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 make 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 including 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 histories, 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.