Saturday, February 3, 2018


To borrow a phrase, it's often hard out there for a heroine. If a character is going to menaced, kidnapped or even murdered for no other reason than to spur the protagonist into action, they're likely to be female. There are a series of age-old tropes about this that seem to exist in an unbroken line from Ancient Greece to next years Oscars' season.

Of course, a lot of it is simply a function of the understanding of gender roles. Men tend to be larger and stronger than women, and many times, leery enough of a fair fight that they're not all that keen on picking on someone their own size. And that meant that the villains of a piece would often go after women, who were commonly portrayed as being unable to effectively fight back. The degree to which this is an accurate reflection of reality varies somewhat. It was often portrayed as being a function of biology, when it was also just as likely a function of society.

But back when I was taking creative writing classes in college, I learned that there's also a matter of expectations in all of this. Picking on someone less capable than oneself is often considered a marker of evil, and in this, women (and children) for that matter were not only targets due to an overall understanding of their own weaknesses, but of the weaknesses that they highlighted in the characters that targeted them. To this day, we regard tragedies that befall mixed groups as more, well, tragic, than those that befall only men. A terrorist attack where the numbers of women and children are killed will almost invariably result in those numbers being part of the news coverage of the event. A serial murderer who preys on women, regardless of how little society appeared to care for those women when they were alive, is regarded as more of a monster than one who preys upon men.

And this makes its way into fiction. A character who attacks a woman or child is immediately seen as worse than one who does not. Jabba the Hutt from Return of the Jedi speaks to this in a way - while he was something of a bad guy for his treatment of Han Solo. Carrie Fischer is often (accurately or not, I do not know) quoted as saying his death came about due to his treatment of Leia. And on the flip side, a character can be a cold-blooded murderer, yet somehow a scruple against killing women indicates a spark of nobility.

And so there is the ironic happenstance that the Woman on a Pedestal and the Damsel in Distress are linked; enough so that getting rid of one means getting rid of the other. And while that linkage may not preserve the tropes forever, it certainly puts the brakes on the decline.

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