In Disney’s landmark animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the dwarfs proceed to and from work in typically the same order every day: Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Dopey bringing up the comic backside. When my oldest boy was between 2 and 4 years old, he became a huge fan of the movie – well, at least of the seven dwarfs – and we even owned (who am I kidding, we still own them) little rubber figures of each. His favorite activity was to line them up in their proper order and it one day prompted him to declare that Doc is the oldest and Dopey is the youngest.
This statement got me to thinking about how the character of the individual dwarfs might be reflected by their relative ages and their family dynamic as brothers (deep thoughts, I know, but hey, my brain seized on anything it could to avoid thinking about law school). These ruminations led me to believe that if, as Ethan believed, the dwarfs marched in order of their ages, then Disney got it wrong!!
The proper order of the dwarfs, chronologically, is Grumpy, Dopey, Doc, Bashful, Sleepy, Sneezy, and Happy. To explain my ordering requires us to delve into the back story of the seven dwarfs, their unhappy childhoods, and their disengaged parents (I will not go into the damage that was done by the parents’ callous naming choices. Alternatively, it could be they were so disengaged that they did not name them for several years until the children’s dysfunctions became apparent, thus labeling and scarring them for life). The fundamental dynamic that informs and distorts the characters of all the dwarfs lies in the relationship among the first three. Illustrating their family dynamic (and of the remaining four), illuminates the layered, nuanced characters that underlie the blithe portrayal afforded them in the cartoon. I leave for another day the bitter, acrimonious competition between the brothers as they vied fiercely for the affections of the first woman they had seen since their mother passed.
We begin with the Grump.
Grumpy was a high-energy, hot-blooded, passionate young scamp who enjoyed the undivided attention of his parents long enough to appreciate its absence when his younger brother Dopey was born. The birth of a younger sibling and the loss of undivided attention is a transition difficult enough for the eldest born, but here the difficulty was compounded by his younger brother’s physical challenges. It is unclear exactly how far Dopey’s mental challenges extend, but rather than assuming he is not the sharpest pencil in the box (as Disney would have us believe), let us rather assume that his only real challenge is the inability to speak. His “dopey” character let us interpret not as a mental challenge, but rather as a psychological response to the physical. Dopey, in an effort to compensate, subconsciously chose the role of clown (think Harpo Marx – another second child) to appease his older brother’s anger towards him for stealing so much of their parents’ attention. Yes, there was a time when Dopey could make Grumpy laugh.
Sadly these days were not long lived as Doc was born into this already unstable dynamic and his appearance was the butterfly’s wing flap that made the storm inevitable. His natural response to his brothers developed quickly and organically, as did his role in the family. With three children to care for, the dwarfs’ parents found their finances stretched (particularly as they struggled to find doctors, therapists, etc. to help give Dopey the opportunities he needed to succeed at school). As a result, they became overworked and uninvolved, and Grumpy, Dopey, and Doc became latchkey dwarfs. Grumpy’s anger continued to fester and become a generalized anger towards the world, and Dopey’s attempts to make him laugh increasingly fell on deaf ears. Dopey eventually had to drop out of school entirely and go work in a mine (this was the 1940’s remember – that kind of thing happened). Without his parents to give him the special attention he needed, Doc filled the void, and the two became inseparable. Doc, an exceptionally capable young lad, managed to acquire his PhD in civil engineering, while at the same time working with Dopey in the mine to help protect him from the intensely testosterone-filled environment. Eventually, of course, with his superior knowledge of geological structures, Doc, with Dopey’s help, was able to purchase the mine outright and his and his family’s, fortune was made. All this only increased Grumpy’s sense of growing alienation and his generalized anger soon distorted all interactions and relationships. Observe how even mature, good-natured, exceptional Doc did not escape without a stutter.
Enter Bashful. With Doc and Dopey linked for psychological safety, and Grumpy an isolated ticking time bomb, Bashful turned inward. Bashful must have felt himself less a brother to three other dwarfs, and more a brother to one all-consuming passion play in which he had no real part of his own. Sleepy, likewise disengaged from the dynamic of the eldest three, and with Bashful far too introverted to be any sort of companion against the storm, developed a severe case of narcolepsy.
In some ways, Sneezy presents the most intriguing psychological case of them all. By the time he was born, the eldest three were much older and somewhat uninvolved in his world. Yet the dysfunction they created could not help but affect him on a deep subconscious level. As a result, he developed fits of hysterical sneezing that neither he, nor anyone in the family could ever explain. Testing came up negative for all known allergens, and antihistamine proved ineffective. These otherwise debilitating neuroses would have rendered Sleepy and Sneezy unable to hold down a job, but fortunately, they were able to go to work for the family business once Doc acquired the proper land rights to the mine.
By the time Happy was born, Grumpy, Dopey, and Doc were all old enough to be substantially removed from his childhood sphere (indeed, their work in the mine had become all-consuming as they struggled to climb the entrepreneurial ladder at such young ages). To the degree they were not, Bashful, Sleepy, and Sneezy served as a buffer between Happy and otherwise inevitable neurosis. And as the baby of the family (and because of an otherwise general sunny disposition, and because of his parents ability to take early retirement), he received all the positive attention he required.
In a future article, I hope to tackle the disturbing, and often lurid, behind the scenes relationships of the Teletubbies.