Monthly Archives: August 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, and other modern fairytales

Fairytales have been getting a fair run lately. TV has given us Once Upon a Time and Grimm, and in cinema just this year we’ve seen two versions of the Snow White tale in Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. In novels the Red Riding Hood tale has been cropping up in a lot of teen werewolf romances, or in other novels where Red just kills the wolf herself, as is the theme in Jackson Pearce‘s Sisters Red; her sequel is a retelling of another fairytale, Hansel and Gretel (Sweetly).

I managed to catch Snow White and the Huntsman as its run ended here in Australia. Partly out of interest as a “new” fairytale, partly out of dedication to our loyal two readers of this shapeshifting blog because the promos suggested the Queen might just be a shapeshifter, and partly because there was a Hemsworth in it, and we are nothing if not patriotic here.

The villain of this film is the Queen, of course, named Ravenna and played by Charlize Theron channelling fellow blonde-powerful-beauty-in-fantasy-land Cate Blanchett’s Spooky Galadriel Voice from Lord of the Rings, although Charlize was much shoutier, to less effect.

Theron upon discovering the script calls for the Huntsman to kiss that Snow White upstart, not the Queen.

And of course, when both women are faced with the temptation of power, Galadriel’s answer is no, while Ravenna’s is a resounding yes, and her desire for power is her motivation throughout the film. Interesting ideas in the movie – and of course in the fairytale – about the importance that we as a society can place on outward appearance: Ravenna is stunning for much of the film as a woman obsessed with gaining immortality, and not just any old immortality but the kind that comes with Botox and perfectly shaped brows. She spends a lot of time sighing and pouting in the front of the mirror (yes, The Mirror) and worrying about looking tired and drawn (ie, like the rest of us).

They’re called wrinkles, Ravenna, and it’s going to be all right.

The heroine is Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart. Ravenna is after Snow White because The Mirror decides Snow is now the prettiest girl in the land, and that Ravenna can only win back the Miss Fantasy Universe title if she kills Snow White and takes her heart, with immortality as a bonus prize. I found the casting of Snow White or perhaps the film’s interpretation of the character unconvincing: the part seemed to call for someone warmer and more obviously embodying the qualities (fairness of character, kindness, love) that were supposed to represent Snow White. In fact, in this iteration of the fairytale Snow is quite literally the source of “life” in this world; restoring nature back to itself, winning forest creatures over, basically undoing the evil Ravenna has done.

But to my mind this was a rather remote, cold Snow White who was hard to really barrack for. This made it hard to engage with the character, and certainly when it comes to her big speech where she rallies the army to her side to fight against Ravenna, I was left cold when presumably we were supposed to feel inspired and excited.

Snow White demonstrating the passion, warmth, and charisma that made everyone fall about themselves to help her.

As is the case in so many fantasy narratives (and not just fantasy), Snow has somehow inspired love in two courageous handsome men and at least one very creepy man without many clues given as to why.

One of these is a drunken Aussie putting on an accent, I don’t know which – Scottish? Irish? – and I’m not sure he knew either. Okay, it’s the Huntsman of the title, and he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, who along with the Queen seems far more interesting than Snow White. The drunkenness seemed to serve no real point in the narrative, and the romance was unconvincing, but again I’d wonder if that’s due to the Snow White characterisation, where she just didn’t seem to exhibit much warmth or interest in anything.

It was also a mystery as to why the Mirror never named the Huntsman as the fairest in the land, when quite clearly Hemsworth eclipsed everyone else on screen for pouting good looks.

Hemsworth is not the only Huntsman trying to win The Mirror’s vote for Fairest Of Them All; Once Upon a Time also boasts (boasted? One never can tell who is dead, not dead, or only temporarily dead in these sorts of universes) a huntsman determined to out-pretty Snow and the Queen, this time played by Jamie Dornan, who actually is Irish (from Northern Ireland, apparently).

Are you sure you’re the fairest of them all, and not me?

The movie itself probably needed a little more sharpening in its story focus; it felt like there were a lot of really interesting ideas searching for development and cohesion, and I’m not convinced everything came together as well as it could and should have. For the looks of it, the special effects were good, and the scenery was quite stunning at times, but I couldn’t help but see the inheritance from the Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Harry Potter and other fantasy-horror movies, though of course it’s hard to be terribly original in this genre. For instance, Ravenna seemed to be a vain Dementor in sucking the souls/lives out of young girls to steal their beauty; the white stag moment seemed fairly similar to Aslan’s role in Narnia; and as noted earlier, Ravenna seemed to be a fan of Galadriel.

Give a Dementor a mirror, and look what happens.

As for shapeshifting, the Queen does shift shape a little, when she appears to Snow in the form of one of Snow’s allies, and transforms into herself/birds, so it’s linked to deceit and evil here, playing on the theme that you can’t trust appearances (with, apparently, the exception of Snow).

Can we compare this with how Once Upon a Time has tackled the same fairytale? Obviously the latter is a TV show with plenty more space to develop storylines and character arcs, and it is very different for the way we see dual stories between the characters in their fairytale lives and their modern day versions where they can’t remember who they are. And let’s be honest, most viewers probably can’t remember who the characters are either, it’s all so complicated. Apart from the pretty Huntsman, Ravenna is Regina (Lana Parrilla), another beauty who wasn’t brought up to share and play nicely with others, and Snow is the traditional character as well as the modern Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin), both interpreted in a much warmer way.

Both these iterations turn Snow White into the kind of post-Buffy butt-kicking heroine we find everywhere these days: they’ve got swords, they’ve got courage, and don’t need “rescuing” in the same way the traditional fairytale characters do.

Okay, so he might be prettier than me, but my armour’s shinier.

Back to shapeshifting, Once Upon a Time offers us a new version of Red Riding Hood: whereas in most modern versions she will just kill the (were)wolf herself, in the TV series she is the wolf, though she is unaware of her lupine alter ego until after she’s killed her romantic interest, Peter. So the danger to young women comes not from men in most of the modern versions (not all of them), but from herself.

So why all these fairytale revisions? Part of the popularity is probably linked to this imposition of contemporary ideas about gender and identity and power onto classic narratives. Maybe storytellers are getting lazy, where every second movie seems to be a remake, reboot, or a sequel. Have we really run out of ideas for new stories? With news of a sequel to Snow White and the Huntsman, maybe we have.

Launch Night

Or should that be fright night?
Our greeters got a little more into the roles than we expected, and were seen clambering on rocks, chasing each other, howling at the moon and leaping out of bushes. Great job, you lot. 🙂

We held the launch at Shoal-Bites cafe on the Shoalhaven Campus of the University of Wollongong, under a full moon. Helen and Jamie from Shoal-Bites did a wonderful job and got creative with the menu … we had little (pastry) bones with dip, chicken fingers and spider-cupcakes (complete with custard innards). All washed down, of course, with a blood red punch containing eyeballs lychees and blood clots cherries.

We asked Dr Celeste Rossetto from Learning Development at the University of Wollongong to launch the book. Celeste is a colleague of Kimberley’s, and also works at the Moss Vale campus, where Roslyn used to work. Celeste’s feedback is the first we’ve really received at this early stage, and she was really excited by the book and bailed Kimberley up to chat about it several times during the week. Her speech was brilliant and she assured us that our book had made her think more critically about texts which she’d previously read for pure escapism. So that was good–the book is living up to its subtitle! 🙂

Music for the night came via The Vampire Diaries soundtrack after Kimberley and her kids spent ages sorting out an iPod playlist of spooky songs (including Mark Salling’s song Doppelganger, bringing together ideas from TVD and Glee–a pop culture quinella!) but then failed to check that the battery was fired up. Oh well.

We had a ball and would like to once again thank all our friends, family and colleagues who came out to support us. A special thanks must go to Margaret Steinberger, who not only proofread the book for us, but travelled down from Newcastle to share the evening with us.

It’s just a book! Is studying popular culture a waste of time?

It’s just a book!

It’s just a TV show.

It’s not real.

Aren’t you reading too much into it?

Isn’t studying popular culture a waste of time?

These are questions most of us in popular culture studies (or, indeed, many humanities disciplines) have probably heard before: why study popular culture? Is it a “real job”? Why talk about books when they’re just, well, books?

Trying to explain that our jobs involve researching literature, film and other media can sometimes be … interesting. Previous research on TV, for instance, has been met with thunderous accusations of “drivel”, “waste of money” and suggestions to “get a real job”.

The truth is, sometimes we in popular culture do read “too much” into things. I’ve certainly seen examples where this is the case in other works, where academics have asserted that particular books or TV shows will lead to the downfall of all humanity if not the end of the world itself, and no doubt I’ve even been guilty of reading a bit too much into things before, as well.

But there are two answers to the question of why this stuff matters. The first is that if authors are telling readers “I was trying to explore disability through this character” or “This plot has parallels to being a racial minority”, then they’re already saying that’s how we should be reading this stuff, they’re pointing to the links between fiction and real life.

The second reason why I think popular culture matters is that stories are incredibly powerful tools we all use to shape our own lives. We create “stories” around our lives in unconscious ways all the time. You watch Olympians walking out to the pool deck, ready to compete, headphones on. Why? Maybe they’re trying to cancel out the noise from the crowd, stay focused. Others might be listening to a song, to a story in lyrics, that has inspired their own life, that has motivated them and inspired them to be higher, faster, stronger. The song may not be written about them but they can relate to the story within it.

Or you’re faced with teaching your first class of students, and you’re not sure what to expect, and suddenly all those inspirational teaching-themed movies seem startlingly relevant (if not always accurate, as those of us who don’t inspire slavish devotion and great feats in students can understand).

Freedom Writers Movie Poster

Or those of you doing PhDs can laugh at PhD Comics, or find it amusing to compare doing a PhD with the Lord of the Rings, because comedy or fantasy aside, we can see our real lives and experiences reflected in the stories we read and see and hear about.

Frodo Grabs for the Ring

Stories help us to make sense of our world. They may not be “real”. They might contain elves or spaceships. Werewolves might show up. Maybe the stories are set in the future, or in the past. But it doesn’t mean we can’t relate to anything in them.

So yes, it is just a book. And it is just a TV show or movie. Sometimes there’s really nothing more to it than that. We won’t always find deeper meanings in everything.

Stories aren’t the only things that shape our identity, but this doesn’t mean they have nothing to do with what matters in the real world.

Because sometimes it’s also true that when we look at the stories that are popular in our society, we can start to understand more about that society. After all, what do we know about our world unless we’re prepared to critically examine the stories that draw us together?