As of late, I have been watching a television show you may or may not have heard of, called Supernatural. In watching it I became quite aware of a growing discomfort I felt toward one of the repeating plot devices used in order to usher the plot forward, a plot device I know is not uncommon to television shows and that is, frankly, lazy and unoriginal. What I speak of is the killing of women to motivate male protagonists, a sort of sacrificial alter at which writers worship and usher forward male avatars into the realm of fictional storytelling. There are a number of terms you could use to describe this plot device. Sexist, perhaps. Chauvinistic. But really, the greatest insult is that it's lazy, a trite practice that has infiltrated all levels of writing and story telling and that is rarely used well.
Don't get me wrong, the death of a woman to motivate a man to action does not have to, inherently, be lazy or drip with sexism. Important bonds can be established, deep relationships created in which the woman emerges as a genuine character, one with feelings and motivations all her own that, when robbed from the audience, evoke a similar sense of loss as the protagonist's. That ability to identify allows us to connect with the hero further, and without using women as mere plot devices.
What occurred to me as I watched Supernatural was that nearly every episode was initiated with the death of a female victim, often in ways that were implied to be quite gruesome. Of course, it's a half hour show and needs to kick off with a plot device that allows it quick entry into the main bulk of its story, which involves supernatural methods of dealing with the ethereal threat in question. I understand that, even if I don't entirely forgive the practice.
I'd be more inclined to let it pass, though, if it weren't symptomatic of a larger problem in narrative storytelling. Let's take a nerd fan favorite, Joss Whedon. Creator of fan favorites Buff, Angel, Firefly and Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Whedon has emerged as a man who likes to place female character front and center. He's a good, though not fantastic director whose idea of strong women involves one that puts stakes through the hearts of vampires. Fair enough, and good enough. Angel is particularly interesting as an analysis of women being killed off, often brutally, in order to advance the plot. In Buffy the women are only superficially strong, while internally weak characters that break when relationships don't work out. Still, this post deals with the killing of women to advance plot, and there's no greater offender than his Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. Spoilers ahead.
In Dr. Horrible, the love interest of both Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer is Penny, as played by internet-beloved Felicia Day. The arc of this love triangle culminates with her death, leading to Dr. Horrible assuming his full, super villain identity. Fair enough, it's an understandable plot motivation. However, the audience is never provided a Penny that comes across like a full human being, with complex motives and decisions all her own. She falls for Captain Hammer when he saves her from an oncoming truck, and the bulk of the following arc follows that relationship and Dr. Horrible's resentment toward it. I recently read an article in which women exclaimed how frustrated they were at men who, after doing a good deed, expected sex out of it; I saw this parallel in the story of Dr. Horrible. Because she is saved, she owes a relationship to Captain Hammer. Is this necessarily the case? How can we know? Penny is constantly put forth as a Mary Sue, an image of perfection in the eyes of Dr. Horrible, one whose only mistake was falling for Captain Hammer. As a character she lacks depth. She's only positive, in every way that counts. Selfless, willing to help the poor and starving, trying to make Captain Hammer a better hero. What about the days when she's selfish, or doubts that relationship, or considers a life of only singleness? We're given a one dimensional character, thrown up in order to be killed and to motivate Dr. Horrible.
There's a whole trope about this at TV Tropes called Disposable Women, describing how women are used almost solely as plot devices to drive forward the heroic tales of men. In Braveheart it's Wallace's wife, which starts his rebellion. In Gladiator it's to motivate Maximus' vengeance tale. In The Dark Knight it's Rachel Dawes, duly to push Harvey Dent into his role as Two Face and also to drive Bruce Wayne further into his identity as Batman. In video games widely marketed to young men, it's abundant. In Max Payne it's the loss of Payne's wife and daughter. In God of War it's Krato's wife and daughter. And so on, and so on.
The problem is not that this can't be a proper motivation for male stories. It's that with the expansion of media into a multitude of formats, it continues to be done so widely, and yet so poorly, that the females become little more than throw always to set a male down his path. With little to no characterization, repeated ad nauseum throughout our various medias, women become paper cutouts, meant to die in order to start a male's story.
I'm not pleading with writers to rid themselves of this as a plot device. I'm asking writers to use it a bit more sparingly, and that when they do it, to use it well. I myself have killed off an important female character in a recent fantasy novel I wrote, not as a way of motivating the male hero, but as a conclusion to a long arc whose narrative was the female's willingness to sacrifice her life, if necessary, for the good of her people. She becomes less of Wallace's wife, in other words, than Wallace herself. Please writers, don't be afraid of killing off your female characters, but find ways to do so that doesn't always come across as a way to make men the real heroes. Again, it's fine when done well, but as a plot device it's too abundant and too shallow in the current level of media.