Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

The following massive commentary contains spoilers for the movie (although is it really possible to spoil a fairy tale?) and is long.

Short version: This movie subverts the useless princess trope AND subverts the trope that being feminine/caring/beautiful is something inherently superficial or weak. THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME.

I thought they did an unbelievably fantastic job at portraying the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lunacy of a person-turned-instrument of vengeance which is the Queen. She doesn't just hate men, she hates people. She hates life and vitality because she has become a monster and cannot see it - she continually justifies herself and her choices and her actions even up to the last minutes of her life. When Snow says "You can't have my heart" she is not talking about the physical heart. She is saying "You cannot corrupt me. You cannot make me a part of you." The first thing that came into my mind when watching that scene at the end was the Firefly episode Bushwhacked, which I won't go into any details about because spoilers for Firefly are a sin against humanity. But suffice it to say that against some overwhelming evils the only defense is to become it. The Queen became a personification of the very thing for which she was seeking vengeance. She justifies herself using the exact same rationale as those who oppressed her before she became a living spell: if I can take you, use you, kill you, oppress you, then that means I am right and better than you and deserve what I can take.

She makes it clear that her purpose is not even revenge against a particular person anymore - "I will give this wretched world the Queen it deserves." She has moved through the world and ravaged entire kingdoms and this is her purpose. I think the most important thing to understand about her character is that she isn't a real person anymore in the sense that anyone who has been so ravaged by hatred and evil magic for lifetimes is no longer a whole person. Her motivations and pathos are all tied to her past, a past which is old enough that she and her brother are probably the only people who even remember it, and to her they have become anchors which long since stopped being real and became symbols which drive her forward to take and/or destroy everything she can. The movie makes a careful point of telling us that her rule poisoned the kingdom, that it turned the people against one another. The poison of the Queen is not just the old standby material-world type poison. She brings psychological poison, an internal toxicity which spreads like a disease wherever she is because she has become a perpetual motion machine of abuse. Her relationship with her brother is a perfect demonstration of this. She is clearly in an abusive relationship with him. He is tied to her by magic but also by something which I find hard to describe without using the concept of Stockholm Syndrome. She strikes him when he fails her despite all his previous successes and questions his unquestionable loyalty partly to punish and manipulate him, but also because she is so lost in her own toxicity that even her own brother is a tool to her, just like she felt she was a tool. She became a tool of vengeance through a powerful spell and has continued the spell and made tools of everyone else she encounters. She is stuck in a vicious cycle of abuse to justify her own existence. It is tragic; it is terribly tragic, and Snow White has the right of it when she says that she used to hate the Queen but now just feels sad for her. She knows that the Queen is too far-gone to be redeemed. She knows that to save the Queen is also to destroy her.

This tragic element is especially important because it is so easy to mistake the Queen's obsession with youth and beauty as something which is about superficial materialistic beauty. And, therefore, easy to believe that the movie is about beauty within being more important than beauty without or something equally trite, and something which turns the evil Queen into a pantomime, or a didactic tool. But this movie does so much more than that. The Queen is not obsessed with being beautiful for the sake of looking nice. Yes, she recognizes that in a harsh world youth and beauty are powerful things for a woman to wield who otherwise has little or no authority. It is the one advantage she has in an environment which favors force, but in which force can be subverted and manipulated with the right mask. Masks and manipulation are the key to her character, and the key to her spell. None of the mirror-like things in the movie (the shard warriors, the magic mirror itself) are mirrors in that traditional silver-backed looking glass way. The magic mirror is a golden bowl-like thing. It is literally gilding the truth. The few times we ever see her examine herself, it isn't really physical beauty that she is obsessed with - it is power. For her character, authority was not an option because it was denied her by birth, and brute force was not an option because she lacked the physical strength, but she finds power beyond brute force or authority. She becomes for a time the most powerful force in the world as we see it in this movie. This is realized not by any subversion of the "masculine" ideal of brute force power, but rather by a re-imagining of that same core principle. The Queen kills and destroys and openly mocks the idea of compassion and love. She is no different than what she is supposed to be wreaking vengeance on; she has taken brute force and put a gilded mask on top of it. But the mask doesn't change the true nature of her power any more than her youthful looks (gained by sucking the life-force from others) actually are her. We see the true her at the very end; with all the masks and power stripped away she is only a husk.

So who or what is it which is powerful enough to oppose and bring an end to this rampage? Enter Snow White, who -- just as the Queen is more than just a Queen -- is set up as more than just a princess. In a world where magic is a reality, Snow is the balance to the Queen. I loved that. In so many takes of these fairy tales the women with authority are evil without exception and the princess always has a handsome prince to rescue them and subsequently marry them and become king, all generally without the use of magic whatsoever because magic is always bad, especially when wielded by a woman. Snow White in this movie has her own power, a power which is latent and tied to her ancestry but also to her heart. When her mother tells her as a child that she is beautiful in her heart, that seemed to be a cute mother-daughter thing but as the movie progresses we see that it's literal in some ways too. Snow becomes the embodiment of the powers of the universe which oppose the evil Queen and want to bring life back into balance. Her will to live and her empathy for other living creatures are her biggest asset.

The final touch to her power is the Queen's cursed apple which at first seems to kill her but then when the curse is broken it makes her stronger and gives her knowledge she didn't have before. The power and magic in this movie is pretty clearly directly connected to life-force, so I interpret that whole thing as a power exchange between the two characters, one which ends quite differently than the Queen thought it would. This is a huge moment, and maybe the writers even played it too subtly. Snow White takes in part of the Queen's life-force/power. She is exposed directly to the Queen's power, literally poisoned by the Queen. She is awakened not by some forced or stereotyped romance but by the Huntsman's love for her healing qualities, her "bravery" and "spirit." And instead of warping or destroying her, her exposure to the Queen's poison only makes her stronger because of who she is. The message this sends is unquestionably that cycles of abuse can and will end - but only when someone lets go of hatred and the need to project abuse onto others and embraces the idea that love and compassion do matter, that it is possible to oppose something as evil as the Queen without hating her.

We see this in Snow time and time again. At first it's confusing and perhaps we as the viewer are wondering what the deal is. She slashes the Queen's brother across the face to escape her own death (even though she could probably have killed him with that nail), and tells the Huntsman that she's not sure she has it in her to kill someone and watch the life leave their eyes. But the further into the magical landscape they travel, the more clear it becomes that even though it seems like the world favors the Queen's practice of oppression, that this is a world where there are powers for Good as well as powers for Evil. That compassion and love are not useless and have their own true strength. We first see this when the troll (the first clearly magic creature so far) is subdued not by brute force but by compassion: by her caring first about her companion and then most curiously, about the troll itself. The acting in that scene was superb; so much was communicated in the eyes. Later on, after passing through what is unquestionably magical/faery territory, Snow wins the absolute loyalty of the dwarves and the Huntsman when they see with their own eyes that she is the embodiment of the Powers of Good. But unlike the Queen, who by becoming an embodiment loses her humanity, Snow's power for Good is something which is like a wellspring inside of her, something that works with her rather than tearing her apart.

Perhaps most important of all is the clear idea that compassion does not mean inaction or hesitation or weakness. Compassion as envisioned within this story is something which can be fierce and protective, like a mother protecting her children. The powers of Good in the world are fighting back against the power for Evil which the Queen has become. At no point do we see Snow feeling guilty for attacking or defending from those who are trying to hurt her or her allies. There is a very strong sense of consequences following from one's choices here. This movie is saying that we may be in part a product of our environment, but that ultimately we will always have a choice: to hold onto hatred or to let it go and prevent it from consuming and poisoning us. It is also saying that as part of life we will have to defend ourselves from abuse and hatred, and sometimes the best defense really is a good offense. Fighting injustice and cruelty is not a lack of compassion - just the opposite. This story presents a reality where the depth of cruelty and evil in the Queen are in truth manifestations of her own suffering - punishing herself and everyone else for a life subverted by a powerful spell/curse.

The words of the curse-breaking itself bear this out. "Only fairest blood can destroy the spell." The Queen became a mask of beauty: she was beautiful and powerful, but her beauty came from a place of hurt - both of self and others - and therefore it was unsustainable. Even if she continued to have her way, one day she would have run out of people to suck dry. Snow White's beauty was from deep inside, the beauty of loving and taking care of others and herself. That is the beauty which is self-sustaining, healing, and lasting, and thus that is the beauty which proves to be strong enough to break Queen Ravenna's cycle of abuse.

This movie subverts the useless princess trope AND subverts the trope that being feminine/caring/beautiful is something inherently superficial or weak. THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME.

There is so much more I could talk about, little things that I didn't like, tons of stuff that I did like. But this thing is waaaay long enough.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Although I wasn't a big fan of the movie, I loved its approach to the two queens. You're right that it subverted a lot of tropes and showed that compassion and femininity are not the same as weakness. Now I'm very curious to learn more of the Queen's backstory... I heard that they were planning to do a sequel, and although it'll probably be about Snow White, I think a story about how the Queen came to be that cruel and vengeful person would be fascinating in the right hands.

Tue Jun 12, 01:19:00 PM  

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