Beauty is a bitch. That’s always animated the Snow White story: Vanity and jealousy drive the evil stepmother queen to slip Snow White that poisoned apple. Now, along comes “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which is all about teasing out the backstory of these Grimm characters and asking, “Why?”
Why is it so important to know who’s the fairest of them all, a question the magic mirror never answers. For Queen Ravenna, played with Joan Crawford relish by Oscar winner Charlize Theron, the answer is an exposé of Hollywood’s obsession with feminine beauty and aging, and chasing after the next unwrinkled new young thing (whether that’s Kristen Stewart or Elizabeth Olsen or Rooney Mara).
Statuesque blonde Theron, 36, tears into the beauty theme, a variation on past roles. She won her Oscar for playing a repulsive serial killer in “Monster”; last year, she courted another as the morally ugly husband stalker in “Young Adult.” In “Snow White and the Huntsman,” we see Queen Ravenna in her full glory on her wedding day as she glances back over her shoulder and a cascade of golden waves at the young girl who will grow up to be her archrival. The queen has closed the deal with the king, Snow White’s widowed father, in 24 hours on looks alone. Beauty is her power. It’s also her obsession — and her weakness. The parallel is clear: As an A-list star, Theron’s superlative beauty is her commodity, but she’s always looking over her shoulder at the next girl, and the next.
What extremes will Queen Ravenna go to in order to maintain her primacy? It’s a high-maintenance business. The scenes in which she ages rapidly are riveting, showing the wrinkles curdle her flesh as she morphs into that crone who in fairy-tale books offers up the poisoned apple to Snow White (played here by Kristen Stewart). When the queen begins to sag, and bags form under her eyes, she grabs a young beauty from the dungeon and sucks out her soul like a McDonald’s shake. Ravenna’s youthful glow returns.
The movie goes one step further by expressing the anger that Ravenna feels about this cruel joke: beauty and aging. On her wedding night, she flings her wrath at her royal groom [spoiler alert], blaming him for the evil she is about to do because men are so in thrall to surface beauty. (Why can’t they just love me for me?) Then she neatly skewers him with a dagger. Sexism made her do it.
Queen Ravenna has a soul sister in Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Cersei is gorgeous on the outside and corrupt within (she’s had three kids with her own brother, Jaime Lannister). In this season’s penultimate episode, Cersei drunkenly counsels her son’s dewy fiancée, Sansa Stark, that being beautiful isn’t powerful in itself; a woman has to use her beauty like a weapon in the ongoing war for dominance. To paraphrase the wicked yet compelling queen: In times of war, women have to use what’s between their legs.
In “Game of Thrones,” as in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” female anger at male sexism is an undercurrent of the beauty discussion. Cersei vents that her father taught her brother Jaime how to fight with a sword, while all she learned was to smile and curtsy and dance. He learned how to kill; she learned how to seduce. When Dad dispatched Jaime to war and adventure, he married Cersei off to a stranger, traded like a horse for a family alliance. Cersei seethes — and, like Ravenna, she’s so compelling when she’s angry!
Both “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Game of Thrones” examine the beauty myth and the extreme lengths that aging stunners will go to to maintain their gifts and their control of power by sexual conquest. In addition, as the queens attempt to squelch or absorb their younger rivals, they demonstrate the difficulty of sisterhood across generations. “You are lucky to never know what it is to grow old!” Queen Ravenna cries to Stewart’s Snow White — as she tries to see that the younger woman will never live to cash a Social Security check. And so don’t expect an alliance between Queen Ravenna and Snow White or Cersei Lannister and Sansa Stark — major-league feminine beauty is a cruel taskmaster and rarely a team sport.
This column originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies.