Katniss and Snow White: The New Revolutionaries

In his review of Snow White and the HuntsmanA.O. Scott makes an acute observation on a noticeable trend in the current crop of summer blockbusters:

[Kristen Stewart’s] Snow White is part of an interesting new breed of warrior princesses — Katniss Everdeen is their current leader — whose ascendance reflects the convergence of commercial calculations and cultural longings.

This image of the young, female revolutionary has long been part of our cultural consciousness. Joan of Arc, Patty Hearst, Camilla Valejo — we’ve romanticized the audacity of women sticking it up to the largely patriarchal establishment, often using their sexuality as ammunition as they subvert the behavioral expectations placed on them. They reclaimed the modes of violence that have been previously monopolized by men. They embody the mutinous impulse of feminist fervor.

That Hollywood is currently deploying these characters and is cashing in on the reinvention of this archetype deserves a conversation. As I type this, The Hunger Games is already the second highest grossing film of 2012 worldwide, two films that depicted Snow White as a revolutionary have already been released, and one of the most anticipated movies coming up is Pixar’s Brave, a story featuring a female archer who defies tradition thus causing chaos in old Scotland.

The crystallization of this trend begs the question, why now? Why this particular generation?

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It is interesting to note that most of these movies are targeted towards a newer, younger breed of audiences. As the success of the Twilight franchise suggests, studios are starting to realize the lucrative potential of tapping into the tween/teenage girl demographic. What Hollywood is feeding them in turn, whether inadvertently or not, is a model of femininity to aspire to.

This strain is less fairy princess-y and more Xena-esque. The emotional journeys that these female characters take is one of self-discovery: young girls learning how to trust themselves, negotiating their positions in stratified societies and resisting attempts at impositions on their personhood. And after resolving their internal conflicts, they go to war. Not some metaphorical “war against the patriarchy” but an actual bloody, violent, harrowing war.

This is clear in Panem, the world featured in The Hunger Games. The premise of the movie is simple — in a dystopian post-conflict recreation of North America, an imperial capital holds an annual “game” where children from different districts are randomly chosen to fight to the death for the entertainment of the capital’s citizens. The movie then follows Katniss Everdeen, one of the chosen tributes, and her growth into the figurehead of the rebellion against the powers that be.

It is not a surprise that the president of Panem and the chief designer of the Hunger Game are both men. In order for Katniss to properly revolt against this system, she has to survive. And in order to survive, she has to play the game and battle against her fellow tributes. This twisted circular logic reflects the surprisingly complicated politics of the movie. Katniss doesn’t outrightly take up arms against her puppeteers but she treads discreetly as she comes up with ways to undermine them, relying on her wits and physical capabilities. She is very unfeminine in this process — she is raggedy, brutish and feral.

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More and more the need for strapping male characters is also diminishing as these women have taken on traditionally masculine qualities. These movies still pander to the heteronormative requirement of having a romantic interest paired with the heroines, but the gender dynamics are slowly shifting as the women no longer are damsels in distress.

In the two Snow White adaptations, the first encounter between Snow White and her supposed male savior is a battle. Her first instinct is opposition not enchantment; she brings up her defenses instead of letting the men pierce them because of their looks or physical prowess. In Snow White and the Huntsman, when the huntsman asks Snow White why she didn’t tell him that she was the vagrant princess, she says “I didn’t trust you.” Moreover, her primary allies in the fight against the Evil Queen are seven diminuitive old men, hardly ideal warriors for combat.

In Mirror Mirror, even though Snow White adopts a motherly role for the dwarves — cooking for them, cleaning their house,  telling them stories — her guardianship also extends to protecting them from monsters and evil creatures. Her fierce motherly instincts mirrors that of a lioness – a creature willing to kill in order to safeguard those under her care. The same observation can be made of Katniss — another way The Hunger Games reversed gender expectations is by making her in charge of the protection of her much weaker male partner Peeta from the harsh realities of the game. Roles traditionally ascribed to fathers such as the responsibility of providing and defending are given to these women.

Snow White and the Huntsman takes this even further by portraying male sexuality as a weakness. In two crucial scenes, men fall trap to the alluring, seductive magnetism of female sexuality. The evil queen Ravenna is able to take the throne by killing the king while consummating their marriage. Snow White is able to escape by gratifying the rape fantasies of the queen’s brother. In these stories, it is the men who are doltish in their need to feed their sexual appetites.

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Again, why now? As these trends usually go, there are a lot of factors that drive this need to project these fantasized heroines. As liberal feminist discourse gains more currency, the demand for confident, self-assured women continues to grow. The backlash against the passivity of Twilight‘s Bella is an example of this sensibility arising from a more conscious female audience. As women continue to break glass ceilings and defy patriarchies, the symbolic images that structure our reality also need to change and adapt.

As A.O. Scott pointed out, this also a commercially calculated move from movie studios. The consumerization of the tween is an entire economic enterprise that spans Justin Bieber to Bratz Dolls. If summer blockbusters used to be fanboy fare — Star Wars, Indiana Jones, all the bloody superhero movies — these films are now being bifurcated along gender lines.

There is still a lot that can be problematized about these movies. For example, the main motivation for the queen’s villainy in both Snow White movies is a fear of aging, playing right into the insecurities artificially created by a consumerist, capitalist society. But there is also a cause for celebration in the normalization of these characters. After all, cinema has had a rich, grand history of shaping social realities and affecting cultural norms. In the grander scheme of things, it is still good that these icons that have gestated in the back of our heads are now fully formed and are front and center in contemporary Hollywood imagery.

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