Why cinema needs to forget fairy tale heroines

Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella need not apply. Here’s why modern filmmakers should look elsewhere for their female leads

Modern filmmakers have a problem, blockbuster filmmakers especially. Call it a mental block, or, if we’re being generous, a misunderstanding. It’s an affliction suffered almost exclusively by those involved in current spate of new takes on old fairy tales, the brand-recognisable, popcorn-munching movies with (fingers-crossed) franchise potential, and it’s this: they haven’t the foggiest what makes for an interesting heroine.

They think they do, at least, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that it’s a matter of delusion rather than one of wilfully not-giving-a-shit. They use all the right language to describe their female leads, words like “modern”, “strong”, and “resourceful”. Sections M through S must be missing from their dictionaries though, because in almost every case modern, strong and resourceful to them means barely-there, dull, and wispy, but we’ve stuck her in a suit of armour LIKE BOYS WEAR and given her a sword to wave around in lieu of a personality.

You have to feel sorry for any twelve year olds who try to hitch their wagon to Kristen Stewart’s character in Snow White and the Huntsman (and not just ’cos even a metaphorical rope would have trouble finding purchase on that teensy form), because she’s not even a character, she’s a symbol, and as for a heroine? Sheesh.

Try as they might to sell Huntsman’s new Snow as a resilient fighter or leader of men, few can be fooled by the deception. Some may take the outward signifiers of Snow the warrior – her fierce expressions, battle-gear, and complicated hair-do – as proof of her toughness, but they’re only a down-payment on a character trait to be sketched in at a later date.

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The new Snow White, like her predecessor in the original story, is purity and goodness personified, which makes her roughly as memorable as a finalist on The Voice (though, it should be said, she’s Hamlet compared to the streak of flesh colour that stands in for Sam Claflin’s Prince character in the film). She heals the magical kingdom, cleansing where she steps, acting as a kind of mystical drain unblocker for fairy tale land, or worse, a digestion-easing probiotic yoghurt packed with bifidius actimadeupscienceword, galloping through the kingdom pushing away all the shit and leaving behind miles of gleaming intestinal passage.

Snow’s superpower is prettiness, a rum token inherited from her ‘sum me up in one snappy clause’ fairy tale ancestor (aka the fairest of them all), and after spending 127 sumptuously designed, epic minutes in her company, I’d be hard pressed to tell you a single thing about her aside from that.

Wait though, because there is something else, something else aside from the being pretty and the suit of armour and the flushing out of bloating toxins, because Snow White also gets a boyfriend. Two, in fact, as seems to be the confusingly aspirational fashion in films aimed at young girls these days. She gets to choose between the only two males she’s been thrust into the path of since she came of age who weren’t either from another species, or a pervy step-uncle sporting a haircut inspired by Guy of Gisborne from Maid Marion and her Merry Men.

Falling in love is one of the only things Snow White does in the film, and she even manages that without shedding so much as a candle light on who she actually is. It happens without the audience noticing, love creeping up on her while she sleeps like carbon monoxide oozing from a faulty boiler.

In a fairy tale, the symbol-as-lead isn’t a problem. Fairy tales don’t need characters, they can tell their morality tales just as well, better even, with archetype shadow puppets, goodies and baddies. But film? Film demands interesting characters, it begs for memorable, complex personalities. Heroes and heroines have to be more than well-marketed blank canvases, and they don’t come blanker than today’s female fairy tale leads.

Valerie, the titular lead in Catherine Hardwicke’s limp 2011 Red Riding Hood retelling played by Amanda Seyfried, was just as ephemeral, another beautiful vacuum caught between two suitors. Lindy, the beauty to Alex Pettyfer’s beast in Daniel Barnz’s teen melodrama Beastly, may have been infinitesimally more human than either Snow or Valerie, though she’s still just another paper-thin symbol of love’s redemptive powers. Don’t any of these teens have better things to do than redeem injured men with their extreme fairness? Homework? Hobbies? A Saturday job?

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What’s truly depressing is that we’ve already got this right, the precedents are just being ignored. TV, film and literature is piled with interesting young heroines, and embarrassingly, ones that 70 years ago were doing all the stuff we’d love to see young women doing on screen today. In short, we’ve regressed, and it’s pitiful.

Dorothy Gale is a case in point, the L Frank Baum creation adapted into MGM’s 1939 musical fantasy. Not a classic fairy tale character, but close enough, Dorothy’s journey was a morality tale that taught lessons about the power of home, friendship, and self-reliance, conclusions the character came to independently. She battles the wicked witch and her flying monkeys without being co-opted as a low-rent version of one of the fellowship of the ring, and best of all, boyfriends and romantic love have no part to play in her story (probably for the best, considering her on-screen age).

Imagine a 2012 blockbuster version of Oz. An eighteen-year-old axe-wielding Dorothy torn between the hunky scarecrow (one of the Hemsworth boys) and the dark, brooding Tin-Man (R-Pattz). Shudder… Film audiences won’t remember symbols and ciphers (I’d forgotten Snow White by the time I’d gotten to the cinema lobby) for seventy-plus years in the way they’ve remembered Dorothy. It’s because you can’t fall in love with a symbol.

Worse than bad writing forgetting to wrap a personality around a placeholder is when a ready-made character, an oddball like Lewis Carroll’s Alice for instance, has the personality mangled out of her for fear that Disney’s missing a marketing quadrant if there isn’t a bit where she pokes a sword at someone. Even if Tim Burton’s Alice does make the right-on Princess Smartypants choice not to marry at the end of the film, she’s still a shadow of the inquisitive, precocious girl who first fell down the rabbit hole. 

Wielding a weapon and causing violence doesn’t automatically equal heroine, and neither is it a fix-it solution to the tricky problem of making period movies set in pre-women’s lib times without appearing sexist yourself, “I know, let’s get Peggy Carter to knee some 1940s guy in the balls, that’ll make her a strong modern resourceful heroine! Job done!” Filmmakers need to watch a few episodes of Mad Men or even, at a push, Game Of Thrones, to find out how interesting period women can be done convincingly whilst critiquing and not adopting the sexism of their eras. 

Interesting female characters can be warriors yes –The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen is a great recent example -, but they can’t be made so just by being handy with a weapon. Putting her in an dramatic situation isn’t enough, she has to be something first. Even an ironing board might look brave for a bit if you fling it into a medieval melee, but it doesn’t make it a role-model. 

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Whenever a fairy tale is the source material, the heroine will likely be a compromise, and more often than not, vaporous, boring, and forgettable to boot. Family animation perhaps, is less guilty than other genres, with Brave’s Princess Merida shaping up nicely and live-action hybrid Enchanted a satire of how one-note fairy tale princesses can be.

We don’t care who they are, or what it is that makes them interesting. They can be thin, or not. They can be beautiful, or not. A bit divvy, or not. They can be brave or clever or French or irritable or really into papier mâché or fly fishing or not. Whatever. We just want our film heroines interesting. Please, before you give them a suit of armour and a sword, give them a personality.

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