Prologue: To be or not to be
Evil Lives Here. Fatal Vows. Nightmare Next Door. Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer. Abducted in Plain Sight. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. And thousands more titles available in seconds. Is the world obsessed with true crime? Have we been desensitized by listening to gruesome details of torture, scheming and abuse over and over? Most likely. And the TV industry will keep on pumping out material as long as it is profitable. But looking further, is it the torture we find captivating, or is it the stories? These stories — real or not — depict people we could never imagine meeting.
When we delve into these monsters, they are primarily male, spare a one-dimensional evil stepmother or rage-blinded ex-wife. We see wronged women in documentaries, movies and the news. Silly lady, she was just ticked off one too many times and blew like Vesuvius. These women are not people, only lesser facsimiles of more complicated male villains. They are either seen as absurd or clichéd tropes in most films and TV.
Or are they?
I. Loving the scorned and beaten
The one-dimensionality of women in film and television is no surprise in a world where they are usually made to fit into neat little tropes — the damsel in distress, the evil stepmother, the scorned wife — the list goes on. Whether she is portrayed as a saint or an evil hag, a woman character’s motives are usually surface-level and her demise is as predictable as her backstory. This issue was not first brought up by Amy Dunne, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but that novel was certainly a turning point in how we think of female characters whose fates are up for debate. Is she a sociopathic villain for plotting to frame her husband for her murder, or is she a justifiable femme fatale for trying to get revenge on a cheating spouse? Looking at her “villianism” as a whole, it is important to assess why we could hate, love or even understand her.
In Psychology Today, psychologist Romeo Vitelli underscores three traits called the “Dark Triad” on which we assess villains — narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. In the novel, Amy is presented as a loving wife, a Harvard graduate turned New York City writer and the victim of a cheating, abusive, lazy husband. In her diary, the police find she orchestrated everything in her favor to accomplish her first goal, which was to disappear and frame her husband Nick for her murder. We find out that she is a master manipulator, someone who has lied about sexual assault, and is, frankly, a murderer, as she killed her stalker ex-boyfriend to maintain her plan.
In an article by Emma Henault in Film Cred, she acknowledges that Amy is flawed, but she is more than an angry vengeful wife seen on a Lifetime documentary. “Those that have tried to fit her in such a box are missing the point of the story,” she wrote. “Anger is messy, and that’s exactly what she is.” Amy is a scorned woman — she was wronged. She is not a hero, or a revenge fantasy, or a role model — she is a sociopath. Siding with her can be a raw inspection of what we might justify given the circumstances. In the novel, we can see from Amy’s perspective, the presumed villain’s side of the story, and can even feel for her due to this sense of righteousness. We see her flaws and her clear sociopathy, forming a three-dimensional depiction of a woman who is not a good person but also not completely condemnable. “The next time that you feel your inner Amy Dunne trying to escape, indulge her a bit,” Henault wrote. “Your anger is not shameful.” Just as there have been way too many nasty, vengeful, likable, interesting male villains portrayed, there can be more than Ursula or Cruella de Vil.
II. “Off with her head!” shrieked the pitchfork-clad villagers
So some people like Amy.
Some critics think she is a raging psychopath, which she might be, but some hate her with an almost personal disdain. Why? Perhaps the answer could start with the portrayal of women in modern films and who is making said films. In recent years women comprised 21% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 100 grossing films, up from 20% in 2019, but it has been a long ride to this point. These kinds of statistics may point to why too many past movies have depicted women only as supporting roles to the male protagonist, probably just the girlfriend, or if we are meant to hate her, a scrooge-like boss. In an article in The Huffington Post, writer Monica Torres dissects why in the popular 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada Miranda Priestly is depicted as a villain, and as valid as that can be, is misconstrued as a trope by its audience. “To stay on top, Miranda is hands-on planning each page of Runway, keeps abreast of industry knowledge and offloads her rivals to faraway jobs with a smile. She is mean, and she has a limiting, fat-phobic standard of beauty, but you can’t deny her decades-long hustle to stay on top.” In a film in which the protagonist is a young intern who falls into the trope of a “tom-boy who’s never heard of Jimmy Choo,” the villain is an older woman in a position of power. Contextually, the movie pushes the message that ambition can change you for the worse, but it is at the expense of reducing the female characters to be mere opposites, black and white. These portrayals are a dime a dozen for female characters, and are paper-thin, likely due to the fact they are too often authored by men.
III. “I used to think my life was a tragedy…”
Over the past 20 years, more than 75% of the crews involved in 2,000 of the biggest grossing films consisted of men according to film researcher Stephen Follows. That makes for a whole lot of varied perspectives among male protagonists: heroic, tragic, spiritual, fleshed out — almost ridiculously so. Why are there so many movies and documentaries portraying real-life serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy? Analyzing their psyches could be interesting, but films often delve even deeper, looking at all the dimensions of these monsters of men — they even portray their real backstories. The amount of attention they get is almost alarming or glorifying. But what is evident is that they get a gratuitous amount of an audience’s appeal, an appeal of compassion and understanding, an urge that you should understand their pain.
In an article for Fansided, Byron Lafayette writes about the film Joker (2019): “The Joker represents the id in its purest most primal form; he is the walking incarnation of our basest fears, desires, emotions, rage, wants, needs, and passion.” The Joker, or Arthur Fleck, is shown as a man at his tipping point, and he is treated as a nuisance to society; he lives with his aging ailing mother, works as a party clown and was abused horrifically as a child. Before going full “Joker,” the movie shows him killing people in cold blood and starting a riot that incites the city into chaos. Unlike Amy Dunne, he is mostly understood by the audience as a man who was shoved one too many times. His makeup and suit combine to make one of the most worn Halloween and party costumes and, with every Batman reboot, the question that always comes up is, “who will play the new Joker?” His faults are accepted and excused as male characters have been allowed that leeway for, well, forever.
IV. She’s a femme fatale: red lips, six-inch stilletos, and a bat!
Just to examine an example of past eye-candy and one-dimensionality, let’s look at another DC Comics character that continues coming back over the years: Harley Quinn. She appears alongside other villains in the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” and is mostly just the token hot girl who wields a bat in front of her enemies in sneaker-heels. As Jen Yamato writes in The Daily Beast, “Suicide Squad might not have come under so much fire from critics over its treatment of women if it had allowed even one of them to walk away with a greater measure of dignity. Instead, they’re all either hyper-sexualized (Harley Quinn, The Enchantress); hopelessly deferential to the love of a man, or subjected to violence either because they are bad (Harley) or because they’re not bad (the female officer with no name).” Harley got a solo movie in 2020 as the protagonist, which was marketed to promote ‘girl power,’ but fell flat and tactless. In the spin-off, Harley, who was in an abusive relationship with the Joker, finally breaks it off and goes on an unmemorable mission, fighting comical bad guys and teaming up with other strong ladies. That is not to say movies surrounding female protagonists cannot be silly or messy, but it does cater to a more service-like, showy, ‘women can be bad villains too because of equality’ ethos, and was strikingly underdeveloped plot-wise compared to many other superhero/villain backstories in the movie theater.
Harley Quinn was the token bad girl opposite her counter female hero, Wonder Woman, both girls filling a quota. But what about female characters that are not only tropes but simply an eclectic caricature created only to bolster the male lead? That role has a name: “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” coined by critic Nathan Rabin in 2005. Prime examples include Elizabethtown, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and tons more ranging from the beginning of film to now. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely to help better a usually lost male lead and to encourage or inspire him while being effortlessly beautiful and unique. We see her through his eyes, a bubbly, optimistic girl with no problems of her own, who can help him get over his writer’s block and alcohol addiction with her wit and cute eccentricity. This trope has infected many women and men to enforce roles in which the woman should be bolstering a man up cheerfully at all times. Hugo Schwyzer expresses his thoughts in The Atlantic about these deluded ideals: “In art as well as life, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl ideal exists because too many men remain intimidated by women who will not revolve their lives around our needs and our growth. We need to let go of the glorious ladies of our minds, and start being fully present with very real women with minds of their own.” Art imitates life, but people imitate constant art, and keeping on this charade that men want women to put them and their dreams first is harmful to both parties involved.
Contrarily, what does make sense is the film and TV industry’s motives. Above inclusion and good, accurate portrayals, there is one entity that controls all the players: money. What is going to break box office records, what do people want to see that will keep a show going for ten seasons while raking in the green? Ever wonder why the film industry continues making remake after remake — seriously, how many times can the same superhero be played? The main priority is what will get fast views, and looking from what has worked in the past, studios may not prioritize accurate, sensitive, raw works that could appeal to people of all walks of life over the stories that sell. Not every project is full of heart, looking to leave a mark on someone’s mind when they leave a movie theater. The film industry is ultimately a business, and the goals are controlled by those who deem what will make a profit. There can be a time and a place, or genre.
Circling back to the original premise, female characters being people and not props, fillers or tropes may be a novel idea, but what’s more, the novel thought is who those realistic, flawed women are. Representation in Hollywood has just recently become a more vocal issue. A 2016 study by UCLA reported that people of color accounted for 13.9 percent of film leads, 12.6 percent of directors and 8.1 percent of film writers, illustrating the racial gap in who dominates the film industry, which correlates to what we see. One-dimensional depictions of women of color in movies are even worse, as in many instances they have been delivered through racial stereotypes. Lead roles of complex women of color have seen an increase — for example, look to Annalise Keating, portrayed by Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder, a woman you could love to hate or hate to love, but ultimately see as a real, multifaceted person. Intersectionality should not be ignored when looking for more representation among certain groups, especially when just grouping by gender.
If you think of the top five movies that you have watched in your life, would your ranking be based on how happy they made you, how fulfilled, how interested, or how angry they made you? Do they have lovable characters you could defend, or more flawed people who have hit someone with their car? Redemption and likeability are important factors for anyone — characters on the screen and people you meet in real life. But finding things, stories or people interesting is what drives curiosity and a craving for learning more.
So would I be scared to know Amy Dunne? Definitely. But the film and TV industry should nonetheless focus their efforts on diversifying who is writing the characters we all see, and who is playing them. They should look forward to giving female characters the chance to be just as gritty, or evil, or generous, or kind or simply as multifaceted as male characters have been for decades. Who knows, it might even bring in more money than the eleventh sequel to The Avengers.