Saturday, February 09, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Misogyny, Past and Present

Warning: Spoilers below for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

The place to start in talking about this movie as a cultural artefact is to note that while there is some entertaining dialogue, at the level of the story the writing doesn't always make a lot of sense and is often quite clumsy. But the movie, which focuses on the title duo and an episode in their lifelong quest to eradicate evil witches from the world, is flashy and pretty and has lots of invigorating action, and it fulfills that contemporary Hollywood necessity of finding an engaging sensibility for its tone and aesthetic and dialogue -- in this case, a healthy helping of fairy tale, a sprinkling of steampunk, and a dollop of post-Buffy. Its leads are known-but-not-superstar hotties with pretty good acting skills (Gemma Arterton, Jeremy Renner) who look good kicking ass in tight pants (Arterton's predictably and sexistly tighter and more often on display, of course). In addition to having to work a bit to not think too hard about the plot, I also cringed at Famke Janssen's evil "Muriel," whom she played with one of those grating quasi-English accents that wanders around and sometimes disappears. But on the whole, it was a fun movie to watch.

And then there's all the political stuff to write about. I almost decided not to bother, as writing about misogyny in a movie about killing witches seemed unlikely to be much of a challenge, but I found enough that interested me (and it has been long enough since I last did a pop culture post) that I'm giving it a go.

There are some politically interesting and positive things about the movie, related to gender and otherwise. It is certainly more common in the days since a certain blond vampire slayer first turned on the burly creature of the night in a dark alley and staked him, but it is still nice to see little sign of the traditional gendering of who saves and who is saved in a pop cultural product -- both Hansel and Gretel do their share of both. As well, it is unusual to see a Hollywood film in which the central male/female relationship is non-romantic and non-sexual, and one in which the resolution is not accompanied by the formation of a heterosexual pair bond (something that almost invariably happens in most mainstream movies, however peripheral the pair bond is to the substance of the resolution). I'm not sure it really does much with either of those things, but they are interesting to see and worth noting.

Yet in invoking a certain set of imagery and stories related to witches, as this movie does, you are also invoking a certain collection of histories. I'm most familiar with this history through Silvia Federici's wonderful Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Federici illustrates that after nearly two centuries of ongoing unrest and uprising by Europe's peasantry, in which women played a prominent and sometimes leading role, the continent's elites won a world-historic victory in an integrated process that involved ramping up attacks on women at home, colonization overseas, and shifting social relations of production towards capitalism. The attacks on women included increased legal restrictions of all kinds, driving women out of many crafts and non-domestic productive activities, an upsurge in violence against women by men and the state, increased restriction on women's sexual and reproductive autonomy and on the woman-centric knowledges that had allowed that to a certain degree, and an unprecedented level of vicious derision towards strong women in writing and popular culture. One important component of this was the witch hunt, in which an alliance between elite institutions like the newly forming states and the churches, as well as active complicity much of the time by non-elite men, attacked strong and independent peasant women and used a climate of fear to impose a new dominant model of doing womanness among the lower classes and to break the back of peasant resistance. Though colonial predation was vitally important as well (which also happened in significant ways via attacks on women), this significantly heightened patriarchy in Europe was key to the development of capitalism, and both amplified and transformed existing relations of gender oppression and set in motion new relations of exploitation and accumulation that continue to echo through the world today.

As always, an easy question to ask when considering popular culture today is, do the ways it invokes history matter? Does this history matter to a movie that shows women who are active and women who are passive, women who are saved and women who do the saving, women who are good and women who are evil? Isn't that equality? Aren't those indications of a certain kind of gender parity that signals that we have reached a point where we can raid the cultural storehouse for imagery for storytelling and not be too bothered by its troubling origins?

I bet you can guess my answer.

So take the movie. As I said, you have representation of women in a range of roles: active and passive, good and evil, saved and saving. What more could you ask for? But that does not stand up to much scrutiny, and a key place to start scrutinizing is the way that witches are present in the film. In the universe in which this movie is set, witches are only and always women. Moreover, every woman with agency, every woman who is shown as strong in this movie, is a witch. So even two sentences in, and we're already connecting with the actual history in which the figure of "the witch" was one that was applied to strong women (historically, as an integral aspect of patriarchal and proto-capitalist attacks on ordinary women and their communities).

Moreover, once you dig under the superficial reading of the good-witch, bad-witch distinction as just showing the range of roles that women can take, what it says about contemporary commonsense regarding the ways in which women can/must be strong is pretty disturbing. As shown in this movie, good witches (women who are strong in the right way) are by definition conventionally attractive, skinny, white, able-bodied women who mostly don't do anything to attract attention to themselves or to their power -- who are so unobtrusive and inoffensive that this duo who has devoted their life to witch-hunting is not even aware that good witches exist or that Gretel is one until part way through the movie. In addition, good witches are shown as being sexually available to men through the character Mina's advances on and tryst with Hansel. Note that this is not at all to criticize the character's actions -- she sees someone she's into, she takes proactive steps, and she gets what she wants. Rather, it is noting the implications of this being almost the only sexuality present in the film, in the context of the importance of the good-witch, bad-witch divide -- yes, she's shown as having agency, and that's great, but the only clearly demonstrated sexual agency by a woman in the film is a good witch who has sex with a man who saved her life, which says something about what good strong women are supposed to do with their sexual agency.

Then there are the bad witches. The most powerful among them can put on a pretty face, but most of them all of the time and all of them most of the time are made up to be read as hideously ugly. In contrast to the entirely privileged and normative profile of good witches we are shown in the movie, bad witches -- though led by a skinny, sometimes-attractive, able-bodied, white woman -- encompass all manner of oppressed identities. The only character visually coded as queer (through short spiky hair and a boyish appearance) is one of the boss bad witch's main henchwitches. In the great sabbat at the end, where many bad witches gather to hideous purpose that the heroes must thwart, you see not only appearances that are meant to be read as ugly, but also women who are fat, women who are disabled, and women who are of colour -- the only instances of any people of colour in the film at all. As well, with the partial exception of the boss bad witch, their ways of behaving and of moving through the world are shown as very clearly animalistic. This, then, is a picture of strong women who are to be scorned.

Already the fact that this construction of the good-witch, bad-witch distinction, in connection with the pretty elementary equation between witches and strong women in the film, shows a lot about the deep vein of misogyny (and white supremacy, and heterosexism, and abbleism) running through contemporary North American culture. An addition that is almost too trite to mention, but that is nonetheless telling: throughout the film, bad witches wield power by manipulating phallic objects -- wands and larger sticks upon which they fly. It is also clear that women manipulating phallic objects to exert power is something that is by definition bad. For the most part, good witches do not use wands or sticks to fly on -- good strong women exert power in unobtrusive womanly ways, and not with substitute penises. When a good witch picks up a wand and uses it against her in a fight near the end, the boss bad witch comments, "Always funny seeing a white witch with a wand." (Note too, of course, the equation of "white" with "good.")

There are a few other odds and ends of concern related directly to the witches. For instance, when the good witch who hooked up with Hansel is dying from wounds taken in the climactic fight scene, her reward as she dies is being told by the guy she hooked up with, "You did good." Hansel then proceeds forward with no indication of grief or mourning, at that time or later. That is, good strong women exert their agency in support of their men, get patriarchal thanks in return, and really aren't missed by said men when they're gone. And then there is the portion of the film leading up to finding out that Gretel is a witch, where certain gestures are made towards giving her animalistic behaviour and appearance. When it becomes clear that she's a good witch -- apparently an ontological state rather than a choice -- then the hints of animalism recede.

The final super-troubling bit of gender stuff in the film is not directly about the witches but is an importation of a very modern version of rape culture into the story. Part of the story's sensibility involves juxtaposing the stereotypically fairytale with the hip and contemporary (something that is not itself a problem, and that I think works fairly well overall). One of the characters that Hansel and Gretel encounter in the town that they are saving is a fanboy named "Ben." He has an obsession with witch hunters and with them in particular, and has 'ye olde' versions of all of the fanboy accoutrements, like a scrapbook and a nerdily complete knowledge of the topic at hand and an awkward enthusiasm towards his celebrities of interest. At one point, the evil witches attack the town. The sheriff blames Hansel and Gretel, Hansel has disappeared in the melee, and the fanboy saves an unconscious and injured Gretel by hiding her at his place. Next morning, while she's still unconscious, he's tending her, including wiping the grime of the battle off her face...and he tries to cop a feel. It is played for a laugh, as not-good but "horny teenage nerds faced with unconscious hot women, whaddayagonnado?" They've already made a couple of direct references in dialogue by this point to him being creepy, and a few moments after this they show a 'ye olde' poster of her next to his bed, but all that happens when he tries to 'clean' her breasts is that she wakes up, glares, he stops, and they move on. Not only does she not tell him off in the moment, but after he helps them save the day, he gets to become part of their witch-hunting team. He stops because he got caught, and for no other reason, and then he faces no consequences whatsoever. It's not shown as good, but it's shown as normal and not worth worrying about. Rape culture.

So. This film, when considered in a certain light, shows a range of ways that women can be in the world. But to find that particularly satisfying requires examining a narrow surface level of representational indicators. If you dig a little deeper, you see a very old pattern -- in fact, you see socially organized patterns that can be traced back in part to exactly the shifts in social relations, the enhanced and transformed patriarchy, the newly emergent capitalism (upon which the form of the mass-market cinema depends and which it is shaped by), that were in part facilitated by the attacks on strong peasant women that were the site in which the imagery that this movie draws upon was first produced.

As with so much in our popular culture, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with watching and enjoying -- though there are moments for refusal, I don't think a puritanical stance towards pop culture is a useful one. But there's a lot to be said for thinking critically about it too.

Warning: Spoilers above for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is everythint I was thinking, being british and having studied medieval culture and witch hunting practices the imagery AND underlying message did not escape me!