but can think of no other adjectives to describe her. On the other hand, Julia Roberts' queen was by far the most compelling (and entertaining) part of the film. She was convincingly over-the-top, vain and haughty, barking orders at her servant, a fabulously sniveling Nathan Lane. Her casting choice might seem a bit ridiculous -- how can someone who looks like Julia Roberts be so preoccupied with her "crinkles"? But it was perfect, highlighting the fact that even the most gorgeous among us isn't immune to physical insecurities. Though I'm 24, closer in age to 18-year-old Snow White than her presumably decades older stepmother, I was drawn to the Wicked Queen's fear of getting older far more than Snow's quotidian coming-of-age quest for independence and a boy's heart.
The character of the Wicked Queen highlights two ideas that appear in many of fairytaleland's greatest hits, including "Sleeping Beauty," "Cinderella" and "The Little Mermaid": that women feel a lot of anxiety over "losing their looks," and that older women are intensely envious of the young women that surround them. I asked psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., author of "Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change," for her read on this phenomenon. "When you look at the traditional fairy tales, envy is almost always placed on the older, the less attractive, less fortunate. ... There is a belief that women [should] strive to be their younger selves or compete with women who are younger," she said. "Mirror Mirror" puts an of-our-times twist on these themes -- the scene where Roberts is plucked, pulled, plumped and tightened by all manner of creatures and substances was eerily reminiscent of the more bizarre beauty treatments currently on the market. And instead of the magic mirror being depicted as a male character, as in previous takes on the fairy tale, the mirror merely depicts her own reflection, suggesting that she's her own worst enemy. But the film falls short of complicating these ideas. The ending includes a particularly grating line, which only serves to reinforce the idea that the worst thing that could happen to a woman is getting old and, the line implies, inevitably ugly. (I will say that it's worth watching just for the Bollywood scene, though -- you'll know what I'm referring to when you see it.)
Seeing these narratives constantly replayed -- in almost every "new" interpretation of the Brothers Grimm's tales, as well as your standard sitcoms and endless stream of "pore-minimizing, anti-wrinkle" cream ads -- sends the message that women in their 20s should fear the decades ahead of them. I already have peers who discuss their errant gray hairs and the horror of what gravity might do to their breasts. "[Snow White] plays into the fear that your generation has," Diller told me. "You see the preoccupation that mid-lifers have with trying to look younger." And it's true. We hear all the time about women who spend their lives trying to turn back the clock -- Bravo's "Real Housewives" has built a franchise around them. As profitable as capitalizing on these anxieties may be, I think it's time we stop reinforcing them -- on TV and in Hollywood.
During our chat, Vivian told me that my generation was "close to having better role models" when it comes to embracing age. I wasn't sure if she was right until I read an essay by Linda Durnell, part of HuffPost Women's "What I Know About Beauty" series:
I think many people (at least those not yet in their 50s) would jump to the conclusion that because women in their fifth decade look different from the way they once did, they look worse, and feel bad about it. This could not be further from the truth. I feel like I've earned my face. It's a road map to what I've enjoyed, endured and accomplished.
I hope that the Snow Whites of today -- who will be the probably-not-so-Wicked Queens of tomorrow -- take note. Being somewhere in between the two, I plan to thoroughly enjoy the transition ... even if I don't wake up in 20 years looking like Julia Roberts.
LOOK: Scenes From Tarsem Singh's "Mirror Mirror"