A Review of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters: Sympathy for the Witch

This is a guest post by Sara Lin Wilde. Sara is a Toronto-dwelling Canadian writer working towards publishing her first novel. You can also find her on Twitter.

(There are spoilers in the review below!)

***

It’s an enjoyable ride, an energetic action movie with all the bells and whistles of early-21st-century cinema: Trendy (and pricy) 3-D glasses. Sexy, take-no-prisoners heroes. Monstrous reimaginings of your run-of-the-mill witch. Modern inventions gone medieval (think tasers, machine guns, and insulin injections to treat Hansel’s “sugar sickness”). Wry humour. CGI trolls named Edward.

But it’s also a modern reimagining of an idea straight out of the history books. The hunting and execution of witches was real… and it usually involved targeting older, independent-living women as consorts of Satan. It was a way to punish women for acting in ways the male social leaders deemed inconsistent with the community’s Christian values.

The makers of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters chose to tactfully skirt the religious roots of historical witch-hunting, with nary a Bible-waver in sight. Here the witch menace is a purely practical concern: “Your children aren’t safe!” Yet, the irreligious basis of their particular moral panic doesn’t keep the townsfolk from making a few hysteria-induced missteps, just like the real-world Bible-believers of history. The titular heroes’ first act is to rescue a falsely-accused witch, Mina (Pihla Viitala), from execution by an overzealous sheriff (Peter Stormare).

Sheriff Berringer has to learn a lesson: that in this new world of witch-hunting, old methods of picking out a wicked witch won’t cut it. But the new methods rely just as heavily on a judgment about a woman’s worth.

As an uncommonly delightful 3-D opening-credits sequence shows us, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have been witch-hunting since that first legendary encounter with the witch who lived in a house made of candy. Hired by the mayor to resolve the town’s ongoing witch menace, they launch an investigation worthy of Law & Order, which leads them to discover more than they anticipated about their own family history.

In the world of this movie, it’s easy to identify a wicked witch; they are invariably hideous, monstrous creatures, deformed or crippled or animal-like or just plain weird-looking, a phenomenon explained by the corrupting influence of “evil magic.” But Hansel and Gretel soon learn that “white” (good) witches walk among them, unidentifiable, showing no outward deformities because they refuse to use their powers for evil purposes. The woman they rescued, Mina, is in fact a witch — a very pretty one, passing for normal. In fact, all the white witches we see in this story are exceptionally beautiful and sympathetic characters, setting up a link between beauty and goodness, ugliness and corruption.

That’s definitely problematic. There’s an intersection of gender, beauty, and morality here that’s hard to ignore. Significantly, virtually all the witches in Hansel & Gretel are women. (I might have seen a male witch in a crowd scene, but I couldn’t swear to it.) That’s rooted in history; accusations of witchcraft were associated almost exclusively with women, particularly the women who stepped outside the period’s normative sex roles. Independence, free-thinking, confidence, assertiveness, and sensuality were not positive characteristics in these historical, religion-based communities, and accusations of witchcraft often punished women who displayed them.

In Hansel & Gretel, though, there’s little distinction between the behavior of good and wicked witches; the film’s female characters, both good and evil, display the characteristics of empowered, distinctly unbiblical women.

So how do you identify a wicked witch in the world of this movie? Look at her appearance.

Goodness or wickedness aren’t demonstrated by her behavior; they’re located in her body. Some of the visible traits that characterize wicked witches include scales, fangs, horns, spikes, cracking skin, and crawling veins. Others, however, are all-too-real human characteristics that appear only among witches, never in the good guys’ camp or amongst the morally-neutral villagers: characteristics like fatness, androgyny, hairiness, signs of aging, or disability. (The Blood Moon sabbath scenes, prominently featuring a witch crawling around with no legs, were particularly troubling in that respect. You don’t need to be evil to lose your legs!)

But where wickedness is equal to ugliness, it’s troubling that some of the witches’ primary noticeable traits involve very real-world deviations from the standard of beauty embodied by Gretel and Mina.

Consider what that says about the way we value women today as compared to the values of historical witch-hunters. In Hansel & Gretel, religious ideas about what makes a witch have been dropped, and that’s all for the good. But what’s replacing it? In this story women are valuable if they are conventionally pretty and wicked if they don’t conform to cinema’s narrow beauty standards. And where wickedness is equal to ugliness, it’s troubling that some witches’ primary traits don’t exist solely in fantasy.

Women with short hair, fat bodies, missing limbs, and wrinkly faces exist whether or not they’re evil. Yet those traits are associated with evil in the same way Puritan women in historical witch-hunts were called evil if they displayed too much intelligence, stubbornness, or sensuality.

It turns out the siblings’ (feminine, slender, physically beautiful) mother was a Grand White Witch, making Gretel also a Grand White Witch despite having never employed any witchy powers in her life. That makes Gretel’s heart a necessary ingredient in a massive spell the witches must cast under the Blood Moon, a phenomenon that takes place only once every twenty years. It’s in preparation for this spell that the witches have been kidnapping village children for ritual sacrifice. Corrupt magic indeed.

Except, when you take a good hard look at the witches’ motivations, the moral underpinnings become a little bit trickier to sort out. The witches want to cast a spell that will make them impervious to fire. Why? Because the villagers keep burning them at the stake. They’re stealing children, yes… but to keep themselves from being burned at the stake for an inherited, inborn trait.

Obviously I’m never in favor of the blood sacrifice of children. But I’m also not in favor of setting women on fire for failing to conform to social standards of feminine worth, and the history of witchcraft presented in the film’s universe seems to revolve around trying to protect themselves from the danger of execution imposed on them by townspeople. Their entire plan revolves around a fight for survival in a world that reads pure evil in their bodies — including fat rolls and wrinkles, chopped-off hair and missing limbs.

So where does that leave us as viewers of the movie? Hopefully we can enjoy the exciting, fun-to watch elements of a fantasy story in which we celebrate Gretel for being a tough, sassy, butt-kicking female character, and still maintain awareness of how she earns that celebration — and the right to consider herself a witch-hunter instead of a witch — because of her physical beauty. The lead witches display just as much attitude as Gretel, with just as much fight in them, but get coded by their physical appearance as evil.

How different is that, really, from the days when women could be labeled as consorts of Satan for living independently, quarreling with a neighbor-woman, or having a mole interpreted by Puritan magistrates as the devil’s mark?

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Concerned Rationalist

    And yet, given the vitriol and rhetoric aimed at people who don’t conform to post-Christian liberal values, such as homosexual normality, I’m rather relieved that the somewhat global tendency of dealing with arguments at the end of a stake has fallen out of favor. What is said is ofttimes no worse than what was said about witches 500 years go, or Communists 50 years ago. Food for thought. Like C.S. Lewis rightly pointed out, we don’t burn witches at the stake any more because we think it’s horrible to burn witches at the stake. It’s because we don’t believe in witches. Makes you wonder where things will go when we become absolutely sure once again that we’re absolutely right. The USSR and Communist China (World’s most atheist nation today) have shown you don’t need religion for the witch hunt mentality Perhaps we’re learning the wrong lessons when we look at history. You never know.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brian.westley Brian Westley

      Thanks for illustrating what a real paranoid believer looks like.

      • Pseudonym

        I have no idea what CR said, but what a brilliant piece of psychoceramic performance art!

    • Brian Scott

      “Like C.S. Lewis rightly” I’d like to see a justification for that evaluation. We don’t burn heretics anymore either, but I could tell you that a lot of people still think there are heretics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/travis.myers.102977 Travis Myers

    Wow. I think you way over-analyzed this movie. I mean, orcs are ugly, but Arwen is cute, so maybe Lord of the Rings is also conveying a subtle message that all good people are attractive and all evil people are ugly. Jeez.

    • 3lemenope

      Beauty==Goodness is actually a pretty common trope to find in art of all sorts, because artists are concerned primarily with aesthetic merit of a work during its production (what textures of experience consuming it will induce in an observer), and so it is natural for them to associate beauty with rightness, and it’s just a hop-skip-jump from rightness to goodness. It’s common enough that aversions and subversions of the trope are notable in themselves.

      • Blacksheep

        “At age 50, every man has the face he deserves.”

        - George Orwell

    • http://twitter.com/tardis_blue Tardis_blue

      Well, yes and no. She has a point, she just over-stated it. It truly is a message in this movie, but I disagree with her that the ONLY difference between the good witches and the bad is their appearance. They make it clear in the movie that the bad witches are ugly BECAUSE of the evilness of the magic they use. The evilness corrupts their appearance. There’s a reason they get burned at the stake–and it’s not JUST because they are different. That one witch was tricking children into eating her house and catching them and eating them 20 years before the movie starts–that was NOT defensive.

      • http://gamesgirlsgods.blogspot.com/ Feminerd

        So thus, all women who are fat, have short hair, have hair on their faces, lose limbs in accidents, and/or have wrinkles are evil. Using the movie’s logic, they clearly wouldn’t be ugly if they hadn’t used evil magic. It’s very simple:

        Premise 1: All people start pretty.
        Premise 2: Using evil magic makes you ugly.
        Conclusion: All ugly people are evil.

        You can see how that argument might be a little problematic? Premise 1 is never explicitly stated, but it’s implicit when both all the evil women are ugly and only evil women are ugly.

      • Ibis3

        Further to Feminerd’s statement, this is still the rationale often used to pick out “witches” in some African countries, for example: Oh, that girl is albino? She must be consorting with the devil, since everyone starts pretty. Therefore, she must be killed.

    • David Starner

      That’s one of the pretty standard analyses of Lord of the Rings, that the ugly orcs are evil and the pretty elves are good, and when one of the hobbits turned evil, he also turned ugly. It’s not really one of the deep ones, but it’s not something that can be ignored from the book.

  • http://www.twitter.com/alansimpson jediofpool

    15% Tomatometer. That is all.

    • 3lemenope

      This wouldn’t be the same tomatometer which gave Spaceballs and Scary Movie the same rating, now, would it?

      • http://www.twitter.com/alansimpson jediofpool

        That’s just how those worked out. I’d rather take the collated opinions of 150 people over 1. There isn’t a more accurate movie rating guide than it.

        • 3lemenope

          Oh, I was just joshing a bit. Short of becoming a movie reviewer oneself, it is about the best one could hope for; aggregators are great. Still, though, some of its tomato ratings are perplexing in the extreme, and I think in part it’s due to the sometimes very odd judgement call about whether a mixed review should be counted as ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten’ when it is to be added to the film’s average. Sometimes I’ll see a tomato icon next to a review, and then go and read it and get the impression the reviewer didn’t actually like it very much.

        • 3lemenope

          Oh, I was just joshing a bit. Short of becoming a movie reviewer oneself, it is about the best one could hope for; aggregators are great. Still, though, some of its tomato ratings are perplexing in the extreme, and I think in part it’s due to the sometimes very odd judgement call about whether a mixed review should be counted as ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten’ when it is to be added to the film’s average. Sometimes I’ll see a tomato icon next to a review, and then go and read it and get the impression the reviewer didn’t actually like it very much.

      • http://profiles.google.com/julielada Julie Lada

        Not gonna lie, I kind of hate Spaceballs. Not true of other Mel Brooks movies, but that one I just groan and snarl at the horrible jokes.

        • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

          i’m a huge Mel fan, and Spaceballs blows chunks. sorry, but it sucked. not funny.

  • Pseudonym

    I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment. But I notice that the write-up repeats a number of common myths about the witch hunts.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    Obviously I’m never in favor of the blood sacrifice of children.

    gotta love the intertubes. where else am i going to read a sentence like that? ;-)

    but it is a serious subject and the author of this post is not wrong. as a commenter noted above, “witch” burning and killing is very real, even in today’s so-called modern world. it’s still a slur used against women. and few people understand the history of “witch” craft, which in many cultures since ancient times had more to do with the craft of knowing about nature and healing than cursing and eating children. today’s fundamentalists still label “witches” a top threat to xtianity, islam or other more practiced religions.

    it’s called misogyny and it’s as old as the hills. when women learn something that challenges what the male priests have to say, and practice it, they must be burned. or cast as “ugly” women in popular movies. or both.

  • pete084

    The reason for not seeing a male witch is because there is no such thing, with witch being a feminine noun, and the male equivalent, of course, being a ‘warlock’.

    http://m.dictionary.com/d/?q=warlock

    • David Starner

      Le Morte Darthur uses wytch for Merlin, for example, and that’s far from the only place even in Modern English that has male witches. It seems to be a modern thing that men can’t be witches, with men being able to be (Wiccan) witches also a modern thing.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      Wrong. “Warlock” means “oath-breaker”. A male witch would be… a witch. Or a wizard, if you prefer.

  • DougI

    When I saw the preview I instantly thought this would be a horrible movie. No plot other than a couple serial killers going on a killing spree. Who are Hansel and Gretel? Two kids who broke into a woman’s home and started tearing the place apart then killed the homeowner once she came back home. But apparently the ‘witch’ is supposed to be the bad person for wanting to kill a couple burglars who vandalized her home. Anywhere else it’d be perfectly acceptable to kill the criminals in an effort to protect your home and person.

  • Tainda

    I don’t care what it’s about…

    It has Jeremy Renner in it. Nuff said :D

  • captain_picard

    I get what you’re saying, but I got from the movie that the key characteristic of a witch is decay. So a witch can start out beautiful, like the main witch (Jean Grey). I don’t think it’s a simple statement of ugly=bad, particularly since the movie makers were not against beating up our heroes to the point of making them look pretty gross. There’s a point when Gemma Arterton tries to bite someone’s nose off, then gets tossed on the ground face down, and my friend turned to me and said, “I really want her to wash off her beard,” because it was really not a flattering look. Personally, I was glad to see the movie putting “being a badass” as a higher priority than “looking sexy all the time.”

  • advancedatheist

    Damn. Sounds like the women I see every day in Yavapai County, Arizona, where they’ve clearly spent more money at tattoo shops than at dentists’ offices. I must live in a witch-infested area.

  • advancedatheist

    Obviously I’m never in favor of the blood sacrifice of children.

    Yet philosophers argue about the morality of human sacrifice if it accomplishes utilitarian goals:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

  • The Other Weirdo

    I don’t know that the witch craze of 14th, 15th and 16th centuries can be distilled down to killing women a bunch of men didn’t like. There were complex sociological forces that led down that path and it wasn’t all to do with some men disliking independent women.

    • curiobi

      Yeah, right, it was a bunch of men killing women they saw as a threat, read the news lately, say about girls being shot for wanting to go to school, so spare me because in some ways, sadly nothings changed. Curiobi.

  • L.Long

    I used the witch burnings as a college paper and the research was awesome in its recording of TERRIBLE actions and BAD thinking of people in general, but I found that ugly and pretty were targets. In Antro101 one learns that pretty/ugly are used by both sexes to choose who to mate with. But pretty/ugly has the opposite correlation to evil. Look thru history and you do not find evil being ugly. But just look yourself and see that ugly is very seldom evil; its the same dimwitted thinking that says bad guys wear black hats or woman (or guys) who like sex will phuck anything.

    When the movie comes out on DVD without 3d I will probably watch and enjoy it on its own terms. But when I watch a 2nd time I like to tear them apart.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    “Obviously I’m never in favor of the blood sacrifice of children.”

    Never? Have you MET many children? Yeah, sure, most are adorable little moppets,but…


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