The 6 toxic female archetypes in myth and movies
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
Hollywood is a beacon of creativity; an industry constantly expanding and subverting the rules of every genre under the sun. And yet no matter how outlandish the premise, time and again female actresses are crammed into the same character moulds that have been around since Greek myth. Here are six of the worst offenders, and six recent films and series that turn the archetype on her pretty head.
1.The Victim - most mortal women in myth
If you're female and not a goddess in mythology, you're probably in for a rough time. Countless mortal women are the object of desire of male gods, who come down from Olympus to either rape or trick them into sex. As a rule, the god comes off unscathed, the woman always ends up pregnant, and she is punished despite her lack of consent in the first place. The nature of said punishment is a lottery: she could be turned into a cow or snake haired monstrosity, the god's wife could kill her out of jealousy, her father could lock her in a chest and try to drown her at sea - the list goes on and on. But most myths are so absurd that the suffering of these women is glossed over as a minor plot detail.
Modern victim: Torture porn
Particularly in horror films, a trend has arisen where the female character, especially the 'promiscuous' one, is murdered in the most sadistic and gratuitous way possible. Even the most popular TV show of all time, Game of Thrones (2011-19), is guilty of this. Sansa is just a girl when the show starts, meaning viewers have watched her grow up in a sense. When her character is raped in the fifth season, there is no reason whatsoever for it to be shown, nor as viciously as it is. There's a sinister sense that the whole scene is shot to titillate, as well as shock the audience.
Modern victim 2.0: sexual assault trivialised
It is disturbing to see just how many movie 'classics' over the years have made sexual assault a joke or footnote in the plot, so i'll just name a few.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
A sweet, simple coming-of-age film about the awkward yet pretty girl who gets the popular jock with a heart of gold? Wrong. This 'nice guy' gives his passed out, (very recently) ex-girlfriend, to the boy who has spent the entire movie trying to hump all of the female characters, and tells him to 'have fun' with her. The entire scenario treats her like a trading token, and it's all played for laughs.
James Bond (1960- )
Bond. James Bond. Three words that once represented the epitome of masculinity. Now, it might more accurately be called toxic masculinity. Slick, handsome, licensed to kill: the franchise happily shows off his sense of entitlement to any woman he desires, to the point that most 'Bond girls'' names scream sex object; Octopussy, Holly Goodhead, Pussy Galore etc. In Skyfall, a woman directly tells Bond about the sexual slavery she has been forced into since childhood. A couple of scenes later, James thinks it’s ok to strip off and walk in on her whilst showering, because well, he's James Bond. Her sex object status is indeed cemented when she is later murdered right in front of him, he essentially shrugs it off, and we never her about her again. And this isn't even pervy 1960's Sean Connery Bond - this was made in 2012!
Victim Updated: Arabella, I May Destroy You (2020)
In recent years, the movie and TV industries have finally turned their attention to the tricky and complex repercussions of female sexual assault. Some good examples are the film 'Room,' and the series 'I May Destroy You', which depict the gradual healing of a woman during and after the abuse she has endured.
2.The needy girl - Echo
The myth - Echo is a nymph who sees the very gorgeous Narcissus, becomes obsessed with him, and proceeds to follow him around everywhere. Unfortunately for her, he is only interested in one person: himself. He accidentally catches a glimpse of his reflection in a pool of water one day, and wastes away staring at what he can never have.
Everyone, man or woman, has been a bit of an Echo at one point in time. You find yourself pining after someone who isn't really interested, treats you badly, or only really cares about themselves. The difference is we eventually get over it, while Echo gets so depressed by her rejection that she literally fades into thin air. Likewise in film, the self-worth of female characters is frequently based on how men perceive them.
Modern Echo-He's Just Not That Into You (2010)
I first watched this film when I was about ten, and remember feeling embarrassed for the all the, largely A list, female cast members. The film mostly depicts women throwing themselves aggressively at men who barely throw them a bone, title giveaway, and drills home the stereotype of women being obsessed with a) finding a boyfriend or b) getting married, until they drive themselves, or their partner, crazy.
Echo updated: The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Hailee Steinfeld's character is hilarious to watch as she attempts to navigate the slow motion car crash that is her arrival into adulthood. We watch her obsess over the obnoxiously cliche 'bad-boy' until, to her surprise, he agrees to have sex with her. It's only when he abruptly and robotically tries to take her virginity in the passenger seat of his car, that she begins to stop self-destructing. The film teaches a message of self respect that He's Just Not That Into You is drastically lacking.
3.The damsel in distress - Andromeda
Ah, the one that started it all. Andromeda is your typical whining female put in danger (a sea monster), until the hunky Perseus flies by (winged sandals) to save her. Enough said.
Modern Andromeda: Disney princesses/ super-hero girlfriends
The first ever song in the first Disney princess film, Snow White (1937), is called 'Someday my Prince will Come.' This sums up the plot of pretty much all Disney princess films until the 90's: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and co. Likewise, until the last four years or so, women only served as the passive love interest in super-hero movies. Generally speaking, she is there to be rescued and won over by the main man she has been underestimating the entire time - think Batman, Spiderman and Superman.
Andromeda updated: Superheroines
Wonder Woman (2017) was such a phenomenon partly becuase people were amazed, or at least pleasantly surprised, that a woman-led superhero film could be a blockbuster smash. Director Patty Jenkins went out of her way to avoid the cliche of the strong women being cold, man-hating, unattractive or aggressive. The heroine, Diana, is beautiful, sweet, funny and resilient. Captain Marvel over $1 billion box office profit in 2019 proved that Wonder Women wasn't a fluke. Meanwhile Avengers: Infinity War (2019) depicts Black Widow sacrificing herself in place of her friend Hawkeye, subverting the tradition that men are the truly courageous ones when push comes to shove.
4.The femme fatale - Circe
Like a more extreme version of the porn industry, Ancient Greek men contained all the dominatrixes and super sexy women safely within their version of a fantasy: myth, while their real wives sat at home, bored, boring and obedient. These fantasy women are always powerful and malicious semi-divinities. Rarely fleshed out, they serve no other purpose than to be a seductive obstacle which the male hero will inevitably overpower. The Odyssey's Circe is the best example. She lures men into her home, feeds them and abruptly turns them into pigs. Enter the swaggering hero, Odysseus, who overpowers her, and then proceeds to have sex with her because, why not?
Modern Circe- Catherine Tramell, Basic Instinct (1992)
For most of cinema history, female sexuality has been a pendulum: the woman is either virtuous and straight-laced, or else sexually predatory: anti-men, anti-marriage, anti-children, and usually dangerous in a more direct way. Case in point: Basic Instinct. If there's one thing this film wants you to notice more than the actual plot, it's that Catherine Tramell is very, very, very sexy. We get it. The director clearly thought the less we know about her character (a murderess) the more enticingly dangerous she seems. This makes sense in a way, but ultimately results in a one dimensional and unrealistic character, who advertises the idea that women who are comfortable with their sexuality are somehow unnatural. She's bisexual, she's not married, she has no children-red flags all round! The film was actually protested by gay-rights activists upon its release, for its negative depiction of bisexual women.
Circe Updated: Marianne, Normal People (2020)
Normal People is full of sex. Clue in the title however, the scenes aren't filmed to be a male fantasy. The series used an intimacy coach who, according to executive producer Guiney, was there to help draw out ' a sense of how they’re thinking and what they’re feeling about each other.' The TV series Fleabag was also refreshing for depicting a normal woman, not unattainably beautiful or extraordinary, talking frankly to the camera about sex and her own sexuality.
5. Waiting around for your S.O. - Penelope
Penelope's storyline couldn't be more infuriating. She sits at home for ten years while her husband goes to war, managing his palace and raising their son as a single mother. She then must wait another ten years while Odysseus gets lost on his way home, all while having to fight off a swarm of leery men. She spends most of her time in her bedroom, crying and weaving, weaving and crying, and her only function to the plot is to prove her loyalty to Odysseus for the entire 20 years. Never mind that Odysseus adopts a very leisurely pace, having sex with one woman per island that he is shipwrecked on. He conveniently neglects to tell P this, and subsequently informs her that he's leaving again about five minutes after being back.
Modern Penelope-Bella, New Moon (2009)
It's amazing that a film with a drab colour palette, dialogue and main character, who sits around moping for half the film because her boyfriend has left town, could gross $700 million at the box office, but that's the case. The most she does to move the plot along is take a car ride that serves mainly as product placement for Volvo, to put a stop to her shirtless lover's pity-party. What's scary is that the Twilight Saga was the cultural phenomenon for a generation of young girls. Thankfully, more proactive teenage heroines like Katniss in The Hunger Games emerged soon after.
Penelope updated: Moana, Moana (2016)
Though Moana isn't waiting for a man, she is constantly pressured by her father to stay exactly where she is, in the same routine, despite her deep desire to leave and help her island while it's under threat. Moana decides to leave anyway, a decision that ultimately saves the island from ruin too. Moana broke new ground for being the first Disney princess film with no male love interest, and, with a 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, he clearly wasn't missed.
6.The crazy bitch - Medea
It's an unspoken rule in myth that, if a woman is wronged in some way, she must overreact. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Medea. Her husband leaves her for another woman, and so she kills her own two sons, his new girlfriend, and his girlfriend's dad for good measure. This archetype was fuel for the belief that women were prone to hysterical episodes; a side effect of too much independence.
Modern Medea: Amy Dunne, Gone Girl (2014)
Don’t get me wrong, Gone Girl is a great thriller. But if your husband cheats on you -faking a pregnancy, your murder, and sexual assault...then getting back together with said cheating husband after all - well, its a bit much. It's a shame too, since Amy raises a good point about the tendency of women to sculpt an artificial 'cool girl' persona to impress men. Amy is one in a line of female characters masking a fragile psyche with a beautiful and intelligent exterior: giving the impression of having it all together but demonstrates an unhealthy fixation over how the men in her life behave.
Medea updated:Nicole, Marriage Story (2019)
The solution to Amy's problem was hiding in plain sight: divorce. Marriage Story is a sad yet honest look at the breakdown of a marriage. The husband cheats, but the film goes out of its way to show how complex the feelings on each side are. Neither party is perfect, and the audience gets to see both sides of the story. The shared love of their son ultimately causes them to lay down their weapons.