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October 30, 2013 8:16 PM   Subscribe

The Trouble with "Carrie": Strong Female Characters and Onscreen Violence.
Whether she's volunteering to take her sister's place in the arena or grooming her son to lead the resistance; gunning down the gangsters who sell drugs to the kids in her neighborhood or swinging swords to avenge her daughter, the "strong female character" is often stirred by a maternal concern, a quintessential desire to preserve her community, to protect the weak and vulnerable. Her bad-assery must be in the service of a greater good. Even when she's more ethically complex (like the Bride, who begrudgingly admits that all the people she killed to get to her daughter, "felt good"), she never takes a place at the table of Walter White's grand epiphany: "I did it for me."

Carrie does what Beatrix Kiddo and Ellen Ripley and Katniss Everdeen don't: She does it for herself. Her vengeance, her violence, is in service to no one, no noble good. She doesn't kill because her family and friends have been threatened. There are no friends, no fellow outcasts, to protect from the bullies. No little sister to shield from Mama's wrath. Only her. And she is enough. Carrie kills because she was wronged.
posted by Lexica (44 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
she never takes a place at the table of Walter White's grand epiphany: "I did it for me."


Unless of course her name is Thelma or Louise.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:27 PM on October 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Oh, and Beatrix Kiddo slaughtered her way through one and a half movies for no one but herself. She only finds out that her daughter even exists when she shows up at Bill's place.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:30 PM on October 30, 2013 [17 favorites]


She does it for herself... Only her. And she is enough.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
Hillel the Elder
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:38 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


She only finds out that her daughter even exists when she shows up at Bill's place.

But Tarantino knew that motivation was there when he wrote the movie. That's an important distinction - the third act of KILL BILL means to redeem some of what she does because of that maternal aspect. And earlier in the film, she's taking revenge for the death of her husband and unborn child.

From the article: "For many 'strong female characters,' personhood is bound up in motherhood, or an identity as a protector."

Also: this article is threat level awesome.
posted by incessant at 8:49 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


In kill bill it was the idea that the "mama lion" will take no shit when you cross her pride. A very maternally-driven character IMO.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:52 PM on October 30, 2013


How about "The Crush... "

Dang she probably wanted to be his baby momma too, there's probably a line in the movie to that effect. And it's just another problematic motivation:CRAZY THEXY DUDE BRINGS OUT WOMAN CRAYZ
posted by lordaych at 9:32 PM on October 30, 2013


How about River Tam?
posted by The otter lady at 9:39 PM on October 30, 2013


Why is Carrie being compared to Ellen Ripley or Katniss? Carrie's a villain, like Ursula or Annie Wilkes. Thus she has villainous motivations.
posted by FJT at 9:41 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Isn't this the bog-standard distinction between a hero and an anti-hero?
Hero (any gender) does it to protect others. Anti-hero (any gender) does it for self. (Revenge, etc).
posted by anonymisc at 9:42 PM on October 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


I always got the feeling that Ripley would've kicked that ugly thing's ass regardless of the presence of the little girl.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 9:42 PM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


How about Valeria from "Conan the Barbarian?" She's only in it for the money.
posted by Marky at 9:45 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Alice, from the tv show Luther, is a fascinating anti heroic character.

Saffron, from Firefly, is another. Faith, from Buffy, fits too.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:42 PM on October 30, 2013


You can come up with names. Chief Gunderson from Fargo. Norma Rae. But I take issue with the premise. I think anomymisc has it nailed:

Hero (any gender) does it to protect others. Anti-hero (any gender) does it for self. (Revenge, etc).


Yeah, by this standard (the article's), most John Wayne characters weren't "strong." Nor Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Steven Seagal in Under Seige. And on and on. If these people are heroes, then Katniss is. "Facing danger to protect others," is standard heroic behavior. Do we think less of Shane because he isn't going to sit at the table with Walter White? Do you have to be Snoop from The Wire to to meet the standard?
posted by tyllwin at 10:50 PM on October 30, 2013 [10 favorites]


Carrie's coterie of tormenters is dispatched with panache: crushed in an accordion of bleachers

Oh whoa, I just watched The X-Files season 3 episode "Syzygy" and had no idea it was from Carrie.
posted by gucci mane at 10:59 PM on October 30, 2013


Carrie's a villain, like Ursula or Annie Wilkes.

That's a very narrow reading of Carrie.
posted by kmz at 11:04 PM on October 30, 2013 [20 favorites]


Also,

For many "strong female characters," personhood is bound up in motherhood, or an identity as a protector.

This is something repeated in real life too. A while ago someone posted a link to an article about how women in society are commonly valued because of their relation to something or someone else, rather than them simply being people. The article mentioned a speech by Obama where he referred to women as wives, mothers, sisters, etc. and how that was troublesome.
posted by gucci mane at 11:05 PM on October 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's a very narrow reading of Carrie.

It only occurred to me to read it that way, partly because the article compares Carrie to a superhero origin story. And then I thought of Chronicle, with Andrew, his mental gifts, and his eventual downfall. Both characters struck me as similar (and you can see how Carrie did inspire Chronicle). Since I'd classify Andrew as a villain, I'd see Carrie the same way.
posted by FJT at 11:09 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


That's a very narrow reading of Carrie.

Compared to It or Dreamcatcher Carrie is a very narrow book.
posted by Mezentian at 11:28 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anti-hero (any gender) does it for self. (Revenge, etc).

Pet peeve alert: That isn't the meaning of anti-hero at all. An anti-hero is a character lacking in heroic traits who just wants to trundle along.

Arthur Dent is the quintessential anti-hero.

I think what you're talking about is the villain.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:07 AM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have never encountered anyone who has read Carrie who considered her a villain.

If two characters slaughter a room full of guilty people, one because someone else was wronged, and one because they themselves were wronged, that seems an awfully fine distinction drawn if you conclude one of those people is admirable and one is awful.

I think you can successfully argue they're both awful, or they're both admirable--but opposites? No.
posted by maxwelton at 1:57 AM on October 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think (from memory, I haven't seen Carrie for a decade) Carrie is a victim, and the bloodbath at the end doesn't really let her escape from that. Waht she seems to want is acceptance from her peers and friends. She wants to go the prom and have a good time, and be a normal girl. She maybe wants to be free of her abusive mother.

She gets revenge, sure, and she wants that revenge, but it is the last action of a defeated person, someone who has been betrayed by everyone she knows (at least, she thinks she has anyway). And thats a fine tale for horror, a tragic one indeed, turning its scorn on the behaviour of young adults towards those who are different from them.

That said, its simply odd to offer a character from horror/tragedy fiction, who if anything seems to remind us of the furies, and compare them to heroic characters like Ripley and Katniss. There is an argument there about how heroism in women is often tied up with motherhood. The contrast between Alien and Aliens really shows this I think. That siad, while Katniss actions are somewhat motivated by motherhood (rescuing her sister from a terrible fate), her actions from then on are very much her own.

Well, ha. So the thing about the Hunger Games which makes it such a bleak series to me is that while Katniss is a pretty smart, independent woman she is in many ways powerless before the might of the social foces being unleashed around her. Her actions are often of defiance, but its not necessarily clear that she has much control over the outcomes. Her ideas and ideals are isolationist. She wants nothing to do with rebellion, and could she and her family escape to live in the countryside, never to trouble another soul, I believe she'd take the option. Unfortunately, she does not get to do that, and is thrust frequently into positions not of her choosing.

I really like the Hunger Games because of this. While the writing is occasionally clunky, the ideas and themes are really powerful and feel quite different to what is usually presented. The idea of desperately seeking agency while everyone else attempts to deny you it is a sad one, but a fascinating one to me.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 2:36 AM on October 31, 2013 [14 favorites]


as much as i like River, i don't think she counts because she programmed to be able to fight like that. and pretty much anything she does is for her brother or people in general.
posted by sio42 at 4:04 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Lots of male action heroes are motivated by defending, rescuing or avenging their family (e.g. Commando, Taken, Machete).

What might be missing is that sometimes male heroes are motivated by doing their job (Jack Ryan, James Bond, Robocop, Judge Dredd), or just being the right person in the right place at the right time (Steven Seagal's character in Under Siege, John McClane in Die Hard, Indiana Jones fighting nazis).

I think the difference might be that women heroes always have to be given strong motivations to justify exercising violence. A female character who thinks "I'm here as the ship's cook, but since there are all these terrorists around I'd better take them all down one by one" or "I'm an archaeologist, but instead of calling the government and getting on with cataloguing these artefacts I think I'll attack this Nazi road convoy" might be considered too unfeminine by movie execs.

Alternatively, it might be that the vanity of male audiences means that it's easier to suspend disbelief when identifying with male characters. In part, we suspend disbelief because we're used to suspending disbelief in similar ways before. Every man likes to think he'd be capable of heroic acts if the appropriate situation occurred. With female characters, the fundamental implausibility of a random civilian deciding to take on a horde of armed and trained bad guys seems more obvious.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:16 AM on October 31, 2013 [10 favorites]


The world might be a better place if male heroes had to be given equally strong motivations to justify exercising violence.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:07 AM on October 31, 2013 [13 favorites]


I think (from memory, I haven't seen Carrie for a decade) Carrie is a victim, and the bloodbath at the end doesn't really let her escape from that. Waht she seems to want is acceptance from her peers and friends. She wants to go the prom and have a good time, and be a normal girl. She maybe wants to be free of her abusive mother.

Yeah, characterizing Carrie as either a hero or a villain feels off. Victim is closer.

King talks quite a lot about writing the book in On Writing. At the time, he was substitute-teaching high school English to make ends meet, and he seems to have written it very much as a reflection on adolescence, with the twist that the one odd, unpopular, unliked kid gets pushed that gets pushed to her breaking point has more to push back with than most kids.

One of the really brilliant but uncomfortable aspects of the book that, IMO, gets lost in the translation to the DePalma film (I haven't seen the new movie, and in truth I probably won't unless/until it's on cable/streaming in a few years), is that when you're reading the book, you don't really like Carrie very much. Sympathize and/or empathize with her, certainly, and at times you see glimmers of the person she could be under better circumstances--but there's something about the way that King describes her that brings back some of the cruel, visceral dislike that teenagers feel for other teenagers--and it's a really uncomfortable thing to feel when you're reading from an adult perspective, when you're supposed to have risen above that kind of awfulness. I don't feel like that comes through in the DePalma film--Sissy Spacek just comes off as a bit shy and awkward, and the effect is more endearing than pitiable.

If anything, Sue Snell--a character who is right on the cusp of adulthood, and the greater emotional restraint and kindness that goes with it (at least theoretically), is really the audience surrogate, and the closest there is to a 'hero'.

(Also, it seems wrong to say that Ripley doesn't "do it for herself" either, or that her motivations boil down to just being maternal. Yeah, Aliens is very much about motherhood, but who the fuck else is she "doing it for" in Alien? The cat?)

(Actually, I think we need more action movies about women who set out to protect/achieve vengeance for their cat.)
posted by kagredon at 5:20 AM on October 31, 2013 [19 favorites]


This idea is nothing new at all, it's just a take on rape revenge.
posted by mkultra at 5:35 AM on October 31, 2013


(somewhat tangentially--one of my favorite bits of movie trivia is that George Lucas and Brian DePalma apparently pooled their money to do a joint casting call for Star Wars and Carrie, so several of the stars of each film also read for major parts in the other--and so, we could've easily been living in a world where Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were crowned homecoming king and queen and Sissy Spacek and William Katt were fighting for the Rebel Alliance.)
posted by kagredon at 5:39 AM on October 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


How about "strong" not automatically meaning "violent as fuck"? For characters of either gender.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:08 AM on October 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


One of the really brilliant but uncomfortable aspects of the book that, IMO, gets lost in the translation to the DePalma film (I haven't seen the new movie, and in truth I probably won't unless/until it's on cable/streaming in a few years), is that when you're reading the book, you don't really like Carrie very much.

They do address that in the film. When Betty Buckley's Miss Collins talks to the principal about Carrie, she tells him that she stopped the other girls attacking her because it was wrong, but the she understands why they did it and that sometimes she feels like shaking her, herself. And by the end of the film, Amy Irving's Sue Snell is absolutely seen as the sympathetic character who tried to do the right thing and ended up being a victim herself (she was always shown as a nice girl who just got caught up with the mean girls and regretted their excesses later).

The whole thing takes on a new feeling post-Columbine, doesn't it?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:10 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


This idea is nothing new at all, it's just a take on rape revenge.

That right there is why I always cringe when I see people name The Bride as a strong female character. She gets brutally victimized, repeatedly raped, and then cuts up a bunch of men. Materially, it doesn't seem terribly different from vile stuff like I Spit on Your Grave, the Nancy Grace of horror films. I would hope that we could do better than that.

How about "strong" not automatically meaning "violent as fuck"? For characters of either gender.

Thank you. When I hear the phrase "strong female character," I think of Ruby in Ruby in Paradise, or Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus, Mae in Clash by Night, or Shade in Gas Food Lodging. As in, they're well-written and come across like whole human beings who happen to be women, instead of the typical cardboard cutout of a beautiful but nagging wife that passes for a token female presence in most movies.

Once people start conflating "strong" with "violent as fuck," you're talking more about action or horror movies. So you open up this other sticky can of worms involving their degree of victimhood/servitude/potential insanity/selfishness in the story, and since neither Hollywood nor society have completely worked this whole gender equality thing out, and there is a history there, those states do not read the same between male and female characters. For that reason, the comparisons with John McClane et alii just don't jive in my opinion.

Speaking of all this, I read this week that Millennium/New Image is about to start making an Expendables spin-off with all actresses in the lead, which does sound kind of interesting, and then I noticed that they're planning on calling it The Expendabelles. The Expendabelles.
posted by heatvision at 8:07 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


There is also Dangerous Liaisons
posted by KokuRyu at 8:51 AM on October 31, 2013


Ursula isn't a villain.
posted by Eideteker at 9:18 AM on October 31, 2013


She's more villainous than her sister Phoebe.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:31 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sebastian is the real monster.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:33 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, comparing Carrie---a tragic hero from horror fiction---to the protagonists of action movies and dramas produces some really weird results here. A good way to produce bad literary criticism is to notice gender but not notice genre.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:36 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have never encountered anyone who has read Carrie who considered her a villain.

Superman is a hero because he doesn't kill people who deserve killing. Carrie is a villain because she kills people who don't deserve killing.
posted by straight at 11:07 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Carrie is basically Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold with telekinesis instead of guns.
posted by straight at 11:53 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Carrie is a villain because she kills people who don't deserve killing.

Carrie is mentally ill, or certainly had a psychotic break, to armchair diagnose a fictional character. I'm not convinced she made any rational decisions after the bucket of pig's blood.

(This doesn't make her actions honorable or right, of course.)
posted by maxwelton at 2:06 PM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Superman is a hero because he doesn't kill people who deserve killing.

Superman is a hero who is so powerful that he can protect people without killing, but I think even that might be missing the point of the character. His ability to use violence is not what makes him strong.

In Grant Morrison's Supergods Morrison talks about the time he met Superman in person walking around on the street. (It might just have been a dude in a costume outside a convention but Morrison was unsure. Morrison believes everything is real) They sat and talked, and as they were talking Morrison thought to himself "that's how someone who had never felt fear would sit." Because of his loving parents and his bulletproof skin Clark Kent is a man who reached adulthood entirely unscarred. The privilege of growing up invulnerable is what shaped his character. He doesn't just want to beat up the bad guys, he wants to spread the peace he feels around.

My walls between imagination and reality are thin enough that I might meet Wonder Woman some day. It would be interesting to meet a woman who had grown up without any experience of the patriarchy. She encountered it only as an adult, saw it with an outsider's eyes and got mad as hell about it. It has never hurt her, but she has the strength to hurt it. What would she say to me?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:08 PM on October 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


To put that another way, there are some female heroes who are strong in the sense that they overcome what they've been through, and they're interesting, but I'd like to see more strong female characters of the subtype where strong means untraumatized and unafraid.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:44 PM on October 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Superman is a hero who is so powerful that he can protect people without killing

Yeah, I should have used Batman or Spider-Man in that example.
posted by straight at 4:24 PM on October 31, 2013


I should have used Batman or Spider-Man in that example

They don't kill people either!

I heard a story once about a time where Killer Croc thought Batman had died saving him from falling off a cliff. Croc was emotionally destroyed by the encounter. I sez "Just drop me! I'm not worth it!" And Bats sez "Everyone's worth it!"

"Give me a day like this one...Everybody lives! Just this once..." is a great battle cry and more heroes should use it.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:50 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Nobody dies. It's a rule."
posted by straight at 9:39 PM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Women need a "reason" to become badassed in a way that men don't. Sort of like how women cop characters have some compelling reason they became cops - their mother was raped, they were kicked around by abusers, some other thing happened to them. (This seems to be a fairly modern requirement - Cagney and Lacey were just cops, whereas the lead in "Cold Case" and the woman in "Law & Order: SVU" both have 'reasons'.) Whereas men cop characters can just be cops because they wanted to be cops.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:59 PM on November 1, 2013


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