06/01/2012 07:15 pm ET Updated Aug 01, 2012

'Snow White and the Huntsman' Is A New Twist On An Old Tale

"Snow White and the Huntsman," Universal Studio's new version of the Brothers Grimm classic fairy tale, isn't the lighthearted Disney-fied movie you grew up on. It's umpteen times better, and not just because this version features gritty battle scenes, visuals that make you feel a little bit like you're on a drug trip, a Wicked Queen who the audience watches eat the hearts of baby as an afternoon snack, and a Snow White who wields a sword and leads an army. The biggest reward of the latest retelling of the Snow White story is how deftly it reflects our conflicting ideas about the role beauty plays in female power.

"Snow White and the Huntsman," like "Mirror, Mirror," the Relativity Media retelling released in March (the past year also brought a Snow White-themed television show, "Once Upon A Time"), focuses extensively on the anxiety that women feel about the aging process -- embodied perfectly by a terrifying (and stunning) Charlize Theron. Unlike "Mirror, Mirror," this film's main female characters are -- to borrow a phrase from Meredith Grey -- "dark and twisty," which ultimately makes them far more interesting to watch. Theron's Wicked Queen, Ravenna, (literally) sucks the life out of young women, uses her removable metal talons to skewer bird hearts, and bathes herself in a tub of milky white liquid. Her goals are twofold: stay young and beautiful forever, and keep her place as ruler of the kingdom.

For Ravenna, beauty and power are one and the same. We see a flashback in which an older woman (possibly her mother?) uses three drops of blood to grant a very young Ravenna powers to protect her from soldiers who are pillaging their village. "Your beauty is all that can save you, Ravenna," the woman tells her. "This spell will make your beauty your power and your protection." The audience also learns that before Ravenna married Snow White's father and became his queen, she was the second wife of another king -- one who had spurned his first wife as she aged. "Men use women," she purrs into the ear of Snow White's father as she prepares to kill him. The film makes clear that Ravenna's life trajectory has very explicitly taught her that a loss of beauty means a loss of worth.

This idea is one that hits close to home for a lot of women. Beauty can play a key role in determining a woman's power not only in the marriage market but also when it comes to her salary. Data has shown that women who are conventionally good-looking and who weigh less than average are paid more than their less slim and pretty colleagues. This bias against women of a certain age -- and women who don't look a certain way -- is especially apparent in the entertainment industry. "Can there be a worse place to grow old than in Hollywood where as a woman you can literally find yourself out of work because you had the audacity to age?,"wrote Anushay Hossain in a piece for Forbes in February. "The sad fact is as we grow older, women around the world, but especially those working in films, are told that they are worthless."

In contrast to Theron's dark and twisted Wicked Queen, Kristen Stewart's Snow White comes from a different generation. Her mother told her that she "possess[es] a rare beauty" inside. She is supposed to be charismatic, able to rouse an entire army of men who she hasn't seen since she was a child with one single speech (one thing that Stewart never quite demonstrates effectively), courageous and kind, and these qualities are supposed to be the things that best serve her in her eventual rise to power. In Snow White's worldview, beauty ideally isn't what matters most.

At the end of the day, of course, the Snow White story will never really be about inner beauty. Stewart's character is still the "fairest of them all," and her innate "goodness" and empathy are only part of that. In fact, what "Snow White and the Huntsman" does particularly well is to illustrate how we, the audience, still tend to evaluate women with traditionally masculine power (i.e. political power, brute strength) based on their looks. i09's Annalee Newitz sums it up perfectly:

As a culture, we are trapped between our history of relegating women to "hot or not" status, and a future world where feminine power is not about who is the "fairest." Snow White is a fairy tale that explores what this means.

In recent years, we've seen some progress -- just look at the number of women in their 40s nominated for meaty roles at this year's Golden Globes and an Internet meme celebrating Hillary Clinton's hip badassness -- but the fact remains that youthful good looks are still privileged in many ways. And many women still feel an intense anxiety about their appearances as the years creep by (an anxiety that begins while they're still in those "youthful" years).

My biggest problem with using the Snow White story as a platform for exploring these issues is the way that it pits the generations of women against each other. Women -- young and old -- are absolutely damaged by toxic beauty myths. But in my experience, women don't hate other women for being beautiful as Samantha Brick claimed in her viral essay published in April. If anything, they punish themselves for not being able to live up to a near-impossible standard. In an ideal world, the Ravennas and the Snow Whites would help empower each other rather than battling to the death, with no hearts consumed in the process.

Stills From "Snow White and the Huntsman"