Bitch Slapped: Female Violence in ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’

Written by: Rachel Redfern

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Watching the trailer for this year’s latest fairy tale redux, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters it, wasn’t a difficult thing to judge the film as a clichéd action movie with a bad plot and a ridiculous title: we were not wrong to do so. However, the large amount of female characters makes it at least an interesting movie to review. While the world of Hansel and Gretel does feature men, few of the main characters are and in an interesting twist for an action movie, female characters outnumber the male ones. The movie even passes the Bechdel test ironically.

So, here’s a quick breakdown of the film, which probably isn’t necessary except for the sake of a well-organized essay. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are siblings who are led out into the forest by their parents where they are promptly abandoned. Hansel and Gretel kill the evil witch who tries to eat Hansel and become famous witch hunters, until they end up in a town where multiple children have been taken by a trio of witches to be used for an evil ritual. Violence and one-liners ensue and Hansel and Gretel come to understand themselves and their own history better.

The film plays out like a video game: it’s violence graphic and exaggerated. Personally, I haven’t seen this many heads blown off of bodies since an ill-fated viewing of Rambo IV (2008). People are ripped to shreds, brutally beaten, squished to death, explode and any number of implausible and gory ways to die. 

Jeremy Renner taking part in an improbable action scene

But again, despite Hansel and his overwhelming hatred of witches (of which there seem to be only women—no evil warlocks in this franchise), the only other men featured are a simple mayor, an abusive sheriff (Peter Stormare), a pleasant troll and an overzealous fan of Hansel and Gretel’s work (Thomas Mann).

Gemma Arterton is the other side of the bad-ass Hansel and Gretel team, starring as an appropriately aggressive Gretel. I like a spunky heroine and while Hansel does have to save her towards the end of the movie, she does drive home the final killing blow, so overall I suppose there was great equality in their violent slaughter of the witches.

On to the point, I am not opposed to female villains: I support equal-opportunity in my evil masterminds and if you’re going to have a lot of classic male villains (Lex Luther in Superman, Scar from The Lion King, Batman’s Joker), there should also be some equally evil females running around (Ursula in The Little Mermaid, the Borg Queen from Star Trek, Poison Ivy for Batman).

However, in this respect Hansel and Gretel is over the top, just as it is in pretty much every other way. But it is interesting, the violence committed by these female villains and against them is jarring and explicit, however, the filmmakers obviously did everything that they could to distance the witches from being thought of as women. Physically every witch is monstrous, with scaly skin and pointed teeth, unrecognizable as women for the most part.

So not only do they not look like women, they don’t act like maternal loving women, again making it hard to identify with them and I suppose on some level, making it easier to stomach the horrific amount of beating they all seem to receive. There are dozens of evil female witches running around dragging children from their beds in order to sacrifice them for immortality and literally consume them. 

Famke Janssen as her monstrous self in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

There is one woman though who isn’t the same as the rest of the witches; Famke Janssen (X-Men) is a grand-witch and therefore able to change her appearance. She can appear as a normal human woman or can shift into her more natural, monstrous self. Interestingly enough, at one point of the movie she is, of course, being beaten up by Hansel and to try and stop him from strangling her she shifts into her beautiful human self and begins to beg Hansel for mercy. Hansel knows that she is still evil and that the beauty is just an act and so finishes her off. The moment is almost meta, as if the filmmaker was acknowledging the fact that had the women been human-looking, such gratuitously violent acts against them would have perhaps been unacceptable to audiences.

There are good witches in the film however, maternal loving women who are healers and sacrifice for their children, and are of course, physically beautiful. Though this doesn’t prevent them from getting the shit beat out of them either, just in a more socially acceptable way and one where there is swift retribution from one of the nice males in the film.

One thing that was interesting though, the film is based off the classic fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the forest because their evil stepmother doesn’t want to take care of them anymore. However, in this film version, Hansel and Gretel hate their mother (no stepmother) for abandoning them, only to realize later in the film that the only reason she abandoned them was to save them. It was a moment of explanation for a character who’s been demonized as a bad mother for years, but instead of playing into that, the film actually gave her a reason and a cause, humanizing her for once.

For the most part the whole film is a travesty of plot and character and feminism; it’s one redeeming feature being the amazing soundtrack, but I suppose that at the end of the day, the movie is at least honest since it never pretended to be anything other than what it was: a clichéd Hollywood action movie. 

Rachel Redfern has an MA in English literature, where she conducted research on modern American literature and film and its intersection, however she spends most of her time watching HBO shows, traveling, and blogging and reading about feminism.


  • Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Ye Gods and Little Fishes!!! … these movies are so tiresome!

  • Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:25 am | Permalink

    First; excuse my poor English.
    Interesting review. You make a point by looking at it with at least one feminist eye. I have not thought of it in that way. Have watch this movie twice. The writer and director of this movie are from my home town in Norway. And Norway (with the rest of Scandinavian country) are were women are most equal with men. You might say its the most “feminist” country in the world.

    Is it a coincidence that the writer and director is a Norwegian?
    Have the “gender equal” society of Scandinavia had an influence?
    The majority of characters in most movies, even animated, fantasy and sci-fi, have a male gender. The female are often a girlfriend, mother or damsel-in-distress. Another Scandinavian movie with butt-kicking woman is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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  • […] don’t watch), and Sleepy Hollow. For film, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Hanna, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Brothers Grimm, and Jack and the Giant Killer (among others). There’s even a fabulous book […]