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.