Register Wednesday | June 19 | 2019

dead girls in movies

This is something that's been really bothering me. I think I started to notice it last spring, when I was interviewing Jacob Tierney about his movie, Twist. We were talking about politics in movies and he was saying, I think about Ken Loach, and this is a hazy recollection rather than a direct quote: "I don't cry because the workers are opressed, you know? I cry because...she dies."

By the way, this isn't a dis of Jacob Tierney. He's a smart young fella, and the above sound bite made perfect sense in context. But it got me thinking, later on, and I realized (okay, it's probably obvious): a lot of movies make you cry because "she dies". The dead girl is, in North American cinema anyway, a kind of catch-all device, a button that filmmakers push whenever they want to up their film's emotional ante.

And as of yesterday, I'm officially fed up with it. I think it's time to give this particular device a break. Because yesterday, I went to a screening of a teensy independent Canadian movie called It All Happens Incredibly Fast, and saw yet another textbook example of a lazy filmmaker killing off a girl to solve a narrative dilemma, and something just snapped.

The deal with the movie is, and I'm going to spoil it all to hell here so be warned, there are these people trapped in a bar after a brawl, waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and a mysterious stranger comes to join them. He starts telling wild stories about his life, and it's kind of like Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, so I got all caught up in it, wondering who he was going to turn out to be.

Finally, at the movie's climax, he tells a story about how he tortured a girl to death to get revenge on her boyfriend. The scene drags on for a long time as he describes, in grisly detail, exactly what he did to her. I think it's supposed to be powerful, but it's actually a really shitty thing to do to an audience, and I would say particularly to a female audience. Because the girl is not a subject; she's an object he's using to get back at a man. And the story is told by a man in order to intimidate another man.

See, I think you can make a distinction between that kind of violence and the violence in a horror movie. When the central girl in a horror movie runs screaming from the fiend with the chainsaw and hides in the basement and eventually outwits him and escapes or triumphs, she's playing out a classic predator-prey drama. (Hey Heather, do you want to do a guest blog on your theory about the hunting and hiding impulse in video games?) People can identify with her, and be reassured that, although life can be scary and dangerous, it is possible to prevail.

But something like the above scene doesn't serve that purpose. What it does is to relieve the writer of the responsibility of coming up with a satisfying ending. The stranger's story is shocking, see? And it tells us who he is: he's a Bad Guy. Where does he come from? What's he doing there? Never mind. He's evil, we're shocked. The End.

That's a particularly egregious example of the dead girl as a lazy, manipulative device, but I've seen tons of others. There was a movie at the film festival - was it called Fortune? Something like that (speaking of laziness) - in which the lead character unwittingly impregnated his sister; the film was a comedy, so to give him his happy ending, the writer had the sister kill herself so the lead guy could get out of town.

Or Stoked: the Rise and Fall of Gator, which was a documentary about a skateboarder who killed his girlfriend's best friend and went to jail. True story, right? But even so, the filmmaker (who was female, so this isn't limited to men) treated her as an incidental plot device, the circumstance that sends buddy to jail.

I'm just randomly naming dead-girl films I've seen in the past couple of months, but I'm sure you can think of others. Just pick a drama. Bambi's mom, you know?

So I guess my point is: it's lame. Let's give it a rest, do like they used to do in Turkish cinema and kill off the little boy if you want to jerk a few tears. Or maybe kill off a tree, or smash up an old lawn chair or break a window or something. Enough with the women. Leave the women alone.


There's another side to this, of course. Philip K. Dick said something somewhere, and again this isn't an even remotely accurate quote, about the saddest? most beautiful? story in the world being about a dead? missing? absent? woman.

I have it on good authority that Dick was probably talking about Sophia, making a veiled reference to gnosticism or something. And that seems likely, given his obsession with early Christianity. And although out of context the quote makes me bristle, in context, he's got a point. Forget gnosticism for a second and look at garden-variety Christianity: there's the story of a missing woman if I ever saw one. Check out the Trinity: Father, Son, and, er, gender-neutral Holy Ghost. So where's Mom?

So hey, maybe somewhere deep down this is the trauma that American movies are reliving by killing off all these girls; maybe it's Christian motherlessness that makes it such an effective emotional trigger (as opposed to, say, Bollywood cinema, where when they want to make you cry they kill off Shahrukh Khan).

Oops, late for work. Gotta go.