The pains of being pure at heart: Snow White and the Huntsman
June 14, 2012 § 15 Comments
Movies like Snow White and the Huntsman prop up and reinforce conservative ideologies while pretending to “subvert” conventional narratives through the guise of liberal feminism. On the surface is Empowered Young Women Kicking Butt; underneath the gloss it’s all Business As Usual. Everything about Snow White and the Huntsman is about the purity of BLOOD AND ANCESTRY. I mean, we know the story from the fairy tale and nothing’s changed. It’s about the rightful princess taking her place on the throne as queen because she is of “pure blood” and supposedly “pure at heart”; this is evident through her pure beauty (white skin, red lips, black hair). She even stops a troll in his tracks, for fairy’s sake, so it must be right. One scene in particular made me feel ill: Right after she escapes from her holding cell, Snow White rides a mysterious white horse (a gift from the universe! fairy tale magic!) through a village of dirty, poor folk – the unwashed, raggedy masses; the universe doesn’t give them white horses, nope! – and they stare at her meanly like they’re going to chop her up and make a stew of her. That’s what poor people do, amirite? So Snow White looks all afraid. And she’s white and luminous even though she’s been rolling around in grime while the villagers are all grimy and dirty because SNOW WHITE, GET IT? I mean, if you don’t get it or forget which movie you’re watching then HERE IS AN IMAGE TO REMIND YOU.
Dwarves who have the second sight say things like, “She is the one. She is destined.” Or, “She will heal the land.” Or variations of, “She is pure”; “She is the rightful heir”; “She will save the goddamn world and I will follow where she leads because once upon a time I was a man/dwarf with no pride and then SHE came along and my pride is restored, so let us save, support, and secretly want to fuck this beautiful woman who will be queen because yeah.” Chris Hemsworth is made to say things like, “You will be a queen in heaven and you will take your place among the angels” or some such shit while Snow White is (sort of) dead; how he said it without spitting into the camera will remain one of moviemaking’s greatest mysteries. So it’s not just that humanity needs a white person to rule the world; she will also save the world because SHE IS THE ONE and if you’re not buying the white horse then wait for it, a white deer appears and bows to her and gives her his blessing and it is WHITE so it is PURE and therefore it is GOOD and IT IS ALL AS IT SHOULD BE and why they didn’t go all the way and make her god, is the bigger question.
Fuck me, I’ve been trying to figure out if the movie has subverted any of the conventional narratives but now all I want to do is rinse out my brain. Moreover, I’m just angry because I watch movies like this. But what happens if you don’t watch movies like this – do they stop making it if we all don’t show up at the cinema? LET’S ALL NOT SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA. (Charlize Theron* as the “evil” queen tells us that we get the queen we deserve. Presumably we also get the movies we deserve.)
I was rooting for the evil queen, simply because she has known what it’s like to be at the mercy of powers larger than herself, powers that altered/ruined her life as she knew it for the sake of nationalism/ancestry/culture and cheap thrills. It’s a bummer that she then became, you know, wholly bad and appropriated all the power in the world for herself while sucking out the youth/souls of younger people in order to stay alive forever, but yeah. The world will do that to you, apparently. The world will corrupt and ruin you UNLESS YOU’RE SNOW FUCKING WHITE AND PURE OF HEART THANKS TO YOUR PURE BLOOD AND NOBLE FUCKING ANCESTRY.
The evil queen is evil because she is operating in a man’s world, as her mother taught her, and in a man’s world a woman must have beauty or she has nothing. Beauty = power. This is neither new nor shocking, just depressing as fuck, because the thing about totalising ideas like “this is a man’s world” is that it prevents us from seeing how we continue to remake it as a man’s world, it prevents us from seeing how to undo its structures. And we’re left talking to mirrors.
Ideas of beauty in Snow White and the Huntsman are predictable: beauty is pure and good if it is moderated and neutralised, usually with the help of patriarchal structures like monarchy and actual men-protectors like huntsmen and dwarves; beauty is really bad if left to the devices of women who hate men but want what men have (i.e. power). Beware the beautiful woman who spurs you on to such heights of lust that you marry her the next day! Where possible, shape and modulate youthful female beauty by locking her up in a tower (bonus points if the evil queen does it for you, you benefit from the effects of disciplined subjects without having to do the dirty work yourself!). Then, set her free BUT of course, not totally free; keep her well within the proper boundaries of patriarchal structures that also operate subtly as fascist supremacy (bonus points again!) and pretend that she has a choice. And so the movie tries to sell itself as rah-rah feminist because Empowered Young Woman Kicks Butt but by the way, Old and Not-So-Beautiful Anymore Evil Hags Who Hate Men Should Die a Slow and Painful Death. It’s Good Beauty vs. Bad Beauty, the former who simpers when the still-a-stranger-to-her huntsman cuts off her skirt (for easy mobility, one reckons?) while the latter stabs men and kings while they’re making out with her.
Meanwhile, here is what the movie wants you to know: Goodness is written on your face but ideally it should be a face that adheres to hegemonic standards of beauty. Plus, you must have the right skin colour! If so, then the world is yours! Take it! Otherwise, your beauty is suspect or you’re most likely ugly; therefore, shut up and be subjugated. Furthermore, if goodness is written in your face, you don’t really have to do anything beyond stare soulfully into the eyes of a troll, which is enough to convince Chris Hemsworth that you’re something special so that one minute his job was to kill you and the next minute he looks you into your eyes and thinks NOPE! TOO BEAUTIFUL TO KILL! and this will make him forget his dead wife just like THAT although he’s only been grieving for her ALL THIS TIME so it will all work out in the end, because he will kiss you while you’re almost-dead and you will wake up and you will claim your rightful place and you will live happily ever after.
(*Much of the film appears dark, grey, and gloomy, and Charlize Theron’s exaggerated performance admirably matches the artifice of the movie’s aesthetics, like the fluttering dark feathers of ravens and the melting mirrors. Her performance and the movie itself almost veers towards camp but fails because there is not a shred of humour to be found anywhere — except, of course, in the predictable sequences involving the dwarves. Forced laughs, etc. Maybe it would have been better if this movie was lesbian camp, with the Queen and Snow White finding love, or just great sexual gratification, with each other. But no. This movie is serious. Theron’s performance is all about excess: this queen cannot be contained. Still it’s a relief to watch her shriek and moan and gesticulate wildly compared to the blank-eyed expressions of the ChrisStew, as I call them. The ChrisStew performance is flattened affect in a movie that’s filled with intensely trite and sentimental dialogue; it’s dialogue that strains for Meaning. Maybe the vacant, one-note expression thing would have worked against the shittiness of the dialogue somehow, but no, because this movie is serious. There’s one great but fleeting moment where you catch Stewart’s expression before she jumps into the water: it’s a mix of dread, fear, and exhilaration. You never see it again. As for Hemsworth, he’s drunken, distant, and loutish until he falls in love over the course of two minutes and becomes silent and wistful. And presumably because this is love as pure as the driven snow, there is no sexual heat or tension, just unending blah.)