This movie was very pretty and most of the acting was absolutely spot on. I will say that Kristen Stewart needs to close her mouth or she’s gonna get a bug in there, and that I had been hoping Twilight had simply been a particularly poor exhibition of her acting skills (since her job in those movies has been to stare a lot and weep beautifully and basically nothing more), but I am coming to the conclusion that that’s really all she can do. Propers to the young woman for crying on cue, because that’s not easy, but I really want to run her through the facial warm-ups that we did in high school before speech meets so that she can find the muscles that move her eyes and mouth.
You know how they say that strippers often dance with this dead-eyed absent expression? She went through the movie like that. Needless to say, I found it less inspiring than all of the other characters seemed to. To be brutally honest? Her acting was so flat that she made everyone else around her look like worse actors because they seemed like they were responding way out of proportion to her simply because they were actually acting. The “twist” surrounding Snow White’s reawakening shouldn’t have been a twist at all, because there should have been enough chemistry between Snow White and the Huntsman to make it… maybe not obvious, but detectable would have been nice.
Kristen Stewart so dismally fails at screen presence that even Chris Hemsworth could not create chemistry between them. I defy anybody reading this who is attracted to men to fail to respond to Chris Hemsworth. So let’s just think about how utterly absent the character of Snow White would have to be from Kristen Stewart’s acting to make it a complete surprise that they have a connection. That’s pretty serious.
I didn’t go see it for her, though. I went to see it for Ravenna, for the queen. She was everything I had hoped for and more, and as a bonus this movie provided me with quite possibly the most balls to the wall fantastic soundtrack I have purchased in a long time. Prometheus? Decent soundtrack. Snow White and the Huntsman? This movie owned the bejesus out of most of the other soundtracks on my computer. It’s got competition from… maybe… Donnie Darko, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight (which he did with Hans Zimmer), and Murray Gold’s Doctor Who. I do not say those things lightly.
This is about what I went to see and what it turned out to be like, though. This is about Ravenna, about whom I have all manner of srs bsns thinky thoughts.
Women and Beauty in Fairy Tales: The Rules
This movie did a very good job of establishing what is actually motivating the queen. In a lot of other editions of this and similar “older woman hates younger woman because she’s jealous of The Pretty” themes, it’s enough to show the audience that the queen is vain and this is expected to be shorthand for “she is vain and also sanity-shreddingly evil in all other imaginable ways.” If you’re reading this, I probably don’t have to harp on why this is ridiculous, but I’ll cover it a little.
There is something very wrong with telling the intended audience of a fairy tale (children) that beauty is a fast and accurate indicator of virtue, and that ugliness indicates complete worthlessness. We are supposed to understand that all things which have worth are beautiful, and all things which are beautiful have worth. At the same time, we are told that wanting to be beautiful–particularly if you are not already considered to be by whatever omniscient narrator is handing out Fairness–makes you vain… and thus still worthless. Beauty is worth, but if you want worth, you are worthless. That is a terrible terrible trap, but it speaks to broader narratives about what’s expected of a good woman. She’s supposed to be lovely, but she shouldn’t know she is (nor should she want to be lovelier because ambition is unbecoming in a woman).
Ravenna is what a woman in a fairy tale looks like who knows these rules. And she. frigging. hates them. She hates the rules, she hates the world that imposes them on her, she hates the people who benefit from it, but she also hates herself when she falls short. If that doesn’t sound familiar to every woman reading this, I don’t know how you got to this blog from the magical enlightened universe where you live, but please take me with you on your way back home.
We are introduced to her when Snow White’s father, the widowed king, is attacked by a magical army that his men smash into shards of glass. They find what they’re sure is a prisoner of this army: a fantastically beautiful woman locked in a cart and chained to its inside wall. The king immediately decides that he is in love with this woman and he’s going to make her his queen and she will definitely be happy about this because belonging to a king is a privilege all women long for.
Except that she’s been through this song and dance before, and she came deliberately to do it again. On their wedding night, here is what she tells him.
“I was ruined by a king like you once. I replaced his queen, an old woman. And in time I too would have been replaced.” She grabs his arm as he lies over her, gripping her fingers into him so that he has to stay right where he’s put himself. “Men use women. They ruin us, and when they are finished with us, they toss us to their dogs like scraps. When a woman stays young and beautiful forever, the world is hers.” By this point she has flipped him on his back and is sitting on his hips to finish her denunciation of the patriarchal system that has made beauty her only route to power. She raises a short sword and stabs him in the heart.
Then she lets in her army.
Turns out she’s done this before. She goes from country to country, seducing the king and then murdering him for being so eager to possess her and so sure that it’s his right to do so that he takes this pretty pawn and lets her inside his guard… because surely something so lovely must be good, harmless, and above all… unambitious. She conquers these countries and she ruins them. She terrifies their people. She blights the land. She just ruins them, and she does it on purpose.
When she says that she will give this wretched world the queen it deserves, she is saying precisely what she means.
As much as this is also a cautionary tale about what happens when women want power–and indeed the worst case scenario in which women get it–it’s also a sentiment that I think a lot of women could understand. How much punishment can someone take before they decide they’re tired of being helpless and tired of being the victim? How badly do they have to want that before they strike back at the world that hit them first? Ravenna is a great example of why some men might be right to fear women with power. They know that they haven’t exactly built up a lot of goodwill to see them through a period of feminine tyranny, and even if I can’t justify Ravenna’s habit of preying on her fellow women… her anger would be proportional if she were truly trying to punish the world on behalf of womankind and not merely on her own behalf.
She does prey on women, though. For whatever reason, “fairness” is an actual quantifiable thing that can be stolen from one person to be consumed by another. There is a population of women who scar their faces so that Ravenna’s men have no reason to bring them to their queen to be consumed. They are destroying their “fairness,” at least as Ravenna defines it (which, let’s be honest, is the only definition that matters if it’s the only one backed by an army of kidnappers serving a life-sucking sorceress).
Ravenna equates it to physical beauty because beauty is the power she’s got, but if we define it Tolkien’s way–as a sort of general extraordinary magicalness like Tolkien’s elves are alleged to have–then these women haven’t destroyed what makes them fair. They’ve just destroyed the thing that signals to Ravenna that someone is worthy and special and therefore worth consuming because… again… Ravenna knows the rules.
The worth of Snow White as a story element and Special Destined Protagonist is that she and Ravenna were both created and empowered by their mothers, a blessing passed from one generation of women to the next by the shedding of blood. Ravenna’s mother made it possible for Ravenna to sustain her beauty–and thus her power–indefinitely, but because Snow White was created by similar magical forces… when Snow White reaches some nebulously-defined peak of “fairness,” it matters whether she surpasses Ravenna.
A Woman’s Place is Another Woman’s Place
In case the “older women can hold onto power until someone younger and prettier supplants them” narrative had escaped you, I hope this makes it unmistakeably clear. In this, Snow White utterly fails to actually undermine the rules; she validates what Ravenna has known and rightfully hated about the world all along.
It’s a group of women Snow White and the Huntsman encounter living in a marsh at the edge of the dark forest who feel like a truer alternative to Ravenna than Snow White, who beats Ravenna but essentially preserves the game. These women ritually scar tear tracks into their cheeks because “without beauty, we are worthless to the Queen. It’s a sacrifice we make so we can raise our children.” But it’s only by Hollywood’s rules that these beautiful, independent women are less than lovely. Snow White and the Huntsman is on the edge of important ideas about beauty, just as it’s on the edge of a good story. But like Ravenna, it looks into the mirror for confirmation of old Hollywood standards and old stories, rather than for the truth.
Heidi Patalano puts it very well, calling out the way Snow White and the Huntsman points out the problem with the “beauty = worth and women who lose their worth are disposable and replaceable” narrative even as it stays faithfully on its rails. “Yes, the Snow White story inherently values and celebrates beauty, but that may be more of a reflection of how we live than an endorsement of how we should want to be.”
Snow White and the Huntsman criticizes the very narrative it perpetuates, and I hope that it leaves other members of the audience as troubled as it left me. It’s hard for me to root for Snow White except for the sake of the innocents Ravenna punishes, because the narrative reason for Snow White’s eventual ascendancy is precisely the sort of dynamic that we are supposed to understand turned Ravenna into a monster in the first place.
Rosenberg also comments:
Watching the natural lines on Ravenna’s face vanish after she sucks the life out of another young girl is Hollywood airbrushing rendered visible, an act of humanity-erasing magic with consequences both on-screen and off it. “You don’t even know how lucky you are never to know what it is to grow old,” she tells a woman whose life she’s stolen. Both Ravenna’s selfishness and Hollywood’s obsession with youth are pursuits of immortality without any sense of what life is good for.
Maybe Rosenberg is right to read this so charitably. Maybe she’s right to assert that what the movie is doing is telling us what’s wrong with this narrative and then showing it to us, like some kind of gender politics pop quiz that you fail mostly by overlooking. The way Charlize Theron played Ravenna supports Rosenberg’s assertion, at least in my opinion.
Theron plays Ravenna as a woman who is both chasing the power to punish the world that treated her so unfairly, but more so as a woman desperately fleeing the powerlessness of her youth. Aging is frailty in more ways than one, and in Ravenna’s world–as in ours–frailty for women translates to vulnerability. Look at this and tell me this isn’t a woman who is terrified of feeling her power, her relevance, and indeed her very safety draining away… leaving her to be replaced by a younger and prettier version of herself who will suffer it all over again.
That’s fear. When Ravenna takes the life force–the oddly-termed “fairness”–of a younger woman rather than allowing herself to be supplanted by her, the look on her face isn’t just ecstasy; it’s relief. She’s kept ahead of the ravages of time for another day, or at least another hour. She has defied the natural order itself, because if the natural order is for her to submit to irrelevance and vulnerability meekly and gratefully, then seriously the natural order can fuck itself.
But it’s a hard fight. Small victories–increasingly temporary though they are–mean a lot.
That’s relief. But time comes again and again and the natural order never tires. It’s an uphill battle for Ravenna, and what Snow White promises is an end to this terrible fight. If she consumes Snow White’s heart, if she does to Snow White what she has done to so many others, she can stop fighting. She’ll be safe. She’ll have won, and it won’t merely be a temporary victory. She’ll really be beautiful forever, powerful forever, and never ever vulnerable again. Nobody will ever be able to discard her because she will never again be at the mercy of a man’s affections.
This made it hard for me to unreservedly cheer for Snow White. What indication do we have that Snow White will be so much better than Ravenna? Only the classic markers of a “good” woman. Snow White is unambitious, fights primarily for others, is kind to children and animals, and most of all she is beautiful without valuing beauty. She has worth without daring to want it. She’s also not a threat to the natural order. Quite probably in her time she will be supplanted by someone younger and prettier, and I guess she will go quietly and be grateful for the time and power she’d been briefly graced with, never once asking if it was fair or whether she could have had more.
That’s how we know. That’s apparently what it takes to not be quite literally some kind of vindictive soul-draining succubus. Make some nice noises about beauty not being everything, but don’t criticize too hard and be sure to win by the accepted rules so that everyone knows you respect How Things Should Be.
Quod tu es, ego fui, quod ego sum, tu eris.
After all, as we learn in one of the teaser trailers, Ravenna herself used to grieve at being the cause of death and despair and suffering. Even at this point in her life, there is clearly some part of her that actually cares about whether what she is doing is right. Her brother has never betrayed or abandoned her, and it takes her a long time to shake off how much that means to her. It takes until he fails her and she realizes she cannot count on him after all. Until then, though, we get exchanges like this between them.
Ravenna: Do you remember when we were children begging for scraps, like those wretches?
Finn: Yes, sister.
Ravenna: Am I not kinder?
Bless her bitter heart, she might actually be trying. This requires her to rationalize her predation on other women, but by reminding herself that she’s saving both herself and her prey from the ravages of age, Ravenna can continue her crusade to scar the world as deeply as it scarred her. But she does care. Even when she finally discards her brother, she grieves for him and she grieves hard. He was the last thing outside of herself that she could depend on, and now it’s just her. As slimy and creepy as Finn is, he’s her connection to humanity because he’s her reminder that the world isn’t purely a ruthless cannibalistic horror.
Absent that reminder, what else does she have left to be but precisely what she sees around her? Where exactly would she have learned the qualities of empathy and mercy? We are expected to believe that Snow White would never be able to set aside her conscience and allow herself to reflect anything but the best she sees, but doesn’t Snow White kill the queen in the end? Doesn’t she supplant her foremother and take the throne herself?
It’s the circle of life, girls. It moves us all.
If we let it.