Stuffed in the Fridge and Wrapped in Plastic

28 Jun

(Spoilers for Dexter and The Dark Knight below)

Young women frequently turn up dead in fictional media whether as the victim of the week in a police procedural or whether she is a long time characters sacrificed for another’s development. It is an easy option for many writers to evoke a reaction from the audience and drive the story.

It comes down to the vulnerability that we perceive in a young (almost always white) woman with an air or innocence and virginity. In many shows it transpires that this may not be the whole truth. Twin Peaks‘ Laura Palmer is a typical example of this, the prom queen who snorts coke and hangs out with demons. Nonetheless she is a complex and ultimately sympathetic character, especially compared to other examples where the dead body is there to be both mourned and fetishised in equal measure.

On police procedurals where it is a quick way to engage the audience’s attention but there is rarely enough time in each episode to get them to fully empathise with the character. She is reduced to being a body, usually one that has been subjected to horrific abuse. Laura Palmer undergoes a shocking ordeal before she dies but because she is the entire focus of the storyline we see her beyond the role of the victim. As Sady Doyle writes in her recent article “The Violently Killed Femmes”:

The dead-girl shows that succeed care about who she was before she died. And they allow her to be more complicated than she appears. Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, Veronica Mars’ Lilly Kane: Each of them, at some point, started talking back. And the first thing they did was to call bullshit on the symbolic meaning that had been hitched to them and start creating their own.

Laura herself is ever present through the dialogue and actions of other characters. Even though she is dead she is still engaging and important to the plot for reasons beyond her status as a victim. Reading Doyle’s article was interesting, as Anita Sarkessian has recently released the second episode in her Women vs. Tropes series which deals with similar issues:

In this video Sarkessian talks about variations on the Damsel in Distress trope, including the Women In Refrigerators trope that typically sees a female character killed in a particularly horrible way to provide motivation or development for a male character. Often young murdered women are used in this to provide motivation for a male character to either get revenge or avenge her death. Examples include Rita on Dexter being murdered by the Trinity Killer and therefore providing Dexter with a character arc in the following series, Rachel Dawson in The Dark Knight is blown up by the Joker to give Batman something to angst about and then come back from in the next film, plus every revenge film ever made.

It’s a cheap and degrading gimmick and as Sarkessian makes clear in her video, it would be ridiculous to suggest that no women should ever die in media but how and why they die is important to the representation of these characters.

About the writer: Sarah is a filmmaker and writer with an obsession for luscious visuals and a distain for tomatoes (they are a sneaky and untrustworthy foodstuff). If she’s not blogging or tweeting, she’ll be watching films or running around with her video camera.

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