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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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great discussion (8+ / 0-)

    I enjoyed this as a writer. There is a need in storytelling for mechanical characters to a certain degree; not every character in a story can be fleshed out fully.

    But when we see women (or in other contexts, minority characters) that are mere props, over and over again, it takes away from the storytelling. It also puts sends some seriously ugly vibes out into our culture.

    •  Yes (6+ / 0-)

      I just want writers to think about what they're writing and why. Like I said, my big reaction to this trend isn't sexism, or racism or discrimination, though I'm sure that's the complaint of others. To me, it's laziness. Sheer, sheer laziness. In a 30 minute sendup like Supernatural, find, mechanical device. In long plot arcs like Angel, there are better ways to deal with it. When repeated over and over throughout the industry, it's more than just mechanical characters, it's laziness. It also says something about who inhabits what levels of these various industries.

      Or how often do we see the death of an Anglo male send an Afro-Hispanic woman on a tale of vengeance? Hah.

      by DAISHI on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:06:54 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ok, a couple of points here (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        First, Supernatural is an hour-long show, not 30 minutes.

        Second, I think if you look at the history of the show, you will find an even number of male and female victims.

        For example, in last week's show, it was all men that got killed at the start.  The week before, all of the victims were male, and a female (same woman that helped them kill the arch-villain Leviathan Dick Ronan) helped them stop the killer.

        The sex of the victim really has nothing to do with it in Supernatural, it's all about the unusual circumstances of the deaths that triggers them to investigate to see what kind of demon or monster it is.

        Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear. ~William E. Gladstone, 1866

        by absdoggy on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:15:19 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Nobody cares... (0+ / 0-)

        ...when men get killed.

        That's why we protest having women in combat.

        The problem isn't with the writers, it's with the audience. Only the death of a female will motivate the audience to get interested.

  •  Ah, Supernatural. My favorite! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Yes, they kill off all the women. But to be fair, they kill off EVERYBODY. It's a show about two brothers. Everyone else is peripheral.

    Right now, we have the following survivors, besides Sam and Dean:

    Sheriff Jody
    Meg the demon
    Kevin Tran
    Mother Tran
    Crowley King of Hell
    Alpha vampire
    Benny the vampire
    Amelia and Don
    Lisa and Ben

    Actually, that's all I can think of.

    5 women
    8 men

    The main characters were always men: Sam, Dean, Castiel and Bobby.

    But - the target demographic is women. They are playing to their targets.

    I don't think it is sexist.

    Yes, they do often start with a female getting gutted in some way. That is a shout-out to traditional horror movies. The blonde always wanders away and gets killed. It's not sexist, it's a trope.

    Resuming episode.

    My political compass: - 8.38,-6.97

    by pucklady on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:04:32 PM PST

    •  It's a short show (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pucklady, SilentBrook

      So I understand some mechanical actions they use to motivate their plots, it's just that this becomes the excuse over and over ago for multiple narratives in various media.

      And as I said, my biggest complaint against it isn't sexism or discrimination, though some might. It's that, honesty, it's lazy writing. Maybe not in Supernatural, which is a send up of the horror genre, but in media as a whole.

      by DAISHI on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:09:27 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Also (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I actually do like the show :P It was just my launch off point when thinking about this.

      by DAISHI on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:09:52 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Welcome to every cop show on TV (9+ / 0-)

    Almost every episode of every cop show revolves around "The murder of a BEAUTIFUL YOUNG student/model/actress/steardess/dancer/prostitute!!!" (especially the last). And of course Kevin Bacon's new series is all about gee guess what; a serial killer of young women, creating a series of copycat killers of young women.

    It's sickening and one of the main reasons I refuse to watch series TV anymore.

    New Arizona State Motto; "Yeah, but it's a dry hate!"

    by Fordmandalay on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:12:04 PM PST

  •  Yep, it's really common. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LinSea, a2nite, jayden, AoT

    Remember all those "Wife of random guy gets kidnapped/raped/murdered, manpain ensues (and no glimpse of the wife anymore or her struggles, if she's still alive) until he grows into a real hero bad-assing his way all over the place or seeking vengeance" storylines?

    It's the basic "Female as prop" idea that has run rampant since the actual beginning of storytelling in our patriarchal society. It's insidious, exploitative and just sometimes subconscious misogyny which has been drilled into men's (and women's) heads from the cradle on.

  •  You might want to leave out (5+ / 0-)

    Braveheart in your example -- the real-life William Wallace was in part spurred on by his wife's murder.

    Other than that, it's a shortcut. Think of the original Batman, who was set on his path by the murder of his parents. Everyone needs an impetus, and for many it's a death of someone close to them...and in a heterosexist culture it's going to be a member of the opposite gender. (Now you've got me tempted to try a story of a hero inspired by a same-sex partner's death...)

    There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

    by Cali Scribe on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 01:30:53 PM PST

    •  Star Wars (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      LinSea, fearisthemindkiller

      is another good example. Luke Skywalker is motivated by the death of his step-parents. He also receives an elderly mentor, a cynical sidekick, and a mission to rescue a beautiful woman. I don't know if these were all tropes at the time or they only seem to be now.

      "It is, it seems, politically impossible to organize expenditure on the scale necessary to prove my case -- except in war conditions."--JM Keynes, 1940

      by randomfacts on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:37:03 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  What I can appreciate about Star Wars (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        LinSea, fearisthemindkiller

        and more than my complaining of just tropes, is that all things get repeated. At least in Star Wars, though, Leia comes off fairly independently. She's certainly not waiting on anyone in Episode 4, and even as she's falling in love in Episode 5 she retains complex motivations. Or in other words, the films aren't barren of complex women with motivations, she's motivated by an enlargening empire and the death of her own father and homeworld. Star Wars definitely hits on a lot of the big hero's journey moments, but at least the originals felt like they did it well.

        by DAISHI on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:51:27 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  In Downton Abbey (4+ / 0-)

    Julian Fellowes brought in Lavinia as a tool to keep Matthew and Mary apart for a few more episodes, and then killed her off in the Spanish Influenza when it was time to get them together again.

  •  Misogyny is the easy answer but with caveats (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The largest caveat is that women - especially young women - are one of the most vulnerable populations in society.  This is something that feminist groups readily admit.  So it is not a huge leap to put one in your storyline.  Sadly, it is very believable.

    The other caveat is that the main characters of most TV shows are men.  This is because most people - women included - would rather watch men than women in leading roles (this is changing but still exists).  If I want to watch a story about a brutalized woman processing her attack then I can go to Lifetime.  But if I want to watch a man embark on an action-packed righteous rampage then I will watch, well, anything other than Lifetime.  Most people want to watch men because men are more likely to do things.  Most people would rather read about women going through something because it tends to be less action and more literary.  TV is a visual medium.  

    Another caveat is that men need a reason for their rampage to be righteous - otherwise there is nothing separating them from a common criminal.  The easiest way to make a rampage righteous is to harm somebody they love.  Men love to see this because it releases their inner Jason Bourne.  Women love to see this because they appreciate watching a man who can protect/avenge them and also because that violence is an expression of emotion that for some men is the only one they can express.

    Anyway, just some thoughts.

    Please do not be alarmed. We are about to engage... the nozzle.

    by Terrapin on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:11:38 PM PST

    •  Do women love to see this (0+ / 0-)

      This repetitively and with little attention to female characters?

      by DAISHI on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:42:16 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Certainly not, nor do I think that ... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        ... women appreciate the height of modern feminism being a woman capable of 'kicking ass like a man'.  [Alias, Buffy, etc.]  But it sure makes for some good TV - very visual.

        I think the thing is that in order to provide a righteous motive for violence then violence must be done or threatened to what a man cares most about - his wife or child.  Fortunately, there is still a strong cultural taboo over depictions of violence towards children so, for the sake of TV script writers, most of it ends up on women.  Men are prone to violence and need an occasional catharsis but it still needs to be righteous.  John McClane killed about a dozen people - some with his bare hands - in order to rescue his wife while Hans Gruber killed dozens of people in order to steal money.  Who was the hero?

        I think you might be interested in the Kevin Bacon movie "Hollow Man".  The protagonist is a woman who is motivated to violence in order to protect her injured husband.  There is also an invisible man so you can judge which is less realistic.  There are other movies out there that do this but not many.  I am not sure if men or women prefer this type of role reversal but it does exist as a niche market.

        Please do not be alarmed. We are about to engage... the nozzle.

        by Terrapin on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 03:33:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I don't, that's why I liked Buffy the (0+ / 0-)

        Vampire Slayer. Still am looking for re runs & also Charmed to a lessor extent.

      •  I don't. There are some shows (0+ / 0-)

        that I start watching and realize that all the major and major-minor female characters look the same... almost as if the casting guy (and I'm pretty sure it is a guy) was picking the women by how they looked, instead of their ability to act.  It peeves me no end, to the extent I soon find I am too annoyed to watch the show.

  •  It's called 'Women in Refrigerators' (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LinSea, a2nite

    They have a website / Internet meme for everything! ;)

    Women in Refrigerators

    In all seriousness, it is a relatively cheap way to add drama, but when done well it's gut-wrenching. Even though it was very predictable that Rachel would die in The Dark Knight, it was still devastating and took the movie to a whole other level.

  •  I saw the movie Broken City last week, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LinSea, a2nite, zitherhamster

    and I thought this was going to happen, but it didn't. All three of the women characters survived, and none of them even needed to be rescued. Ironically when I was reading on IMDB later - someone commented that they didn't see why one of the female characters existed in the plot. This was one that started out as the hero's boyfriend but broke up with him (realistically), and then just leaves the story altogether. The story arc was a good illustration of how the hero was tied down to his past before, psychologically scarred by a past experience and not ready to move on. But because they didn't end up together or she wasn't killed, this commenter couldn't see her role in the narrative. I thought it was an illustration of how we expect certain things to happen to certain characters depending on the type of movie.

    "It is, it seems, politically impossible to organize expenditure on the scale necessary to prove my case -- except in war conditions."--JM Keynes, 1940

    by randomfacts on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:33:43 PM PST

  •  Women in peril ... calls for some Coasters: (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pgm 01

    (Good diary, thanks.)

    Dance lightly upon the Earth, Sing her songs with wild abandon, Smile upon all forms of Life ...and be well.

    by LinSea on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 02:50:47 PM PST

  •  Thanks nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  The Woman as Victim (5+ / 0-)

    Susan Faludi talked about the "woman as victim" as a literary device in BACKLASH. There are many types of popular culture in which a woman is a prop. It is not common to find pop culture books, movies or music in which a woman is the protagonist AND is looking for something other than love.

    Women are commonly attractive scenery, ego boost and plot devices in pop culture. It gets dispiriting.

  •  Nice analysis! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jayden, a2nite

    Speaking more generally, I increasingly judge authors/writers on how they treat their characters. Not to say that only nice things should happen to the characters, but I consider authors to have a moral responsibility to their characters, and after a certain amount of pointless, gratuitous cruelty, I lose respect and interest - it's like watching a child torture insects.

  •  I had to stop watching "Criminal Minds" (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Torture Porn. With mostly female victims. Very ugly.

  •  I play banjo, and end up being around (0+ / 0-)

    Bluegrass Players as a consequence.  There is a common saying, "if the girl is alive after the third verse, it ain't Bluegrass." So it's not just movies, TV,, too.

    "We refuse to fight in a war started by men who refused to fight in a war." -freewayblogger

    by Bisbonian on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 06:58:31 PM PST

  •  The way I judge a show (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Southern Lib

    is by the clothing.  It's a hot summer day, the women are in bikinis or short shorts and the guys are in long sleeve shirts, vests, suit jackets, ties and if they are really powerful, a scarf over it all.  Or it is a cold day and the woman is in a short dress and the man has six layers of clothing.  That's how you tell it is all about the  power of th man.  

    Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you. Gabby Giffords.

    by Leftleaner on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 07:28:32 PM PST

  •  You could trace this device back to Homer (0+ / 0-)

    It's been around for a long time and I don't think it's going anywhere.  

    I'm thinking now of devices used to kick off tales of Women's heroism in popular culture, and I'm coming up with examples like Alien, Hunger Games, and even Alias.   Nothing I'm coming up with though is a pure revenge story, the way that Braveheart, Gladiator, or Batman are.   These are much more survival narratives -- is women's heroism in fiction primarily brought out by situations where violence is necessitated by basic need to survive?  

    Even the movie Elizabeth places its female hero in a position of extreme danger which necessitates her transformation into a clever -- and ruthless -- ruler.

    We have the elite, smart people on our side.

    by fearisthemindkiller on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 07:57:37 PM PST

  •  I've been complaining about this for ages. (0+ / 0-)

    Fer cripe's sake, the Supernatural pilot begins and ends with a woman's death. (The show's attitude about black people is positively Whedonesque, also - one AA person shows up per season, only to get killed off.) More proof that most people in the horror genre are creepy white dudes with issues about women.

    Penny's death tipped me into loathing Dr. Horrible - bad enough that we're expected to agree with the director POV that Stalking is Cute and Romantic, but sure throw away the woman at the end like a used Kleenex, and leave the two dudes to duke it out unimpeded by unnecessary baggage.

    As long as 95% of the writers/directors/producers are white males, the material will reflect that lazy-ass technique of defaulting to the white male as "universal," of killing off the women / POC first, of casting whites in roles meant for POC ("Last Airbender," anyone?) - and until moviegoers vote with their feet and their pocketbooks, this problem will continue.

    Thank God, the Bob Fosse Kid is here! - Colin Mochrie

    by gardnerhill on Mon Feb 04, 2013 at 09:11:23 PM PST

  •  Incredibly important to English majors. And maybe (0+ / 0-)

    to people trying to write the next great American TV drama but as a comment on American cultural values, not so much.

    I'd tip you but they cut off my tip box. The TSA would put Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad on the no-fly list.

    by OHdog on Tue Feb 05, 2013 at 04:37:56 AM PST

  •  Isn't Supernatural an hour show? (0+ / 0-)

    At least it is if it is the same one I watched for half a season  on the CW.

    “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

    by astrogeology girl on Fri Feb 08, 2013 at 09:23:06 PM PST

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