Early on in Snow White and the Huntsman, our “heroine”–and I use that term loosely–played by Kristen Stewart, dives into a sewer to escape the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron). Near the close of the film, some two hours later, the seven dwarfs wade through a sewer. These two scatological bookends are an apt framing device for a film that made me feel, for most of its 127 minutes, that I was wading through shit.
Let me count the ways this film failed to live up to my most basic expectations as a feminist and a filmgoer.
- Snow White, the most passive “heroine” in history. This version of Snow White is special not because of what she does, but because of who she is. She is full of natural goodness–healing those around her with her very presence, bringing about magic with that beautiful green-eyed gaze and pouty lip-bite. Yes, near the end she finally grabs a sword and some armor, but it’s too little, too late.
- The rest of the characters are flat. You don’t care about them. Not one iota. They do not rally allegiance or conjure hatred. They are merely blank, shiny chess pieces moving across a very nice filmic board that consists of a mish-mash of wiz-bang special effects and breathtaking visuals. Even the queen is one-note, with an affected voice and no motivation other than her mirror’s directives. Theron, usually a powerhouse, was either off her game or unable to transcend subpar material–whatever the case, this is no Monster or North Country. Stewart? Well, she was the typical lip-biting, face-pulling, wide-eyed, grimacing KStew. Isn’t she always?
- The film’s modus operandi is to vilify female aging. Of course, that’s the stuff of the original fairy tale, but this umpteenth iteration does nothing to complicate the material. It was a brilliant opportunity for a feminist critique of how we’re sold a bill of goods about beauty and immortality. Instead, Snow White and the Huntsman acts as though the desires for these things spring only from the brains of crazy women. Once again we get the same ole message that not only do women get ugly as they age, but they also get evil. The camera focuses obsessively on the Queen’s disappearing and reappearing wrinkles as she snaps from old age to youth and back. Like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the film could have taken this opportunity to satirize Hollywood’s grotesque fixation on youthfulness; instead it asks us to shudder at—horror of horrors—a woman’s wrinkled face.
- Race, class and gender. Not only does the film stick to Hollywood’s usual lopsided gender ratio–several men per each woman onscreen–it also creates an extremely white-skinned world. Apparently, dwarfs of color don’t exist. The class politics are also ghastly: A “noble” birthright makes Snow White automatically magical, while the poor villagers either look like they wandered off the set of Deliverance or sport a vague look of racial otherness via the tear scars etched onto their faces. (Yes, this is as inexplicable as it sounds.)
- The confusing attempts to “historicize” the story. Why does Snow White recite the Lord’s Prayer? I don’t recall her having a specific religious affiliation (maybe to distance her from the Islamic coding of the tear-scarred village women?) Why, like Elizabeth Bathory, is the Queen so hungry for virginal blood and milk-bathing? Who knows, but it sure makes for visually catching scenes!
- The evil feminist. At the outset of the film, the Queen kills her latest husband and says with vengeful breathiness, “Men use women. They ruin us and when they are finished with us, they offer us to the dogs like scraps.” The film thus sets her up as a straw “man-hating feminist” for us to revile, but her brand of feminism is one no Ms. reader would recognize. Actually, the Queen is the one to ruin people and treat them like scraps, in a decidedly un-feminist matter. Meanwhile, the film is devoid of any real feminist hero–certainly it’s not Snow White, who can’t seem to even comprehend gender. Near the end, she shouts, “Who will be my brother?” as she tries to rally her troops, many of them women, to her cause.
- Everyone creeping on Snow White. One dwarf gets his jollies by resting his head between Snow White’s breasts. The Queen’s villainous brother admits to watching Snow White sleep in her cell (hello Edward Cullen!) and then, after she has “come of age,” attempts to sexually assault her. (What age is that exactly? Rape-able age?) And don’t get me started on the Huntsman’s methods of seduction (see point 10, below). The film seems unaware of its own sexual creepiness–or are we to accept unwanted older male advances on Snow White as natural?
- The sickeningly sweet moments. Do we need the fairies that look like miniaturized, white-washed Na’vi? Must Snow White find a white horse on a deserted beach, tame a troll with her kind gaze and exchange looks of love with a hugely antlered deer? I don’t know if there was some bestiality undercurrent I missed or if all the male characters were on lunch break, but there was a strangely large number of scenes where Snow White looks lovingly at a large
membermammal. And a fairy sanctuary? Really?
- The hodgepodge of genres. Pastiche can be done brilliantly, but in this case, it feels like someone flipping at random through the movie channels. There are bits of Lord of the Rings here, touches of Harry Potter there, a sprinkling of Gladiator over here and yes, even cliff-jumping, death-shuddering, oh-you-are-my-true-love Twilight-esque moments there. It is like a spoof without any humor, unless you count one dwarf’s reply to the accusation that he’s had too much to drink: “No I haven’t, it’s the mushrooms!” Cue Snow White hallucinating in a dark forest. Sorry, filmmakers, but the Alice in Wonderland chic falls flat, too.
- The Huntsman. In some scruffy, unbathed, unshaven, older-alcoholic way, the huntsman is supposed to make sense as Snow White’s true love. This is hurl-inducing enough given his sexism (he scoffs that a woman could never survive the dark forest). But it gets downright creepy when he cuts the skirt off of Snow White’s dress–a move redolent of sexual assault. When Snow White responds with understandable fear, he hisses, “Don’t flatter yourself.” Yes, this is the “hero” that she fixes her eyes upon in the film’s final shot. Who cares she has defeated the throaty-voiced Queen of the now-you-see-them, now-you-don’t wrinkles? Who cares that she is now ruler of the kingdom? What matters is him. He even gets a piece of the title: Snow White and the Huntsman. What the hell did he do to deserve his name up there in lights? It’s bad enough that she doesn’t even have character traits to fall back on other than being pure and pretty, now she has to share the spotlight with Mr. Pocket Flask? And on that note, it is his lesson about a knife to the heart that ultimately saves her. So, even though Snow White kills the Queen, he gave her the knowledge to do so. Her moment in armor? That was just a brief blip in drag. By film’s end, she is wrapped nicely back in a flouncy blood-red dress and will seemingly soon trip down the aisle with Sir Skirt Ripper. Gag.
All that being said, there were a few good points. Hmmmm. Let’s see. Kristen Stewart has perfect eyebrows. The Evil Queen’s get-ups are entertaining, like Lady Gaga’s if they were more high fashion, less raw meat (though the Queen does wear one gown made of dead raven). The elaborate hairstyles worn by both the Queen and Snow White would put Katniss Everdeen‘s fancy Panem braids to shame. Speaking of Katniss, Snow White also has enviable fitted leggings and thigh-high boots very similar to those worn by the Hunger Games heroine. If only Snow White had borrowed some of Katniss’s chutzpah.
Photo of Kristen Stewart starring as the eponymous protagonist in Snow White and the Hunstman courtesy of Universal Studios.