This year, it’s been refreshing to watch films and TV shows like “Waves” and “Bojack Horseman” finally move toward exploring the systems that nurture bad male behavior. But while these contributions should be commended for adding nuance to deeply flawed male characters, they’ve done so at the expense of female characters who are killed off in order to feed their male counterparts’ storylines.
Sacrificing female characters is a plot device as old as the silver screen. The “fridging” trope has long been criticized for motivating a male hero by killing off his female love interest (see the “Deadpool” sequel, for example). But in this more recent fare, in which men are far from noble, watching them be humanized while their female counterpart is dehumanized — often due to the male character’s actions — is particularly bothersome.
For instance, the booze-guzzling, misogynistic title character (voiced by Will Arnett) on “Bojack Horseman” has a fully realized, six-season arc that allows him to gradually take steps to correct some of his poor decisions and rewire his behavior. But it takes the overdose death of his friend Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal) to catalyze that shift.
It’s aggravating that despite years of Bojack’s other female friends like Diane (Alison Brie) trying to get him to understand the error of his ways, he’s only compelled to change — including getting sober and adjusting his attitude — when Sarah Lynn dies. Why does it take something so imperative as female mortality to galvanize men like Bojack?
For Jennifer Hollinshead, the founder of Peak Resilience, an intersectional feminist counseling practice, it points to a complete disregard for what female allies like Diane have been doing to mitigate male toxicity.
“It’s normal for people to need something big to shift their core beliefs or behaviors,” Hollinshead told HuffPost. “But to show that it takes someone dying for men and boys to reevaluate themselves is so trivializing to the amount of work that we’ve tried to do to educate men and boys on toxic masculinity.”
The same can be said about Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell), the TV anchor on “The Morning Show” who is ousted after multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Still, he has a compelling 10-episode arc that not only shows how his firing affects his life (losing his family and friends, for starters) but also makes a great case for why the blame should extend far beyond him. It’s not that the writers don’t appropriately censure Mitch for his actions. Instead, they give him a voice to challenge the environment that enabled him, offering him a rich storyline that is not equally afforded to Hannah (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), one of his accusers who takes her own life in the shocking season finale.
This culminating plot point demands a second season (of which Apple has swiftly obliged). But Hannah’s death also provokes Mitch to reflect on his own culpability and for his former colleagues to truly excoriate the awful culture they once tried to protect.
“The Morning Show” executive producer Mimi Leder insists that the series only humanizes everyone involved and doesn’t take one side over another. “Do I feel sorry for people who have done bad things, [who] used their power over others?” she said in an interview with The Atlantic. “No, they pretty much get what they deserve. But then there’s the flip side: They are human beings; they are people.”
It’s completely fair to give each major character a viewpoint to add context to the overarching narrative. But at whose expense? And do their victims count as viable characters whose voices are just as important in the story?
If you look at the film “Waves,” the answer seems like a no. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ moving drama centers on Tyler, a high school senior (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is conditioned by a racist society and his overbearing dad (Sterling K. Brown) to fear failure because, as black men, they “don’t have the luxury to be average.” Tyler is wound so tight about this that he descends into a self-sabotaging, drug-induced rage in which he kills his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) after failing to convince her to terminate her pregnancy for fear that his father might find out.
On one hand, “Waves” is a resonating, heartbreaking drama that effectively shows the painful implications of toxic masculinity, particularly those inflicted on black teenage boys. But on the other, Alexis doesn’t have a significant point of view. Murdering her seems necessary only in that it shows what can happen to men like Tyler given his circumstances, and less because of him. As a result, we feel more devastated for Tyler, whose family is ripped apart after he’s sent to prison, than the murdered young woman and her unborn child.
And while that may feel like manipulation, Hollinshead thinks that it is healthy for audiences to want to understand, and even sympathize with, the events that led up to Tyler’s horrifying actions. That point, she said, is a step toward getting to the root of toxic masculinity and discerning how structural issues — capitalism, patriarchy, racism — impact men’s and boys’ mental health and lead them to violence.
“I like that they’re showing the complexity of what happens to boys and men and how they grow to commit violence, especially against women,” she said. “We have to look at why they got to the point of making a choice like that, so that we can start changing the way that men and boys are programmed. It’s so important to have systems-level conversations as opposed to just vilifying individuals.”
But why has Hollywood failed to simultaneously extend that empathy toward its female victims, whose lives and own mental states are deemed negligible so that we can better examine men’s plight? In “Native Son,” Bigger Thomas (Ashton Sanders) accidentally asphyxiates his white employer’s daughter (Margaret Qualley), then stuffs her corpse inside a burning furnace because he’s terrified of what might happen to him if anyone finds out what he did. The audience recognizes that the panicked protagonist is propelled by a very palpable dread that he would never survive a criminal justice system rigged against him. And it weeps for him when he succumbs to his fate.
Is it too much to ask that women’s lives not be considered so inconsequential in male-dominated stories that they’re easily sacrificed to drive the protagonist’s story forward, or to teach him — and, as an extension, us — a valuable lesson? If today’s culture has taught us anything, it’s that we should consider the voices and realities of women, who have routinely been subjected to violence and marginalization, in all narratives — even those that are not specifically about them.
“It’s important to think about how people of marginalized genders experience the world,” Hollinshead says. “I am often thinking about other people’s needs, how they feel about me, and how I look to people. So, I am often assessing my behavior and viewpoints. And we need to ask and expect men and boys to take the same responsibility.”