[content warning: mentions of suicide and sexual assault]
It would be wrong to say everyone has not wished they were the main character of a story at least once in their life. So what if you were the beautiful Helen of Troy; your abduction causing war and thousands of deaths? Or you were the beautiful Lucy Westenra; your blood being drained by a vampire, and three men who are madly in love with you give you their blood? And what if you were the beautiful Juliet, committing suicide over your lover's death?
There seems to be a common theme here. Can you spot it? I’ll give you a hint, there is something that connects all three stories
Of course, not all tragedies are centered around beautifully distressed women, but a concerning amount of them are. Male writers especially seem to enjoy employing the concept of beautiful women experiencing tragedy in their works. Edgar Allan Poe can be quoted on writing that “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Lord Henry, a character from the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, said to the title character that “someone has killed herself for love of you. I wish that I had ever had such an experience. It would have made me in love with love for the rest of my life.”
The idea of a woman who cannot talk back or make decisions on her own is ideal to some men. Women written to be “dead or dying are, more often than not, portrayed as voiceless and passive objects” (Mulhall 1). And when a woman dies young, her beauty is safe and preserved from aging, something that could not be more scandalous for a woman to be able to do! This can be seen in the film Sleeping Beauty (1959) which tells the watered-down version of the fairytale “La Belle Au Bois Dormant.” Both versions feature a beautiful princess, which Disney named Aurora, that is trapped in an endless sleep and is eventually awoken by the kiss of a prince. She is completely helpless without a male to save her. The original, in comparison, is much darker than the Disney version. The princess is thought to be dead and a king, who is already married, rapes her. She even gives birth to children while stuck in this state. A rough English translation of the full story can be found here. Of course, the latter narrative is much worse for obvious reasons, but both are thoroughly problematic in the way they portray the women within the story.
So what if the woman isn’t dead? Even if she is alive, she will likely be portrayed as a damsel-in-distress. She needs someone to protect and save her. This is seen in the story of “Rapunzel” written by the Brothers Grimm. This story was based on “Persinette” (1698), which you can read a summary of here. In the similar but more well-known Brothers Grimm version, Rapunzel is locked in a tower by an evil sorceress. A prince rides by her tower and finds her trapped there, and he can only reach her by climbing up her long golden hair. For a full summary, click here. Long story short, Rapunzel is powerless without the help of the prince.
Both Aurora and Rapunzel are described in similar ways. They are both young, beautiful, delicate, and in an unfortunate situation that only a man can help get them out of. But why can only a man help these tragic women? Well, the other prominent female character in both stories, along with many others similar to them, is the villain. They are powerful, old, scary, and sometimes even described as ugly. Of course, not all stories about tragic women have a female antagonist. Those stories don’t have powerful women present whatsoever. If a woman is strong, she is made out to be undesirable and frightening. The only desirable women are fragile and small, ones who are unable to save themselves while also being conventionally beautiful. So people are made to feel sorry for young, tragic women (usually of a “fair complexion”), grateful for strong men, and scared of older women with power.
Unsurprisingly, there is an unfortunate amount of more modern stories that further perpetuate these concepts too. Such narratives commonly feature these ideas as a character stereotype that has been coined the “manic pixie dream girl.” Some examples of this type of character include Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Summer from (500) Days of Summer, and Alaska Young from Looking for Alaska. These women can be cheery, but they are usually depressed and complicated as well. However, the audience doesn’t get to uncover the complexities of these characters because their whole purpose is to “help the [male] protagonist achieve happiness without ever seeking any independent goals herself” (tvtropes). This flips the original concept where a tragic woman is in need of saving by a strong man. Instead, the tragic woman helps to save the man. The tragic woman idea here has it so the woman doesn’t even get to be the one “saved.”
The fact that it is incredibly easy to find numerous examples of these tropes is somewhat disturbing. They are at the center of media that has been and continues to be consumed by people of all ages, including children. Both men and women are negatively affected by these ideas. Everyone looks to the world to learn about what to do and how to act. I believe that inconspicuous ideas such as the ones discussed here are deeply rooted in our culture and are very harmful. Invisible or under-addressed issues are the ones that last the longest and, in turn, can have the most dire consequences. It is necessary for dormant problems such as these to be addressed so that we can re-evaluate the way in which our culture portrays women.
The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe
Sleeping Beauty is streaming on Disney Plus
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) is streaming on Starz
(500) Days of Summer (2009) is streaming on Prime Video and Paramount+
Looking For Alaska (2019) is streaming on Hulu