The frosty gender politics of The Huntsman: Winter’s War

In the new movie The Huntsman: Winter’s War, there’s a scene where the title character is reunited with a love from whom he was cruelly separated years before. He tells her he has always been true and asks if she has remained faithful. At this point, actors Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain engage in a bit of a staring contest but in the end she says nothing. Apparently the Huntsman screenwriters believe a woman’s sex life is between her and her conscience.

Kristen Stewart and her legion of fans might not agree. After all, when Stewart was caught on camera kissing and hugging director Rupert Sanders, with whom she had recently been shooting this film’s 2012 predecessor, Snow White and the Huntsman, she felt the need to make a public apology, admitting to an indiscretion and begging forgiveness from her then-boyfriend Robert Pattinson. Apparently, her behaviour was not only Pattinson’s business, but the entire world’s.

And so, four years later, the character of Snow White and the humiliated Stewart herself are disappeared from this prequel/sequel – probably to the movie’s commercial detriment since it has fared poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. You might think Stewart’s absence was only because it was generally agreed that her performance as the beauteous Snow White was less than interesting even as this revisionist version of the fairy tale required her to challenge the huntsman and kick troll butt. But Sanders is also, with much less artistic justification, gone from the director’s chair, so when we get a two-second glimpse of Snow White seen from behind that could have been performed by anybody, it does rather feel as though Stewart has been slut-shamed out of the picture.

Not that this story needs Snow White; it is packed with other women in a movie that boasts no less than three female leads – Chastain, Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron – and pairs two male dwarfs with two “she-dwarfs.” They are led by Sheridan Smith as Mrs. Bromwyn, a foul-mouthed, bossy, can-do kind of girl –the dwarfs are played by full-sized actors made small through computerized effects – and the quartet pair off romantically in a highly equitable and respectful way. Meanwhile, Chastain’s character is also a huntsman and a crack archer; the plot turns on her ability to never miss a shot. Yes, there are a refreshing number of strong women in this movie aimed at a young and predominantly female audience.

And yet, just as the contrast between the film and its circumstances might seem to send a double message about sexual constancy, The Huntsman is also filled with hoary old images of female wickedness. Having all but exhausted the Snow White story, the franchise now turns to that of the Snow Queen; here the evil queen Ravenna has a sister Freya who, having lost a lover and a baby, retreats to a northern kingdom where she establishes perpetual winter and bans her oppressed subjects from every loving anyone. Disney’s Frozen notwithstanding, the ice queen isn’t exactly a female-friendly character – Hans Christian Andersen is said to have written the original Snow Queen story after he was rejected by the opera singer Jenny Lind – and the notions that jilted women are irredeemably embittered or bereaved mothers beyond recovery are not exactly messages of empowerment.

At least Freya has some explanation for her evil rule; her sister Ravenna, she of “mirror, mirror on the wall,” seems motivated solely by her extreme vanity. As Hollywood turns to umpteen sequels, prequels and spinoffs, its storytellers are actually getting quite inventive when it comes to back stories and complex motivations, but there is still no shortage of baddies who are evil because they are evil. Theron’s scene-stealing Ravenna, her eyes lined with kohl so lushly black it looks like they are bleeding, her index fingers encased in metal bands as though she were starting to abandon human form, fits into that category. She is a Lucrezia Borgia, Cruella de Vil or Bellatrix Lestrange, figures whose gender somehow enlarges the outrage of their villainy. For every two steps forward – those egalitarian dwarfs; the welcome character of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Hollywood seems to take one back.

Of course, if your source material is an ancient archetype you may run into some ancient misogynism, but reclaiming this stuff can prove really interesting. Disney’s Maleficent was a much smarter repurposing of a fairy tale, a deep explanation of the reasons why the evil fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty is bad. (The king betrayed her and stole her power.) That movie was imperfect, but reviewing it in 2014 I felt the imaginativeness of its revisionist story far outweighed its flaws.

After the review appeared, a reader wrote in to share her favourite scene, toward the end of the movie. The prince enters the brier-covered palace and discovers Sleeping Beauty, asleep. He pauses. The good fairies urge him on, “Kiss her,” they say. He hesitates, looking back to them for confirmation, as if to ask: “Really, is it okay to kiss a sleeping girl?”

Now there’s a modern boy for a modern beauty.

Also on The Globe and Mail

Chris Hemsworth on the origins of ‘The Huntsman: Winter’s War’
(AP Video)

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

2 thoughts on “The frosty gender politics of The Huntsman: Winter’s War

  • May 18, 2016 at 8:24 am

    So a “vain witch looking to rule the world” is a tired trope, but Malecifent’s “jilted lover scorns her ex/society” isn’t?

    I think the most telling points of this article are:

    1. this movie is dominated by female leads
    2. it’s making very little money

    I think this story would be better targeted at explaining how it’s the perfect example of why scifi/fantasy movies with female leads are rarely made. Kristen Stewart is a major draw, but then so are Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron aren’t exactly small time either, are they?

    Watch Ghost in the Shell tank, especially if they don’t go with Scarlett Johansson, and there be zero appetite from movie producers to touch another female lead production unless it’s the Black Widow with S.J. Anything else won’t bank.

    Social Justice only works if there’s actually an appetite not being fed. That doesn’t seem to be the case in SFF. Sorry! (I’m going to watch Huntsman for Hemsworth. Mommy likes!)

  • May 18, 2016 at 10:47 am

    I honestly have no idea whatsoever what this article was trying to say.

    It’s a bunch of words but what is the point? What’s your message?


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