I gush a lot about Zack Snyder, and one of the reasons why is that I adore the way he handles female characters. Snyder doesn’t follow the model of making “strong” female characters who are most memorable for being strong or badass. He treats his female characters just as he does his male. He prioritizes well-written and interesting over strong, prioritizes realistic over badass. In his short Snow Steam Iron, he beautifully depicted a story centred around an abused woman without ever glorifying or fetishizing violence.
The Abuse of Women in Media
Violence against women is horrifyingly prominent in fiction, and while it’s certainly a topic that needs to be discussed, far too often, it’s used in a manner that romanticizes abuse – coercing someone into sex isn’t depicted as rape, possessive behaviour is portrayed as a sign of love, physical intimidation and damage of physical property is interpreted sexy, assault is presented as something that should be forgiven. Not at all so in Snow Steam Iron.
Snyder neatly avoided any fetishization of violence. When the police officer was hitting Lin, the primary focus of the scene was her face and the fact that she was in pain. She was treated as a person for the audience to empathize with and root for, not an object. Her emotions were central to the story. Snyder treated the topic of abuse seriously and with the sensitivity it needs. Even with no dialogue, the narrative was clearly on Lin’s side. It illustrated her fear, her pain, and the fact that she has every right to defend herself.
The nudity was completely nonsexualized. It was almost perfunctory. The camera never focused on the fact the woman was naked, it was focused on the imagery of her holding a severed head. In the street scene, it wasn’t focused on the woman’s bare breast, it was focused on her face and that someone had killed her. It clearly illustrated the concept of gendered violence while pointing out the focus should be on the people harmed by it.
Snyder’s fondness of allusions to classic art came through clearly – a woman holds a man’s severed head, bringing to mind the story of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, the general about to destroy her home.
The two most famous paintings of that scene are likely that of Caravaggio and Gentileschi. This reminded me of both paintings.
Caravaggio’s interpretation of the scene involves the weaponization of sexuality. It focused on Judith as a beautiful femme fatale who takes advantage of Holofernes’s attraction to her to kill him. Caravaggio depicted Judith’s act of fighting back as easy. Holofernes is drugged and unresistant, and it’s both physically and emotionally easy for Judith to behead him. It’s her choosing herself and her people over the life of the person threatening them. It’s cold and calculating. The woman holding the head in the short is calm and unafraid. She doesn’t betray any signs of regret. This was brought to life in Snow Steam Iron by the unnamed woman holding a man’s severed head and posing with it.
Gentileschi painted the scene more dynamically. Judith’s maid holds a struggling Holofernes down. Judith leans into the sword movement. It’s bloodier. The focus of the painting isn’t on Judith’s beauty, it’s on what she’s doing.
In Gentileschi’s work, the decapitation is not effortless or cold. It’s filled with emotion, the rage at the man that’s threatening to hurt her and the people of her city. Lin’s story in Snow Steam Iron invoked that same emotion.
Snow Steam Iron drew from both these paintings. While the scenes with the woman holding the severed head look much more like Caravaggio’s painting, the scenes with Lin are highly reminiscent of Gentileschi’s. Lin is angry, scared, and desperate. It’s not easy to fight back against abuse, either physically or emotionally, but she does it, because there’s no other choice.
By drawing inspiration from this scene, Snyder demonstrated clearly that he puts effort into understanding the female perspective when writing about women. Gentileschi drew on her own experiences with abuse to paint Judith. Snyder considered that when bringing Lin to life. The short contrasts the way women feel and appear to themselves and other women – Gentileschi’s painting – with the image they present to the outside world – Caravaggio’s painting, depicting the way men perceive women.
Zack Snyder is one of the few mainstream white male directors that understand how to tell stories about women from a female perspective. He treats his female characters as people and allows them to have character traits beyond being “strong”. By doing this, he crafted a rich female character with a beautiful story arc more effectively in the four minutes of Snow Steam Iron than many directors do in full movies.