I went to see Stardust yesterday. Neil Gaiman, who wrote the underlying book and produced the movie, is a friend of many friends, and I admire a lot of his work. Before I take apart the gender politics of this movie, I do want to say that Gaiman has done a lot of good political work in his fiction: the famous Sandman comics handle all kinds of gender and race material well, including very early positive transgender characters. His novels have also featured strong women (including the strong, and likable, old women in Anansi Boys.
Maybe that’s why I was so disappointed in the gender and age politics of Stardust. On its own terms, it’s an excellent movie: a perfect fairy tale, beautifully directed and acted, superb pacing, lots of wonderful visuals, a great combination of funny and serious.
Looking beneath the surface, we find another story. I haven’t read the book, but my understanding is that the movie is generally faithful to the book.
The basic story concerns young Tristan Thorn, who goes off to bring a fallen star to the woman of his dreams. The star turns out to be a beautiful young woman. Tristan is not the only person who wants the star. Killing her and eating her heart will confer new youth and extended life, the dream of three ancient and quite strikingly ugly witch sisters. Their ugliness is very significantly underscored with clothing and make-up, so that it is almost impossible to see them as anything but repulsive. They use the last shreds of the heart from the last start they killed to grant one sister youth and beauty, and she sets off in search of the newly fallen star.
As they say in the fiction trade, trouble ensues. Whenever the young and beautiful witch uses magic, she ages, so that by the end of the tale she is perhaps even older (and uglier) than she was at the beginning. She, of course, is completely infuriated by the signs of aging, and her sisters repeatedly warn her not to forfeit her beauty to unnecessary magic use. The message is old equals ugly equals evil, and the underlying motivation is “anything, however morally repulsive, is better than aging.” You could say, “Well, they’re the villains, you can’t claim that the storytellers support their position,” however, the only other old woman (or old person of any consequence) in the film is a cameo character who is also a witch, and also ugly and evil. Putting in a counterexample to your stereotyped villains is enough of a time-honored device that the lack of it here is striking. Among other things, Tristan’s mother does not age even an apparent day between his birth and his teenage experiences … because she’s a good character.
If that weren’t enough of a body-image/feminist critique of the movie, the treatment of younger women is also problematic. The two main young female characters are 1) Tristan’s love in the village, who is pretty, blonde, selfish, and shallow, and 2) the star, who is pretty, blonde, helpless, and not too smart. (Okay, she’s a star; she’s not good at being human.) Tristan’s mother is handsome, dark-haired, and clever, but controlled by other forces for most of the story.
In the end, the star saves the day, and it would seem for a moment that women’s agency has been recovered and the gender story of the movie has been somewhat redeemed. But then Tristan asks her why she didn’t use her special powers earlier in the story. Her answer, “I can’t shine without you.”
To recap: old women are ugly, evil, self-hating, and amoral. Young women are stunningly conventionally beautiful, but either selfish or helpless without male support. Unsurprisingly, the male characters are much more varied: heroic, evil, stupid, kind, and so forth.
Lots of fairy tales are like that: 21st century ones don’t have to be, and shouldn’t be.
P.S. A different flavor of gender politics can be found in the way Robert DeNiro’s character follows in the campy pirate tradition of Captain Hook, Dread Pirate Roberts, and Jack Sparrow. Those sequences are delightful.