In the Age Old Choice for Female Characters Between Powerful or Good, Wh*re or Madonna, Modern Writers Frequently Land on a Third Choice: Insane or Suicidal, Then Dead
When Joss Whedon’s dream came true and Natalia Alianovna Romanoff willingly flung herself to her death, I felt nothing. I knew from the moment she and Clint went off for the Soul Stone that she would die, but, stupidly, I didn’t quite get to the realization that she would be the one to kill herself – one of the few decisions she’s made for herself in her time in the MCU.
There aren’t a lot of options for women and girls to look up to as role models in media – not female ones, anyway. Growing up, I was always looking for female role models in media, and I frequently ended up in love with the ones who had agency, above all else. The “powerful or good” dichotomy that I wrote about in a post in response to the Frozen musical details the struggle I’ve always found in female characters. You can be powerful or good, have agency or compassion, intelligence or charm, be sexy or moral – wh*re or madonna.
I fell in love with Natasha slowly. Her emotional depth and complexity, her flirtatiousness, her dynamism and belief in herself, her desperation to fit in somewhere, with someone, her history of having been brainwashed into believing she was nothing and no one, taken from the only world she knew to a drastically different one, only to find that maybe the two weren’t so different… Her instant connection and trust with Steve that grew to a deep bond, only to quickly find him more concerned with another, arguably stronger bond from his past (with someone who may be her former lover, who now doesn’t recognize her, but does recognize her new partner), followed immediately by the discovery that the one person she thought of as family, Nick Fury, did not consider her part of his family after all… I fell in love with her strength, intelligence, vulnerability, past, relationships. To me, the quintessential Natasha is Winter Soldier Natasha, when she is an equal partner to Steve and has her own journey and her relationships are most intense and hopeful and devastating – she is the one I fell in love with.
But that woman was seriously undermined – or should I say, Whedonized – in Avengers: Age of Ultron. She feels she’s a monster for not being able to have babies, her relationship with Steve barely exists, she pathetically begs for the attention of a man who considers her about as despicable as he considers himself, and then somehow ends up suicidal. It was a logical progression from the fragile, childlike woman in The Avengers, save for her connection with Steve being less present than in the first movie.
The Natasha from Winter Soldier was mostly back in Captain America: Civil War, but as is bound to happen, her character was twisted and manipulated to fit the plot. She is the “wild card” Avenger, as the special features on the Civil War DVD call her. Having a character who could go either way because of complex calculations, goals, and values is interesting and compelling, and I believe that’s what they intended to do with Natasha. Instead, they twisted her character in ways that were only loosely defensible and used her as a convenient object in order to achieve the plot they wanted. More than the wild card Avenger, she is the spare Avenger.
She barely existed in Avengers: Infinity War, and in Avengers: Endgame, she was back to her Avengers persona as opposed to her Captain America persona. This is the Natasha that, frankly, doesn’t feel like my Natasha. I’m not going to argue which one is the “real” Natasha, but I know which one is mine, and she was not it. Endgame has so many problems when it comes to plot, mythology, science, character, logic, and morality that, as a fan, I have a very hard time taking the movie seriously as canon. And I haven’t forced myself to take it seriously – it’s all fiction, and I can hold in my head a version of events that is just as real as the version a bunch of men looking for profit came up with.
I never grieved Natasha because, to me, she isn’t dead. She isn’t suicidal. She is resilient as ever – she has her regrets and her insecurities, but she isn’t suicidal.
But I wasn’t nearly as well prepared for the death of Daenerys Targaryen – because I didn’t realize she was so important to me. I never expected to become a fan of an Avengers character, but even less than that, I never, ever expected to care in the slightest about a Game of Thrones character. I’d never seen a single minute of the show. I could name about two characters. I’d seen the talk of its treatment of female characters, the counts of rape per episode (warning: link contains triggering content) and the frequency at which women were shown full-on naked compared to men. I’d read many feminist analyses of the series and felt no need to put myself through a single episode to confirm what my fellow feminists said. In short, I had little respect for Game of Thrones, and even less now.
I don’t know how Daenerys came into my awareness initially. Cultural osmosis has led to me seeing her around for years, and, sometime during this latest season, I found myself searching for information on her history, her journey, and – my favorite – her relationship with her dragons. I think my gradually growing interest in her had a lot to do with the headlines I saw referring to her disappointing descent into a “mad queen.” This was vaguely surprising to me, though it shouldn’t have been. It’s a tried and true tradition in fiction that women with power go crazy – all that responsibility and capability melts their poor little brains.
The night of the series finale, I googled her name to see what her fate had been, already pretty sure what I would find. That suspicion was correct. She continued farther down the path of power melting her ladybrain and turning her into a vengeful goddess along the lines of Ishtar, Athena and Hera, continuing the long and still prevalent trope of vindictive women. Thus, she had to die.
I was sad upon seeing this, but it took a minute for it to really sink in. And then I was very, very sad. I couldn’t think about anything else. This was exactly what had happened to Natasha just a few weeks ago. We lost Natasha, then we lost Daenerys. One after another, two of our time’s most iconic female characters met lazy, demoralizing ends.
And it struck me how similar these two are. Natasha and Daenerys both spent years as examples of female characters who could be both powerful and good (though flawed), but in the end, they, too, were forced to choose. Natasha became good and weak. Daenerys became evil and powerful. Both died. Natasha is the Giving Tree and Daenerys is the Evil Queen. The Madonna and the Wh*re. Neither allowed to live or be full people.
Natasha and Daenerys were women with power who had to give up that power to pay for their sins. They couldn’t atone in ways other than death. In the eyes of the writers and the characters around them, Natasha was a monster because she couldn’t have babies, while Daenerys was the mother of monsters. (Though I object to the common notion that dragons are monsters in addition to Daenerys being coded as a monster by proxy – they’re animals living their lives, just like us.) Natasha is surrounded by men who have committed crimes at least as bad as what she’s done: Steve and Thor have killed many, many soldiers in war; Tony has killed countless innocent people, including Wanda’s whole family (which she conveniently forgets about after Ultron), through his numerous mistakes; Hulk has killed people in his hulk-rage; as of Endgame, Clint is not only a long-time assassin, but has spent years being a vigilante serial killer. But Natasha has “red in her ledger” because…she was an assassin for Russia before she was an assassin for the U.S.? Because she’s killed people in her job or for the greater good? Because she’s barren, as Joss 💩™ seems to think? (Never mind that the “red in my ledger” line, which people seem to take as the heart of her character, was said when she was tricking Loki into telling her his plan. She has no more red than any other Avenger. But she’s the only one who has to sacrifice her life in order to redeem all of that.)
Daenerys suffered from the same bizarre ideas of what’s an appropriate ending for a female character. I’ve seen fans of GoT say that the show ended the way it needed to, that it’s never been about happy endings or closure or justice – which is fine. But if that’s the case, why was it a happy ending for the Starks? Why couldn’t Daenerys live as an evil queen? Why couldn’t she kill Jon Snow, knowing that he might try to stop her evil plans? If she was so destroyed by all the loss she’d experienced, and was so afraid of further betrayal, couldn’t she have killed him before he could betray her, too? Why does the tragic ending have to be a tragedy for her, the show’s long-standing symbol of female empowerment? If she’s so evil, couldn’t the tragedy be for the people who’d loved her and the people who would have to suffer her rule for the foreseeable future? If she had to be either powerful or good, couldn’t she at least keep her power? And why did she go crazy from losing so many people/dragons, while so many (male) characters on GoT didn’t, despite having lost just as many?
There was also no particular way that the story “needed” to end. This story was not handed down from god. (No, George R. R. Martin is not god.) This was created by men. (Yes, men and not women.) Daenerys did not come to them as someone who was doomed to be power-mad. She is completely made up. They chose to make her story one of a woman turning out to be evil, out-of-control, and ultimately not even that powerful. Even if becoming crazy and killed by a man was the best end for the character they created, they created her this way. This story didn’t fall into their laps. Daenerys didn’t have to die; they killed her. And the same is true of Natasha.
Metacrone has done extensive analysis of the cultural fear of women’s power, so I won’t go in-depth on that here. What we haven’t analyzed as deeply on this blog is the cultural need for a woman to die when her story is over, or at least become suicidal. This trend is largely one and the same as writers getting to the end of a woman’s story, or the end of the overall story, and not bothering to write a proper ending for one or more female characters. Instead, they lazily dispose of their women by having them become suicidal or suddenly so horrible that they can’t be allowed to live. And let’s not ignore that the writers of Endgame said themselves that Natasha’s story had to end if she got the Avengers back together. Apparently, that really means the male Avengers. I guess Clint can live knowing a woman died for him, but she can’t live knowing a man died for her.
Daenerys’ death brought up the feelings in me that I’d managed to escape when Natasha died. There goes another one. Another woman who couldn’t maintain her own agency. Another one whose biggest contribution to the world and the plot was her death. Another one who couldn’t be a complex, whole person. Another one the (male) writers were too lazy to give a proper ending. Time to end the story – oh, we have this troublesome woman here. What do we do with her? Eh, easiest to just kill her. She’s just the spare. We don’t need her for the plot anymore.
These two are part of a very, very old tradition, one which influences and reflects the real world, and as a real live human woman, I can report how this feels, though I know that most male writers (and some female writers) aren’t terribly interested in how women feel as long as we continue to give them money. My point isn’t whether Daenerys was really crazy or the creators manipulated the audience to think she was (although that’s an analysis I would love to read), or whether she deserved to die. My point is that This. Keeps. Happening. Powerful woman has to die. Powerful woman who is known to be a source of inspiration for women and girls (hopefully not very young girls in Daenerys’ case, given the explicit on-camera sexual abuse/rape) is actually evil and the best option for her is death. If you’re a powerful woman, the best thing you can do for society (and yourself) is die.
I won’t go into the specifics of Daenerys’ story or character. But I think my reaction, which was largely the same that I saw from many Game of Thrones fans, to her fate of becoming “mad” and then being killed by a man is enough to showcase its cultural impact. (Metacrone texted me shortly after I’d read the story of Daenerys’ death, also upset – neither of us have ever seen a single minute of Game of Thrones.) Daenerys has a cultural meaning. Even those of us who know nothing about the show and next to nothing about Daenerys herself still know her as the queen, the woman who always has the dragons by her side and commands the men beneath her. We know her as the female face of the franchise, just as we know Natasha as the female face of hers.
So what message does it send that the female faces of two of the most popular franchises of our time died at the end of their franchises (well, to the extent that Endgame can be considered the end of the original Avengers group)? What does it say that neither of them could have an ending that involved them continuing their lives after the narrative was complete? As Metacrone has written elsewhere, the end of a man’s story usually means that it’s time to start the next chapter of his life. That’s what it meant for most of the Avengers (aside from Tony, who died because he’s a good person, as opposed to Natasha, who died because she didn’t deserve to live), and it’s what it meant for most of Daenerys’ male counterparts. The man Natasha died to save and the man who killed Daenerys both continued their lives after the end of the story.
Natasha’s death may not have felt real to me, but Daenerys’ death less than a month later made me realize that, in terms of cultural impact, it was real. These two iconic women are the latest in the time-honored tradition of killing a woman when her goal is accomplished or when it’s time to end the story. What do we do with this character? Have we given her enough of an identity to know what an appropriate ending for her would be? Does her fate have relevance to the overall story? How will it affect other characters? These questions seem to mostly be pesky inconveniences to many writers, so they just kill their women. Too much of a bother trying to write them as real characters.
It really isn’t hard to write about women – they’re people. They can do and say the same things as men. But these writers’ brains seem incapable of processing a character who is just a character but happens to be female. So they try to appease the Crazy Feminists™ by doing sh-t like this:
to say to us “girl power!! Look at all the women we have!! Progressive!!” while absolutely none of the women in that shot did a single thing remotely consequential to the story. Absolutely not a single one of them could have been in the movie and it would be the same movie. In fact, one fanboy edited out all the scenes that weren’t about straight white men, and the end result was a logical, substantial, full-length movie. (Plus, he changed the opening images to the Stan Lee version of the Marvel comics montage, which was seen at the beginning of Captain Marvel. We need the very beginning to be an ode to not only a straight white man, but a groper.) Luckily for me, this guy already did the work of seeing what would happen if you edited out all the pesky “representation” that the poor creators of the film were forced to add. And it changed nothing about the movie. It’s the same movie, just a little more streamlined. I’ve seen people mocking this guy for being pathetic in needing to edit all these things out, and he is, but the dominant culture of our society is on his side, or else this movie would have actually written non-straight-white-male characters who had real reasons to be there. This guy and I do have something in common regarding this – we both were quite annoyed by the use of the characters who were not straight white men.
I never want to write about it when a female character I’ve loved and drawn inspiration from for years is ruined this way. I didn’t want to write my Frozen piece, either. I had no intention of writing about Natasha’s death because, again, it didn’t feel real to me, and I was very happy living in that land. I didn’t want to face it enough to write about its significance. But then Daenerys turned out to be so evil and out-of-control that she had to die, too. Two of her dragons, the symbols of her power (and animals who are used as plot devices rather than real characters, as so often happens), died. Jon Snow’s pain in killing her is apparently just as bad as her being dead, according to the soft-boy-men’s-rights-activist who plays him. As the delightful Emilia Clarke said, “Um, he just doesn’t like women, does he? He keeps f–king killing them.” (A fitting statement for most male writers, too.) Oh, and he’s also the true heir to the throne, not her. (And also, let’s make this little boy king of the 6 realms instead of his two older and much more qualified sisters. Now if that doesn’t sound like real life….)
It should be clear from the subject matter of this site that we don’t agree with the argument “it’s just a TV show/movie,” but in case anyone wants proof, there are studies that show that film and tv affect our beliefs in gender roles and stereotypes.
As it stands now, I will continue to have my own ideas of how Natasha’s and Daenerys’ stories went. (Personally, I like to think that Daenerys continued to stop her husband’s men from raping enemy women and instead gained their trust, they all formed an elite group of warriors, spies, witches and assassins, and through this group as well as her strength and compassion, Daenerys gained enough power within Dothraki society that she eventually killed her rapist husband rather than falling in love with him [wtf???] and was then considered the real Dothraki leader. Some of the Dothraki men, of course, never took to this, and continued to challenge her or attempt to kill her, but between her, her dragons, and her team of deadly women, none of them could touch her. All her dragons lived out their long lives. She led her people and her dragons through the long, harsh winter and was all the more loved for having helped her people prosper so well throughout it. Also, she turns Dothraki society into a vegetarian one, except for her dragons because they’re carnivores. The end. [Natasha’s story is quite a bit more complicated, and I’m still working it out.])
But our culture, especially young girls, can’t disconnect from media in this way – and, clearly, I can’t quite do so either.
Images courtesy of Marvel and HBO.