The Big Problem With How 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' Handles Its Female Characters

The new fantasy adventure movie The Huntsman: Winter's War can best be described as a simultaneous prequel, sequel, and spinoff of Snow White and the Huntsman — not exactly your typical follow-up film. Yet that's not the only way the new movie defies the traditional fairytale formula. Winter's War brings back Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth from the original film, but it also introduces Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain in major roles, meaning that the movie has a predominantly female cast. The fact that three out of four main characters are women is pretty unheard of for a fantasy film,and their inclusion makes Winter's War a game-changer for feminism in fairytales. However, what the movie does with these female characters — namely, making them totally reliant on men — is a frustrating step back for women on-screen. Spoilers ahead!

Although the movie deserved credit for putting so many women in leading roles, the female characters are all motivated by having been hurt by men, as opposed to being motivated by their own senses of selves. Although the women appear to act of their own will and volition, their decisions are actually reactions to situations involving relationships with male characters, all of whom are in positions of power. Instead of empowering these women, Winter's War has them play second fiddle to their male counterparts, despite seemingly being more powerful and more independent.

Just take Blunt's character Freya. After being betrayed by her lover and losing a baby to a violent death, Freya literally becomes an ice queen and abducts children from local villages to raise as soldiers. It's evil, yes, but it's a welcome display of power by a female character — until you remember the fact that all of Freya's actions are a result of having been hurt by love. She is therefore not so much an in-control monarch as she is a person acting out of anger at having been mistreated by a man.

Then there's Chastain's character Sara, one of the first children to be kidnapped by Freya and who's raised to be a warrior. There's no denying that she's a stone-cold badass, crazy talented at all types of combat and with archery skills that would put Katniss to shame. Sara is pretty much fearless — and she is also secretly involved in a love affair with Hemsworth's Eric. As the two were raised as part of Freya's army at the same time, they become equals in their relationship. They are portrayed as being equally invested in one another, a welcome change from the push-and-pull that appears in so many male-female on-screen relationships — that is, until it all changes.

After Freya finds out about Sara and Eric's affair, she casts a wall of ice between the two lovers, preventing them from reaching each other. From his view through the ice, Eric sees Sara get killed. But when Eric is accosted by Sara in the woods seven years later, you realize that what he saw through the wall was an illusion cast by Freya. You also learn that Sara's view through the ice was of Eric running away, and so she has spent the past seven years in slavery to Freya while thinking that Eric abandoned her.

Her anger at him for leaving her is frustrating to watch; despite once being seen as a tough, independent character, Sara spends most of her time being angry at a man for leaving her, and her actions are colored by her disappointment. For the entire middle part of the film, she basically refuses to acknowledge Eric, even as they embark on a dangerous adventure together. Once again, a female character's actions are motivated not by her own desires and ambitions, but by the fact that she was hurt by a man. It doesn't help that because the viewer sees Eric's perception of the ice incident first, it feels more natural to identify with him and feel frustration at Sara's callousness. Eric comes off as the more likeable and relatable of the two.

Unsurprisingly, the lovers eventually reunite, and things come full circle as they end up back at Freya's ice castle. But there, a third major female character is introduced: Theron's Ravenna. Although Ravenna is as evil as they come, she is certainly not motivated by romantic love like the others. On the contrary, her decisions are all based upon what she herself wants, which is power. This would be great, if not for one thing: Ravenna's other major motivator is to be the most physically beautiful woman in the land. At the end of the movie, it's revealed that Ravenna was actually the one who killed Freya's baby girl, because the enchanted mirror had told her that the child would grow up to be more attractive than her. The most powerful female character in this entire franchise is motivated by her own vanity, which she seeks validation for by conferring with a man in a mirror.

This image (which, of course, is the heart of the story of Snow White to begin with) is perhaps the saddest thing of all. No king in any fairy tale, ever, has stood in front of an inanimate object and demanded to know if he was attractive. The message of this Winter's War scene seems to be that while Ravenna might be Queen, the patriarchy — and antiquated standards for women — still reign.

I won't deny that The Huntsman: Winter's War has some very redeeming feminist qualities as far as fairy tales go. It features multiple female characters in unique storylines, portrays these characters as powerful and independent, and features a romantic relationship where the female is a strong companion as opposed to a damsel in distress. The movie is therefore a subtle step in the right direction, but the underpinnings of the narrative show that there is still much room for improvement. Hopefully future films will continue to take steps forward to achieve better representations of women in the fantasy genre.

Images: Universal (4)