I’m thinking about a fairly old movie today, partly because I just saw it on Netflix, and partly because I think it perfectly demonstrates how pervasive certain tropes about female characters can be.
Zombieland was, overall, an incredibly fun movie. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse survival movie, where nothing is taken particularly seriously and a lot of our genre expectations are turned on their heads. Heck, it’s a movie where the bad-ass, gun-wielding character’s main motivation is finding a Twinkie bar during the end of the world. It’s not one to take too seriously. But the movie’s otherwise clever and irreverent writing becomes lazy when it comes to its female characters.
Our two female characters, Wichita and Little Rock, are introduced to us as ruthless badasses, in a scene that plays on our expectations of a zombie movie. The twelve-year-old Little Rock has apparently been bitten by a zombie, and she insists her sister has to kill her before she turns. Except that it’s all a trick so that the two girls can get their hands on our male protagonists’ guns, car and supplies. Their introduction makes a strong statement about the sort of characters they are — not damsels in distress, but female characters who can take care of themselves, who are as in control as one can be during a zombie apocalypse, who protect one another and put each other first, and who are not afraid to be ruthless when they need to be. They outsmart our two male protagonists more than once, and, as we get to know them more, we see that they are generally compelling, well-written characters.
And then comes the movie’s conclusion, when they abandon the others and light up an entire theme park, attracting every zombie in the area. Their dramatic-finale worthy attempt to escape involves them climbing on a drop tower (which will, of course, drop them back into the middle of the zombies the moment the ride is done), and they have to be saved by our hero/Wichita’s love interest. In short, they lose all of their previous savvyness and survival instincts in order to fill the role of damsels in distress for the dramatic final rescue scene.
And with that, a movie that’s worked hard to play with and subvert narrative expectations suddenly plays right into them. Of course, we want to see our male protagonist embrace his badassery, fight off the zombies, find love and ride off into the sunset. We want that satisfaction. But instead of finding a way to make that ending work with all we’ve seen before, the movie sacrifices its female characters to the demands of the genre. Yes, they can have personality and strength and strong survival instincts, but the narrative seems to need them to play the familiar role of damsels, regardless of all that came before.
It’s lazy writing, but it’s also, I think, demonstrative of the power of tropes. Movies want “strong female characters” now, but they still want the comforting familiarity of old “final fight”/”happily ever after” tropes. And that means that the hero must not only get the girl, but must save the girl.
And the trope is so pervasive that it’s really difficult to notice it. Even when the damsel ending runs counter to everything we’ve seen before, as it does here, we subconsciously expect it from the narrative, and so we’re more likely to view it uncritically when it arrives. It’s so well-worn that even a movie which plays with expectations and tropes, and likes to make fun of them or flip them onto their heads, finds itself including it with nary a critical look in sight. It’s simply how the movie feels it has to end, even when it shouldn’t feel that way at all.