Can you make a feminist ‘Snow White’?

Charlize Theron stars as Queen Ravenna in “Snow White and the Huntsman.”

Snow White is Hollywood’s current favorite candidate for a makeover. This weekend’s release of “Snow White and the Huntsman” casts quite a different light on that fair princess most of us came to know in the animated Disney film. Struggling against the terrifying Queen Ravenna, the modern Snow White portrayed by Kristen Stewart is an empowered warrior. In the ABC show “Once Upon a Time” and in Tarsem Singh’s rendition “Mirror, Mirror,” too, Ms. White is again no damsel in distress. But as much as these works have attempted to make the character of Snow White more closely resemble the modern, independent female, there remains an anti-feminist message at the story’s core.

The Snow White story has always been about the rivalry between stepmother and daughter — which pits an older woman against a younger woman, with men almost entirely absent from the conflict.

Professor Jack Zipes, author of several books on the topic of fairy tales, including this year’s “The Irresistible Fairy Tale,” says that making a woman an exceptionally evil villain is an anti-feminist statement of its own.

“If we look at the world, [it] is really in the control of men — and they’re pretty g–d– evil. But in these films, the dominant force is an evil queen, who is vicious and nasty and contemptible. To my mind, it’s part of what I call the backlash against feminism,” he explains. “Whether it’s done consciously or not, if you look at these films, they really say something pretty terrible about women. These films are so reactionary. They react to the fact that women have asserted themselves for more equal rights and great progress has been made.”

We may think we admire a woman’s smarts and bravery above all in these adaptations, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s Snow White’s beauty that makes her special in the first place. And that valuation is perfectly in line with our natural instincts.

“Since the beginning of time, it’s been man’s natural instinct to value youth and beauty over age and experience,” says Grae Drake, movie critic for Fandango.com.

“We live in a world that is constantly selling youth, and so seeing it in the movie completely makes sense,” she says. “We’re trying so hard to value these higher ideas about all of the wonderful things that age brings you — knowledge, experience, serenity. Our animal instinct is still really going strong in the background, at the same time thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s a bunch of bologna.’”

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.

“Fairy tales weren’t really made to talk about the most beautiful side of humanity,” Drake says. “It’s often very ugly.”


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