Jun 12 2012 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Why Are Fantasy Films All About The Men?

The Avengers. Haywire. The Hunger Games. Snow White and the Huntsman.

These four disparate films all have something in common, and it’s not just a 2012 release.

With the exception of The Avengers, they all cast a woman in the starring role. (In The Avengers, the Black Widow may not be the star—but of all the character arcs, hers is the one with the most growth and movement.) Without exception, they all show physically active women.

They all show women who are determined to survive. And if possible, to triumph.

One of these films is also not like the others. It’s not The Avengers, with its ensemble cast and massive budget. It’s not The Hunger Games, based on a novel and racking up more popularity every time you turn around. And it’s not Haywire, with its comparatively tiny budget and straightforward espionage-thriller action. The film that is most unlike the others is Snow White and the Huntsman, for the simple reason that SWatH—while entertaining—is a terribly incoherent film.

You would think that the people behind Alice in Wonderland could have managed less incoherence, given actors as smart and capable as Kristen Stewart* and Charlize Theron in the starring roles. Those failings have a lot to do with the filmmakers’ laziness and conservatism when it came to employing their star (female) talent—a laziness and conservatism not unique to SWatH, but one that makes films like The Hunger Games and Haywire, not to mention 2011’s Hanna and 2010’s Winter’s Bone—exceptions in their artistic success.**

*I do not understand the hate for her abilities. The woman can act, and given the framing she had to work with in SWatH—and the fact that Hemsworth, while pretty, was hamming it up as the eponymous Huntsman—it’s down to her that the film had any heart at all.

**Flawed films can still be artistically successful. Nothing’s perfect.

Evil Stepmother kills Good King, becomes Evil Queen. Keeps princess (Snow White) a prisoner in Big Damn Castle. Princess escapes, goes through trials, reaches allies, returns with help and kills Evil Queen, taking Big Damn Castle back for her own.

We can all agree that this is SWatH’s basic arc, right? (Placet? Good.)

There are two major problems with this setup. The first is that the minds behind the production clearly got all their worldbuilding materials in a build-your-own kit, but it was the kind of kit that leaves out the instructions and several crucial frames, joists, and screws. (Everyone’s had furniture experiences like that, right?) The second—and to my mind, more important—problem is that they were unwilling to let the character of Snow White actually do the work of being the film’s protagonist.

Reflecting on SWatH, the yawning tangle in its middle becomes obvious as a structural flaw. Unable or unwilling to tell a coming-of-age story with a martial element focussed on a princess, the filmmakers decided to shoehorn two other stories into the mix: the Redemption of a Good Man Hard Done By (the Huntsman looks to be a subset of the martyr without a cause type) and one of the most underwritten love triangles I’ve ever seen—to the extent that it’s not clear there’s supposed to be a Love Triangle in play until it’s much too late for anyone to care.

Instead of permitting Snow White her own trials and her character growth, SWatH makes the mistake*** of putting too much of the emotional emphasis of the film on the Huntsman and the Duke’s son William, without changing the structure of the film away from that of the bildungsroman. It’s not a romance: but the framing of the scenes, the feeling of the beats, suggests that film is engaged with its men on an emotional level that it never quite attains with either its villainess or its putative heroine. The film doesn’t know what to do with Snow White once it gets her out of her prison cell. It’s torn between allowing her character some growth and treating her as a prize to be won; torn between empathy for its female characters and a lazy conservatism that prioritises manpain.

***A structural flaw as well as a failure of feminism.

The result is confusion.

While Charlize Theron gives the Evil Queen her best (and her best isn’t half bad: she does gloriously mad pretty well), her character is beset by many of the same issues that govern the rest of the film’s failures. The Evil Queen is a woman whose entire life has been shaped by her hatred of men (for what they have done to her) and by her compelling need to manipulate and control them by means of her beauty and her magic. Other women are her prey: she only speaks to them when she is taunting them or draining them of life. Other women—in the form of Snow White—are a threat to her power, because they will cause her to lose her beauty and thus her ability to manipulate men.

It is a sympathetic reading to see the Evil Queen’s need for beauty as both armour and weapon to defend herself: it would be simpler to see hers as an all-controlling narcissism and desire for revenge, and that reading ties more closely in to her effect on the film’s landscape. But there’s no escaping the fact that the Evil Queen contends with Snow White not for her own sake, but for the sake of a beauty which is tied explicitly to controlling male desire and thus men themselves. The Evil Queen is shaped by men and her power (or at least her own conception of her power) depends on the male gaze. She does not exist for herself, but for her reflection in the eyes of others.

A critique of the soi-disant “beauty” industry? Perhaps. If so, it’s one that falls more than a little short.

Snow White and the Huntsman might be a film that bills the women first, but when you get down to it, it’s all about the men. It’s this kind of lack of imagination that gives us so few female action-heroes and so few films in which women take top billing. And nearly none of them fantasy.

It might not be the Smurfette Principle in practice, but it’s kissing-cousin to the sentiment.

Find Liz Bourke @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.

1. JasonD
If it seems like the leading woman is playing second fiddle to the men in the story, it's because Kristen Stewart is an abomination as an actress. I understand a lot of her lines were cut and several rewrites to the script were necessary due to her complete lack of ability. Putting her in anything with out a ready-made fanbase as big and insane as the Twilight movies is just begging for death.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
A bit weirdly, this makes me think of all the ways in which this movie's central flaw could actually be an interesting subversion of a trope. A story that follows the Destined Hero to their Destined Victory, but by focusing entirely on the people who act as support/rival/love interest/enemy characters around them? That could be pretty cool!

...but not so much when it's done, as it sounds to have been here, in a manner of "Crap, we're supposed to give a female character an emotional arc? I guess some people fall in love with her. Girls like that stuff, right?"
3. wcarter4
I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with you on one point. Kristen Stewart cannot act. She has virtually no variation in facial expressions, voice tone or body language.
What then is left? The fact that the Twilight films were box offices sucesses has nothing to do with the acting talent of her or any other actor or actress in those fims and everything to do with the commercial sucess of the books.
Incidentally this makes two franchies she has been a part of where the leadign female role was completely defined by the men she interacted with.
That being said. The writing was crap, the premise was crap, the story progression...crap. I completely agree with you on all of those points and for pretty much the same reasons.
As for why so many fantasy storys revolve around men? I personally think its a combinaton of
1. The market being dominated by male authors who and probably aren't as comfortable writing female characters.
2. Movie companies and book publishers likely fear the commercial sucess of a stories featuring female leads since most people who read fantasy books or watch fantasy movies are male. Or at least that's what they think.
As more and more female writers and readers/movie goers enter the market that could very well change.
4. wcarter4
Wow I just looked at my last post and there are several grammar and one spelling mistakes. That's what I get for rearranging my sentences.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
5. tnh
wcarter4, if you register an account you can edit your comments after you post them.
6. tcarnus
I will also agree that Kristen Stewart can't act at all, for all of the reasons wcarter4 stated. The only facial expressions she displays throughout the film are the open-mouth, two-teeth-showing, blank stare and the 1 second grin. It doesn't help that you put Stewart into a movie with Theron - who has much better control of her facial expressions and body - and you just get a showcase of Stewart's poor performance.
7. Eugene R.
I think that Kristen Stewart did a fine job portraying hard rocker/Riot Grrl godmother Joan Jett in The Runaways, which suggests that she can play strong female characters if given the chance (or proper direction or inspiration).
8. John R. Fultz
The real conflict in the movie was True Beauty vs. Artificial Beauty.

True Beauty wins, as it should.

With Ravenna, the beauty comes from outside herself (magic, i.e. metaphor for cosmetics and artifice). With Snow White, the beauty comes from inside herself (she is natural, pure, and at one with the land itself). Her mother tells her plainly that her beauty comes from INSIDE her.

When it comes to this theme of True Beauty vs. Artificial Beauty, the film succeeds quite well. This also translates into Love for Others vs. Love for Self. The real message behind this story is that Love for Others trumps Love for Self...and it's far more interesting and valid than an overly simplistic Good vs. Evil plot because it dares to define the qualities of Good (Love for Others/True Beauty) and the qualities of Evil (Love for Self/Artificial Beauty).

A worthwhile message for anyone, regardless of gender.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
Liz: Because if the writer isn't thinking about it, being male is the unmarked state, so male characters are about what they do, but female characters are about what they are.

If the storyteller doesn't emancipate them from that near-stasis, there aren't many stories to tell about them that work at longer length. There's the one about the girl becoming the person she's supposed to be, and one about the spunky girl who saves the people around her, and the second round of the "becoming herself" story that involves marriage and babies.

It's hard to make that fill an epic fantasy. It's also hard to set it in motion, especially the "becoming herself" variations, because the main character has to shlep her identity around with her. The minute you tinker with this scenario by adding a character who's free to move and act, he becomes the focus of interest -- movement will do that -- and thus the protagonist. It also becomes easier to tell extended stories, and there are a lot more of them to tell.

wcarter4 @3: I'm all for cooking up theories, so good on you; but there are at least as many female fantasy authors as there are male ones, and the same goes for their readership.
Liz Bourke
10. hawkwing-lb
I think Kristen Stewart can act. A flaw in my character, perhaps! But that is far from my main point, here.


I think it'd be an interesting experiment. I'm not sure how successful it could be as a film, artistically. It might be better as a television series after the English mode: six or eight hour-long episodes. (I can't think of a book that's done anything similar right now, but my brain is kaput.)


Hopefully the success of both the Twilight films and the first Hunger Games film will go some way towards making female main characters in fantasy/action films more financially appealing to the backers in the film industry. Much as I love to hate the whole Twilight thing, the success of the films has opened doors for future possibilities.
Liz Bourke
11. hawkwing-lb

You've nailed it, of course. And SWatH is bedevilled by that near-stasis.

The Why? was more in the way of a cri de coeur. (Or maybe more of an elongated sigh. Snow White could have been so much better.)
Jenny Kristine
12. jennygadget
Eugene: yes, exactly. She did a rather good job in Speak as well and I suspect her performance in Speak is a big part of why she got the role of Bella. She may not have the skills and talent of the Fanning sisters, but I personally think she is good enough to hold her own alongside them.


"I understand a lot of her lines were cut and several rewrites to the script were necessary due to her complete lack of ability."

...and you are hearing this where?

What bothers me is not people thinking that Stewart is a bad actress, but that people seem to blame her for how awful her characters are. Even if TPTB had to rewrite her lines, it's not her responsibility that they had to do so. At this point in her career, it's the fault of the director, writer, and people in charge of casting. It's also their fault that that they thought it made sense to keep her there instead of recasting the part. In short, even if true, people other than Stewart decided that it was fairly inconsequential that one of their lead actresses could not act, which says a lot about how important they consider female roles to begin with.

Which is part of why I am skeptical of the claims that Stewart cannot act in the first place. This seems to be said of a lot of actresses whose characters get pushed aside for male characters. I'm sure there are times when it's true, but I'm just as sure there are times when it's an excuse to blame the actress for the writer's/director's/etc bad characterization of women. Not only is it often hard to tell which is more true in any particular case, bad characterization of women is the actual trend that needs addressing, not the lack of talent among actresses.


I think you just nailed exactly why I love P. C. Hodgell so.

(edited because I apparently like to skip letters and words :p)
13. wcarter4
Let me rephrase what I said earlier. Yes there are certainly female writers/readers. Moreover there are even a number a very good writers--Stacy Kane comes to mind as one I've enjoyed. But (and I'm mostly talking about movie writers here) there is still a higher number of male writers in the field overall.
But I think the bigger of the two factors is the publishers/Movie producers shy away from female oriented stories that don't come from franchies or writers who have already proved a commercial success. Remember to a producer, the important thing isn't to have strong, engaging characters (regardless of gender) it's to make money.
They think that because Conanand a myraid of other scifi/fantasy series from the 70s and 80s had women as half-naked eye candy on the arm of a big, strong man. That that's what all scifi/fantasy should be.
And it will take money to change their views. Characters like Katniss from Hunger Games, Chess Putnam, Vin from Mistborn, and Korra from the Legend of Korra, are proving to be commercial sucesses. So the market is starting to expand--Pixar's Brave is coming out soon and time will tell if they do a good job with it.
The problem is, at least at first, there is probably going to be some growing pains for lack of a better phrase as writers shift their plots to include more wellrounded female characers. Many are going to do it badly. On top of that executive meddling will likely rear its head as producers insist on dressing up these femalse in ridiculous form fitting leather suits to go into battle with in the name of eye candy, ultimately make the story about the leading male character, and/or try to make up for shallow and awkward plotting with tacked-on romance subplot and gratitious nudity/sex scens and explosions .
I submit Snow White and the Huntsman as one such a craptastic example.
Jenny Kristine
14. jennygadget
"Remember to a producer, the important thing isn't to have strong,
engaging characters (regardless of gender) it's to make money."

That's bullshit. Or else we would have had a lot more Titanic-style knock-offs.

I mean, they may value money over engaging characters (or not, remember Lasseter has been credited as a producer too), but that doesn't mean they value money over everything else, which is what that statement also implies.

I think a more accurrate description of what is going on is a combination of:

1) More women (and female friendly men) slowly breaking into the industry in various roles. (It's generally not people that have always written mostly men that are writing these female characters. It's people like Whedon. It's also not a coincidence that the first Twilight director was female.)

2) Hollywood (finally) recognizing teen girls as a market
(Twilight was given the go ahead not just because the books did well but because someone finally took a look at the demographics of the Potter movie fandom - and was eager to capitalize on that.)

I don't think one can underestimate how important it is to see coworkers and audiences as potentially female (and not just male) before you are able to make that leap and be open about female characters. They sort of go hand in hand.

That's not the same as Hollywood taking so long to see women as people simply because doing so is apparently novel and new - and therefore a bigger financial risk. Sometimes the risk is there, but often it's really not and it's easier to blame risk than examine one's prejudices.

(CBS messing with Criminal Minds is a good example too. JJ and Prentiss were not pulled from the show because someone cool headedly looked at ratings and trends. That was (most likely) done because the gender dynamics of the show make certain people nervous, and the ratings meant the show got on the radar of the kind of people that had the authority to respond to such nervousness by "fixing" the show by putting what they wanted into it.)
Christopher Johnstone
15. CPJ
I haven't seen SWatH. I was planning to at one point (it looked interesting in the trailers), but all the initial reviews switched me off. This seems to suggest the film is even less worth seeing than I'd already assumed (I thought it was just a mess--now it sounds like its a mess that could make a person angry too).

I wrote a long reply about some people 'defaulting' male and female roles to active and passive respectively, but reading the comments again I think Teresa said more or less what I was trying to get at with fewer words.

Anyway, interesting article. It does make me think I -might- watch SWatH on DVD down the track in a sort of so what did they do wrong here? kind of way.

Birgit F
16. birgit
my brain is kaput

Brains usually are in the head (Latin caput). kaputt is the German word for damaged.
Liz Bourke
17. hawkwing-lb

And since English is an inveterate borrower of other people's words, we dropped the T when we nicked it. (Caput kaput est!)

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