Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Feminist Review: Prometheus and Snow White

Charlize Theron currently has two movies out in theaters simultaneously (her agent must be working hard) and both are desperately crying out for a feminist review.

*Spoiler Alert

Snow White and the Huntsman:

The fairy tale redux is the latest vogue in Hollywood and poor Snow White has been remixed and redone twice in the past year. I didn’t see the Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane adaptation, about which I heard unpleasant things (I wonder though, can anything with the brilliant Nathan Lane ever be that bad?), but the trailer looked promising, despite the presence of Kristin Stewart.

I’m going to go off on a tangent here about Kristin Stewart: really, Hollywood? You like Kristen Stewart that much that you’ve decided to continue to feed her roles? Can’t you just admit that she’s a horrifically, terrible actress? She has literally one expression she uses: surprised fear. I have stuffed animals with a greater range of displayed emotion.

That tepid, surprised fear bleeds its unfortunate paralysis into the rest of the film, which had an otherwise legitimately promising cast and a script with some real potential. The film, and most notably Stewart, fails to commit to anything. Is Snow White a herald of action hero bad-assery intent on her destiny to kill the wicked witch? Or is she an angelic innocent saint, so pure that her goodness can overcome the queen’s toxic, kingdom-killing evil? Stewart definitely has no idea and so neither do the characters who interact with her, making her role (the title one) the most boring and confusing part of the film.

This leads into one of my main feminist concerns with the film, the fact that Stewart’s Snow White is supposedly only powerful because of her “innocence and purity.” Again we have to go back to ideas of innocence and purity for women, without which, we can apparently accomplish nothing, nor be of any value. This is, of course, in direct opposition to the male characters in the film who are drunk, unethical and constantly killing something. This kind of clichéd, stereotype reinforcing portrayal of the wounded, nasty, albeit powerful warrior, who falls in love with the gentle, sweet maiden (always pure), is without a doubt the most annoying thing ever.

In a supposedly “enlightened” society, why do we insist upon returning to Victorian ideals of female purity and a demeaning “innocence” (meaning lacking in life experience and child-like)? I am neither pure nor innocent, yet I manage to hold my own in life and (hopefully) do some good.

However, that doesn’t mean that the film is wholly without any redeeming qualities; the film has a strong focus on the evil queen and gives her a powerful back-story, one that explains her obsession with youth and beauty. The reason she’s so obsessed with beauty? It has been her only means of gaining power and protecting herself from men. This plotline made a great parallel to our own rich and famous and their fascination with cosmetic surgery: in order to stay powerful and current, they must stay young and beautiful or be eviscerated by the media and potentially lose their jobs.

The plotline can be taken even further though. Not only is she conscripted into a life of damaging narcissism because of her beauty, but other women are similarly used. Recognizing that their beauty is both their power and their undoing, we meet a commune of women who have scarred their faces in order to protect themselves from the queen, a plot line that reminded me of the current situation in the Middle East where rules governing women and their clothing have reached new heights. There, some people believe that women should hide their tempting eyes as a way to save men from being forced to ravish them in the streets.

Instead of exploring that plotline further however, the filmmakers decided to move on to another nonsense scene of Stewart looking scared and confused while running through a field.

However, the costume design was amazing, the sets inspiring, the music beautiful (I can say with absolutely certainty that the new Florence and the Machine song, Breath of Life, which was created for the film, is awesome), and the cinematography inspiring.

Charlize Theron did a good job as the tortured queen and Sam Spruell as her creepy brother was excellent; their relationship was one of the best parts of the film in my mind. Chris Hemsworth was fairly bland, but nice to look at, so I personally forgive him for being a bit boring.

All in all, the film was a gold mine of good-filmmaking and feminist potential, but which came up short because of it’s inability to either fully embrace its traditional fairy tale values or it’s modern ones.


The prequel and spinoff for the classic film Alien has as much feminist food as it’s precursor did, albeit slightly less groundbreaking, though we can’t fault it for that: Alien did give us the first female action hero in Sigourney Weavers portrayal of the irrepressible Ripley.

Prometheus is naturally larger in scale and far more reliant on special effects, a feature that while clichéd is expected in the current sci-fi action genre (not to be solely negative, the landscape was absolutely amazing and the cinematography superb, seriously, watch for some stunning views of Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park, Hekla Volcano, and Detifoss Waterfall).

And while some of the scenes are admittedly, far more graphic and gratuitous than I think necessary (there is a simple purity to the original Alien death scenes that I think is lacking here), the film featured some thought provoking and disturbing themes, though all backed again by a strong, smart, female scientist-turned-reluctant heroine and survivor, similar to the original Ripley.

The Swedish Noomi Rapace (seriously loving these Swedish actors) and South African Charlize Theron oppose each other brilliantly; Theron as the efficient and disdainful corporate heavy, Noomi as the resistant, believing, courageous scientist out to find some answers.

The film features a hefty score of themes for discussion, including one of the most disturbing abortion scenes I’ve ever seen. That scene is apparently what pushed the film up from a PG-13 rating into an R; if the studio had wanted to ensure a PG-13 rating, the MPAA demanded that they cut the entire scene. However, both Scott and Rapace felt the scene was pivotal in Shaw’s intense desire to survive and in her emotional and mental development. If you weren’t pro-choice before, chances are you might be after witnessing this scene.

Perhaps notable as well is the fact that Shaw (Pascar’s character who has the abortion) must physically fight to have one, forcing her to face the ordeal entirely alone. After the operation we see a general disdain for her decision (though perhaps a grudging respect for her will to survive).  What stunned me about the whole situation was the entire lack of care and concern she received after it happened, the whole horrific event was entirely passed over without even a raised eyebrow in her direction as to her well being. She is even brutally hit in the abdomen by an unfeeling thug, an action I felt very deliberate in its exploitation of her recent scarring experience.

In a recent interview, Rapace discussed the scene, stating that the four of days of shooting were the most stressful of the entire film and that she started to have vicious nightmares of alien babies growing inside of her. On a personal note, I can well imagine such nightmares: the fear of losing control, of something taking you over without your will, of something using your body as it’s own instrument, it’s a powerful message about the state of the female body in our society and I found it profound and disconcerting.

Sexual imagery as well abounds in the film and, as has been said of the other Alien films, there is a substantial amount of phallic imagery and perhaps (we don’t want to project too much here) the male fear of rape as many men are violently violated and penetrated by a long, tubular, animal, which of course impregnates them.

An interesting theme that is present in this film, but not the other Alien films is a profoundly religious one, the death of our makers. On Prometheus the death of a parent is the agent of destruction as each main character deals with the abandonment and rejection they feel from their creation and of course, their ensuring resentment towards that creator. Even the mission of the ship is designed to find our own creators and discover why they have abandoned us and why we were created in the first place, if we were just to be left to our own devices. The title of the film then becomes remarkably fitting (as I’m sure was intentional) since Prometheus was a Greek who stole fire from the Gods to give to humans, an act that lead to the humans advancement and eventual independence from their creators. Prometheus was brutally punished for his disobedience and his compassion, destined to suffer for eternity, however that doesn’t stop the continued progression of humanity.

Similarly in the film, the ship and its inhabitants are obviously being punished for their own disobedience and for the overwhelming intention to survive and protect themselves from their own creator’s rejection and malevolence. 

Even Michael Fassbender, who plays a Lawrence of Arabia fan and a Peter O’Toole lookalike, states, “We all want our parents dead,” indicating that even he, as a robot is unsatisfied with his creator’s image. In a odd twitch the themes of creation and destruction then becomes mutually inclusive and creation becomes more of an act of ability rather than an act of love. Why do we make something? “Because we could.”

Although disturbing, I found the religious and social themes to be thought provoking and feminist-friendly and I would easily recommend the film. Though I did cover my eyes like a small child during a few of the more intense jump scenes.

What did you think of Prometheus and Snow White and the Huntsman?


  1. The only thing I'd disagree with is the assessment of Prometheus as a feminist film. In my opinion, Scott didn't push far enough in the direction of gender discomfort to do that. I can see that he was inching there for the reasons you mentioned, but I thought he bowed out of an extremely good opportunity to really push our buttons by making the pregnancy scene traditionally female. The males in the movie who were infected with the alien seemed merely to be infected--though, admittedly, in a visually disturbing way--, whereas Shaw's character was truly impregnated. To have had a man incubating an alien species in his body and then to abort it surgically--that's what I was looking for. Plus, at the end of the film, I couldn't help wondering what Scott has against vaginas, a question I asked my brother-in-law today when we discussed the movie. He laughed because he had wondered the same thing. Anyways, yes, Shaw's character was strong and her strength in that scene was amazing, so it added a lot to her character. But I think representing the male body as an incubator would have been a bolder move.--Cherise

  2. Bitch Flicks has a really interesting reading of Prometheus as it relates to abortion, for readers who are interested in that topic specifically.