A couple of years ago, on my 37th birthday, I went to see Snow White and the Huntsman. It’s a Hollywood film so it probably goes without saying the gender politics were unimpressive. Nevertheless, this film really pissed me off. It’s everything that’s terrible about how mainstream feminism is marketed and it’s a bloody fairy tale. Just what is wrong with the world?
Charleze Theron’s Ravenna, the villain of the piece, is a cross between Tampax Pearl’s Mother Nature and Valerie Solanas. She is pitched against Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, who is young, beautiful and feisty, all set to overthrow a patriarchal regime that demands all women be young, beautiful but not particularly feisty. Snow White rebels by remaining young and beautiful while also having agency™ and being empowered™ – go her! Meanwhile Ravenna, the Evil Queen, can only maintain her youth and beauty by being evil. Deep down she’s an ageing minger and therefore not worthy of exerting any power or influence. So Snow White kills her. Yay feminism! Kill that stupid, youth-addicted, power-hungry, post-menopausal waste of space!
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Ravenna really is evil. She kills Snow White’s father, telling him she hates all men because they use women then reject them when they are old. In order to maintain her own looks she steals the youth and beauty of younger women, forcing them to become wizened old crones in her stead. The killing and stealing is bad, obviously. However, the film makes it clear that Ravenna’s true crime is simply not accepting her womanly fate.
It’s obvious that Ravenna ought to just get old and lump it rather than try to beat the system. The camera lingers over ancient (late thirties) Theron’s face, comparing it unfavourably with Stewart’s pure, unlined visage. It’s not clear whether “the system” here is fairyland or Hollywood – perhaps there’s no real difference. Anyhow, the message is this: if you’re going to be a rebellious woman, be a very young, pretty one who only rebels against other women, preferably the older, less pretty ones. That way you can put on a sexy show of beating the system while the system remains firmly intact.
I can’t help thinking this is the perfect metaphor for the so-called generational model of feminism, one that sees women proceeding in successive waves, each one trashing the one that came before it plus the one that follows. Ravenna is to Snow White what second wavers are to younger feminists today, and what first wavers were to second wavers. She’s demonic, extreme, deluded. She doesn’t “get it” in the way Snow White does. She’s a misogynist caricature whereas Snow White, once you strip away the agency bullshit, is a patriarchal fantasy woman, a cool girl feminist par excellence. And that’s the story of feminism. Either you’re an evil witch – a racist-transphobe-frigid harpy who doesn’t know her time is up – or you’re an ineffectual sexy faux-rebel, storming the castle and swishing your hair with no clue that actually, you’ll get old too. One day you’ll be the past-it minger to whom no one wants to listen. Queer gender all you like but one day you’ll be placed on the same old scrapheap of womanhood as the rest of us.
Misogyny is clever these days. Women are so empowered we’re allowed to project manage our own women-hating via the medium of feminist discourse. I’ve noticed this recently in response to the New Statesman’s series of essays on second-wave feminism. The belief that older women’s work is of no value – that they are indeed evil witches – is very much to the fore in the knee-jerk responses from people who (I’ll hazard a guess) have not read the work of the thinkers they deride:
Meanwhile, the idea that younger feminists are swishy Snow Whites, faking rebellion while basking in the patriarchal gaze, has been equally rife amongst radical feminists who seem to think younger women should gratefully receive rather than engage:
All this is, I think, utter bullshit. It is Hollywood. It is a fairy tale. It is not real feminism and it is not real life.
Real life is more complicated than that. The people who yell TERF and SWERF at you or who tell you you’re not allowed to speak because you’re too young, too liberal or too “patriarchally approved” – these people are not supporting women. They are not raising women’s voices. They are acting out a script. They believe the only options are purity princess – sex positive, pseudo-empowered, always ready to call out other women on their shit but rarely there when the real system needs taking on — or evil hag – bigoted, extreme, hating the menfolk when really they should take a good, honest look at themselves and see how ugly they really are.
These are not our only options. As Dworkin writes “feminism is the political practice of fighting male supremacy on behalf of women as a class:
including all the women you don’t like, including all the women you don’t want to be around, including all the women who used to be your best friends whom you don’t want anything to do with any more. It doesn’t matter who the individual women are. […] Feminism is opposition to woman hating in order to achieve a truly egalitarian society. And there can’t be any women’s movement that is rooted in political defenses of woman hating. Those who think that woman hating is all right—they’re not feminists. They’re not.
We are neither evil witches nor bitchy princesses and we should not be dragged into seeing ourselves as such. It’s reducing feminism to a lazy narrative rather than a dynamic, challenging movement. Feminism is not there to silence young women, use them up then spit them out – that’s what patriarchy does. We can do better than that and we must.