Neil Gaiman’s Stardust: Evil Crones, Decorative Maidens, and One Shackled Mother

Debbie says:

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.

gender, feminism, movies, Stardust, Neil Gaiman, fairytales, body image, age, ugliness, Body Impolitic

11 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman’s Stardust: Evil Crones, Decorative Maidens, and One Shackled Mother

  1. I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t be sure, but that doesn’t sound like it is faithful to the book to me. The book turns on the evaporation of climax. It builds and builds and then suddenly the day has already been saved, the characters have changed and there is no moment of epiphany or great public revealing. And in the removal of that point none of the cliche’s or messages or morals of the story can stick. Despite being the most perfect replica of a fairytale you can imagine, without that single precise moment where the day is saved, and everybody inside and outside the story knows it, what you end up with is not a fairytale, but a story about two people who with a bit of luck and care manage to escape convention without fanfare.

    The rest of it might match up exactly but if you can say (1) there is a moment where the star saves the day, (2) it required special powers and (3) it happened publicly then it sounds like it is not quite Gaiman’s book stardust.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie, and read the story long ago–but I wonder whether the possibility of making this particular movie, with all the flaws you outline, is the reason why it got made first? I’ve read that Gaiman has had offers for Anansi Boys, for instance, if he would only allow the main characters to be white. That didn’t fly.

  3. It’s also worth noting that the male characters in the film are assortedly damaged as well. Our Hero is selfish, shortsighted, and thick as a brick — he has to be turned into a mouse before he’ll realize that his captive is a much better match for himself than his vainglorious “true love” back home. The Princely brothers are blinded by their own ambitions. The guard stubbornly sits vigil for reasons he has neither understood nor contemplated. The hero’s father is a cipher, and the fence character played by Ricky Gervais is primarily a comic relief role. You note Captain Shakespeare, who is perhaps the least flawed character in the film, but even he is shackled by his own expectations of who he must be until such time as he is forced out and finds the acceptance he’s always craved.

    Every single character in the film is looking for something, and each of them is burdened by their own shortsightedness. I don’t draw the same conclusions you do about what these various aspects of the character’s flawed personalities *mean*, but I’m not looking at the film through the same prism as you are, so I really don’t have the sort of context where I would.

  4. A friend had given me an unqualified endorsement of the film, so I was really looking forward to seeing it. Your review doesn’t make me want to see it less; it just means I’ll have someone to burble over the good parts with (*waves to abovementioned friend*), and someone to gripe about the sexism with.

    I pointed my friend at your review because I thought he’d find it interesting in the same way I do. His response was to dismiss your take on the film as being from a “narrow and specific” perspective. I took a breath and had a discussion, and it’s all good, but what throws me time and again when discussing sexism with men (most men, not all men) is that my concerns about gender and sexism are *ever* seen as either narrow or specific. It throws me when it happens, but then it happens again. And again.

    Even the men in my life who I think are clued in about feminism (including my live-in partner) sometimes say things that boil down to “Feminism is *your* thing, because you’re a woman.” This frustrates me, but I’m not sure it’s fair to the individual men to expect them to get that it’s *our* thing. That when women are portrayed badly in film, it hurts *everyone*. That flawed-but-powerful men do not make up for flawed-and-helpless women, not when it’s done over and over and over and over again.

    (Ramble much, Serene? Why yes, I do, thanks for asking.)

    Anyway, I look forward to the film. I look forward to enjoying its beauty and its fairytale-ness, and I look forward to kvetching about its portrayal of women. I have loved the Gaiman books I’ve read (American Gods, Coraline, and Anansi Boys, in order of loving), and I’m sure I’ll find this delightful. And irritating. So goes the world.

  5. Addendum/errata: My friend did not dismiss your review. He was trying to convey that your first paragraph made him cringe in anticipation of what he thought your review would be. I misrepresented him, and I’ve apologized.

  6. Something worth noting, I think, is that the only character with heroic intentions, Tristran, isn’t much of a typical hero in so far as he fails to save the day. This, and the fact that the book ends not with a tidy resolution but with a series of near misses, is one of the things that I like about the source material.

    In the book, Victoria is more sympathetic and less the “vain mean girl”. I think that the movie tried to get this across as well, such as during the picnic when she seemed genuinely fond of him, but it was too little. I forgave them on account of the attempt.

    Your other points are food for thought. I saw the witches’ goal as immortality more than beauty, but the movie definitely highlights the beauty of youth aspect.

    I’m not sure where they could have inserted a benevolent old woman, but I can see how the counterpoint would have been nice.

  7. Influxus, thank you! You made me want to read the book, instead of just feeling like “I should read the book to see what they changed.”

    Jessie, making Anansi Boys with all-white characters would not only be racist and disgusting, it would also be downright stupid.

    Rob and Dan, I completely take the point that most of the men aren’t the characters we dream of being, but in general, their failures are not at all stereotypically male. The exceptions are the pirate crew and Humphrey, and a) the pirate crew redeems that failure neatly at the end, and b) where there is male stereotyping, it is constantly and consciously being made fun of. If Tristan and Septimus (the character lists say “Tristran” but I kept hearing “Tristan”) were more like Humphrey, it would be easier for me to see that as a counter to the female characters. Rob, the father may have been a cipher, but he was a sweet cipher.

    Serene, you are right on the money (no surprise there!). I really did want to make the point that I found the film delightful, while also being hyper-aware of what was bothering me.

  8. I just read the book, so it’s fresh in my mind, but I haven’t yet seen the movie. One difference, which I gathered from the reviews and previews, is that one of the quests in the movie is to return the star to the sky. In the book, that was never possible: A fallen star is fallen for good, and the question is more what is to become of her.

    With this qualifier, I have these comments:

    You say that Tristan’s mother is conventionally beautiful and never ages, an example of youth and beauty equating good. Well, she never ages in the time frame of the story (what happens in the span of one man’s life and a little before because they had to explain how he was conceived) because she is a fairy, and fairies’ lives are much longer than ours. Actually, I think she an example in the story of a strong, smart, young female who did not rely on someone to save her: She seduced Tristan’s father and engineered her own eventual escape from the crone who had captured her. Afterwards, she went back to her father’s kingdom and, since all the men in her family were dead except for her son who was not ready to rule, she ruled on her own for many years.

    In the book, the star is more clueless than “dim,” though as a fallen star, she is dimmer than she was, haha. And she’s clueless because she’s not human. Furthermore, she is very, very grumpy and not a particularly charming character. At the end of the book, she ends up ruling a kingdom after she outlives Tristan and his mother, and she is very good at it, so no dummy there.

    Regarding the movie, the image that sticks with me from the previews I’ve seen is of a more-beautiful-than usual Michelle Pfeiffer, who, to many, is the epitomy of feminine beauty. By using her, I think the filmmakers were making a point of equating beauty with evil. Furthermore, we should applaud the filmmakers in this casting decision because could easily have gone with a much younger, dewier actress.

    I have to say, though, that I didn’t particularly like Stardust. It was okay, but not great. I am a fantasy fiction fan, and Gaiman’s effort just wasn’t particularly fresh. He relies a lot on mythology and classical images — Three Fates, anyone?– and the world he creates is not particularly imaginative. Perhaps that’s why it’s easy to accuse the move of bad gender and age politics. Having said that, I do admire Gaiman a lot — some of his other works, such as the children’s book Coralina, are amazing.

  9. Gloria Pan,
    I’m so glad you mentioned what happened with the crown in the book – because the ending of the film (which does not result in Luna assuming the crown) was EXTREMELY disappointing to me. I really thought that hit a wrong note, and wondered if it reflected Gaiman’s story, because it felt so *wrong*. I will eventually read this book, it will be interesting to see the difference between the original and the film.

    I did love the twists that DeNiro’s character provided, but I felt as though it devolved into mean camp at moments – when the character was just helplessly ‘woopsie’ in a way I felt was negative, but definitely shiny moments!

  10. I agree with almost everything you say, but I thought that even under the vast make-up to make her be an old and evil witch, Michelle Pfeiffer was still beautiful. Something about good bone structure, I guess.

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