Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History: Female rule breakers in film

Where do women fit in amongst the rule breakers in film?

A protagonist as we know it, tends to be a force for good; the Supermen, the Wonder Women, those who help and achieve things for society, looking beyond themselves and fighting for the greater good. But what about the greater bad? For as long as we’ve had storytelling, we’ve had villains. These villains have popped up time and time again as appealing likeable characters we can relate to and resonate with, as they hand some hardship back to the society that has failed them. They can sometimes take the role of the protagonist, if their motivations are clearly defined, and we can sympathise with them.

Of course, cinema has been a male domain for the majority of its life, so these motivations tend to be masculine. Based around revenge, power, status, money, or simply wanting to cause chaos. The women in these films are accessories, an extension of the power these male characters have. Jules Dassin’s Rififi uses the female characters to establish the personalities of the male characters. The family man, Jo (Carl Möhner) and his wife Louise (Janine Darcey) are shown idyllically. She is a happy and dedicated mother to their son Tonio (Dominique Maurin), but isn’t really developed beyond that. She dresses modestly and says little.

Tony (Jean Servais) beats his estranged wife Mado (Marie Sabouret) This act tells us he is ruthless and violent, but it isn’t really suggested to be a bad thing, it is only really there as a plot device. They soften his character by showing Tony playing with Tonio, we’re supposed to think he’s at least partly a good guy, in spite of the violence towards his wife.

Magali Noël as Viviane in Rififi (1955)

Mario (Robert Manuel) is portrayed as quirky and fun by showing his partner Ida (Claude Sylvain) in this way. They play together and she is highly sexualised but in a effortless way. Cesar (Jules Dassin – acting and directing here) seduces the singer Viviane (Magali Noël), also a highly sexualised character but different. She is a femme fatale, and his inability to think logically about his sexual conquests is what leads to the downfall of the entire team. These characters are there to add depth to male characters rather than being truly defined in themselves, and this is something that is common through most genres with a relatively small amount of exceptions.

Although Terrence Malick’s Badlands makes some effort to address this balance, in some ways it falls short. Holly (Sissy Spacek) is still mostly an accessory to Kit’s (Martin Sheen) spree. She has little emotional reaction to anything that happens, including the murder of her father. This can be read two ways, either she is a psychopath, and genuinely doesn’t feel any emotion about anything that happens, or she’s a severely underwritten character. Malick does little to confirm one way or another, and the entire film comes across as a bizarre fantasy in which neither character seems to really understand what they are doing. It’s really difficult to puzzle out Holly’s motivations though, it mostly seems as though she is bored, she doesn’t engage with the spree, and says little in her voiceovers to sway your reading of her either.

Both Kit and Holly are based on real people, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Fugate was tried for first degree murder and spent 17 years in prison before her release as a model prisoner. Although Fugate claimed complete innocence as Starkweather’s hostage, he claimed she had had an active role in a number of their killings. Perhaps Malick was drawing on this vagueness of accounts to portray Holly as the false version of Fugate? An innocent victim swept along for the ride. In this way we can assume that nothing we see on screen is real, simply her account of it.

Sissy Spacek in Badlands (1973)

This fantasy is taken to the extreme in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Also based on Starkweather and Fugate, in this case Mallory (Juliette Lewis) and Mickey (Woody Harrelson) are anything but innocent; they have a true understanding of the chaos they are causing. They simply don’t care, revelling in the celebrity and the excitement of it all. The difference between Mickey and Mallory is that Mallory is given a true motive for her insanity. She is severely abused by her father, and therefore when Mickey rescues her from that she falls in love with him. Mickey is a much more basic character. He is driven entirely by his Id. Desire, rage and greed. This drives Mickey forward in his spree and Mallory is more than happy to go with him. Issues in their relationship come when Mickey’s id overtakes his love for Mallory; he desires other women and can’t suppress his violent urges. Even for her. But we aren’t really given any back-story for why he is acting in this way, the clue is in the title – he has been naturally born a killer.

Mallory is given more of a background than he is, perhaps because it was felt an audience is more likely to accept a female character acting out in this way if given sufficient motivation. In contrast to Starkweather and Fugate, and Kit and Holly, Mickey and Mallory choose to go down fighting, together. It is suggested that despite their mutual psychopathy they are genuinely in love with each other. This makes you sympathise with them to an extent, especially in the dramatic final half hour. They claw themselves towards each other, and escape, starting a life as normal citizens. Again, is this ending a fantasy? How is it possible that they could escape and live free lives after the violence they sent out? But the fantasy of a nuclear family is where they end up, regardless of the bloody path they took to get there.

The most famous of movie antiheroines must be Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. Both she and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) are portrayed as cool and cruel, with their exploits romanticised in an effort to emphasize their celebrity. The real Blanche Barrow (Clyde’s sister in law) gave her approval to use her name based on her reading of the script, confirming that it was factual. Unfortunately the director altered the script to use the character of Blanche Barrow (Estelle Parsons, in a performance that won her a best supporting actress Oscar), to emphasize Bonnie’s coolness by making her out to be in Blanche’s words, “a screaming horse’s ass”. She was embarrassed by her portrayal and sued Warner Brothers for the way she was depicted.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

This begs the question, why did they do it? The male characters weren’t given an idiot sidekick to emphasize their coolness, so why must the female characters be pitted against one another? Aside from the screaming they bicker constantly and there is clearly no love lost between them. This places Bonnie in the realm of tokenism, a positively portrayed female character there alone purely to give the illusion of balance and equality. All it really does is glorifies a psychopathic character, making her choices seem desirable, the idea of robbing banks being preferable to being like “a screaming horse’s ass”.

The glory the Barrow Gang is presented with in Bonnie and Clyde is contrasted with their dehumanisation in John Lee Hancock’s The Highwaymen. Woody Harrelson cast this time on the other side of the law alongside Kevin Costner, as Maney Gault and Frank Hamer respectively, the cops who ultimately brought down Bonnie and Clyde. In this film the two robbers are shown as faceless monsters. They have minimal dialogue and are reduced to shapes and shadows, dangerous criminals to be feared, not revered. At least until the moment of their death, when you finally see their faces. They look like children when compared to their acts and the celebrity surrounding them, and the irony of it all is revealed.

More modern films tend to give female law breakers deep seated trauma as a motivation for their crimes. In F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off, each woman is forced to live through real hardships. Frankie (Vivica A. Fox) is nearly killed in a robbery, and is fired because she happens to know one of the robbers. Stony (Jada Pinkett Smith) faces sexual harassment and then the murder of her brother. Tisean (Kimberley Elise) faces losing her son, as the amount she is paid doesn’t cover her childcare costs. The most masculinely presented character, Cleo (Queen Latifah), has the least motivation. She seems to mostly want the money to fix up her car. This shows how women are put through more trauma than male characters when they need to make difficult choices, they are pushed harder and broken further before it is thought that an audience will buy that they felt the need to become violent and break the law simply to survive.

Set It Off (1996)

Male characters are more often shown as criminals through choice or to gain status (see Rififi), women do it to hold on to their children, their homes, and to support their families. This is shown again in Steve McQueen’s Widows. Veronica (Viola Davis) is pushed to pay off her dead husbands debts, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) wants to keep her store after her husband gambles away its value, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) simply wants to stop having to use her body as currency. They carry out a robbery because it feels as though they have no choice, the intention isn’t to become rich, but to gain some normalcy, to get back to zero, after they are continually pushed into the red by the men around them.

These films primarily focus on white, Black and Hispanic women. In looking for examples of rule breakers in indigenous or Asian cultures you need to look into different genres, primarily revenge fiction. There are often elements of mysticism or supernatural powers, particularly with indigenous women. Indigenous women in film are normally limited to victims (often of sexual violence) and love interests, especially when they are cast opposite white men. On the rare occasions they are given any more agency in the plot they are usually coming back from the dead to inflict revenge.

Sam Shepard’s Silent Tongue uses the motivation of not just individual trauma, but inherited trauma. When Awbonnie (Sheila Tousey) dies in childbirth, the combined loss of herself, her agency, her child, and her mother, Silent Tongue’s (Tantoo Cardinal) abuse; she has literally lost her voice after her tongue is cut out; is combined into a ghost that torments her widowed husband Talbot (River Phoenix) and her sister Velada (Jeri Arredondo). The ghost has a split face, she is trapped between this world and the next, and her husband’s unwillingness to let go of her body traps her further adding to her rage. This use of inherited trauma reflects the real world, as each generation of minorities is further held back by restrictions that the American dream would have us believe doesn’t exist.

Sheila Tousey as Awbonnie in Silent Tongue (1993)

Other examples include the Monsters of Horror, John Landis directed episode Deer Woman, a comedy horror short that uses a highly sexualised, voiceless, Native American “Deer Woman” (Cinthia Moura) as a seductress that lures men in before beating them to death with her hooves. As you can tell, empowered representations of Native American women are very few and far between. In this case she isn’t even human, and they haven’t cast a Native American woman in the lead role; Cinthia Moura is Brazilian. Fun to watch? Sure. But respectful? Empowered? No. They even mention that she has no motive, and point out that it’s a silly misogynistic legend. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Revenge fiction is further defined by Asian cinema. Jung Byung-Gil’s The Villainess reflects the circular nature of cinematic influence, as it seemingly takes tropes from Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, themselves taking tropes common in Japanese films such as Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood, These films all feature a female character (Sook-hee [Kim Ok-bin] in The Villainess, Nikita [Anne Parillaud] in La Femme Nikita, Beatrix Kiddo [Uma Thurman] in Kill Bill volumes 1 & 2 and Yuki Kashima [Meiko Kaji] in Lady Snowblood) changed by trauma, and forced into a training regime where they can be useful to those who control them. Later taking back their agency and using their new skills to gain revenge on those who wronged them. It often turns out to be the ones who trained them who wronged them in the first place, how are we ever surprised? Once again it is shown that for a female character to be brought to violence she must first be put through life changing trauma, and then spend some time as a puppet to a larger organisation before she can become fully empowered and aware of the full story of what is happening around her. This is one of the few cases, where male characters go through a similar process, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins has Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) put through similar paces by Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson).

Kim Ok-bin as Sook-hee in The Villainess (2017)

And so we can see that for women to fully realise their potential in film, they are often put through extreme trauma as a motivation. Where male characters are often able to fall back of simple desire, greed, or just plain insanity, women need to be damaged for filmmakers to feel it is justified to allow them to express themselves violently. Why is that? Are women naturally more gentle? Less motivated by money? Less likely to be psychopathic? The films based on true stories, Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and Natural Born Killers, suggest that sometimes women can be naturally born bad. One of them even sings it out loud for us. Bonnie, Holly and Mallory are mostly bored and frustrated, rather than completely broken. But in pure fiction it is still seen as necessary to put female characters through rape, the loss of a child, partner or their own death. They have to be broken down to their absolute base instincts and then emerge barely resembling the people they were beforehand.

In a way this is a good thing, it suggests that male characters are possibly underwritten. One issue with the TV series Sons of Anarchy as time went on was that the characters seemed to go beyond logic in their motivation to continue carrying out criminal acts at the cost of their families and freedoms. Perhaps this is one way in which female characters are better, for once. As they are given genuine motivations for turning to crime. Maybe in future though, they’ll move away from the sexual violence? Just a thought.


Updated: Dec 31, 2020

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Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History: Female rule breakers in film | The Digital Fix