This is a pattern I had not noticed but now, I see it in A LOT of movies (even Up) but isn’t it mostly an American phenomenon?
“10 years ago, comic writer Gail Simone coined the phrase “women in refrigerators” to draw attention to the number of wives and girlfriends that die to aid male character development. She was talking about comic books, but it’s no less true of movies. Disposable female characters who die just so that male characters are allowed to go on emotional journeys are legion. The director Christopher Nolan features heroes grieving their wives’ tragic demise in a good number of his films: Memento, The Prestige and Inception. But he’s not alone: Hollywood films contain more dead wives than Bluebeard’s basement.
This Dead Wives’ Club is so large it takes us from gory movies such as Gladiator to family-friendly Finding Nemo. James Bond picks up his membership in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – or if you count love interests instead of just wives, in every film. The ultra-deadliness of getting jiggy with 007 is blatant enough to be a throwaway gag in Austin Powers. The same goes for Martin Riggs’s killer kiss in Lethal Weapon, who also starts the first movie with a dead wife. I know Mel Gibson’s hardly a feminist icon, but while we’re here, Braveheart begins with the death of William Wallace’s wife.
In Se7en, Gwyneth Paltrow‘s character doesn’t die until the end of the film – but her death is the pivotal deux ex machina that will affect her hubby enough for him to be overwhelmed by a desire for revenge. Sure, Paltrow is irritating, but could anyone’s macrobiotic diet be infuriating enough that their movie character deserves to be turned into a head-in-a-box just so Brad Pitt’s character can be shown to feel something? We are meant to be thinking, “Oh, poor guy!” Poor guy? At least his spine and skull are still in the same postcode.
I don’t want to sound like I’m down on any film or filmmaker in particular, just this godawful trope. Inception is an intelligent, thoughtful film that self-reflexively challenges ideas about narrative. But sometimes it seems like enjoying popular culture and being a feminist seem mutually exclusive. I don’t want to have to turn my feminism off in the theatre just so I’m not niggled by the fact that instead of being treated as human beings with their own unique subjectivity, women in films are cheerfully shoved into white goods just so the hero can react to it with his best-ever acting and broody, brooding brood-face.”
I would argue that it allows writers / directors to have it both ways: you have a feminine character, but being dead or ghost-like makes it more passive and obviously a reflection or projection of male characters. The narrative view point that dominates then, and reconstructs the dead woman, is the male one. It also allows male characters to have other romantic relationships in the film, ans that is then seen as therapeutic.
Does the opposite happen in films? I can think of “La mariée etait en noir” but that is about it.