Why Do Morally Conflicted Women In Genre Fiction Always Die?
By Alex Cranz
In the Princess Series Jim C Hines explores a world where Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella have to continue beyond their happily ever afters. He’s got a very cool feminist twist on the stories and treats the original material as myths, finding hidden and dramatic horrors in between the words. Snow White wasn’t running from an evil stepmother–just an evil mother. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t wakened from a hundred year slumber by the kiss of a prince but by the birth of the prince’s children. Cinderella, Cinderella found true love with a goofy but good prince after one dance, but has to learn how to be a person after being a slave for most of her life.
Over the course of the four books the three women team up to battle espionage and villains (and fairies). They meet the Little Mermaid and the Snow Queen and Little Red Riding Hood, or as they’re known in that world: the mad mermaid, mad queen and vicious assassin for hire. It’s a fast and pleasurable read. Each book is a breezy 250+ pages with just the right blend of progressiveness (women of color playing traditionally white heroines! lesbians! Psychosis not being villainized!), plotting and solid characterization to keep you reading.
And boy did I. I plowed through the first two books in a day. Tackled the third, accidentally read a spoiler about the fourth that put me off the series for a week, and then finished the final book and a half in another day.
They were excellent. But by the end of that fourth book I was sobbing. Legit fat tears ran down my face as I got dressed for a wedding and as I made my way to the lovely ceremony in a silky dress in a 106 degree heat I tried to figure out just what had me so upset that I was depressed by a fluffy series of books about fairytale characters as spies.
Someone dies in that final book and with their death we see the continuation of a cycle in fiction that depresses the hell out of me. What’s worse is that it’s a cycle regularly employed by some really savvy feminist sort of fellas. Jim C Hines? Rob Tapert? Chris Claremont? Joss Whedon? They’re not men you’d ever label a misogynist. In fact those last three fundamentally changed how stories are told about women. They gave us Xena and the Dark Phoenix Saga and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.
These are men that regularly challenge popular conventions and call their fellow writers out on their bullshit.
And every single one of them has to kill women.
I want to make this clear, I’m not condemning story choices. What feels right for a writer feels right for them and they have every right to tell the story as they feel it needs to be told.
I’m more expressing…a sense of melancholia over the trends I see in fiction–especially genre fiction. Women can’t seem to live. And if they’re morally a little gray? If they make choices that might be a little wrong? Then their fate is sealed.
Look at Phoenix/Jean Grey. In Claremont’s run on Uncanny X-Men she’s possessed by an intergalactic god force that gives her near infinite power. And she kills herself rather than attempt to wield that power.
And Xena? She commits atrocious acts before we ever hear her first warrior cry. Thousands die because of her and the entire show is devoted to her using her godlike warrior skills to redeem herself. But in the end she’s still too potent a force in the world and her sins are apparently still to enumerable to be forgiven. So her head’s chopped off, her body’s mutilated and she’s left as nothing but a memory in her possibly schizophrenic best friend/lesbian lover’s head.
That exact same year and month Xena died Buffy leapt into a portal to keep a god from being reborn in our world and ended up six feet under for her sacrifice. A year later Tara died because it “serviced the story” and for reasons that will never be clear to anyone ever Cordelia Chase, perhaps the most dynamic character in the Whedonverse, went mad, banged her boyfriend’s son, gave birth to Gina Torres, attempted to redeem herself grew her hair back out so it looked fabulous and then? You guessed it. Bit the bullet.
Hines isn’t doing anything new in that respect. He’s just perpetuating an idea (quite unintentionally I think) that all-powerful women and dangerous, morally flawed women, cannot be allowed to live.
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a woman “go Dark Phoenix” and then survive to the end of the story?
The trope isn’t as young as Jean Grey. Its roots are found in the melodrama (and what are comics but melodramas with laser beam eyes and spandex) where women regularly “turned bad,” cheated, committed crimes and generally had a fantastic time doing it. But by the last reel of the film they were dying or dead. It wasn’t an attempt at moralizing by Breen-era film censors. Rather it was an outcome desired by the audience. An audience made up, primarily of women.
The consensus among scholars is that the melodrama was so popular because women liked seeing rule breakers punished. They wanted to see that those women who dared subvert the norm be censured for their actions. Shows like Buffy, Xena and even Revenge* continue this tradition. They create fully realized women, put them through hell, have them drag a few others along for the ride and the pick them off. One. By. One.
And this limitation–some undefined ratio of moral corruptibility to power–is really only placed on women. Doctor Who? If he were a woman he’d end up using all his regenerations in one epic light show sacrificing his power, atoning for his sins and condemning himself to mortality…
It hinges on gender. It hinges on the audience’s desire, whether conscious or not, to see women punished for challenging norms. And there in the pages of Jim C. Hine’s final book of the “Princess Series” it happens all over again with great melodramatic flare (it is seriously good absent my fatigue for the trope). A woman rises. Her means aren’t so pure. And she falls. And we all thrill at the pathos it invokes in us and then sigh, because it would seem, the story can never change.
*Fingers crossed that Revenge bucks trends and opts NOT to kill off its vengeful Batman-esque heroine by series’ end.