feminism / Feminist Film School / film

Feminist Film School: What Are Tropes?

Welcome to the first instalment of “Feminist Film School,” a potentially childhood-ruining series where I look back at some of my favourite films from my youth and apply a feminist critique.

I feel it only right to preface this by saying that it’s ok to enjoy something while recognising that it is problematic, and you can apply critique to something without devaluing its other virtues. Many of these movies were culturally significant, award-winning or ground-breaking in their time for their animation, song writing or casts. Whilst I aim to recognise these achievements, my lens will largely be focused on its failures and successes in regards to feminism.

I’ll be re-watching these childhood classics and searching for tropes, measuring it against the Bechdel test, and (in the case of some fairy tales, adaptations or historical fiction) assessing whether the film deviates from the source material and how that improves or damages the narrative.

Before I get started, we need to discuss what tropes actually are. A trope is a commonly recurring literary device, which can come to define characters or plot devices. If you have a feeling you recognise a character’s behaviours, physiognomies and personal journey, or if they simply seem two-dimensional, chances are the creator has fallen into a trope trap. At best it’s a little lazy, at worse it’s symptomatic of misogyny.

There are a lot of tropes an author or screenwriter could lean on, far too many to list here. However, there are a few that are so overused they are almost unforgivable, and unfortunately these are the most likely to occur in my viewings.

Manic Pixie Dream Girl

This character is a feminine, attractive, quirky type whose main purpose is to serve as a muse or romantic interest for a male protagonist. She is constantly available, and exists as a plot device to give an (often depressed) male character a renewed vigour for life. Examples include Summer from 500 Days of Summer, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Penny Lane from Almost Famous.

Women in Refrigerators

This term is most commonly (but not exclusively) used in comic books and sci-fi to describe female (or occasionally LGBTQ) characters who are violently killed/depowered/tortured/maimed in order to motivate the male protagonist’s storyline. It originated from an issue of Green Lantern where the titular hero’s girlfriend was brutally murdered and shoved into his refrigerator. Avenging her death became the plot for a number of subsequent issues. The term “fridging” is used to describe the event. Examples include Gwen Stacey from Spiderman, Julia Angier in The Prestige and Merrin Williams in Horns.

The Ugly Duckling

Pretty self-explanatory, this describes a female character who starts the story as an undesirable, unattractive prospect who, after a makeover (removing the glasses, buying revealing clothing, removing body hair) suddenly becomes a knockout. It’s usually at this point that the previously disinterested male protagonist becomes romantically involved with her. Examples include Laney Boggs from She’s All That, Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality, and Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries.

Wise Crone

A stock character from fairy tales, the Wise Crone is an elderly, unattractive woman who serves to impart advice. She’s exceptionally two-dimensional, generally with no backstory, family or role beyond helping the protagonists along their way. Often these characters don’t even get a full name, or a name at all, though many examples have magical powers. Examples include Mama Odie from The Princess and the Frog, Crone Sister from Sleepy Hollow and Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas.

Damsel in Distress

Ah, the old classic. As if it needs explanation, the DiD is a female character who gets into scrapes and danger but is incapable of taking care of herself. She needs a male protagonist to come along, slay the bad guys and sweep her off her feet, providing the male lead with things to do. This character is a staple of video games, comic books, fairy tales and action movies. Examples include Princes Peach in the Mario games, Mary Jane Watson from Spiderman, Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and countless “Bond Girls.”

“Strong” Female Character/Action Girl

This may initially sound like a good thing, but again she’s more of a plot device than a multifaceted character. Generally she loses her femininity, in some cases even scorning typically feminine styles, traits and behaviours. She is often a weapon of vengeance, or part of an action team as a “token female”. Examples include Susan Pevensie from The Chronicles of Narnia, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and Mindy McCready/Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass.

Evil Queen/Matriarch

This character is, yet again, a stock take from fairy tales. Occasionally magical, this trope typifies the envious ageing beauty who serves as an antagonist and obstacle to the romantic leads. Examples are too numerous to mention, but the obvious ones are any character called Wicked Queen or any variants.

Mean Girl

An antagonistic, usually attractive, young woman, whose only motivation is to provoke the protagonist. She usually has no individual agenda or plotline beyond generally getting in the way and offering witty put-downs. She usually gets her comeuppance in a humiliating way. Examples include Mertle Edmonds form Lilo and Stitch, Regina George from Mean Girls and Kathryn Merteuil from Cruel Intentions.

Crazy Ex/Bunny Boiler

The Crazy Ex is often portrayed as frantic, cruel, deceptive and obsessive, either becoming vengeful post-break up, or attempting to manipulate situations and characters in order to win back her former partner. Examples include Monique from She’s the Man, Knives and Roxy from Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and the archetypal Psycho Ex, Alex Forrest from Fatal Attraction.

The Trophy

While this character can also fall into almost any of the other character tropes, she is nevertheless worth mentioning. Usually with no agency or narrative motivation of her own, this exceptionally attractive character is the object of a male protagonist’s affections, generally for no other reason than her beauty. He will often have to overcome obstacles to win her affections, which can sometimes include getting rid of her existing partners.

Absent Mother

Losing a parent is a life event, and yet plenty of young characters in film (and to a lesser extent literature) are missing their mother. This can come in two forms; the Mystery Mother and the Benevolent Ghost. Mystery Mothers are rarely, if ever, referenced or mentioned by the protagonist and their deaths or disappearances are never explained, as if they never existed or simply vanished. The Benevolent Ghost Mother is remembered fondly and nostalgically and often died in some romantic circumstance. Examples of the Mystery Mother are Ariel’s mother in The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas’s mother in Pocahontas, and example of the Benevolent Ghost Mother include Patty Halliwell from Charmed, Sara’s mother from A Little Princess and Mary and Colin’s mothers from The Secret Garden.

These are only just scraping the surface of all of the different tired plot-devices-disguised-as-characters you’re going to encounter in various forms of media, but they are probably the ones I’m most likely to refer to in this series.

And finally we ask ourselves: What is the Bechdel Test?

The Bechdel Test is a litmus test which you can apply to anything with a plot, whether it be literature, video games, comic books, TV or films. Invented by feminist legend Alison Bechdel, a story passes the Bechdel Test if two named female characters have a conversation with each other about something other than a man.

It sounds simple, but unfortunately the overwhelming majority of films fail this simple test. It should be noted, however, that passing the test doesn’t necessarily mean a the subject matter can be described as feminist, or even that it portrays women in a remotely acceptable light. For example, American Pie 2, Weird Science, The Stepford Wives and The Karate Kid all pass the Bechdel Test despite female characters getting very little screen time and playing very limited roles. It’s also not an indication of whether the film is any good. Also, some films which fail the Bechdel Test have brilliant, nuanced female characters, such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, Run Lola Run and the entire original Star Wars trilogy.

Now we’ve learned the lingo we’re ready to start applying these critical methods to my childhood favourite films. Stay tuned for our first critique, the Disney classic, The Little Mermaid.

– Elena the Mermaid



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