Male Protagonists

Supernatural’s Sam, played by Jared Padalecki

Grief is a powerful emotion. It pushes even the most stubborn and stoic people to change. Although I understand the force of sorrow, I can’t get behind the catalyst in certain kinds of stories. The stories I’m thinking of involve a man, usually middle-aged and tough, who has a girlfriend, a wife, or a female lover. That girlfriend typically has the following descriptors: she’s beautiful, kind, and loving. And sometimes, she’s also really dead.

Let me just start with an example: the TV show Supernatural. Supernatural is about two adult brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who hunt monsters. They were taught the trade by their father, who became a hunter because his wife Mary was murdered by a demon when Sam and Dean were children. When Sam and Dean are adults, Sam’s girlfriend Jess becomes another victim of demonic murder. Both women were blonde, wore white nightdresses, and were magically pinned to the ceiling while set on fire. The main development for these female characters follows my short list: they were beautiful, kind, and loving. That’s all the characterization we need from them before they’re set ablaze.

John becomes a hunter because of his wife’s death. Sam becomes a hunter again because of his girlfriend’s death. The deaths of these women matter only because they affect the male protagonists. Their deaths cause these men to completely change their lives, to go on adventures and take risks. Their deaths make these men broody, tough, and complex. Their deaths create interesting heroes. Without these women being disposed of, we’d be lacking the proper protagonist—you know, the kind that kicks ass and takes names.

The pattern in Supernatural continues with Dean and Sam’s close mentor Bobby, who became a hunter after losing his wife Karen to demonic possession. The viewers don’t get to know much about Bobby’s wife, other than she was beautiful, kind, and loving. That’s as complex as her character description gets. In season five’s episode “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” she comes back from the dead and starts baking pies. The woman rises from the grave and the first thing she does is bake pies for her husband. At the end of the episode, she has to die all over again, which only adds to Bobby’s emotional struggle.

Origin Stories of Male Protagonists

Other TV shows have the same technique of killing wives to better the origin stories of villains and heroes. The show Gotham (inspired by the Batman comics) uses it for the origin of Dr. Crane’s villainy. Similar to the collateral spousal-damage in Supernatural, the beautiful blonde wife of Dr. Crane dies in a fire. This is the only context that we see her. In the cop procedural The Mentalist, the protagonist reveals that his wife and daughter were murdered by a psychopath named Red John. His wife wasn’t wearing a white nightgown, but she was wearing white lingerie, so it’s close enough.

Male Protagonists

Julian Sands plays Gerald Crane in Gotham

These girlfriends are killed in brutal, humiliating ways. In the novel Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, the protagonist’s beloved Magdalena is killed when their car is obliterated with gunfire. In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Shadow’s wife Laura dies in a horrific car accident in the midst of giving fellatio to another man. The creative violence that happens to the girlfriends of protagonists is so common in comic books that the pattern is affectionately called: “Women In Refrigerators.” The name comes from a Green Lantern comic, in which he discovers his murdered girlfriend, Alexandra DeWitt, unceremoniously stuffed in a refrigerator. While the list includes women being assaulted, raped, and de-powered, I counted over 50 that had died.

Jonah Hex wouldn’t be as grizzled without the death of his love-interest White Fawn. The Punisher would have no need to punish if his wife and child were alive. Even Spiderman’s beloved Gwen Stacey died because of his attempt to save her, only adding to his inner-turmoil.

The more humiliating, the more brutal, and the more guilt-ridden a girlfriend’s death is the better. The horror gives the survivors drive. The guilt gives them character depth. The more incredible the destruction, the more developed the hero. The girlfriend has to be sacrificed for the sake of her boyfriend’s story.

More than the brutality, what bothers me most is the dismissiveness. So many of these women die in the background, casually, as though they were going to the store. We don’t know their characters beyond the vague descriptors: pretty, nice, loving, dead. In Sin City’s “The Hard Goodbye,” we’re introduced to the hulking, tough-guy Marv who spends the night with a sex worker named Goldie. In this brief encounter, Marv falls head over heels for Goldie, even calling her an angel. He later wakes up and finds that she’s dead, which inspires him to go on a violent rampage in her honour.

In The Necromancer’s House by Christopher Buehlman, the protagonist’s girlfriend Sarah is another special case as she has to die two times over. First, Andrew causes a car accident because of his drinking problem and risky behaviour, and she dies. Andrew, being a warlock, invokes dark magic to revive her. Naturally, she dies again—this time of an aneurysm. Her character’s death is depressingly brief: “She has her aneurysm at Darien Lake. After the roller coaster. Sits down. Falls over. And that’s all.”

In Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, we are again introduced to a protagonist with a wife that’s already dead. The protagonist, Carl Streator, lives with the guilt that he accidentally killed his wife and infant daughter by reading them a “culling song”, which is a lullaby that magically creates a painless death. We don’t hear much about his wife Gina until three-quarters into the book, when for two pages Carl describes unknowingly having sex with her corpse. The reader’s introduction to Gina involves her being silent and post-mortem. I can’t think of a better representation of girlfriends being empty, lifeless props that exist to add to a male storyline.

The Disposable Woman

We’re not supposed to care that a woman must’ve had friends, family, dreams, memories, and everything that complicates a human life. The tragedy centres on the protagonist. Now his life is harder. Now he has to drink more, smoke more, and fight more, so he can cope. Now he occasionally thinks about her when he’s having sex with other women. If it’s his fault that she’s dead, he must carry the burden of that guilt, which is obviously the saddest thing about her death.

The pattern of the disposable woman exists in TV shows, movies, books, and comics of multiple genres. I would be less tempted to write about the topic if I thought it were fair game for both genders. Off the top of my head, I could only come up with three situations in which a male character existed to die for a female protagonist’s story: Tank Girl, P.S I Love You, and My Girl. And My Girl hardly counts because they were childhood friends and he doesn’t die until the end. Macaulay Culkin got a more complex character than most of these grown women.

I’m not saying that no female character in a relationship should die. The solution isn’t immortality for all girlfriends, because death is important in fiction and shows that the author’s world has real weight. But these girlfriends, wives, and lovers are treated like toys just waiting to be smashed. They exist to be destroyed. They carry more meaning as a corpse than as a companion. They matter as victims of car crashes, killer lullabies, and demonic house fires; they matter as memories and guilt-trips; they matter as plot-hooks and cliff-hangers and shock value; but they don’t matter as people. And as a real-life fiction-loving girlfriend, that’s a little hard to read.

Dana Ewachow is a publicity agent at The Puritan. Here she explores the gender imbalance in stories of grief, and how that grief is often little more than a vehicle for male protagonists to grow.

One Comment

Brent Raycroft

Nice detailing of something so pervasive, especially in current film and TV, that it seems “normal”. The trope is older than cinema, of course, perhaps as old as the patriarchy, and may even be an image of its originating crime. My intro to the topic was “Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic” by Elizabeth Bronfen.


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