Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Less Grim Review of Snow White and the Huntsman

Instead of writing directly about my first impressions of the film (some have already, and said it better than I could), I'm going to address Jack Zipes' interview for the Smithsonian, titled "A Grimm Review of Snow White and the Huntsman."
Professor Zipes claims that fairy tale interest isn't new but that
What’s new is the hyping—films that are just absolutely mindless can make it seem like you are going to be sent into a world that will astonish and delight you for a couple of hours while you eat your popcorn.
I agree, though I don't believe Snow White and the Huntsman (or SWATH, to distinguish it from other Snow White films) is one of these.  While the most obvious example that comes to mind, Avatar, was a re-hasing of several dusty ideas and a step backwards according to many critics of the spent anit-colonization/anti-imperialism motif, SWATH was a genuine effort to approach the sacred bones of a beloved and profound tale and flesh it out for a new generation using the tools and talents available to a modern filmmaker.

Zipes goes on to say that tales should adapt as society changes, but that we should dismiss those re-tellings that are clearly aimed at stroking the tellers' vanity.

This seems contradictory.  If fairy tales originated with ordinary people (non-scholars), were preserved and adapted by them, then fairy tales and storytelling are phenomena with which those people have a right to do what they will.  The critics' place is to observe, record, dialogue, and appreciate, but not to determine who is and isn't worthy to handle fairy tales, despite my strong personal sympathy with him that those of un-pure intentions leave well alone (see essay by InkGypsy on the evolution of fairy tales).

About the SWATH film, he states:
This movie represents a backlash to the feminist movement. “Once Upon a Time,” Mirror Mirror—those shows and films focus on women and their conflict with one another. What the heck is going on in contemporary fairy tales? Women are not dominating the world; they are not evil. Why are we redoing the Grimm tales in a retroactive way that doesn’t understand the complex problems women have today? These films have nothing to say to the world today.
A movie with two women as main characters does not automatically label it either feminist or anti-feminist.  The statement "women are not dominating the world; they are not evil" fails to carry home his argument.  There are women in positions of power in the world, and some of them, no doubt, are on the spectrum of wickedness, but let us say his statement stands for the most part.  It is still irrelevant.  By saying Snow White and the Huntsman has nothing to say to the world today, he misses the point.

The power of the Snow White tale is as it always was, and it deals with universal tendencies, significant as much today, if not more, than they were a century ago.  Zipes says earlier in the interview that the "jealousy of the mother or stepmother regarding the beauty or power of a younger . . . woman" is what gives these tales poignancy.  They are useful and relevant.

The pressure to remain young and beautiful, and youth and beauty as a source of a woman's power, have not been eradicated from society.  At best, they have been filtered and shifted.  We are meant to be distracted by the fact that women stand alongside men in the workplace, that they have rights as divorcees and more say over how they raise their children, run for government office and are sexually "liberated"--this does not diminish the uncomfortable circumstances in which a woman endowed with physical attractiveness is significantly affected, for good or ill.
In SWATH, Queen Ravenna's disturbing condition reveals this double-edged truth, with harrowing results.  Beauty is dangerous, and it is helpful.  It is ruinous because it causes men and women to lust, covet, and envy.  It is also a tool of power because it can be used to subdue people and bend them to one's will.

Some were hesitant to see Kristen Stewart in the role of the fair princess, not least because it is difficult to imagine her beauty rivaling that of the chiseled-cheeked Charlize Theron.  But though the "fairest blood" of Snow White is the paradoxical salvation and undoing of her stepmother, there is never any direct claim that Snow White is physically more beautiful than the Queen.
Instead, the emphasis is on the beauty of her soul, i.e., her innocence of intention, purity of heart, and determination of spirit, embodied by the rose which pricks her mother's finger in place of the usual needle in the opening scene.*

While Snow White's transformation into a Joan-of-Arc style warrior princess is incomplete and awkward, given her gentleness of spirit and complete lack of military training, it is this inspiring leadership and the promise of being her good father's just and rightful heir, that causes her people to follow her in overthrowing the bewitching usurper.**
This has a great deal to say for our times.

It speaks about the shallow charms and violent power rooted in fear of dictators and deceitful politicians paired against the seeming weakness of the "average guy" with good intentions.  It speaks to a society that worships youth, finds little worth in the elderly, and seeks desperately for an Elixir of Life, even if it must sidestep bioethics to obtain it.  It addresses happiness, sacrifices made to obtain happiness, and which sacrifices are worthwhile and which are empty.

SWATH does this imperfectly, even weakly at times.  But it does it.

Last, Professor Zipes claims that a woman remaining "pure" and "virginal" is anti-feminist.
There is always a touch of faux feminism, or false feminism. Snow White becomes a warrior, but we still have this glorification of the virgin princess.
It is feminist belief I have previously encountered that virginity, purity, and innocence are ideals forced upon women by men and that the ideals don't have any power in and of themselves, except as they are given worth by a biased patriarchy.
This is the opposite of true.  The concept of the Virgin (both male and female) as a sacred person or role is ancient, with many incarnations.  One way virginity is powerful is because it is believed to harness procreative sexuality, consecrating it for a greater purpose.  Suffice to say, "glorification" of virginity does not have to weigh in a feminist vs. anti-feminist agenda.  Neither does being a warrior.  One does not need to be active to be non-passive, and vice versa.  Whether or not Snow White achieves non-passivity in the film is debatable (see the link to InkGypsy's essay above).  But the idea that being either a virgin, or a warrior, or both, reveals a gender's repression and mistreatment is in error.

*Jungians will cop onto the chronological proximity of Snow's kiss with the Queen-disguised-as-prince right before she bites the archetypal apple, and speak to the awakening of sexuality and the flight of innocence.  Was the Huntsman's ambiguous kiss therefore chaste enough to counteract the spell? Pages could be written about the Queen's poisonous view of sexuality. 
** SWATH's Snow White has the healing powers of a Fisher King type, whose sacrificial death and resurrection restores the land, but only her close companions know this at the time of battle.  I want to examine this Waste Land theme in greater detail at a later time.



  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I'd like to write more, but it's been a long day. I'll just say for now, that among other things, I appreciate your pointing out that virginity applies to males and females equally. Oh, and the part about women's beauty and how our culture dismisses women once their usefulness as objects of beauty has passed... but there is so much power in a woman who has aged!

  2. I love this! Well-written and well-argued. Being a virgin is not anti-feminist, just like being promiscuous is not feminist.

    As much as I love Jack Zipes, he sounded like a cantankerous old man in this interview, saying "These kids today...get off my lawn!" He is way off base in his analysis.

    Your response was perfect!

  3. I'm pleased others understand where I'm coming from. Thank you both for reading!

  4. Wow, now I really want to see this movie. Really really really. Thanks for a refreshing and intriguing review.

    1. Thank _you_! You can tell that the people behind the story put a lot of love into it, regardless of having to share the spotlight with big movie effects!

  5. This grim special-effects juggernaut mucks around in the darker regions of the fairy tale.

  6. Very well written post. It is one of my favorite movies. I happen to watch it by chance. My kids and I finished watching shows by Andy Yeatman on Netflix and thought of watching this movie that time. It was such a good decision. We loved the movie.


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