“Femme Fatale”

I started watching Alias recently (along with Skyfall yesterday, it’s been a very spy week) and it got me thinking about fridging — that time-honored trope of killing (or otherwise imperiling) a protagonist’s loved one for no reason other than to set the plot in motion.

There’s no need to rehearse all the instances of fridging in popular media.  They are legion.  Revenge stories are classics and the story of revenge for the murdered wife is perhaps the most classic of them all.

Others before me have pointed out how problematic it is that women bear the brunt of all this needless murdering in fiction.  Given the preponderance of murdered wives, fiancees, girlfriends, and one-night stands, you might be forgiven for thinking that the most inspiring thing a woman can do is die.  Once a woman is dead, she’s no longer a person but a cause — a cause, moreover, that her surviving significant other can crusade for.

But Alias demonstrates that fridging is an equal opportunity enterprise.   Ditto the recent Nikita TV series.  Both feature a civilian boyfriend killed off in order to set the plot in motion and give the superspy protagonists motivation to act.  I have the feeling that someone patted themselves on the back for that, really pleased to have subverted the familiar cliche.  And maybe they have — at least a little bit.  But there’s a bigger problem at work, I think.

Kelsea Stahler over at Hollywood.com recently suggested that one of the reasons there hasn’t ever been a really satisfying female Bond-style secret agent is that “female spies almost always have more sentimental love interests” than their playboy male counterparts.  And while there’s definitely a double-standard there (a female spy who had multiple partners would be deemed promiscuous, while Bond is a “ladykiller”), I’m not sure this is the whole picture.  Yes, women often have more “sentimental” romantic motives, but the tyranny of the romantic motivation is equally applicable to both sexes.

I think the problem runs deeper than just problematic gender roles — although that’s definitely a part of it.  For me, the most troubling aspect of the prevalence of fridging is that it suggests that the only motivation for action is love.  Seriously, aren’t there any other reasons to do things?  Not to say that love isn’t great and all, but don’t we deserve characters who have motivations more complex than single-minded revenge for a loved one?  Fridging isn’t just sexist, it’s bad writing.

Firstly, whenever you treat characters as mere plot devices, everybody loses — no matter their gender.  A nameless character who’s never seen and whose only purpose is to create pathos is no character at all.

Moreover, fridging paints a terribly one-dimensional picture of the surviving characters.  It’s shorthand for character development, as well as for plot.  The heroic crusade for the lost love eliminates the possibility of creating a truly nuanced individual, substituting instead a cliched archetype of a wounded psyche.  The revenge story is often little more than a physics problem, a study of the effects of a external force on a closed emotional system.  But most of us don’t act in equal and opposite reaction to some circumstance. We have multiple motives — anxieties and regrets,  and well as anger and love.  We have ambivalences, not purity of purpose.  The straightforward revenge story all too often washes all that complexity away in favor of some semi-mythic quest for justice — which is just too bad, because that’s where the really interesting stories, the really particular, character-driven, idiosyncratic stories, begin.

2 Replies to ““Femme Fatale””

  1. There is also Hunted, the BBC series where spy Melissa George seeks revenge for the attempts on her own life, her mothers killer, and or the death of her unborn child. Then there is Angelina Jolie in Salt, where she begins as a recruit for Mother Russia and evolves to revenge for the death of her husband. Not to mention the Lara Croft films (or cartoons) in which she is revenge-bent for her father’s death and, of course, for justice. Neither example contradicts what you’re discussing but does provide more evidence that modern versions exist.
    And then there is Medea.

    1. Yes on all counts. “Hunted” was another show that got me thinking on this topic, actually — and, yet again, Sam has a steady love interest rather than playing the field. (And not incidentally, I find that one of the most tedious parts of the whole scenario.)

      And Salt is an interesting case, because originally the film was developed for a male lead, and I seem to remember someone involved with the production saying they decided not to give her a family because they felt her loyalties would be divided, whereas for a man, presumably, they wouldn’t. Also, her husband, as I recall, is actually someone she’s been ordered to get close to, rather than a civilian she falls in love with. I think we’re supposed to believe she did care for him, but he ultimately seems a bit unimportant.

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