Saturday, June 2, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman: She ain't no Katniss

Though Snow White and the Huntsman borrows heavily aesthetically and iconographically from what can be called the Lord of the Thrones/Game of Rings school of epic dark fantasy filmmaking, clearly what the writers and director want you to think of is Hunger Games. We have another flinty and french-braided weapon-wielding heroine apparently striking a blow for post-feminist action heroes. The problem is, despite having much older and arguably richer material for a feminist re-telling, this Snow White ties itself in knots rather than cutting through them.

Why it's not called Snow White and William.
Though the film goes through all the epic motions, what it's missing is a coherent mythology to make the audience believe that the mystical elements (the evil queen's buxom beauty botox, fairies) make sense and are thematically resonant. The major beats of the fairy tale itself (drops of blood, the titular huntsman [an always appealing Chris Hemsworth], seven dwarves, a prince-ish nobleman) are invoked and tweaked a bit, but I was never sure to what end. Even something as basic as a map (which both Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones feature early and often) would have made me feel more stable in the story. Snow and the Huntsman, along with the dwarves and not-quite-prince William (heh), seem to walk for days and I had no idea why or to where. 

The beginning, and really any scene with Charlize Theron as the wicked queen Ravenna, is packed with promise. Snow White bothers to give this evil step-mother motivation beyond vanity. Ravenna literalizes the mandate that for women, physical appeal equals survival and power under patriarchy. She was cursed (gifted?) with bewitching beauty and eternal youth by her mother, seconds before being kidnapped and presumably raped by a king as a child. The fear and desperation in her eyes when she asks the mirror (which isn't so much a mirror and is, for some unexplained or explored reason, a robed liquid metal man--sort of like the guy from Terminator 2 except in a cowl) if she is still the fairest, it's because she knows she will be worthless if she's not. So far so good! Let's look at the patriarchal assumptions that undergird these fairy tales, and in many ways dictate the behavior of the women (and the men) within them!

Except. In order for this premise to truly work, the character of Snow White would have to undo the monarchical system that both gives her power as the daughter of the king, and makes her a threat to Ravenna. This doesn't so much happen. Instead, Snow becomes a figurehead for the sort of pre-modern worship of the virgin that Henry Adams invokes in "The Virgin and the Dynamo" and Thomas Pynchon utterly deconstructs in V. Her communion with animals is turned up to 11, including a religiously-tinged encounter with a white hart (echoed in her oddly jarring recitation of the Lord's Prayer while imprisoned by the queen). The annoying voiceover guy, along with a particularly wise dwarf, trace Snow's mystical power to rejuvenate the kingdom to her "innocence" and "purity" with seemingly no acknowledgment that those virtues (pun intended) are tied to her sexual status in a way that historically could and would ensure the "proper" inheritance of royal paternity. When she gives a rousing speech barefoot in a white dress after being raised from the dead, she's more a cult priestess than a warrior queen. The scenes with Snow and Ravenna are the most exhilarating of the film, but also the most disturbing. We're being given two versions of femininity, but they both seem to reinforce the same problematic argument--the only available way for women to gain power is by replicating patriarchal hierarchies.

Say what you will about Hunger Games, either the series or the film, but at least it stakes its ground on the story of a young woman's political actualization and sticks to it. Putting Kristen Stewart in armor and having her ride under "the banner of the king" doesn't banish the lingering undertones of Bella and her boys.

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