Here is what I was expecting when I went to see HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS. A) There would be witches. B) Hansel and Gretel would hunt them. C) It would probably be a better movie than, say, VAN HELSING (the movie that critics seem to be comparing it to most frequently)—because how could it not be? And D) I would emerge from the movie theater with the mixed feeling of annoyance (at what I assumed would be its sexist, misogynistic subject matter) and of satisfaction (Jeremy Renner stars as Hansel, and where Hawkeye goes, I follow).
I was right on three out of four counts—there were witches, Hansel and Gretel did hunt them, and it was leaps and bounds ahead of VAN HELSING (still probably the movie I most paying to see in a movie theater). But in a wholly unexpected yet totally welcome and refreshing twist, I felt only the barest nudges of feminist rage during the movie—and it wasn’t so much “rage” as it was a sense of mild displeasure tinged with “well, it’s still a major studio action movie. It was never going to be perfect.”
And no, it certainly wasn’t perfect—for example, we learn pretty quickly that the way to identify evil witches (all of whom are women) is through their looks, because using evil magic makes you ugly in some truly grotesque ways. And I would be remiss not to point out that, for all its virtues, the movie still makes prominent use of the Male Gaze; Gretel wears a tight corset over a low cut shirt for most of the movie, and her breasts are prominently displayed in many scenes and shots (including some in which the camera cuts off her head but still gets her boobs on screen). Another scene shows her climbing out of bed, pantsless, and the camera is positioned in such a way that her legs take up most of the screen. There’s also a nude swimming scene involving another female character, Mina, in which her naked back and ass are prominently displayed. (There’s some male objectification, too: Hansel is shirtless for no real reason for part of the movie.)
But despite that, I noticed time and again throughout the movie that what I would consider the expectations for women in that world (both the world of the narrative and the world of action movies more generally) were being subverted in some pretty interesting ways. HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS dives head-first into the sexist origins of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel only to up-end that entire notion: In this version of the tale, rather than a weak father manipulated by his evil wife into facilitating the murder of his children and her step-children, Hansel and Gretel’s parents are reclaimed as heroes in their own rights–particularly their mother, who is a powerful good witch and who instructs their father to take them into the woods in order to save their lives from a combination of dark magic and an angry mob. (The witch Hansel and Gretel meet in the forest is an unfortunate accident, not an act of premeditated murder or neglect.) That’s a pretty powerful re-writing of a traditionally misogynistic story trope.
Similarly, the movie played around with standard action-movie tropes for female characters. In the opening scene, for instance, the witch traps Hansel and Gretel in her Gingerbread House, but it is Hansel who gets locked away helplessly in a cage, while Gretel sets about saving the day: she surreptitiously pulls a large nail out of the floor and uses it to pick the lock on her handcuffs before freeing her brother. The two of them then work together to shove the witch into the fire. From the very first minutes of the film, then, Gretel is shown as competent, strong, and perfectly capable of taking care of herself (and her brother, to boot). This theme continues as the movie follows them into adulthood. The film’s major plot revolves around a small town whose children are going missing, and in the first scene featuring adult Hansel and Gretel, the townspeople—with the support of the Sheriff and his goons—are trying to burn Mina alive because she was accused of witchcraft. When Hansel and Gretel object, the Sheriff and his men threaten both of them, but particularly Gretel; they surround her, telling the “bitch” to keep her mouth shut. Hansel observes this somewhat dispassionately, and with good reason: Gretel proceeds to calmly head-butt the Sheriff, breaking his nose.
I want to point out two things here. One: when the Sheriff and his men verbally abuse and threaten Gretel, Hansel looks on, but he doesn’t react in a stereotypically masculine/protective way by rushing in and trying to defend her. Rather, he remains somewhat removed, trusting her to handle the situation herself—because he has faith in her and her abilities (another theme of the movie: Hansel and Gretel are equal partners, with similar levels of skill and strength). He doesn’t abandon her—he’s clearly within range to lend a hand if the situation escalates—but neither does he assume that she needs his help to deal with the situation. His trust that she knows her own mind and is competent to evaluate her own status is emphasized again later in the movie, when the Sheriff and his thugs corner Gretel alone in the woods, where they proceed to beat the crap out of her (she’s strong, but there are several of them, and they all attack at once). She escapes thanks to the help of another character, but when Hansel sees what the men did to her—she is visibly beaten up—he reacts with the kind of protectiveness he didn’t display earlier. However, when she tells him that she’s fine and that they need to focus on completing their mission, he listens to her and accepts what she tells him. In other words, Hansel accepts that Gretel is the authority on Gretel, not him.
Back to the scene in the town square, to the second thing I want to point out. When the Sheriff calls Gretel a bitch, it is the only time the word is used in the film. Let me repeat that: In an R-rated movie largely concerned with hunting evil female witches, rife with violence and gore, and peppered liberally with the f-word, the b-word is used only one time, by a character that the audience is clearly supposed to revile, as an example of the reason we are supposed to revile him. Do you know how rare that is? “Bitch” has become such common conversational parlance that sometimes even I just sort of tune it out; we get desensitized to it, especially in movies like this one where it’s used as a catch-all, jokey insult—often by the protagonists!—and we lose sight of the incredibly degrading, violent nature of the word, how it literally dehumanizes the person (usually a woman, or a man who isn’t acting “manly” enough) at whom it is directed. HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS doesn’t allow that repetition or that distance. When the Sheriff calls Gretel a bitch, we know he’s not misunderstood, he’s not acting out of concern for his town, he’s not going to have a third-act change of heart: he’s a Bad Guy. “Bitch” is used exactly once in the movie, and it is spit out, delivered with venom, emphasizing how serious the insult/threat really is.
So far I’ve talked mostly about Gretel’s physical strength and competence, but she’s not just an emotionless, shoot-first-ask-questions-later Strong Female Character. There are elements of that in her, certainly, but she’s strong in other ways, too, and the film legitimates those as no less important. One of the movie’s major subplots deals with Gretel making friends with a troll named Edward (…yes, seriously), and during the final showdown, rather than simply flinging herself into battle, she takes the time to care for her friend and make sure he’s okay.
Tied in with that is how the movie ultimately endorses what I, at least, read as a quite feminist worldview. The movie begins with Hansel and Gretel believing in and endorsing a very binaristic sense of life: there is good, there is evil, both are knowable and locatable. Witches are evil. Trolls are also evil. There’s nothing else to think about, and while Gretel insists on finding evidence of witchcraft before killing a suspected witch, Hansel flatly admits to Mina that he probably would have allowed the townspeople to kill her even without evidence rather than take the risk of leaving a witch alive. Over the course of the movie, however, they come to understand that their world doesn’t work that way: there are good witches (including their mother, who saved their lives in part through magic). There are some evil witches who don’t look evil (the main villain, who can appear quite beautiful when she chooses to do so, and so can “pass” in the world). There are also kind trolls—Edward the Troll saves Gretel’s life and tends to her wounds after the Sheriff attacks her, and their mutual affection quite literally helps save the day. HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS suggests that simple categories don’t necessarily work—that the world can’t be read just in terms of yes/no, good/bad binaries, and that trying to do so will defeat you, in the end. Accepting some ambiguity, however, means living to fight another day.
 I took a short bathroom break during the movie, so it’s possible the word was used again when I wasn’t in the theater. But I mentioned this to my movie buddy, and she didn’t remember another instance, so at least for now, the point stands.