Wednesday, December 30, 2015

WHY Tough Women Have Traumatic Pasts...and It's a Problem

In the previous post I described some various ways in which tough women inevitably have traumatic pasts, but so what?  I mean, sure, that’s strange and all, but there are lots of tropes out there in the pop culture world.  True...but not all of them indicate a key issue that still plagues the world of entertainment and beyond.  Inequality.

While strong men may have tragic backstories they don’t have to and, honestly, usually don’t in the end.  Women pretty much have to.  There are precious few female characters that kick ass and take names without first having been through some of the worst experiences imaginable - loss of family, assault, sexual abuse, kidnapping, rape, attempted murder.  Men are frequently portrayed as capable of surviving in harsh, even post-apocalyptic, environments without really having gone through much beforehand while surviving for women seems to have to be old-hat with the worst having happened to them long before the world fell. 

Not all portrayals of this inequality are the same, but all ultimately lessen the strength, the toughness, of the female character.

What a Strong Woman!

On the surface there’s nothing wrong with strong women.  They’re great!  It’s important, crucial even, to show that women can match their male counterparts in inner and outer strength.  That women can overcome adversities, even terrible ones, and they can be all the tougher for it.  In certain cases overcoming adversities where others might fail shows that they can be even stronger than the men around them.  …That a woman is strong is not the problem; it’s that many are shown primarily as weak first.

When I discussed The Walking Dead’s Carol Peletier and The Silence of the Lamb’s Clarice Starling I pointed out how, first and foremost, these two were introduced as the weak and the abused.  Carol is small-framed, middle-aged, mother with an abusive husband who loses pretty much everything (including her daughter) within the first few weeks of the show's timeline.  Clarice is consistently shown as short, even tiny, compared to her male FBI cadet peers and there’s more than one incident of a man at least attempting to push Clarice around…and then there’s the earlier death of her father and being unable to save those slaughtered lambs.  It’s only over time that their strength is revealed - as they take on greater and greater threats and are able to repeatedly come out on top.

There’s an implication with both women that without the traumas in their life they would not be so strong.  Clarice idolizes her father who was killed in the line of duty and seems to have an underlying goal of making him proud, even becoming like him.  Those lambs she couldn’t save haunt her so now she aims to save others no matter the danger.  Carol only begins to really be someone after her abusive husband is eaten by Walkers.  Only then does she speak and stand up for herself and others.  Carol’s development as strong woman takes on another layer when, after losing her daughter as well, she’s even tougher…becoming (violently) proactive in defending herself and those she cares about.  Women first.  Strong second.

In the end it takes away a bit from the toughness these ladies have.  They are greatly admired (and should be!), but I’ve never heard anyone credit them with just being strong.  It’s always about them being strong women and not just strong.   …It ends up reminiscent of a politer version of “pretty tough…for a girl”.

She’s Not Hard, She’s Just Troubled

Some women onscreen spend most of their time being brusque, callous, and totally unwilling to take anyone’s shit.  They are what’s popularly referred to as the HBIC - Head Bitch in Charge.  Initially no one’s completely sure why they are this way; it seems to just be a matter of personality, but that can’t be right.  Women can’t be so naturally harsh, can they?   Then their past is revealed.  A past filled with pain and humiliation and (almost always) sexual abuse.  Now these women makes sense, their true selves have been discovered…deep down they are just scarred, scared, little girls.

This is essentially what happens to both Ani Bezzerides of True Detective and Claire Underwood of House of Cards.  The women start off as tough characters.  With knife always at the ready Ani is running raids, casually bedding partners, and giving glares and snarky replies to anyone who suggests she tone herself down.  Claire is tough for both her and her husband, doing whatever she deems necessary to advance their careers, even threatening pregnant women, all while keeping a calm demeanor.  They are aggressive, determined, and unmoved by what others think.  Both practically dominate the male-based worlds of law enforcement and politics they are in.  While not always the kindest people they are admirable in their fearlessness and command of others.  …Then their pasts are revealed.  Pasts filled with sexual abuse and feelings of helplessness.

Even more than with the other two (Carol and Clarice) this manner of dealing with traumatic pasts lessens the strength of these women.  Now that the ice queen’s veneer is cracked she can be a woman again.  Just a woman who’s been abused and is afraid of becoming a victim again.  That’s why she’s so aggressive and unwilling to play along, that’s the real reason she’s so tough.  She’s not the cold, calculating, woman in charge, but the girl scared of her next potential attacker.  Their traumatic pasts soften these women, change them into someone (something) more manageable and palatable to audiences - especially the misogynist ones.  

There’s also the sense that the traumatic past was added as an afterthought to explain the women’s aggressive behaviors in these cases.  Whatever toughness they have - which is a great deal - can now easily be dismissed as a reaction to their previous assault.  The women’s actions and reactions run the risk of being taken less seriously once the majority of their behaviors can be linked to a serious past trauma…even the women themselves can, potentially, be taken less seriously.  Again, they aren’t hard individuals that shouldn’t be messed with, but instead troubled women still dealing with what happened to her in her youth.  It becomes hugely unfair to the characters and the audience - Ani and Claire were already multidimensional female characters, why couldn’t they just stay the hardcore badasses they were for the majority of their storylines?

It’s not to say that no female characters should have traumatic pasts, but not all female characters need them either.  When the trauma is used as a cover explanation of or sole reason for the character’s behavior it becomes a problem.  Not everyone who is independent, strong, or even aggressive is that way as a result of an earlier devastation.  Some women, like some men, just kick ass and have always kicked ass.  (Though some men may, in fact, have traumatic pasts and more such men should be represented in pop culture to help fight this sort of gender inequality.)  A traumatic past - whether of a female or male character - should only be part of a characterization and never used as the sole explanation for their personality.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Tough Women Have Traumatic Pasts

It takes a special kind of woman to be as tough as the men and in pop culture it takes one with a traumatic past.  Something that’s hardened her enough to hang with the guys, do a “man’s” job, and perform those tasks most often considered masculine in nature.  The trauma itself is not always the same - domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, the death of a parent at a very early age - but the results are.  Someone tough and determined enough to live and succeed in a male-dominated world, but never without some terribly painful past that underlines she’s still the “softer” sex. 

Carol Peletier

There is little known about Carol’s past before the Walker-apocalypse, but the moment you see her in The Walking Dead you know she’s a victimized woman.  Her husband, Ed, is a brute who shows little kindness to his wife or daughter (Sophia) even as strangers are pulling together for survival.  He doesn’t hesitate in hitting Carol, roughly dismissing Sophia, or even lashing out aggressively towards others…add to that Carol later mentioning his tendency to “look” at their preteen daughter and it causes a shudder to think what he was like behind closed doors.  It’s clear the Peletier house was neither a happy nor safe one.  As the first two seasons progress the traumas compound for Carol with first Ed dying (though that one might’ve been a relief) and then Sophia going missing only to be found as a Walker locked up in a barn days later.  It’d be enough for anyone to fall apart, but Carol is a woman forged in fire.

Six seasons in Carol is one of the most dangerous characters on the show.  She’s the one who does the things others would (at the very least) hesitate over.  She’s Rambo in a pastel shirt and matching cardigan doing whatever it takes to ensure her and her loved ones’ survival.  Over the years she’s killed innocent people and single-handedly taken down entire communities.  Would this new, badass, “Scarol” be around if she hadn’t lived with a man like Ed for (I’m guessing) more than a decade beforehand?  Possibly…But even the actress, Melissa McBride, confessed that one of the reasons Carol is so good at surviving in the zombie apocalypse is because she had a lot of practice beforehand.  Living in Ed’s household she learned how to protect herself and her daughter by keeping a low profile and having to constantly assess, then diffuse, dangerous situations.

Clarice Starling

Agent Starling didn’t have an abusive childhood, but she did have a rough one.  A worshiper of her sheriff father her world falls apart after he’s shot on the job.  She watches him cling to life for weeks before finally succumbing to his injuries, then she’s shipped off to her uncle’s farm in Montana.  There Clarice is further traumatized by witnessing the slaughter of Spring lambs causing her to attempt to free them, running off with one only to be caught and ultimately sent to an orphanage.  These things shape her both in her need to save and her tough exterior.  

The Silence of the Lambs film goes to fair lengths to show just how physically small Clarice is compared to her male FBI cadet counterparts, but also her ability to take their hits without being moved.  Without much strain she keeps pace with and, according to her teacher/boss Jack Crawford, surpasses many at the academy.  It’s made very clear that she’s one tough lady before she’s ever sent out to interview Dr Lecter and she’s the only one mentally strong enough to have any kind of affect when she does interview him.  Clarice is so determined to become an FBI agent and save others there’s the suggestion that she’ll do whatever she needs to; share personal stories with Lecter, stand up against all the male superiors around her, and take on (and take down) a serial killer alone.

Ani Bezzerides

Like Clarice, Ani loses a parent early in her life with her mother’s suicide.  Her father stays in the picture as a hippie who raises his two daughters in a small commune - one that Ani says had four other group members she was part of; two of whom went on to commit suicide and two of whom ended up in prison.  While that alone may qualify as trauma things get worse for Ani when, at about age ten, she’s lured into the wilderness by a pedophile drifter.  While she blocked out most details of the assault Ani knows that she was missing for approximately four days and she willingly went with the man initially.  

The result is a young woman ready, willing, and able to make any man who touches her bleed out in under a minute.  Ani isn’t the skittish, jumpy, female victim though; she’s the gravelly-voiced, e-cig smoking, combative, detective running raids and sleeping with her coworkers like so many of her male pop culture counterparts.  She’s trained herself to take down men physically and verbally (even when they try to compliment her) and comes off as almost eager to push back against anyone that suggests she soften her personality.  Ani’s been a victim in the past, she’ll be damned if she becomes one again. 

Claire Underwood

Claire is probably the clearest example of early trauma equals tough woman.  The truth is there’s little known about her past outside the fact that, in college, she was raped.  A trauma that is clear and undeniable - just like her generally cold demeanor throughout House of Cards - and one of the only things that seems to jar her.  Seeing the man again years later is able to throw her off her usual calm presentation enough those around her take note.  Discussing it with her husband, confessing to the feelings of helplessness it caused, leaves Claire truly shaken for the first time on the show.  She basically says that the event is one of the key contributors to her hardened shell as, after the incident, she swore to herself never to let anyone make her feel that powerless again.

While the connection between trauma and toughness is always made clear, how the women and their traumas are handled differs slightly.  Carol and Clarice are first shown as women, then as strong; Ani and Claire are first tough, then women.  Carol’s introduced as an abused wife, loving mother, and generally caring person…it’s only over time that she grows into the badass “Scarol” that fans now love and admire.  Clarice is shown as smaller and thus implicitly weaker than nearly every male around her so that the fact she is there, unwilling to be pushed aside, and able to achieve what others aren’t - a report with Hannibal, stopping the killer, saving the girl - shows her strength.

On the opposite end Ani comes on the scene as a hardened detective raiding a house.  She is combative towards most and when a male detective, Ray Velcoro, suggests she soften (“haven’t you ever heard you get more flies with honey?") she gives a snarky rebuff (“what the fuck do I want with flies?”).  It isn’t until she goes undercover towards the end of the season that her gender is displayed - now she’s dolled up in makeup and a sexy dress, now she’s put-upon (made to do drugs, touched and drooled over by men twice her size).  Even after she fights back her feminine side is exposed as she reveals her traumatic past to her new lover, Ray Velcoro.  Like Ani, Claire is first and foremost strong.  Cool, calm, and collected, very little ever rattles Claire as, like her husband, she manipulates her way up the political ladder with no real remorse for those she leaves crushed in her path.  Even more than Ani Claire has the potential to come off as a real bitch to the audience…then she goes to an awards ceremony and comes across her rapist once more.  The icy exterior melts and Claire is distinctly female complete with angry husband swearing vengeance who she must soothe into a clearer mindset.

These aren’t the only strong women with traumatic pasts, just a small sample in the wide world of pop culture (books, TV, film, comics, and beyond).  The concept is so prevalent it’s a trope; something that occurs so frequently across the spectrum of entertainment media that it is expected.  It's hard to find a female character without a hauntingly painful past, as if one can’t exist without the other.  If there’s a strong woman, a woman who kicks ass and doesn’t care what those around her think, you can bet good money she’s got a traumatic past.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

When Characters Get Real, Audiences Get Mad

Certain characters achieve a level of venom from audiences that can be surprising.  Even when they aren’t the main antagonist, trying to take over the world, or even all that villainous, people loathe them…but why?  Why is it that certain characters garner more hatred than others?  Is it that they aren’t as clever, physically attractive, or entertaining as their more tolerated counterparts?  …Sometimes, but not always.  Usually there is a deeper reason behind the audience’s intense dislike.  It would seem that those characters on TV, film, and in comics who really get our blood boiling are those we’ve met - in one way or another - in real life before.

Dolores Umbridge

Just thinking of her makes me want to curse and throw things at the wall.  She’s the only person (real or fictional) to ever get my curse-averse friend to use the “C-word”.  Ms Umbridge isn’t the Big Bad of the Harry Potter series, she isn’t even a Death Eater henchman, yet more people seem to loathe her than Tom Riddle.  This woman with a love of pink, cutesy, things and a cruel streak towards those she deems “less than” is enough to make one consider using the Killing Curse.  Why?  Because we’ve met her before.  All different versions of her throughout our lives and whether we “beat her” or not, there’s always the possibility of another version cropping up in the future.

Remember that teacher who treated all her students like drooling idiot toddlers and enforced ridiculously harsh punishments for having your own opinion?  That’s Umbridge.  She was also the one calling you a liar or cheat when you weren’t and refused to listen to your side…or let anyone else listen to your side for that matter.  On the outside she was sweet and meek, she probably had others fooled, but you knew better.  You knew she was the worst teacher ever, but could never find a way to prove it.  She left you either playing her game by her rules or with a D average in the class.  You hate her still.

Just because you've moved into the corporate world doesn't mean you’re rid of her type either.  Now she’s the middle-management boss that tows the company line to the detriment of those under her.  Think there’s a problem with the way the company runs things?  Now you’re doing double-overtime whether you spoke up or not because the Umbridge in your office has been spying on you (or had others doing it for her) the whole time.  

She’s not the knife at your throat or even in your back, she’s the splinter just under the skin…unlikely to kill, but a constant irritant you just can’t get rid of.  Add to that Umbridge was a condescending bigot and hypocrite who pretended she wasn’t as terrible as she was so…yeah…it’s little wonder people hated her so much.


What an asshole, am I right?  He’s the pinnacle of callous as he uses his powers of mind control to make those around him cater to his every whim.  It’s clear he doesn’t care at all about those he forces his will on as he either ignores or minimizes their pain greatly; he even goes so far as to play the victim himself.  He’s symbolic of the worst aspects of white male privilege: snobby, misogynistic, abusive, and self-righteous.  He expects others to feel bad for him as he gets his way consistently.  He enforces his will on protagonist, Jessica Jones, to develop a sexual relationship with her and gets offended when she declares (rightly) that he’s raped her.  As if to make him all the worse he frequently imposes his will for the most selfish and banal reasons: to get cushy digs to hideout in, as petty revenge for being pestered (“pick up that coffee…throw it in your face”), and to get the girl, as it were.  He’s basically a bully with superpowers and no one likes a bully, but everyone’s run into them throughout their lives.

In the schoolyard he was the one taking your money, saying nasty things about you, or getting you to do terrible things (smoking, drinking, cutting class) with/for him…or all three.  Kilgrave’s the man who feels you owe him that smile he wants.  When he buys you a drink, you owe him the act of drinking and then thanking him for it.  You should be flattered by his interest, don’t you know?  He’s the abusive, controlling, boyfriend who doesn’t see date rape as rape because he just took you to a high-end restaurant and bought you a very expensive necklace…you owe him.  If you’re lucky enough to get away, get free of his controlling and abusive behaviors, he fast becomes the stalker.  

People are incensed by Kilgrave because they’ve all met someone like him.  They’ve dated him, been abused and manipulated by him, or at least know someone who has.  He gives other men, good men, a bad name.  He’s rightfully terrifying because women come across various versions of him everyday from the random guy who tells you to “smile” to the abusive ex who raped them to the stalker slowly dismantling their sanity.

Skyler White

Disclaimer on this one: I didn’t hate her, I didn’t really have a problem with her at all given her circumstances.  That said I know the vast majority of Breaking Bad fans hated her with a passion.  They complained about her nagging, attempts to prevent Walt from doing as he wished, and butting into his business.  She went from calling Walt on his lies to refusing to allow him near their children, to becoming his sort of partner in running the carwash he laundered money through.  The only running theme for Skyler was asking Walt when he’d stop being so dishonest.  So the main question is: Why do people hate her so much?  For the same basic reason they hate the other two…familiarity in the real world.

I know a lot of people summarize that Skyler was hated mainly because she was in opposition to Walt being the badass everyone (if only reluctantly towards the end) admired.  I disagree.  There were plenty of others on the series who tried to stop Walt from his foray and rise in the drug business and none seemed to be hated with the same venom as Skyler.  Case in point: Gus Fring.  Not only did he attempt to stop Walt, but actively tried to kill him and Jesse and threatened to do the same to Walt’s entire family.  Still, people liked Gus.  They thought he was cool with his eerily calm demeanor, grandiose schemes, and frequent success despite the odds.  So…yeah, just being an antagonist to Walt is not why Skyler got so much hate.

It’s that every other guy out there has met or dated someone like Skyler…someone who won’t just sit back dumbly, take the bullshit they’re told at face value, and let their significant other do whatever they like without complaint.  Skyler really isn’t that different from other wives and girlfriends out there; she wants an honest, decent, man who doesn’t lie and (of course) isn’t a danger to her and her children.  That being said, when circumstances call for it, she’s willing to break the law to protect those she cares about.  It’s not a “ride or die” thing, it’s a “protect my family from the madness my husband’s created” thing…if Walt falls, they all do, and she won’t allow that for her children.

Of course, men weren’t the only ones to hate Skyler White.  Women did too.  They gave the same complaints (nagging, whiney, etc), but it still wasn’t the real problem.  While I feel the reasoning is slightly different from the men, it was still related to the realism of Skyler, just...different.  It was that, rather than make a clear choice, Skyler found herself a terrible, trapped, middle.  She didn't sit back and do nothing or happily go along, but she didn’t outright turn Walt in either.  Most would like to think they’d choose one or the either.  They would go along as Walt’s willing partner-in-crime or they’d do the legally right thing and turn him in outright.  They don’t want to think they’d end up just as trapped as Skyler did - working alongside a man she once loved hoping only to keep herself and children safe until he dies.

These three characters are all quite different on the surface.  Umbridge is a viciously saccharine woman who bullies anyone she feels she can, Kilgrave is a misogynistic abuser, and Skyler’s the wife of a drug dealer she hates more every day she finds herself with him…but they still all have a key characteristic to them.  Realism.  It’s this realism, this ability to find real life versions of these characters in everyday life (even within one's self), that brings up the heated, aggressive, feelings.  Many audiences use films and TV series as a form of escapism, but those characters all remind them that reality still exists.  They represent the more negative, irritating, and tedious aspects of life as well; the ones we’re trying to escape.  It’s hardly a surprise these characters tend to be the most hated and frequent subjects of our wrath, whether they deserve it or not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Survive the Dinosaurs, Survive Nature

Jurassic World recently came out to own - it’s fun, a bit silly, and just maybe has a message.  And not just this Jurassic movie, but all of them collectively.  A rather important message really, albeit hidden under monstrous dinosaurs and running humans and, yes, a healthy dose of ridiculously fantastic deaths.  So...what is this message?

Or, more generally, nature is a powerful force that should not be interacted with lightly.  Nature should be respected at all times and playing God is not a wise choice, especially if you've not considered the repercussions of what you do.  Disregarding Mother Nature is dangerous - both for you and those around you - and these films show that in very clear ways...especially concerning two specific facets in dealing with Nature.

Facet #1: Respect Nature's Creatures

ALL her creatures.  From your fellow human to a velociraptor to baby birds hopping about.  There are, of course, various levels of disrespect to show from disregard to outright abuse, but any manner of discourtesy seems to result in the same ending.  Death; specifically death-by-dinosaur.  In every movie there's at least one guy (it's generally a man) who makes the mistake of treating a dinosaur poorly.  Whether that be through name calling, mocking, or an act of aggression a human inevitably makes the mistake of thinking themselves dominant over animal and then the graver mistake of showing this apparent dominance to a nearby creature.

In the first movie this is computer tech, Dennis Nedry, who - let's be honest - is kind of a dick in general.  He's loud, rude, obnoxious, and smarmy to pretty much everyone and everything.  He’s also self-serving; willing to steal from his employers for a quick buck at a time when they need his skills the most.  Clearly this guy was going to die, but his big mistake and ultimate demise doesn't come until he runs across the poison-spitting, carnivorous, Dilophosaurus.  Due to the dinosaur's initial non-threatening appearance Nedry isn't just dismissive with it, he's a bit threatening telling it that he'll run it down when he returns from selling embryos to the competition.  It's no surprise moments later the Dilophosaurus shows his own true nature by spitting blinding poison at Nedry's face and (off-camera) eating him alive.

In the second movie it's a hunter named Dieter Stark.  Another guy who's not exactly good to start given the whole hunter thing.  He seals his fate when a curious little Compsognathus (aka "Compy") comes over to examine him and another and Stark shocks it with a cattle prod.  It lets out a pained squeal as it flees and that seems the end of things.  Little does Stark realize that the breed is carnivorous and already responsible for a young girl nearly losing her finger in the beginning of the film.  Now that he's set himself up as a threat the Compys band together to take him out the moment the opportunity presents itself, ultimately tearing him apart and eating him alive.

In Jurassic World the fool to disrespect nature is Hoskins, a man more interested in weaponizing Velociraptors (aka Raptors) than seeing them as their own beings.  When he gets close to one he treats it as one would a tamed puppy with condescending speech and clicks of his tongue.  While not the most abusive in the film series - he gives no indication he has any intention of injuring the animals - he's still not respectful.  He still thinks he's the dominant being out there, still thinks the dinosaurs as "less than", and is flagrant about it.  So it's not that shocking, when confronted with a freed Raptor, he gets eaten alive like all the previous fools.

All animals, be them prehistoric or modern, should be treated with respect.  They should not be dismissed, abused, or threatened.  They may not be able to speak and act as a human being, but that doesn't make them less-than and it certainly doesn't mean they won't fight back and/or protect themselves.

Facet #2: Never Presume Nature Can Be Controlled

It seems at least once in every Jurassic film someone declares "yeah, but we made sure this is under our control" in one way or another.  And, every time, they are proven horrifically wrong.  Each time nature adjusts, adapts, and evolves around the seeming controls that humans have set into place, which is just what it's supposed to do.  In order to survive all living things work their way around obstacles.  ...Dr Ian Malcolm in the very first film really did put it best.

In the initial Jurassic Park Dr Alan Grant and Dr Ellie Sattler both wonder how it is the park intends to prevent unauthorized breeding of the dinosaurs to which geneticist Henry Wu explains that he's manipulated DNA so that all the dinosaurs are female.  Seems a great fix as females can't breed with one another.  The problem is the froggie DNA mixed in to complete the dinosaurs happens to be from an amphibian that can change gender when required.  Needless to say nature considers a sex-change is required and breeding in the wild begins (one of the things that leads to the next two sequels).

In the second film a group decides to "collect" the dinosaurs from their island where they've been living as the naturally wild creatures they are and try to stick them in a park based in San Diego.  For the most part it’s a disaster, of course, but they do manage to nab and sedate a T-Rex.  Problem is when it wakes up someone goes to open the cargo hold (presumably in attempt to re-sedate) and the massive carnivore gets completely free.  It goes on to terrorize the streets of San Diego until it can be lured back to the hold via its baby - for once the need to preserve life, to carry on the species, working in the humans' favor.

For the third film the battle to survive is shown when someone makes the mistake of stealing Raptor eggs causing all the Raptors on the island to start chasing after him and a group who crash-landed there.  It isn’t until one of the crash-survivors returns the eggs that the humans are in any way safe…a real stroke of luck (and “the leads can’t die” rule) keeps the Raptors from attacking them after they get their babies back.

The latest film has geneticist Wu back creating dinosaurs and this time original species of them.  Naturally this is where things go wrong - in efforts to make the perfect scare for the park Wu makes the perfect predator.  Indominus-Rex.  Especially vicious, especially aggressive, especially intelligent, and something that kills as much for food as for thrills.  This time the DNA-mix includes cuttlefish, which leads to the Indominus being able to camouflage itself, Raptor, which leads to the other Raptors turning on the humans, and something else that allows the Indominus to change its internal temperature when desired.   Needless to say once things go sideways with this dinosaur all hell breaks loose at Jurassic World.

It’s entirely possible that those who watch the franchise have no interest in thinking about its deeper message...or thinking deeply at all.  That’s totally fine.  Everyone should be able to enjoy some escapism in the comical deaths-by-dinosaurs for the sake of it, yet those who do find the message and take it to heart may survive a little longer out in nature, even the dinosaur-free kind.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Twisted Love: The Sharpes of Crimson Peak

Spoilers Alert!

For the film Crimson Peak director Guillermo del Toro said he wanted to take the classic Gothic Romance story and twist it.  As an example he pointed out that it’s not necessarily the woman who needs rescuing by the man, but the reverse.  Whether he realizes it or not he also put twists on the classic concept of the serial killer couple.  While the one in Crimson Peak realistically follows the basics of how these sorts of pairings function it also subverts the cliches found in most fictional portrayals for a fresh take. …But before I continue please note, if you’ve not seen the film, there will be lots of spoilers to come…

…Seriously, I’m going to reveal plot points and secrets…

…Last chance…

Okay, if you read past this, it’s your fault!!

At its most basic Crimson Peak is about a young American woman, Edith Cushing, who falls in love with a man named Sir Thomas Sharpe, marries him, and moves into his super spooky rundown mansion with him and his sister, Lucille, in England.  There Edith starts seeing way too many ghosts for one’s own comfort or sanity and decides to investigate.  It’s a pretty straightforward plot honestly, but what Edith discovers is anything but.  Without realizing it she’s stumbled right into the web of a serial killer couple.

To keep themselves afloat in their dilapidated castle of Allerdale Hall the Sharpe siblings have turned to an effective, if unorthodox, method of gathering funds.  Thomas woos and marries wealthy women with no familial or social ties, brings them back to Allerdale Hall, and the two bilk them out of their inheritance as his sister poisons them.  By the time the women are dead the Sharpes have all their money and the bodies are tossed into vats of liquid red clay for disposal.  When the money runs out the two do it again somewhere else.

The method of seduction into marriage and then murder has been used frequently enough by other killers that there are names for it - females are known as black widows and males as bluebeard killers.  Females more frequently use this method and rarely does it involve two people working together, but there have been two major cases of it recorded - in both cases the two were women and, in one, sisters.  The sibling black widows were Catherine Flanagan and Margaret  Higgins who killed not just husbands, but other relations and lodgers in their home, for what was basically insurance money.  Interesting trivia: Catherine and Margaret were actually active just about twenty years prior to when the majority of Crimson Peak takes place - the sisters killed in 1880-1883, the Sharpes are killing up until 1901.

In the vast majority of killer pairs there is a dominant person and a more submissive one; the dominant drives the murders and calls the shots - when, where, how, who - while the submissive, well, submits.  In the case of male-female killer couples the dominant is typically the man, but that is decidedly not the case with the Sharpes.  While it does seem that Thomas picks the women - when Lucille questions his choice in Edith it’s implied that he also picked previous brides-to-die - that’s about all he does.  It is Lucille that is consistently pushing things forward, insisting they must go through with their plans immediately, and that they have to keep doing it over and over.  She's the one who insists on staying at Allerdale Hall, that the only way to keep going is to do these murders, and that Thomas has to stay with (and loyal to) her.  Just like the men in these murderous couples - such as Gerald Gallego who bullied his wife, Charlene, into luring girls to kidnap and be his sex slaves - Lucille is the one driving the murders with demands Thomas bring in new victims to satisfy her darker desires.  She's the dominant; her needs are taking precedence over Thomas’.  (It’s likely she is also the one that instigated and continues their incestuous relationship since their pre/early teens…she killed her mother to keep it going, after all.)

Another unique aspect of their murderous relationship is the roles taken within the context of the crimes themselves.  No matter the motive it is the male that most often commits the actual murder while the woman most often lures the victims, but with Thomas and Lucille the opposite occurs.  One could claim that it is Lucille who murders the women only because poison is used - which is considered a more “feminine” method given it’s hands-off, requiring no physicality - but she doesn’t just poison.  She hatchets, bashes, and stabs victims; Lucille seems not only skilled at violence, but to enjoy it.  Even without Thomas I’ve little doubt she’d have developed into a serial killer between the cold, hard, logic of her murders and the enraged outbursts of violence when things don't go her way.  She also does something that serial killers are well-known for…she keeps trophies.  In a private drawer Lucille has a collection of hair clippings from each of her victims.  She may claim to Thomas and others that it’s all about the money (and not getting caught), but the fact is Lucille enjoys killing.

Thomas, on the other hand, is not truly capable of any violence on his own.  When told to get rid of a previous victim’s dog he puts it outside rather than kill it outright; even when pressed by Lucille to kill someone he asks the victim where to stab that won’t actually be fatal.  This alone sets him apart from most submissive partners found in killer couples as there’s rarely a case in which the submissive doesn’t take part in the violence in some way.  While they may later claim they were so terrified and abused by their dominant counterpart that they had to go along it's been shown time and time again that they were equal contributors in the victims' sufferings and deaths - including the female perpetrators in the Barbie and Ken Killers (Karla Homolka and Paul Bernado) and Moors Murders (Ian Brady and Myra Hinsley) who were both proven not only to be spurring on, but very active in, the violence.  To his credit Thomas never participates, encourages, or seems to enjoy any of it.  In fact he’s most frequently trying to convince Lucille that they don’t have to kill anyone.  If it were up to him he’d get funds through legitimate investors in an invention he hopes will dig up rare red clay under Allerdale Hall that he can then sell for a profit.

So why does the empathetic, passionate, guilt-ridden Thomas Sharpe go along with his serially homicidal sister?  He loves her.  That he loves Lucille so much gives a final, ironic, twist to the serial killing pair that are the Sharpe siblings; there is some genuine love between them.  The problem is, in the words of Lucille Sharpe herself: “Love makes monsters of us all.” 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Sinister is Sexy

Onscreen sinister is sexy, whether we care to admit it or not.  Villains in TV and movies are fascinating to watch; you can’t take your eyes off them.  (Casting may help, true, but Hannibal Lector is entrancing played by Mads Mikkelsen, Anthony Hopkins, Brian Cox, or Gaspard Ulliel.)  But why?  Why do so many of us fall for the villain even when he or she is so...well...villainous?

Please note: I’m not talking about the villains in slasher films like Jason Voorhees or Freddie Kruger, but the ones that lean towards sane, sober, and sociopathic; the ones that could actually exist, in one form or another, in the real world.

Cleverness: Never seen a good old-fashioned villain without a great amount of intelligence.  Makes sense, sociopaths tend to test above average on IQ tests and have a unique read on situations and people that can make them seem like geniuses.  On screens big and small villains are shown exercising their brilliance whether by orchestrating murders, forcing heroes to solve multiple puzzles to save others, or even getting people to question their own sanity.  It isn’t so much the things they do that we enjoy, but that they can do them…they’re clever enough to organize and execute these grand schemes.  In Nightcrawler the protagonist (but no less villainous) Louis Bloom is able to cleverly navigate his way from thief and amateur videographer to the leader of a fast-growing freelance videoing company for L.A.’s local news…the things he does to get there are pretty awful, but one can’t help but admire the skill with which he does them. 

Showmanship: What’s the use of intelligence if you don’t show it off?  Steal the Crown Jewels, have high society come to a dinner of your victims, get away with multiple murders, or just blow some shit up!  Even the more subtle types have their moments: Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger goes bold in pulling his knife on Ned Stark and shoving Lysa Arryan to her death.  Villains do some outrageous things, sometimes successfully and other times not so much, but either way the audience gets a great show.  In the words of Batman Forever’s The Riddler “[Two-Face’s] entrance was good, [Batman’s] was better.  The difference?  Showmanship!”

No Fear: Pretty much everyone feels fear, it’s part of human nature.  It’s what kept us alive when we were running around the wild in nothing except fur pelts and still keeps us safe now.  It’s also something sociopathic villains tend not to experience or hold strictly in check if they do.  No running around screaming in panic for these ladies and gents; they face danger, even death, with their middle fingers raised high and a smirk on their face.  When pinned precariously at the railing of a bridge in BBC’s Luther Alice Morgan responds in an almost placid voice: “So go on…Kiss me.  Kill me.  Do something."  And then there’s Jim Moriarty who, after realizing what he must do to win, blows his own head off.  He’s not scared of death, he accepts it and uses it as a final move in his battle of wits against Sherlock - an act that startles the typically unflappable Holmes.

Wish Fulfillment: Ever wanted to punch your boss, key your ex’s car, or tell some obnoxious loudmouth in a theatre to shut up?  If you’re like most you ultimately backed out, but these villains wouldn’t…or, if they did, it's only because there's something far worse/more aggressive planned - like Hannibal who kills and eats those who offend his sensibilities.  Most people care about appearances, the legality of acts, or (if nothing else) their own safety and keep their impulses in check.  Sociopaths don’t really have that same sense of care and villains certainly don’t.  So the Average Joe or Jane can watch a show or film and revel in a villain cutting someone down - whether verbally, psychologically, socially, physically, or a variant of the four - without any risk to themselves or their reputation.  They get the vicarious thrill of power, winning, and revenge as they watch; they see Khan crush an enemy’s skull and, however subconsciously and briefly, imagine the skull of their own enemy.

Your Fear: Biological reactions to fear and sexual activity have some overlap: Increased pulse, labored breathing, wide eyes, open mouth…the description covers both.  Two chemical releases - norepinephrinee and dopamine - occur in both resulting in an adrenaline rush.  It’s why we go on roller coasters and in haunted houses, to get that rush, because sometimes fear is fun.  Why do you think a scary movie is suggested for date night by those trying to get lucky?  It’s not just that the date might jump into their arms or lap.  Villains do the same; when they make a sudden attack or hold people hostage in a tense kidnapping or standoff they give us that rush of excited fear without any actual risk to our safety.

Charm: If you are charming it pretty much means you’re likable.  Good, evil, or somewhere in between, others tend to want to be around the person who’s friendly and complimentary.  Even when certain people seem fake about their kindness they’re more tolerable than the pessimistic grump.  Along with charming many of the onscreen villains tend to be amusing - whether intentionally or simply by being their own twisted selves.  Between a serious, stern, hero and happy-go-lucky, warped, villain people might just go with the villain.  

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Secret Psychopath: House of Cards' Claire Underwood

In the previous post I discussed how a psychopath like the Joker can fly under the radar by playing crazy.  I also mentioned that that isn’t the only way a psychopath can go unnoticed by the rest of society; they can also play subdued.  This is how most function without notice, by appearing and behaving like the average, everyday, person.  They have jobs, families, friends, and show the appropriate emotions at the appropriate times.  Admittedly there are still moments they slip into their more cold, calculating, and ruthless nature, but those times are often dismissed as a single event (even when it’s a repeated one) or a quirk.  …This seems to be what House of Cards’ main female protagonist - or will that be antagonist now? - Claire Underwood is able to do.

Claire's potential psychopathy is almost immediately dismissed in nearly every other discussion about her, which speaks to how well her psychopathy might be hidden.  Of course it’s easy to hide when your husband - Frank Underwood - is a man who kills by hand without compunction and drawls out charming asides that sound right out of Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Just because she’s not the most psychopathic doesn’t mean she’s not a psychopath.  All one need do is go down Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist to see that, at the very least, Claire has a surprisingly high number of the traits.

Glibness/Superficial Charm:

There is no doubt that Claire can be very charming when she wishes to be.  She is able to befriend those her husband can’t or shouldn’t for whatever reason and almost instantly become their best friend and closest confidante.  By season three it’s said Claire is more popular with voters than Frank.  The thing is, it’s all surface.  Claire’s kindness, her gentle demeanor towards others, her one-on-one talks of apparent openness and honestly, are generally only done to aid in her and/or Frank’s benefit.  She uses the secrets she’s told against the confessor and others and accumulates favors for herself and/or Frank through those friendships.  Once a person no longer proves valuable Claire loses all interest in turning on the charm for them.  (Please note that even if what she’s doing appears to benefit Frank more her mindset is consistently: what benefits Frank will ultimately benefit me.)

Grandiose Sense of Worth:

Others have suggested that Claire is actually a narcissist, which alone indicates that she has this trait.  While not someone constantly boasting her greatness or needing reassurance that she’s fabulous, like an actual narcissist would, Claire certainly believes it herself.  With no experience at all she insists Frank make her an ambassador - even when it means circumventing the standard Senate hearing - and is certain she’ll be great at the job.  When she’s not Claire proceeds to blame others and outside circumstances for her failings throughout her time holding the position.  When Frank later declares he never should have made her ambassador she counters: “I never should have made you president.”  …True, she had a major part in his success, but so did he.

Need for Stimulation/Prone to Boredom:

When discussing Frank’s marriage proposal Claire quotes him as stating: “Claire, if all you want is happiness, say no. I'm not gonna give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you'll never be bored.”  …For some that might not be the best way to go, but for Claire it was perfect.  She never wanted the simple life, or even happiness if it meant that she wouldn't be living a stimulating life.  Given the wording Frank’s proposal suggests that a boring life, or even just a simple one, was something Claire always worried she’d end up with; she needs excitement and stimulation.

Pathological Lying:

Claire lies directly, by suggestion, or by omission whenever she thinks it’ll benefit her.  She lied to the (previous) First Lady by suggesting that there was something untoward between her husband and a secretary to throw their marriage into turmoil, paving the way for Frank to take the presidency right from under them.  She lied to the public about her relationship with another man, Adam, to cover a potentially scandalous affair — Frank knew and didn’t seem to care much, but both understandably doubted the American public’s capacity for acceptance.  When the press discovered she’d had an abortion she claimed it was related to being raped and, from there, built an entire political movement concerning sexual abuse in the military.  (She’d been raped, yes, but the abortion occurred as the result of different circumstances.)  By the end of season three Claire even states that both she and Frank have been lying to themselves and each other…while not specific it’s easy to presume she’s referring to what each expected to get out of the other and their relationship on whole.


This one rather folds into the superficial charm previously discussed given charm is what is most often used by a psychopath in order to con and manipulate.  Claire has no trouble using others to get what she wants and then dropping them when they are no longer useful.  From coworkers to lovers Claire has manipulated many into doing her dirty work or taking the fall from grace for her before discarding them for the next person or organization that’ll be of use to her.  Speaking of organizations I have a theory that her fierce dedication during the time she ran a non-profit aimed at building wells in African villages was all something of a long con…not only does it look good for her to have a life and career independent of her husband, but the better she does running such an organization the more she can promote her philanthropic success in future campaigns (for herself).  

Lack of Remorse or Guilt:

One of the keys to spotting a psychopath is their lack of remorse for what they do.  Frank is very clear in his lack of remorse, even if you suspect he has it he usually gives a snide aside to the camera to assure you he does not.  Claire is not as obvious, in fact there are times when she does seem remorseful - like when gay activist, Corrigan, killed himself in Russia - but that doesn’t necessarily mean she is.  What is read as remorse could also be a sense of defeat, frustration, or disappointment.  The problem is Claire gets no talk-time with the audience so, unlike her husband, we honestly don’t know what she’s feeling.

What is known is that she’s capable of doing pretty terrible things without any problems.  She’s not pushing people in front of trains, but she is pushing them to their emotional and mental limits…often times beyond.  She destroys the lives of her former lover, the (previous) First Lady and President, and even a fellow rape survivor to get ahead without thinking twice or looking back.  When a former employee at her non-profit dares to challenge her she cooly declares: “I’m willing to let your child wither and die inside you if that’s what’s required.  Am I really the sort of enemy you want to make?”  The answer is no, she is not, and more than that anyone who doubts the validity of her threat(s) probably hasn’t been paying close enough attention to Mrs. Underwood.

Shallow Affect:

Claire is known for her chilly demeanor so she certainly shares the flat affect that psychopaths are known for when they aren’t turning on the charm.  Most find her even colder than Frank much of the time and even when speaking about traumatic aspects of her past (such as her rape in college) Claire’s not one to get all that emotionally expressive.  Perhaps she would be more so if she got to break the fourth wall like Frank does, but it seems equally possible that she wouldn’t.

Callousness/Lack of Empathy:

Previously discussed traits such as her ability to manipulate and lack of remorse rather speak to her callousness and lack of empathy.  If she were truly empathetic she wouldn’t be able to do those things.  She’d feel too terrible as she shared the emotions of those she used, bullied, and ruined the lives of.  Even when she might share an experience, theoretically know how the other person might feel, she’s still not empathetic enough to not use them to her advantage…like when Claire pushed a fellow rape victim into telling her story so she could make her own political progress.

Parasitic Lifestyle:

This one’s a little tricky since Claire and Frank found one another while still young and, at least for much of the time, seemed to have a more symbiotic relationship.  They fed off one another, but it was balanced so that neither was really parasitic with the other.  Now that Claire’s discovered she’s no longer getting what she wants and/or needs from Frank and is leaving him we may see how she functions without a relationship like theirs.

Poor Behavioral Controls:

Frank is seen exploding in a rage more than a few times, but there are only two or three times total that Claire’s control over her behavior slips.  The first is at the Senate hearing for her confirmation as ambassador when she is not allowed to speak and snaps at one of the senators.  The second is her verbal slapping of Russian president, Petrov, for his upholding anti-gay laws in his country during a press conference.  The third is more of an almost when, while giving blood, she rambles and comes just shy of revealing things about her marriage she probably shouldn’t.  None of these are extreme and most are understandable - it’s easy to see anyone in her position doing the same things.  For the most part Claire doesn’t really have this trait as she tends to express herself in more subtle ways - like shutting the door for even more privacy - and even when behaving somewhat impulsively there’s a measure of control to it, as we’ll discuss later.

Sexual Promiscuity:

I’m not a fan of this one in general for it’s vagueness as to what might constitute promiscuity.  It can be seen as subjective and naturally brings up the classic what is promiscuous for a woman may not be considered promiscuous for a man issue.  That being said it’s on the list so let’s tackle it.  For a definition we’ll go with the Webster’s dictionary definition of not just “many” sexual partners, but picking those partners indiscriminately.  It’s hard to say what she was like prior to meeting Frank, but even while with him the trait at least partially fits just as it fits Frank.  One can argue she’s discriminating with her lover, Adam, given they appear to have enough of a history together she knows she can trust him.  No one can really say that concerning the threesome with her husband and their bodyguard, Meechum, though - she knows less about Meechum than Frank and Frank really doesn’t know much.  (It might also be of note that with both Adam and Meechum Claire seems capable of keeping emotionally detached so that, when no longer helpful, she can drop them without a thought, which does not necessarily qualify her as promiscuous, but may increase the likelihood that she is.)

Early Behavior Problems:

Given we don’t know much of Claire’s pre-Frank past it’s hard to say.  She could’ve had troubles, but it’s also possible that she didn’t.  It’s impossible to tell with the limited information we have.

Lack of Realistic Long-Term Goals:

Are any of us certain what Claire's long-term goals are?  We presume that she wants to be president herself one day, but I’m not sure that’s so unrealistic…after all Frank did it.  That being said, after all that’s occurred in Frank’s presidency thus far, it’s hard to imagine that the American public would vote either of them into office.


At first glance Claire doesn’t seem impulsive at all, but she does have her moments.  One of the clearest examples is in the first season when she disappears to Adam’s apartment and stays for a period of time.  While still a semi-calculated move (hence preventing it from qualifying for poor behavioral control) it’s not one she prepared for or told anyone about.  Claire just did it.  As mentioned previously Claire also impulsively went off-script at a press conference to condemn Russian president, Petrov.


Claire is responsible when she wants to be, when it benefits her, but otherwise she isn’t.  When a vast majority of her staff at the non-profit needs to be let go Claire pawns the responsibility off on an employee…who she then fires.  Once the focus of her responsibilities are for Frank’s benefit more than hers she sorta starts slacking.  She’s less inclined to go through with promised campaign stops and, eventually, she stops altogether and without warning to anyone.  She even stops taking her husband’s calls. 

Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions:

There are probably multiple reasons why LGBT-rights activist Corrigan commits suicide, but the nonstop insistence by Claire that he read the statement prepared for him didn’t help things.  It wasn’t all Claire’s fault, but it wasn’t entirely Petrov’s either although she certainly seemed to think it was.  Same holds for the Senate hearing on her potential ambassadorship: some did attack her (even after saying they wouldn’t), but she wasn’t in any way prepared or experienced enough for the position either.  What would be interesting to see is if Claire’s sense of responsibility will change now that she’s separating from Frank - will she still acknowledge the things she did during their time together or pass the blame off on Frank with claims of “I only did it for him”?  ...Honestly, unless it suits her better to throw him under the bus, I doubt it.

Many Short-Term Marital Relationships:

Claire notes that she had many proposals, but as far as we’re aware Claire’s only ever been married to Frank so it would seem this aspect of a psychopath is not something she has.  Whether that changes or not over time is impossible to say just yet.

Juvenile Delinquency:

Again, we don’t know enough about Claire as a young woman or child to speak with any authority on even the possibility of her having this trait or not.

Revocation of Conditional Release:

We’re not aware of her ever having been released from anywhere on any condition so this one’s probably a no.

Criminal Versatility:

While there’s no mention of Claire having a criminal record (expunged or otherwise) and none of the things she’s done have quite reached the level of being illegal she might still qualify.  Many things she’s done have been amoral - lying, intimidation, using others, betraying those around her - and, under slightly different circumstances, could be viewed as criminal acts.  She also likely knew about the murders of Peter Russo and Zoe Barnes, which would at least make her an accessory after the fact.

Because Claire is far more closed off and subtle than Frank it’s difficult to determine if she would qualify as a psychopath - she may be or she may fall just short of the official diagnosis.  But House of Cards writer, Beau Willimon, was once quoted as saying: “In many ways, I see Claire and Frank as the same animal: two people who are liberated in so far as they don’t bind themselves to any ideology or ethical standards. As people who do not feel they have to play by the rules, they really are completely self-serving – and they think that’s OK.”  …That statement heavily suggests that both Underwoods have the same potentially pathological psychology and, given many have (rightly) declared Frank a psychopath, then Claire would be one too.