I’ve read a review of Snow White and the Huntsman that described it as a missed opportunity, and I think as so often happens for somebody who gets paid to critique for a living, the reviewer missed the point. Sometimes we can get so preoccupied with acting performances and special effects that we overlook the actual messages of a film. For me this movie should be applauded for the way that it touches on how women both desire to be valued and how they ought to be valued by others: as a whole person.
As in the original fairy tale, Snow White and the wicked Queen, here named Ravenna, are constantly contrasted to one another throughout the movie. Some back-story is provided for Ravenna, in a flashback we are shown her mother putting a spell on her and telling her that her beauty is what will protect her. The situation is clearly a desperate one, and a marauding King takes Ravenna, who looks eleven or twelve at the time, and his men continue to burn her village to the ground. Earlier in the film on her wedding night as a prelude to her murdering Snow White’s father she says a king ruined her once, and goes on to monologue about how she replaced his queen, an old woman. She then speaks hatefully, though we gather somewhat accurately from her past experiences that men cast women aside once their beauty fades, and uses this as her justification to place all men in the same category and murder them indiscriminately to reinforce her power. Following the fairy tale’s theme, the Queen then goes on to obsessively, and at times even fearfully maintain her beauty which is directly linked to the source of her power.
Even though her beauty is her best weapon in her arsenal, her speech reveals a desire to be valued for more than her beauty because she doesn’t praise men’s fickleness, she bitterly regrets it. When Ravenna reaches her most manic heights and demands praise from her magic mirror, but interestingly enough the mirror changes shape into a hooded form, and the voice that she seeks to hear praise from is a man’s voice. At a different point in the film she is talking a milk bath and privately demands of her brother “Am I not merciful?” again looking for male approval in a different context other than her looks.
This speaks truthfully of the desire of all women, even those who have been seriously screwed up like the Queen, to be valued by men for more than one feature of their person. In Ravenna’s case, her mother’s message that she only had value or power through her beauty, in fact that her beauty was her only salvation, was then further reinforced by the mistreatment of men (abduction, rape) to the point where she has become monstrous. This is the self-saving princess in the worst form, one who is ruthless, callous, and angry at all men. And I have seen a form of this in my female friends when they have been hurt or mistreated by men they have relationships with. When the relationship ends, if the man they were with did not express their value, or focused on only one part of their personality as beautiful, these women become angry, even open man-haters for any period of time from a week to several years. And I for one feel sorry for Ravenna as I do for one of my dear friends when this happens, although she is responsible for every one of her evil actions she deserved better than the lie her mother gave her and to be valued so poorly by men.
Snow White is given a diametrically opposite message about her own beauty from her mother than the one Ravenna received. Her mother tells her that she is beautiful because of what is in her, and touches her chest indicating her heart or soul. This idea that the inner person shapes the outward beauty of a woman is common enough in fairy tales, but Snow White’s internalizing this truth is what allows her to be lovely in the midst of truly horrific circumstances. While in prison she expresses faith by saying the Lord’s Prayer; this private expression of her spirituality speaking again of that cultivation of her inner self and a life that is deeper than her surroundings. It is this understanding that beings are more complex than their behavior might show is what allows her to play with a child, turn an aggressive troll away with gentleness, and commiserate and dance with dwarves that had previously threatened her life. It is why when she enters sanctuary in a fairyland that all mythical beasts and creatures note her: she is a valuable and beautiful person because of who she is- kind, curious, and forgiving.
The prophesying old dwarf urges the Huntsman “you have eyes but do not see” to value Snow White at more than face value. And ultimately it is his understanding of her value, not romantic love that brings her back from the dead. Snow White does have a romantic love interest, the prince charming of the movie, in her boyhood friend William. William does love her loyally, but once Snow White has eaten the apple it is not his kiss of romantic love that brings her back. Instead, when Snow White is lying dead it is the huntsman enrapt in great sorrow who addresses her and at last reveals himself. He tells her that when he returned from war he was angry and expresses disgust at his own base character, but his wife Sarah (a name that means princess) loved him in spite of his emotional wounds and saw through his behavior his real, best self. He describes her love for him as unmerited favor, a balm to his troubled soul, and explains how it gave him the desire to be a better person. The Huntsman goes on to say that Snow White reminded him of his wife because she too was lovely, and awoke that same desire in him to do what is right. Now that that loveliness has been taken from the world a second time, he recognizes what a grievous loss it is, and kisses Snow White goodbye telling her she can be “a Queen in heaven.” It is from this kiss, that Snow White is resurrected.
Why does this matter? The fairytale trope is that true love’s kiss is what can awaken a person from death; therefore in this kiss the movie defines true love. True love is valuing a person for all that they are, beautiful, kind, brave, innocent, forgiving: their whole person, and recognizes that if they are taken then something deeply valuable has been robbed from the world. It is the expression of that value that awakens Snow White to rise and lead her people in battle for good so that the land can be healed.
Pretty beautiful huh?
So what can we take with us from this movie? Men need to value women dearly and seek to know them wholly and not focus on any one aspect of their personality. Women need to understand that their worth must be born of more than physical beauty or political power and if we want to inspire by and lead by loveliness we need to work on cultivating that inner person for our own happy ever afters.
Thanks to my Mom and Dad for the discussions that lead to this. Geek-On!