The Militarization of Femininity: Revisited

A while back, I blogged about how an image of Kristen Stewart as Snow White in armor from the upcoming Snow White and the Huntsman raised my hackles.  I’m not convinced I fully articulated my point, which meandered back and forth between defending Disney princesses, supporting the actualized woman warrior, and supporting a woman’s right to a more traditional (read: archaic and sexist) lifestyle.  I think the point I wanted to make was about the contrived nature of this version of femininity and why it’s not a solution to the problem of well-rounded female characterization.

In my original post, I was mystified: “My first impression was one of disdain; the last time I checked, Snow White was not Joan of Arc.  I don’t remember her having any martial inclinations or talents nor the socio-economic status to make such a transformation possible. The last time I checked, her enemy was one vain witch, not an entire army.

My second impression was one of conflict: I should be more supportive of this …modern expression of female agency. Shouldn’t a Snow White who can wield a broadsword be more awesomely great than one who prefers to spend her time cleaning up after 7 slovenly men before she gets food poisoning and largely disappears from the narrative?

Some time has passed and my opinion has changed somewhat with each new Huntsman trailer that emerges.  It looks like a potentially fantastic version of the fairy tale and I find myself eager to see what it will bring to the iconic original. Ultimately, the question of feminism as defined by either aggressive, military action in opposition to lame passivity remains.  Ironically enough, Kristen Stewart will play both sides of this controversial coin. What can the girl who played the passive, comically clumsy and weak Bella in Twilight bring to the warrior version of Snow?

Snow White, and Fairy Tales in general, have become a BFD these days.  She’s everywhere: on TV in Once Upon a Time, in multiple movies (Snow White and the Huntsman (the fierceness of Charlize Theron will be reason enough to watch), Mirror, Mirror (Nathan Lane seems SO embarrassed to be in this film), and the upcoming flick The Order of Seven with Saoirse Ronan), and already the mistress of several comic books (Fables is still one of my favorites, with Snow balancing her roles as wife, mother, and politician with grace and gravitas).  It also doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon; Beauty and the Beast seems to be next in line to the media throne, with Emma Watson signing on to star in a new B&tB movie and several other TV shows in the works.

This is the moment of the Fairy Tale, complete with multiple revisions and re-imaginings.  So, where do traditional fairy tales fall in our enlightened sociological landscape? Is there a place in the modern era for romance in which the woman gets rescued when she’s in danger, beauty is valued and equated to goodness, and marrying a rich prince is the only desirable outcome for a young woman’s future?  Doesn’t this sound like everything modern feminists are fighting against? Modern media apparently begs to differ.

At the time, I apparently felt the need to defend my beloved fairy tales by providing a counterpoint to the vilification of these princesses as an infection to young minds (for examples of this phenomenon, see here and here).  What’s that you say, Internet? But Aurora, Ariel, and Belle are my favorites! Why are you telling me that they’re horrible role models for young girls when I grew up to be an educated, informed, independent, horseback riding fencer woman warrior feminist despite their near constant influence on me as a child? Shouldn’t we have been pleased that the majority of Disney fairy tales were forms of bildungsroman for young women who fought their way towards their dreams, whatever they happened to be?

But why so warrior? Don’t get me wrong; I love strong, ass-kicking female characters (Catwoman, Wonder Woman, Jean Grey, and Trinity being just a few) but have we approached a point where the “she-ro” is the end result of lazy characterization? “Uh, I don’t know how to write a strong, complex female character, so….let’s just turn her into a seasoned killer/warrior/ninja/thing, k? That’ll satisfy people. Oh, and if she’s a superhero? No real need for practical clothing.” (True story: I was in a movie theatre and during the trailer for Haywire, I heard a guy in the back say, “Oh look, another she-ro.” Here’s the problem defined in one single word, folks; dismissive, limiting, and jaded.)

If anything, current Hollywood trends — while pandering to an action-hero audience , myself included— send the message that for a woman to be in control of her own path, she must, in essence, become a man by assuming the more masculine role of the aggressor in order to prove herself a worthy human being (See also Cracked.com’s brilliant article on the “Obnoxious Assumptions Hollywood makes about Women”, specifically #5). As an attempt to demonstrate equality, at the heart of the matter, isn’t that the most sexist commentary of all?

To quote my friend Casey, my continual sounding board in these matters, via his new heroine: “Just because I couldn’t fend off three vampires doesn’t mean I’m weak.” Snow White is not Joan of Arc, Zoe Washburn, or Buffy and we’re ok with it. As far as I know, we’ve been ok with it for decades.

Even so, if traditional modes of femininity are dismissed as archaic, passive, and sexist, are we creating a new problem of pulling a 180 and acknowledging that true feminism can only be represented as militant and ‘aggro’? Is turning women into one dimensional heroes through masculine modes of violence the only solution?

The answer must be no.  We may be trying too hard to course-correct, and in so doing, limiting ourselves in ways that are hurting us and diminishing our impact on the feminist landscape of the future.  What specifically are we missing in these women? How could they benefit from growth and what would make them well rounded? Methinks that’s a post for another time but I am certainly open to your thoughts and suggestions.

Maybe a movie about Goldilocks will help us find a happy medium?

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