(NOTE: contains spoilers.)
One of the first comments many reviewers made about Snow White and the Huntsman is that Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth have zero chemistry, and this is true. Abundantly so. But that shouldn’t detract from the film. Why? Because this was never a love story. And thank goodness for that.
I like a good romance as much as anyone, but it is nice to occasionally see a film that defines female success (or “happily ever after”) as something other than marriage. When I saw SWATH, I actually found it difficult to enjoy because THE WHOLE TIME I was sure she was going to marry one of her bland hunks in the end, and that felt…dishonest. Not just because of the lack of chemistry between the actors, but because while the film gives us plenty of reasons to root for William and the Huntsman as characters in their own right (Badass rebel with exploding arrows! Badass hunter with tragic dead wife!), it gives us only superficial reasons to root for them as Snow’s lovers.
No matter how attached William and Snow are to one another, and no matter how well they knew each other as children, they clearly don’t know each other any more—as evidenced by Snow’s inability to recognize that the “William” who gives her the apple is really the evil queen. As far as the Huntsman goes, I’m not convinced that his love for her is much different from the dwarves’, or even the troll’s. The problem, really, is that everyone loves Snow. But as a symbol of justice and love and goodness, not as a real, human woman. The Huntsman certainly comes to believe in her, against his own cynical tendencies, and part of me suspects that this belief—this power of hers to win over someone as lost and, well, grumpy as he is—is what resurrects her from the dead, not “true love.” There’s a reason the film ends with a coronation, not a wedding. In the future, Snow may decide that the Huntsman is her soulmate and there will be flowers and marriage and someone will finally kiss her while she’s conscious, but what’s significant is that, as I said—this was never a love story.
This is a story that—albeit clumsily—has something to say about the ways men manipulate and oppress women, and how women, in turn, manipulate and oppress each other. There was a lot of joking going around on the internet before the film came out about the innate absurdity of Charlize Theron worrying that Kristen Stewart is prettier than she is. Now, we ought to know by now that it’s super problematic to compare the two actresses’ looks. It is however, absolutely fair to compare the characters’ looks, because “Snow White” is a story that demands the viewer do just that, since it is a tale that is ostensibly all about beauty. And look—Ravenna is more beautiful than Snow. Her skin is immaculate while Snow’s is smudged and dirty; her hair is smooth and perfectly coiffed while Snow’s looks wild and greasy; most importantly, she carries herself like a queen while Snow staggers clumsily through the movie. Intentional? I’m willing to believe it.
Ravenna’s backstory is easily the most interesting part of the film. The way she explains it, the only power women have is their beauty—once they lose that, men will throw them over for someone younger and prettier. In a flashback, her sorceress mother tells her something like “Only your beauty will save you!” and then casts a spell that turns Ravenna into a king-seducing, patriarchy-stomping badass. Also, she can suck the youth and beauty out of pretty young girls to keep herself from growing old. So, Ravenna is pretty much objectively evil. What’s interesting about her, however, is that her evil is not in her opposition to the patriarchy, but rather her complicity with it. Rather than using her considerable powers to prove that women can be powerful without youthful beauty, rather than replacing the patriarchy with a more just society, she cannot see past her own revenge, and so creates an even worse regime, just with a lady at its head. Furthermore, she continues to reinforce the fallacious idea that beauty=power by insisting that she—the woman with the greatest power—also has the greatest beauty.
And who, by the way, is the arbiter of beauty in this kingdom? A mirror with a distinctly male voice. No matter how high Ravenna rises, she has not truly conquered the patriarchy because she herself is still very much a slave to its rules as well as its beauty ideals. One intriguing detail is that it seems only she can see or hear the robed figure who emerges from the mirror to judge her looks—in one scene, her brother spies on one of their conversations, and from his perspective, we can only see the queen talking to herself. So, obvious question: is the mirror even real? Or is it a projection of the patriarchal voice that Ravenna has internalized, that makes her hate herself and her own body, that makes her believe she must conform to male-oriented beliefs about beauty, women, and power?
One of the best moments in the whole movie is when Snow kicks the tar out of Ravenna, and as the queen dies, Snow tells her, “You cannot have my heart.” In the broader context of the story, Snow isn’t just saying that she won’t let Ravenna rip her heart from her chest and eat it in order to gain immortality; she’s saying that her heart is her own—not to be taken or broken by anyone. Not even bland hunks. Unlike Ravenna, who constantly worries about her physical appearance, Snow hardly seems to care what anyone sees when they look at her. And honestly, that’s because she has too much other damn crap to worry about. There’s no chemistry between Snow and the Huntsman because Snow is nowhere near ready for a relationship with anybody. Her kingdom is dying, Ravenna wants to eat her, anyone who helps her is endangered by her presence, and everyone keeps telling her she’s the only one with the power to make it all better. There’s just not time to admire Chris Hemsworth’s manly torso.
And it works both ways—the Huntsman doesn’t seem especially attracted to Snow, nor does anyone else. They pity her, admire her, even love her, but she’s never treated as a sexual object. This is fine—more than fine—because if she was, honestly, it would be creepy. As Kristen Stewart explained in an interview with E! News, Snow White is “a stunted person,” having lived in an isolated jail cell since childhood. Had anyone actually made a move on her, it would have been no less uncomfortable than when Finn creeped on her earlier in the film.
All this is to say that though beauty and power are still intertwined in Snow’s character, it’s perhaps a healthier take on it than Ravenna’s. (Slightly.) One could argue that people find Snow beautiful because of her inner power, whereas they find Ravenna powerful because of her outer beauty. I’m trying really hard to not use the phrase “inner beauty,” because ugh, but weirdly, that’s a little bit what this film was about. So yes—Ravenna is way hotter than Snow. And the fact that the filmmakers seem to make no serious attempt to convince the viewers otherwise is kind of awesome. This isn’t a movie about a pretty girl who falls in love with a hot dude and lives happily ever after—it’s a movie about a strong girl who, in spite of years of trauma and hardship, maintains her integrity and independence. And who, if we indulge a particularly optimistic reading (though it is a fairy tale, so why not?), might, might, might be able to break an unhealthy cycle of patriarchal power struggles. Apparently there’s talk of a sequel? (Of course there is.) So I guess we’ll see how that goes.
Obviously, SWATH is not anything close to a perfect feminist movie—it has its share of problems, both in terms of gender roles and plain old filmmaking issues. But these have been pointed out by everyone else on the internet, so I won’t bother. Though the film suffers from a rather jumbled and uneven script, it contains an interesting heart, and I confess I’m curious to see whether its success (almost one month in, it’s still in the top 5 at the box office) and Brave’s will pave the way for better films about girls in general.