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.