Snow White vs The Evil Queen: Some thoughts on feminism’s “generation gap”

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:

nontransphonic

elders

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:

Patriarchally approved

not read much

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.

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16 thoughts on “Snow White vs The Evil Queen: Some thoughts on feminism’s “generation gap”

  1. Ugh, Dworkin, really? I’m all for supporting women, but not when that means murdering the men in my life who have never been other than good to me, and cacklingly dancing in their blood, as she did. Ageism is bad, yes, but so are many of the ideals that came with the second wave—the idea that transwomen aren’t ‘real’ women, that men can’t be raped, that women never rape, that the only ‘good’ sex is lesbian sex, that black women don’t know what’s best for them and black men are just agents of the Devil (doubly evil since all religion is wicked and woman-hating, you know!), etc.

    None of those things, are things my feminism stands for. I will have intersectionality, or I will not have feminism at all. Plain and simple.

    1. I think this is all very erasing of intersectionality within second wave feminism. It’s a one-sided caricature that sees all second wavers as white and holding particular prejudices and it’s just not true. And I think Dworkin is an amazing writer with real vision, a vision you don’t have to share wholesale to benefit from (and I can think this without dancing in the blood of my partner and sons, just as she managed to write without dancing in the blood of her husband). I don’t think the work of brilliant men is trashed in the way you’ve just done on the basis that they all have to be lumped together in one “bad” group. Women can be flawed genuises too. Women have a legacy. Women matter.

    2. I take it you did not know that Dworkin was not anti trans, lived with a man for 17 years til her death. Perhaps you take issue with statements such as this: ‘Only when manhood is dead – and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it – only then will we know what it is to be free’. Do I really have to point out that she if referring to a cultural expectation, not the genocide of men?
      Your rant against Dworkin sounds as MRA as can be, sadly.

    3. of all the baseless caricatures of second-wave feminism in this comment the idea that the second wave saw lesbian sex as ‘the only good sex’ is possibly the most ridiculous and laughable. the mainstream of the second wave was deeply and profoundly homophobic- Betty Friedan herself sought to oust the ‘lavender menace’ of lesbian NOW members because they were threatening straight womens’ political legitimacy. Friedan knew ahead of her time that the association of second-wave feminism with lesbianism was a political move on the part of the men and straight women who opposed her to undermine her.

      the ‘political lesbian’ movement amongst certain straight radical feminists, which I assume is what you are attempting to refer to, considered lesbianism to be nothing more than refusing sexual relationships with men, and often spurned women who actually sought to form sexual relationships with each other because that was ‘objectifying’ and ‘anti-feminist’. they were also frequently hostile to working-class butch lesbians whose choice to wear mens’ clothes was seen of indicative of ‘male-identification’.

      that said, the second wave was still less suffocatingly anti-lesbian than contemporary feminist discourse, and the fact that the merest mention of it sends straight women like yourself leaping, pearls a-clutched, to the defence of your husbands (as if speaking of us too positively might cause the Awful Bra-Burning Hairy Dykes to pounce from the shadows and haul you off to the straight women conversion centre because we’re all just champing at the bit to sleep with you) is just further proof of how much ‘feminists’ still hate lesbians.

    4. You don’t seem very familiar at all with 2nd wave feminism. In fact, all of what you’ve written is lies. Dworkin never advocated murdering men. 2nd wavers never said men couldn’t be raped. They said the overwhelming victims of sexual violence. The two statements are not the same. Oddly, a whole lot of 2nd wavers were heterosexual and Black – some of them even Black and heterosexual. Shocking I know.

      And, FFS, do you have any idea who founded rape crisis centres? refuges? equal pay? Women having their own bank accounts? Women being able to get a mortgage without a man? Who fought to make in marriage illegal? Who fought for anonymity for rape victims? Who fought to make domestic violence a crime? Because your knowledge of the history of the women’s movement doesn’t seem all that good.

  2. I’m not sure that ‘intersectionality’, as described above, is the preserve of younger feminists: we used to call it ‘socialism’ back in the day and the rift then was between radical separatists and left wing feminists who believed precisely in different, layered, factors governing oppression.
    What we did have then, on either side, was, for want of a better word, teleology. A plan, a vision, a goal: feminism as an action leading to something better, whether that was the separatist’s utopia of a matriarchal community or the socialist feminist’s vision of equality, we were looking beyond the present. The vision seems to have gone and, yes, as an ‘older’ feminist I do feel that lessons haven’t been learned. What other ‘movement’ would even characterise its more experienced members simply as ‘older’ anyway? Surely knowledge and experience should count for something?
    But here’s the problem: active feminism is largely a young woman’s preoccupation. It’s a rite of passage for women who, in establishing their identity, still do need to differentiate themselves from whatever it is that society expects of them. Because feminism is such a personal journey, and so bound up with how we see ourselves, it will always appeal most to the young who are most in need of finding their identity and stamping it on the world. The preoccupations with identity, sexuality, body image are all things that dissipate with age. As long as we live in an unequal society then young women will be at the sharp end and will be the ones who feel , most acutely and urgently, the demands of that society.
    Eventually, I hope, there will be no need for feminism, but whilst it stays too much in the preoccupations of the ‘now’ and of transitory, youth-limited, personal identity then we won’t be putting the hard work into making it a project that redefines the future: feminism needs to go beyond just the personal and get properly political again.

    1. I completely disagree. Older women don’t have passionate concerns having to do with poverty among elderly female, number of feminists in political office, number of feminists in mainstream media, entertainment industry? Since when is feminism simply “preoccupied” with “identity, sexuality, body image” ???? This isn’t the feminism I know. You posit a limiting, if not absolutely condescending, interpretation of what we see going on in feminism now.

      1. That wasn’t the point I was trying to make really. I do think that the urgency of feminist consciousness (as that which defines you as a woman) is most keenly felt when one is young (15 to 30) and, because it is a ‘standpoint’ philosophy in the sense that your whole sense of yourself and your standpoint, or perspective, is so totally bound up in ‘being’ a feminist then I do think it can have limitations. You wouldn’t expect a socialist to ’embody’ all aspects of their political philosophy but we expect women to embody ‘feminism’ in ways that are intensely bound up with their self-identity. I wasn’t trying to imply that other concerns aren’t important, far from it, that’s the opposite of what I was saying: there needs to be a greater political awareness in feminism generally around issues of poverty and politics. The route into wider political awareness from feminism doesn’t seem to be as straightforward, or inevitable, as it used to be.Without wanting to further ‘blog hog’ I think it’s best if I just say I think you misunderstood what I was trying (obviously not very well!) to say.

  3. I like your reply, glosswitch, and though I’ve never been a fan of Dworkin, I love the quote you used above. I have a lot of trouble with women who attack other women for disagreeing with them; it doesn’t seem much like any brand of feminism to me. I read a comment on a feminist website from an older feminist who clearly stated her age and background, and the woman running the website — who writes blogs on such meaningful topics as celebrities and Donald Sterling — called the commenter a man. What purpose does that serve when the commenter was asking what seemed a valid question: Back in the day, if you were a feminist, it was thought you should be engaged in some sort of action to help women and girls (other than seeing yourself in print).

    I will beg to disagree with the comment above that transwomen are real women. Biology is biology, and the notion that women need to accept that men are women is troubling. I don’t know how feminism can exist which accepts that genderism is innate.

  4. Writing in the New Statesman this week, we had Germaine Greer scathingly dismiss both the writers at Vagenda and Laura Bates. I can’t see any other reason to refer to “Laura Bates, born in 1987”, other than to say “check this young whippersnapper! She thinks she can do feminism?!”

    She also refers to Bates using the Telegraph’s quote as ‘blonde, beatifically lovely’. The only valid reason to use that quote would be criticise the Telegraph for referring to her appearance in an article about sexism. But she didn’t follow this up with any arguments/statements that women are often unfairly defined by their appearance in the media, etc etc. I’m left wondering if there’s intellectual snobbery at work here: does she actually think that Laura is too young and pretty to write about feminism?

    That point aside, I found it so wearying and depressing, this feted feminist author laying into the younger generation. It riles me that women must frequently combat silencing tactics from men when they speak out on feminist issues, translated as “you’re not doing that right; let me explain what you should be concentrating on”. Now we have a woman doing it to younger women. And, in terms of each generation “trashing the one that came before it plus the one that follows”, I have only heard respectful discourse from Bates towards previous generations of fems.

  5. Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    GlossWatch really echoes my thoughts here (more eloquently, as usual). Feminism has tragically and ironically become more of a battle between women than a struggle for dignity and gender equality against patriarchy. Please, please take her words to heart before trashing another woman!

  6. Have you thought of what the future will be like when we have artificial wombs?

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