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Debunking: "Snow White & The Huntsman is a triumph of feminist storytelling"

By / 06.06.12

I saw Snow White & the Huntsman last week, but I never quite got around to a review, partly because I was busy writing reviews for more important movies (Moonrise Kingdom and Prometheus – stay tuned for those), and mainly because it didn’t feel worth reviewing. It was middle-of-the-road schlock, empty, hackneyed and almost as boring as it was dumb. It was pretty to look at at times, but so is a Sears commercial. But Kristen Stewart has somehow managed to heartburn-face herself into the most talked-about actress in Hollywood. I don’t know what’s happening. You’d think the conversation would be something along the lines of “she’s not a very good actress, the end,” but like Bella in Twilight, people are reading all sorts of things into her doe-eyed vacuum. Yesterday, a writer for Time wrote an essay calling Snow White “a triumph of feminist storytelling,” and I couldn’t help myself. I hate-clicked that thing so fast Armond White got jealous. In lieu of my own review, here’s my dismantling of this one.

Many critics have faulted Snow White and the Huntsman for, oddly enough, an absence of heart. This is a peculiar criticism for a movie that takes great pains to establish the emotional complexity of its characters.

Since when do “good” and “evil” count as complex emotions? Sloppily-written simplicity is different than complexity, but even if the characters were emotionally complex, it’d be hard to tell because Kristen Stewart has approximately two facial expressions, and they both look like this:

Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna is a bipolar mix of steely goddess and unhinged harpy.

And milk baths. Don’t forget the milk baths. Also, a bipolar ice queen with a hysterical harpy alter-ego is a feminist statement now? …Interesting.

But she’s also a genuinely tortured soul, with a history of sexual and emotional abuse.

A history we learn not through actually seeing any of these events, but through a single monologue the queen delivers while in bed with a dude before she stabs him with a knife. It’s the oldest rule of storytelling, “tell, don’t show, and always at the last minute before your character needs a motivation for doing something cool-looking.”

When was the last time we saw an action-movie villain whose eyes filled with tears each time she embarked on a murder spree?

She was crying because she was losing her looks. Villains do insane shit for vain reasons all the time. In fact, I would argue, that’s kind of their thing.

Snow White is a triumph of feminist storytelling not because the female leads look invincible but because they are fully dimensional.

So dimensionality is a feminist thing now? Isn’t that just a good storytelling thing? Why does not-shitty storytelling equal feminist storytelling? Also, let’s not forget that one of these supposedly-dimensional females is Kristen f*cking Stewart.

Other critics have suggested that all this feminist reimagining is eventually hijacked by an attempt to masculinize the story, literally dressing Snow White in a suit of armor. It’s true that things come to a predictable end, with a saber-rattling battle. But director Rupert Sanders didn’t turn the two female leads into men. “That happens sometimes when films turn women into action heroes,” he told USA Today. “But I made a decision not to have Kristen [Stewart] do anything that she wouldn’t realistically be able to do. The men follow her into battle because of the spirit within her.”

Well, that’s good that you resisted the urge to turn her into an action hero. That part where she charged at her enemy with a sword screaming “YAAAAAAHHHH!” promising to avenge her father was nothing at all like an action movie. Why, she probably killed her with smarts or understanding or periods or some other feminist thing that a man couldn’t do. (SPOILER ALERT: I’m kidding, of course. It was a sword.)

Snow, as she’s called,

In-form-er, me no say daddy me snow me I’ll go plaaay-oooh, she make you boom boom doooown… Sorry, I can never resist the opportunity for a Snow reference. I would’ve enjoyed some backstory about Snow White growing up in the hardscrabble Jamaican slums of Toronto though.

…brings her uniquely feminine power to almost every scene. She tames a ferocious giant troll and calms not one but two skittish white steeds. She makes dolls, comforts frightened girls and generally has a magical effect on everything around her. “I feel lovely. It’s her doing,” one of the wizened dwarves declares admiringly.

So she makes dolls, pets horses, hangs out with girls, and makes men feel good? Jeez, what other feminist stuff does she do, baking and sandwiches? She did tame a troll, but since she never actually said anything to it or helped it in any way, and it just looked at her face and stopped freaking out, I assumed it simply became tame because she was, like sooo pretty. Whether her weapon is physical beauty or some shapeless abstraction like “the spirit within” is sort of in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it.

Another observes that she is “life itself” and will “heal the land.” But she’s not a Jason Bourne; her bravery comes from her quiet charisma and earth-mother compassion, not from physical strength.

In other words, her bravery comes from empty platitudes and abstractions that people say about her, not anything that can actually be observed. Oh, and her “quiet charisma” (again, this is Kristen Stewart we’re talking here). Meanwhile she never actually does anything compassionate (at one point, she even abandons her horse in a bog to escape the queen’s men), other than look pretty and smile dumbly. Though she does wear pants under her dress the whole movie, which I guess is kind of Earth-mothery.

The tone and plot of the film feel female-driven too, as we see in the latest girl-anchored love triangle (echoing not only Twilight but the more recent Hunger Games)…

You want female driven? Two in the Pink One in the Stink 6 had a girl-anchored love parallelogram, and don’t get me started on the female-anchored action in Filthy Bukkake Whores 19.

…and perhaps best exemplified by an arresting village scene of the veiled women who’ve scarred themselves to remain safe from Queen Ravenna’s rapacious hunting expeditions.

Those villagers put three mild slash marks on their cheeks because Ravenna was “only interested in beauty, without it we are of no interest to her.” Because cheek scars obviously make you ugly and unlovable. Poor Tina Fey, that hag.

Did the director intend to draw parallels to contemporary assaults on the female body, often enforced by other women, such as female genital mutilation or face-concealing burqas?

SPOILER ALERT: No.

On the surface, it’s hard to appreciate just what a cinematic departure Snow White is for the action-movie genre.

Mainly because of how generic and shitty it is.

There are plenty of clichés: grizzled, beer-soaked hero, plucky damsel in distress, vicious killer with creepy sidekick, quirky British character actors adding spice and legitimacy to the enterprise. And of course, the requisite battle scenes of filthy soldiers and horses mired in mud. It takes a little time to realize we’re seeing something new: a warrior princess poised, as A.O. Scott described in the New York Times, at the “precise intersection” of badass and breakable.

Also at that precise intersection? Heartburnville Mall, just across the street from the Snoozetown Buffet.

And yet there has been an unfair drumbeat of negativity, even rudeness, about Stewart’s portrayal:

“Hollywood’s reigning princess of dour.” “A bit of a galumpher.” “Can’t Kristen be a little more up?” “Stewart fails to impress,” another critic declared, calling her “closed down,”
an “awkward fit,” and blank-looking” and faulting her “slouchy bearing” and “sulky passivity.” Some critics wondered if she were pretty enough to compete with Theron’s golden, Bond-girl hotness. Lou Lumenick of the New York Post was even blunter, asking, “This is Snow White?” and calling Stewart “nobody’s idea of ‘the fairest in the land,’ ” and “bruised-looking, disaffected and scowling.” Even Lumenick might scowl if he were locked in a dungeon for a decade and forced to swim through raw sewage, not to mention if he were starved, poisoned and pressed into military service. In any event, these claims are misdirected: it’s the men who are gruff and glowering. Stewart has never been more radiant or affecting.

The meanie critics who criticize her sullen acting are being unfair! How can they say that about someone so pretty? I mean look how radiant she is! Hooray, feminism!

(MORE: The Harsh Bigotry of Twilight Haters)

Wait, you mean this same writer who keeps defending Kristen Stewart with abstract intangibles also likes Twilight? You don’t say.

The box office success vindicates the director and actresses who made this movie. Early estimates had predicted a tepid opening for Snow White, but it hit the jackpot this weekend, toppling The Avengers from its perch, with similar numbers of male and female viewers and, equally surprising, more than 50% of its audience over 30. In other words, this is a movie about a young woman, but it’s a story for everyone. [Time]

Ah, the old box-office-success-equals-artistic-merit chestnut. I must have missed her essay on the feminist triumph of Michael Bay filming models’ tits while robots punched each other after Transformers 3 made a billion dollars. Literally, a billion dollars.

Look, I’m sorry about bagging on Kristen Stewart, I don’t mean it as a personal insult. She’s a dumb 21-year-old, and we were all dumb 21-year-olds once. It’s not her fault people keep casting her in stuff. There are plenty worse actresses out there. Trust me when I say that I’d rather she worked with a director who actually forced her towards a specific objective than make fun of her upside-down mouth heartburn face yet again. You can see it on her face, the look that says she’s trying really hard to convey… something, but doesn’t know quite what. I’m pretty sure it’s that confused, constipated quality most of the critics are criticizing in her acting, not some patriarchal conspiracy to suppress her unprecedented challenge to masculine authority. If male jealousy really was the root of all the criticism, it would be amazing that this patriarchal conspiracy never got on the same page about oppressing, say, Jennifer Lawrence. No one calls her “sulky,” or “dour!” Jeez, she must have paid everyone off! BLOW JOBS FOR EVERYONE! Either that or she’s just a clear actress, and people like her. One of the two. By the way, if you want to see “a triumph of feminist storytelling,” go see Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. A movie about a tough, smart young girl who doesn’t need a man to save her, or need to strap on a sword and a codpiece and do unrealistically-male things to save herself. A movie that was, come to think of it, written and directed by… you guessed it, actual women.


TAGScriticsFEMINISMkristen stewartsnow white and the huntsman

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