A Tale of Power and Beauty, Part II: Snow White by Amanda Kieffer
In Part I of this blog, I analyzed the themes of power and beauty in the film Snow White and the Huntsman in relation to the character of the Queen. In Part II, I would like to continue exploring these themes in light of Snow White’s character and her relationship with the Queen. That Snow White’s power is her beauty is clear. True, it is stated right up front that Snow White is admired throughout her father’s kingdom “as much for defiant spirit as for her beauty.” However, it is her beauty that grants her agency and power, not her free and defiant spirit. The battle scene in the climax of the film illustrates this connection between power and beauty well—as Snow White drives her dagger into Ravenna’s heart she repeats the mantra: “By fairest blood it is done; by fairest blood it is undone.” After Ravenna breathes her last, we see Snow White looking into the mirror on the wall, the victor, the fairest. Her beauty has allowed her to ascend to power. Her beauty has allowed her to defeat Ravenna. We are left wondering—who has won exactly?
Ravenna has clearly not won but neither has Snow White. Earlier in the film while speaking to the Queen disguised as her childhood love Snow White says, “I used to hate her. Now I feel only sorrow.” In their final moments together, as the Queen lies dying, Snow White says, apologetically, “You cannot have my heart.” Snow White does not express feelings of triumph or celebration at Ravenna’s destruction. At her coronation, Snow White is crowned before a cheering crowd but her face is void of emotion. Epic music swells as the camera zooms out and away from Snow White’s stoic expression. Really, whose victory is this?
I might chalk up Snow White’s odd stoicism to Kristen Stewart’s poor acting were it not for the fact that her character has almost no emotional life to begin with. We know nothing of her feelings of being locked in a tower for most of her life or of her father’s death. We do not know how she feels about her childhood love or the huntsman whose kiss wakens her from death. What are her thoughts? Her opinions? Her motivations? Her fears? We have little to no idea. Rarely have I seen a principal character (and the main protagonist no less!) so underdeveloped. Initially, I was baffled as to why the villain of a film should have so much depth and the heroine almost none. But that is exactly the point—the triumph of Snow White is not the victory of a real woman overcoming real demons. Rather, it is the ascension of the patriarchal feminine ideal.
This Snow White is the impossible standard that Ravenna spent her entire existence trying and failing to become. Snow White is innocent, pure, and more beautiful than any other woman. She is defiant but only toward a woman who threatens patriarchal power. She is empty and unreal. Yet it is said of her, “She is life itself. She will heal the land.” Tellingly, when newly raised from the dead, she shouts to a crowd of men, “I will become your weapon. Forged by the flame in your hearts.” Indeed, Snow White is the patriarchal feminine ideal—a weapon wielded against all women by men and women who buy into the lie that female power equals beauty and sexual appeal.
In Snow White and the Huntsman, the Queen is complex and realistic yet depicted as evil, Snow White is conversely flat, fantastical and depicted as salvific. Why? Because for real women to be empowered, patriarchal order and its ideals have to die. But if the goal is to maintain patriarchal order, real women have to die in order for patriarchal ideals to survive. Such is the case in Snow White and the Huntsman—a real, complex, angry, war-torn woman has to die so that a sexist fantasy can survive.
I would like to conclude by exploring what I think the most haunting line in the film. Almost as soon as Snow White re-awakens from the dead she tells a crowd of men—“I have seen what she sees and I can kill her.” With this line, the film single-handedly perverts sisterhood. An intimate connection between two women, a sharing of deep knowledge becomes, not a bond between them, but a weapon to bring death and destruction. How little these filmmakers understand what it means for women to see life through one another’s eyes! The sharing of knowledge and experience between women is the site where we learn to fight for one another rather than against one another. Yet, here a close encounter between women means death for one and precarious privilege for the other.
I keep going back to the moment when Snow White almost apologizes for not giving her heart to Ravenna. As the Queen dies, their eyes connect and the moment seems full of emotion. Here, Snow White, the real woman with complex thoughts and feelings, breaks through—she is grieved by Ravenna’s death because in it she glimpses her own future. Now, she is the Queen, fairest of them all. Snow White must know what a hollow victory she has won. After all, she has seen what Ravenna has seen. This is a moment we all face—the moment when we slay the enemy, only to realize we have slain ourselves and the enemy is still at large. As women, as feminists, we must recognize that other women—even other women who are out to devour our hearts in their own desperate attempts to grasp power—are not our enemies. They too are our sisters. And our enemy, that insidious ideal that equates our power with beauty and sexual appeal, is still running free. Let us seek knowledge of one another, not so that we can get the upper hand over each other, but so that we might together break free from the systems that usurp our power, deny our realities and divide us.
Amanda Kieffer is completing her Master of Sacred Theology degree at Boston University School of Theology in Practical Theology, concentrating on Narrative, Aesthetics and Trauma. She also received her M.Div. in Hebrew Bible from Boston University and has her B.A. in Christian Ethics. Amanda loves finding new ways to weave together her passions for creative writing, feminist narrative, embodiment, spirituality and myth, both ancient and contemporary.