Snow White and the Huntsman: Feminist Fairy Tale?

by | June 23, 2012
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

Poster for Snow White and the Huntsmanby Jarrah Hodge

Despite my love of re-imagined fairy tales I didn’t think I’d enjoy Snow White and the Huntsman. I’m already predisposed to hate anything with Kristen Stewart after I suffered through the first Twilight movie and Adventureland, and the movie was getting some flak from feminist blogs. The Ms. Magazine blog ran an article called “10 Reasons NOT to go see Snow White and the Huntsman.” Among the reasons:

The evil feminist. At the outset of the film, the Queen kills her latest husband and says with vengeful breathiness, “Men use women. They ruin us and when they are finished with us, they offer us to the dogs like scraps.” The film thus sets her up as a straw “man-hating feminist” for us to revile, but her brand of feminism is one no Ms. reader would recognize. Actually, the Queen is the one to ruin people and treat them like scraps, in a decidedly un-feminist matter.

It wasn’t hard to persuade me that this was not going to be the subversive story it was promised to be. And I had no hesitation accepting it wouldn’t be up to the caliber of an Angela Carter or Margaret Atwood fairy tale re-telling. (Read the rest of the review after the jump. Warning: includes a few spoilers!)

But now I’ve seen the movie, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. Nuanced in its representations it ain’t, but when it comes down to it I don’t feel guilty recommending it to readers who are looking for some light entertainment.

The Critique:

So it turns out I agree with about half of Natalie’s list at Ms. In particular, the fact that they chose to cast an entire kingdom with basically just white people was a bit disturbing. I was also a little uncomfortable with her two love interests being violence-happy guys just chomping at the bit to defend her honour. One of them, the Duke’s son William, seems to act like she’s guaranteed to fall in love with him by virtue of their childhood friendship and their similar social ranks. The huntsman, on the other hand, is an older widower who starts the movie with a low opinion of women’s abilities, and mainly seems to fall in love with Snow White because she reminds him of his dead wife.

Another con was the pacing. There was too much action early on without much detailed exploration of situations. It also made you question how someone who had been locked in a tower for years could possibly have the physical strength to dive, swim, ride a horse, and run, run, run with only a half-night’s sleep in the first two days.

And the queen’s brother’s haircut? This probably bothered me more than anything. I know it’s silly, but I just couldn’t find him threatening. I couldn’t find a picture of it but you can see it in the clip below.

But the big issue for feminists watching will likely be the film’s depiction of the evil stepmother (Charlize Theron doing an awesome and incredibly creepy acting job as Ravenna) and what messages it sends about beauty, aging, and female power.

The evil matriarch/stepmother trope is certainly nothing new and it’s problematic. It reinforces the idea that aging (especially women’s aging) is undesirable. And as the Ms. article mentioned, the fact that she’s a vocal man-hater doesn’t help with the stereotype problem. But I agreed with A. Lynn of A Nerdy Feminist that the movie seemed to make some attempt to make Ravenna a bit more complicated and problematize the beauty = power connection. She writes:

I can’t help but feel that the drastic good/evil dichotomy constructed is an attempt to gloss over the fact that at the heart of the original tale the message is that the aging vain woman should step aside in favor of youth and beauty. But it’s an attempt which is complicated by some strange humanizing elements they add to Ravenna’s character.

Partly, the film does this by showing a tiny bit of Ravenna’s childhood, which we’re led to believe was pretty traumatic. At a young age Ravenna is put under a spell that allows her to have power, but only as long as she is the fairest one. It’s not a stretch for the audience to see that this is pretty messed up and that it leads to a lot of pain and suffering. We also see Snow White dirty and dishevelled at times throughout the movie, and even one of the first lines says she was loved “as much for her defiant spirit as for her beauty”. Even those who see her beauty, such as the Huntsman and the dwarves, don’t follow her unquestioningly until she has proven her strength and heart.

Snow White and the Huntsman is not a movie masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s fun, exciting, and does attempt to challenge the usual fairy tale passive princess mythology while trying to inject some nuance into the evil Queen’s motivations. In the end, Snow White and the Huntsman is basically an action movie for girls, and there aren’t a lot of those out there.


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