Friday, June 8, 2012

In A Dark Wood

A few decades ago, I read Joy Davidson’s book, The Agony of It All, The Drive for Drama and Excitement in Women’s Lives, which was published in paperback as The Soap Opera Syndrome. In the book, Davidson discusses what she calls “sheltered risks”. Davidson maintains that it is harder to break the “girl rules”, rules that maintain a woman’s femininity, than to break the “good girl rules”. So using drugs, drinking, dating married men are what she would call sheltered risks: they do not challenge a woman’s femininity the way, say, starting her own business might. They also, of course,  do not give her the fulfillment that challenging the girl rules will.

I was reminded of Davidson’s book when we went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. In its way, the movie, like the fairy tale it is based on, is all about challenging the good girl rules without ever challenging the girl rules.

The movie opens with a scene of Snow White’s mother pricking her finger on a thorn and dripping three drops of blood on the snow, and thinking how nice it would be to have a child with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and the strength of the rose. Soon Snow White is born, and grows to be a good-hearted child who nurses sick birds and climbs trees with her friend William. Her mother, in the meantime, becomes ill and dies, leaving the king inconsolable. An attack on his kingdom by a phantom army leads him to discover a prisoner, who says her name is Ravenna. The king marries Ravenna, who murders him and lets her real army into the castle. William and his father escape, but Snow White does not.

Ravenna is all about breaking the good girl rules. She uses her ageless beauty, maintained with black magic and something close to human sacrifice, to manipulate men and achieve power. She uses her beauty as a weapon against men because her experience has taught her that they will use it as a weapon against her.

As we all know from the tale, Ravenna has a magic mirror, in this case, a polished round of brass, not silvered glass, which she consults to find out who is fairest of them all. In the movie, the mirror emits a stream of molten metal that forms a figure which converses with Ravenna. In one scene, we see Ravenna talking to the figure and then see the scene from the point of view of her brother, who sees Ravenna talking to nothing. This is only fitting: after all, the mirror represents the male gaze. The whole story of Snow White is about the male gaze, as represented by the mirror. When the queen asks “Who’s the fairest of them all?”, she is not asking who the scullery maids and farmwives of the kingdom perceive as the fairest of them all; she wants to know who men, especially men of power, see as the fairest of them all, and it had better be her.

So of course her brother does not see the shadowy figure of the male gaze; it is never directed at him and so is transparent to him. That’s how I interpret it, anyway. I think the film’s author meant us to see the scene as either meaning that Ravenna is dealing with dark powers invisible to mortals or else that she is descending into madness. There is a lot in this movie that I see in a way that I am not sure was intended.

Snow White manages to escape from the queen’s prison to a dark forest infested with evil things. Ravenna’s brother finds a huntsman who has been able to escape the forest before, and Ravenna promises him the one thing he wants in exchange for bringing her Snow White. Once he finds her, however, he chooses to help her escape to Duke Hammond’s castle, which he has been able to hold against the queen as a refuge. The duke’s son, William, Snow White’s childhood friend, has been leading guerilla actions against the queens’ forces. On the way they meet up with some women characters not in the original story as well as the dwarves.

The movie passes the Bechdel Test, sort of. There are at least two conversations between women in the movie that are not about men, because they are about the queen, Ravenna. But nobody is breaking the girl rules.

Even the part of the movie that deals with Snow White being poisoned by the apple and then revived by true love’s kiss underscores the idea that women’s power is beauty, and is fleeting, but men’s is not.  When William and Snow White meet again, he falls in love with her. Ravenna disguises herself as Will and gives Snow White the poisoned apple. William and the huntsman find her dead, and William kisses her. Nothing happens. Later, as Snow White lies on her bier in the duke's castle, the huntsman comes in, bends over her and tells her what she has meant to him, and kisses her. As he does so, a tear falls on her. That's what revives her.

It is a touching moment, befitting the movie and what the audience was no doubt hoping for. At the same time, what does it say that William, who is Snow White's age, does not have the power to revive her, but the older, grimmer (and still hot as a firecracker, but there again, it proves my point) huntsman does? Men gain power and wisdom as they age. Women lose power as their beauty fades.

The movie’s passing the Bechdel Test is true perhaps of the letter, not so much the spirit. The other women in the movie talk about the queen, but as the queen represents the idea that a woman’s power is her youth and beauty, they may as well be talking about men.

At the end there is another one of those scenes that leave me unsure what the filmmakers meant. Snow White has conquered the queen, leading a male army under the banner of the king, her father. She catches a glimpse of herself in the queen’s mirror and walks off with an enigmatic expression on her face. Has she broken the girl rules or not? 

I’d say, go see the movie. Leave the children home. This isn’t Disney, but then, the old fairy tales never were.

ETA: Since the movie has come and gone, I retranslated the spoilers from rot13.

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