It’s a strange moment. The Gremlins, having eaten after midnight and turned from teddy bears into evil reptilian creatures, find themselves in a movie theater. Suddenly, Snow White starts playing — and they are transfixed. They all sing in unison along with the seven dwarves: “Hi ho!” Indeed, their love of Snow White proves to be their undoing, as their absorption in the movie is what ultimately allows them to be defeated when the protagonists start a fire, burning down the theater.
The use of Snow White cannot be random. Gremlins was not produced by Disney, and so the producers had to pay extra to use the film. But what does it mean?
The first step in answering this question is recognizing that Gremlins is ultimately a film about American workers’ anxieties. We can see this immediately as the sad-sack “inventor” father, whose inventions never work, finds himself constrained to visit Chinatown to find a present for his son — foreign-made products are in play from the opening scene, in precisely the era when American automakers were developing a reputation for faulty products compared to their Japanese counterparts. The foreign product is initially appealing (cf. Gizmo, the nice Mogwai who gives birth to the evil ones while remaining nice), but ultimately destructive of American home life and of the traditional small town. Indeed, the Gremlins appear to kill a representative of the underemployed blue-collar worker, and only in the sequel do we learn for sure that he has survived.
Already from the beginning of the film, we can see the shift from Fordism to neoliberalism. The human protagonist works at a bank, which is presented as his only serious job option. Notably, this bank is run by a woman, gesturing toward the long crisis of American masculinity that has followed in the wake of the destruction of the postwar settlement. Futher emphasizing this latter point, the father is absent during the entire decisive battle against the Gremlins, and it is the protagonist’s mother who is most brutally effective in destroying them (for instance, microwaving one to death).
If the American worker cannot directly defeat the foreign invaders, his image — in the form, please note, of dwarves — can. Though its productive capacity is hobbled, America can maintain its hegemony through a combination of popular culture and raining terror from the sky. And perhaps we can discern a warning in the vision of the burnt-down movie theater, a caution that excessive force can undermine America’s prestige and hence its cultural hegemony.
As we contemplate another meaningless war, then, we can only hope that the president sits down to watch Gremlins — and heeds its message.