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Snow White not much of a feminist after all

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I suspected, going into Snow White and the Hunstman that it likely wouldn’t live up to its promotional bill as a feminist reboot. Gone, we were expected to excitedly believe, is the helpless princess waiting for the kiss of life from her handsome prince and in her place, a serious ass-kicking heroine.

Snow White and the Huntsman promised big and got many feminists excited in the process. Some feminist writers have praised the film for its so-called feminist sensibilities. Time’s Erika Christakis calls it an ‘a triumph of feminist storytelling’ because of its ‘fully dimensional’ female leads.

But does it deliver? Short answer: No. The screenwriters get credit for allowing Snow White (Kristen Stewart), to lead an army into battle against her evil stepmother Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who wants to eat her heart, thereby killing two birds with one stone; disposing of the only woman more beautiful than she is, and securing herself everlasting youth in the process. And beauty.

What had feminists excited was the rejection of the part of the original tale where the passive princess is saved by her prince. Rather, our 21st century Snow White, battles the evil queen literally to the death.

Except this is not really what happens (warning: serious spoilers ahead). Whilst Snow as she is affectionately called, does indeed don a suit of armor in order to take on her evil (aren’t they all?) stepmother, the skills she applies to destroy the queen (thrusting a dagger into her heart) is one taught to her by the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth).  This would be the same Huntsman who shares the film’s title despite being a smaller character than Ravenna who shares equal screen time with Snow. A nod, perhaps, to all the male moviegoers that there’s something in here for them too? Cant be real action movie without a hero.

Then there’s the fact that Snow would not even have been able to engage in this bitter duel on account of being unconscious and all after taking a bite of the queen’s poison apple.  So in actual fact, Snow White was saved by a man, not once but fully two times.

But none of this is as irritating –or damaging- as the film’s treatment of feminism and the beauty, purity and aging (horror of horrors) of women.

First to the feminism. In short feminists are expected to approve of the film because Snow kicks some evil witch butt. But who is this evil with whose butts gets kicked? Charlize Theron’s Ravenna is a Male Rights Advocates (MRA) wet dream, or worst nightmare depending on how you look at it. The quintessential ‘man-hating’ feminist (sample line: ‘Men use women!) who uses her past mistreatment at the hands of nameless men to destroy other men, and women too, because why not?

A favoured claim of MRAs is the ‘feminists don’t want equality they want to be superior to men’ argument and, unfortunately this film does nothing to dispel that. Ravenna hates men. Really, really hates, them. Not just powerful men, or evil men, or the specific men who wronged her. No, like all good angry straw-feminists Ravenna hates all men. She hates them so much she even killed a young, handsome man who was just the type she would have fallen for in her youth and who no doubt ‘would have broken (her) heart’.

Snow White, on the other hand, is as pure of heart as she is of body. In fact, the film goes to great lengths trying to flex its feminist credentials by informing us that Snow is loved ‘as much for her defiant spirit as her beauty’.  Animals are drawn to her. Bridge trolls are placated and humbled by what can only be described as her feminine mystique.  But still the fact remains, she is only a threat to the queen, and therefore of interest because of her physical beauty. Because the queen cannot stand not being the fairest in the land.

And what exactly is meant by ‘fair’? This is not just a reference to physical beauty but purity. Snow White has what the Queen can never regain, no matter how many souls of virgins she inhales- her virginity. ‘Only by fairest blood is it done, and only by fairest blood can it be undone.’ Indeed.

But all this pales in comparison to the film’s treatment of aging, which, frankly it seems to regard as a fate worse than death. But only for women, of course. There are many men depicted in various stages of their life cycles, but this warrants not a mention. Men are permitted to age. Women cannot for fear of being portrayed as ugly and haggard.

The irony of Hollywood making a commentary about the perils of aging for beautiful women should not be lost on anybody. Still, director Rupert Sanders valiantly tries to give Ravenna a back-story that implies her evilness stems from her correct realisation that an aging woman is worthless in a society that values women only for youth, virginity and beauty, but he does all of nothing to dispel this notion. Once the film has established Ravenna is a product of a sexist world that disparages women for having to audacity to age, he sets about destroying her.

As she lays dying, the blood draining from her wretched heart, her face dries up, her wrinkles deepen and multiply and we are forced, oh horror of horrors, to come face to face with the despicable sight of…an old woman.

Despite its new ‘feminist reboot’, what Snow White and the Huntsman tells us is neither new nor feminist. It is, as one astute blogger put it, “an attempt to gloss over the fact that at the heart of the original tale the message is that the aging vain woman should step aside in favor of youth and beauty.”

In the end, 36-year-old Charlize Theron is killed off by 22-year-old Kirsten Stewart. And if that isn’t the ultimate metaphor for the fate of Hollywood’s female actors, I don’t know what is.


Written by Ruby

July 6, 2012 at 2:08 am

From Blackface to Billy Sing: ‘whitewashing’ not a thing of the past.

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This (hopelessly out of date) post was originally published in 2010. I am re-posting here as part of the online media course I am (kind of) tutoring at the University of Sydney.


The Jazz Singer

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Across the world, fans are protesting as filmmakers ‘whitewash’ ethnic characters, writes Ruby Hamad. 

Does this old photo of Al Jolson wearing blackface  makeup and a curly wig in the silent classic The Jazz Singer make you cringe” How about Boris Karloff as the “yellow peril incarnate“- The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu?

While we may recoil at the casual racism of films past when white actors wore makeup to appear black or Asian,  and reassure ourselves that we wouldn’t allow it to happen today, the outrage over Hey Hey’s blackface skit, is only the most obvious example of contemporary cinematic whitewash.

This year, controversy has surrounded the casting of films and television productions from Sydney to Paris to Hollywood.

Australian director Geoff Davis is feeling the heat for casting his son Josh as Billy Sing in a mini-series based on the life of the legendary WW1 sniper and Gallipoli veteran. The problem? Billy Sing was Chinese-Australian and Josh is, well, white.

Davis told The Australian that it wasn’t his intention to ‘whitewash’ Sing’s racial history but he couldn’t find an older Chinese actor willing to play Sing’s father on deferred payment.

His solution was to cast Caucasian actor Tony Bonner (of Skippy fame) instead, effectively turning Sing into a Caucasian too, in a move that has enraged many in the film community, including actor Haven Tso.

Chances are you may never have heard of Tso, but he is one of Australia’s most prominent Chinese-Australian actors, having featured in the film Home Song Stories and on TV shows including Sea Patrol and All Saints.

Although his agent, Joolee Eadie, says he gets more work than most males his age Tso laments, “I get a lot of casting for Japanese tourist, kitchen hand, restaurant owners etc. There is still a general idea that non-Anglo actors can only play certain parts.”

As a forty-something he was too young to play Sing’s father, though he laughs at Davis’s claim that no actor would be willing to play the part on deferred payment, “There are lots of people doing work for free just to get their name out there”, he says.

That is why the Billy Sing casting has stung the acting community. Not only are heroic ethnic characters so rare, when they do pop up, ethnic actors get overlooked in favour of more bankable Caucasians.

Although she calls the Billy Sing casting “disgraceful”, Eadie admits there does seem to be lack of older Asian-Australian actors. One of her actors, A Japanese-Australian in her forties, won a role on Steven Spielberg’s miniseries, The Pacific, and had to wear special makeup “to age her as they couldn’t find anyone else”.

But is there a lack of roles due to a lack of suitable actors or a lack of actors due to the scarcity of roles? Do actors simply give up after years of rejection?

Hard to tell, says Eadie, “Nothing has changed in the 21 years I’ve been in the business”.

Josh Davis (left) in The Legend of Billy Sing and the real Billy Sing (Image: The Australian)

The Australian put down the reaction to the fact that knowledge of Sing’s extraordinary and tragic story- he died in obscure poverty- is too new to the public to be depicted in this way.

But that doesn’t explain the reaction that similar cases of ‘whitewashing’ in cinema have caused.

Earlier this year, Gerard Depardieu became embroiled in a heated race row over his film, L’Autre Dumas, based on the life of the great French writer Alexandre Dumas. Depardieu is, of course, white, whilst Dumas was the mixed race grandson of a freed Haitian slave.

Like Jolson in The Jazz Singer, Depardieu wears a black wig and darkens his skin for the role. Patrick Lozes, president of the Council of Black Associations of France, complained to the BBC that the film suggests, “we don’t have any black actor who has the talent to play Alexander Dumas”.

Meanwhile, over in Hollywood, The Sixth Sense director, M. Night Shyamalan is causing a stir with his soon to be released mega-budget epic, The Last Airbender, which opens in Australia September 16 and is based on animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The popular show has a loyal following on Foxtel’s Nickelodeon network, and is set in an ancient Asian-inspired fantasy world where the elements, Water, Earth, Wind and Fire are controlled by warriors known as ‘benders.’

However, while the show’s characters are mainly Chinese, the film’s stars are – apart from the villain played by Dev ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Patel – all white.

Marissa Lee, a young Chinese-American fan was so outraged, she created Racebending.com (a play on the ‘Airbender’ title), which has organised a nation-wide boycott to protest Airbender’s US release in July. She claims the casting is racist and deprives Asian-Americans of role models and ethnic actors of rare starring roles,  “If they can’t even play characters of their own ethnicity, what opportunities are available for them?”

Famed film critic Roger Ebert agrees, calling the Airbender casting “wrong.” So do the series creators, Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko who have distanced themselves from the film.

Shyamalan, however, dismisses the criticism, calling Airbender, “the most culturally diverse movie ever made… it looks like the U.N. in there”, referring to the fact that native Greenlanders play most of the extras.

To which Lee scoffs, saying, “Just and equal casting is not about restricting actors of colour to extras and villains. The truth is those communities are vastly underrepresented in the media, and representation matters.”

Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender are dismayed that their Asian heroes are replaced by whites in the film, restricting ethnic actors to ‘villains and extras’ as this fan-made picture indicates. Image: Racebending.com

Haven Tso says that whilst the Airbender casting shocked him, the fact it is a fictional story makes it, “not as bad as the Billy Sing case which turned an historical Asian-Australian hero into something else.”

The role of Billy Sing is a lost opportunity. A chance to celebrate the contribution of non-Anglo Australians and a chance for an actor to escape from behind the dishwasher or shop counter have both been wasted.

But perhaps the public outcry regarding these films, each from a different corner of the globe, indicates that the tide is finally turning.

As Eadie muses, “Maybe it’s what people can relate to and, as our population becomes more diverse, we may be able to relate to a wider field of ethnicities. If enough people get together and fight it, there may be a chance of change.”

Don’t expect a change too soon though. Last month Prince of Persia, another swashbuckling blockbuster opened in Australia. Who plays the Prince? The very un-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal.

Written by Ruby

September 12, 2011 at 10:18 am

Posted in Film, Media, Racism, Television