The mirror is one of the creepiest elements of a frequently creepy movie.
So let’s talk a bit more about Snow White and the Huntsman. To me it is evident that the movie has feminist themes, if not intentions. There’s been a lot of talk about this and one of my friends has asserted that it undermines those themes. We haven’t had a chance to properly discuss it but so far he’s offered the Huntsman’s line “you look very fetching in mail” and the bits about “fairest blood” as evidence. I used that line for my review precisely because it isn’t undermining any feminist over/undertones and I’ll get to that a bit later.
Because the seed of the arguments for my position has become a mighty tree even in the absence of actually having an argument, I decided to write this as a way of exploring why I think Snow White has so much going on for it in terms of feminism and why it never actually cashes any of that in for cheap sexualization or whatever, like my friend asserts about that catchy line.
This essay must begin with Ravenna and her magic mirror.
The first thing I need to say about Ravenna is that she is obviously obsessed with physical beauty. That’s abundantly clear in the movie from her past (young pretty thing brought in to replace old wife) to the way she conflates spiritual purity with physical beauty: she only sucks the souls out of beautiful girls. She’s bitter about her past and, I’d argue, about her self and that’s just one of the ways the movie is critical of the character and what she represents. Ravenna, in spite of her vasty magics, needs to seduce her way into the kingdoms she pathologically destroys. That’s her main weapon. She is representative of women who cynically use their appearance that way as well as being an indictment of vanity (especially in women). Ravenna is the Mean Girl of fairy tale land. That she is so damn howling sad/mad underneath it all is only appropriate.
What may be a bit less obvious is the role her mirror plays in this. The first time you see the mirror, Ravenna is afraid of it. And she should be, it’s a creepy motherfucker. Her fear, though, is a wild-eyed one that seems completely irrational. She needs reaffirmation and the mirror gives it to her. Sort of. What’s worth noting here is that Ravenna doesn’t look relieved, but even more wild-eyed and afraid. The mirror’s tone is one of subtle mockery, also, and that is easily missed if you’re not paying close attention to how it speaks to her. Think about how the voice actor enunciates “Is there no end to your power?”. It’s teasing out her ambition, her sense of herself, and holding these things up for her to see. It’s tone is belittling to the grand dark think Ravenna sees herself to be. In this first exchange, she is vulnerable to a form of self-suggestion that is represented by the mirror.
Om nom nom.
That there’s something wonky about Ravenna’s thing with the mirror is underlined later when Ravenna, after eating some poor young girl’s essence, much more confidently addresses the mirror and is told that now Snow White is the one now. Finn, her creepy fuck brother, listens in on the conversation but doesn’t see what Ravenna sees, nor can he hear what the mirror tells her. This is probably supposed to be a magic thing, especially since most of the magic in the movie is of the unstuble kind, but it also suggests something about a vain woman’s relationship to her mirror. Is Ravenna, on some level, standing in for the kind of crises of vanity that afflict all people, let alone women, and that reveal something central and pretty sad (backed up more later in the movie) about Ravenna’sobsessions and point of view? I definitely think that’s the case. Finn is pretty intimate with Ravenna but he is locked outside of this twisted self-examination and the revelations that come from it. He’s a voyeur, looking on an intensely private moment.
Point is, the mirror is not Ravenna’s friend. Not the way she uses it. It’s also sort of got a mind of its own, which appropriately reflects the Queen’s own warped self-image. When it addresses the problem of Snow White, it calls her “fairest” and Ravenna immediately assumes this means in terms of physical beauty (and we’re supposed to wonder at this because of Snow’s mother’s comments about inner beauty) because that’s a conflation she just makes naturally. Whatever it is about Snow, the fairest blood (more on this later), she’s the next up and comer, the younger woman whose existence threatens the older. That she can stop Ravenna by replacing her is key, as is that stopping her is the way for Ravenna to secure immortality. It’s a symbolic relationship that has parallels with common cultural themes about the impermanence of beauty and the internalized fears many women are brought up to have about it, and what it means to lose it or be replaced by a fresher version of it. That Ravenna is nominally Snow’s stepmother just adds more of those still-relevant shades of meaning which so often crop up in fairy tales as vehicles and reflections of our social programming.
Like I said, their dynamic and antagonism are symbolic. Ravenna’s hangups cause her to behave destructively and the tangible evidence of that is the decaying effect she has on the land. Snow White, on the other hand, has the opposite effect and is defined by opposition to Ravenna throughout the film.
That’s how this is feminist, basically. The movie is rejecting Ravenna in favor of Snow White, but it wants us to understand where Ravenna is coming from, perhaps even more so than the heroine. This is because understanding the villain is, in this case, the way to understand the hero. As Snow herself says, she is everything that Ravenna is not and we see more than enough of her to know what this means and enough of Snow to see it in action. Though the film is criticizing and rejecting Ravenna, it is not unsympathetic toward her and Charlize Theron plays the character exactly right to cater to a sense of admiration and respect mingled with pity and empathy that Snow expresses for the audience in their final moments together.
Central to the movie is an abiding love of nature and a thorough, continuous expression of that love.
Snow White is possessed of some supernatural quality that marks her as Ravenna’s opposite. This is amply explained and reinforced in the movie. She heals the dwarves just by being around them, she has a kinship with animals and nature spirits, and can stare a troll down with nothing but compassion. Snow’s deep compassion is all over the movie and is the central, manifest way that she is actively distinguished from Ravenna who is compassion-free. She’s the mirror in more than how I sketched out above. Ravenna is a mirror held up to a society that treats women as disposable objects but her reaction isn’t leadership and compassion but destructive tyranny, the “queen this wretched world deserves”. The statement here is one of the Mean Girl as a subject that has internalized the bad to such a degree that it’s all she can manage to put back out into the world. There’s a sympathetic explanation here about the inner character of someone like Ravenna. She is humanized rather than left as a total evil outsider.
The bit about “fairest blood” implies a connection between her and Ravenna. It is by blood magic, of a sort, that Ravenna’s power is secured (via her mother) and Snow has a very similar origin. Her mother spills three drops of blood on snow and poof! Snow White. Finally, it is by this connection between them that Snow is able to affect Ravenna. Admittedly, the apple coma and its mind-melding effect is a weak bit of connective tissue, but the symbolic relationship is potent and undiminished.
So in other words, the fairest blood thing has nothing to do with how hot either Snow or Ravenna are. Snow doesn’t care about that shit and the movie shows that precisely by having her not care about that shit. Ravenna on the other hand makes fatal mistakes because of her obsession with “fair” as a signifier. In effect, the viewer who conflates “fair” with physical attractiveness has the same problem. Fair, used in the way that it is in Snow White and the Huntsman is more esoteric than simply “pretty to look at” and it certainly doesn’t mean “sexy”. Fair says something about grace, beauty, and specialness that goes beyond the physical. Case in point, Tolkien used the word often to describe things in Middle Earth, especially elves, which had a supernatural aura of which beauty and allure were only a part, and has really no relationship with tools of objectification.
Not quite medieval Han Solo but close!
Now for that line about looking fetching in mail. By the time the Huntsman says this to Snow, their relationship is firmly predicated on a kinship-by-trial. They’ve gone through a lot together and may have unresolved feelings but neither is prepared to go all mushy (to their counterpart’s face!). The movie respects Snow too much to have her distracted by him when she needs to be a leader. The movie respects the Huntsman too much to not give him one last cheeky remark. And it is cheek. The movie isn’t telling us we should objectify or sexualize Snow White because she “looks fetching in mail”. The Huntsman is saying that the warrior thing suits her. This comment is actually kind of important for a feminist reading of the film and accomplishes the opposite of what critics, mostly pretending to be concerned about the movie’s feminism, assert.
See, Snow White is a movie that may have been cynically designed to make a fairly female-oriented fairy tale into something palatable for young men who love this dark fantasy shit. The result, though, is that the movie caters to the same audience as Sucker Punch. There’s a newish wave of feminism that is less critical of masculine tropes and more curious about them, often finding ways to claim them for their own. Their heroine isn’t Rosie the Riveter but Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Snow White is wearing armor and leading an army, these are traditionally masculine things. The Huntsman is a lieutenant and is saying to her, and to us, that her symbolic claiming of a masculine role (her father’s in fact) suits her. Yes, he says “fetching” which means she looks attractive. But that’s important too. That the Huntsman, a pretty macho motherfucker, finds her attractive all kitted out in armor with her (traditionally) feminine qualities suppressed in favor of masculine ones is downright crucial. And awesome. And helps to show that this newish breed of feminism is partially the result of a deep penetration and normalization of feminist values in our culture. Basically, if it’s okay for the Huntsman to dig a chick in platemail that isn’t conspicuously, stupidly, “sexed up” then it’s okay for you young men too. That he obviously respects her and follows her also normalizes that behavior too.
And it’s not like Snow in armor is the only way she’s heroic or acceptable. There’s a risk where it’s like saying “hey if we go all the way over here to masculinity, woo” but to concentrate on this is to ignore the other 75% of the film where Snow’s appearance and bearing are far more “feminine”. The message is that it’s all gravy.
I mean, this is a far cry from Red Sonja.
I’m not trying to say Snow White and the Huntsman is some feminist manifesto. It’s a fantasy epic that has a decidedly feminist angle, though, and that makes it cool and exciting in a way it wouldn’t be without that. I’m sure there are some legitimate critiques that could be made about these elements, especially by other feminists, but I’ve here accounted for the ones I have heard about or could conjure myself. I do believe that the movie holds up and would probably be pretty good even without the feminist stuff (as long as it didn’t go to the other end of the spectrum). Then again, I’m a sucker for swords and sorcery and all things Malickian nature photography so there ya go.
Now I’ll leave you with this, because it’s awesome: