Narratives of Violence Against Women and Minorities

Here stands the spring whom you have stain’d with mud,
This goodly summer with your winter mix’d.
You kill’d her husband, and for that vile fault
Two of her brothers were condemn’d to death,
My hand cut off and made a merry jest;
Both her sweet hands, her tongue, and that more dear
Than hands or tongue, her spotless chastity,
Inhuman traitors, you constrain’d and forced.
Titus Andronicus, Act 5, Sc. II.

Troy, make me proud. Be the first black man to get to the end.

Abed Nadir, Community

…another factor that showed to increase the survival rate of the red-shirts was the nature of the relationship between the alien life and Captain Kirk. When Captain Kirk meets an alien woman and “makes contact” the survival rate of the red-shirted crewmen increases by 84%.
Matt Bailey, Analytics According to Captain Kirk

At first glance, these three excerpts—relating to a Shakespearean play, a popular TV comedy and 1960’s science fiction show—have little in common. But each reflects problems associated with representations of violence against women and minorities.

Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is an excellent illustration of the problematic way that the media represent violence against women and minorities. Lavinia, the daughter of the play’s hero, suffers a savage rape and mutilation at the hands of the play’s villains. She is not attacked because of anything she does, but merely as a means to make the hero suffer and to provide a set-dressing for a tragic tale about her father. Comparing the number of times she speaks about anything (60 lines) to the number of lines devoted to men discussing and retelling with exacting detail how she was assaulted and the way it hurts or delights them (approximately 300 lines) no other character in the play has his or her plight expounded upon with such relish as Lavinia. When a character’s death is more meaningful than their life, we should take that as an indication that they exist to move the plot forward rather than for audiences to identify with.

Lavinia’s role is a fairly common one in most dramatic stories. She is set up as someone important to the protagonist (but not necessarily to the audience or even to the story itself) whose suffering prompts acts of heroism or at least instills sympathy in the audience for the protagonist. While this is not in itself a problem (after all, suffering and conflict are essential elements to dramatic storytelling), these types of characters become problematic when we look at who tends to fill this role in popular stories and who tends to be cast as the hero who will mourn and avenge their suffering.

Popular media so reliably casts women and minorities in these disposable roles they have produced a number of easily recognizable tropes. (A trope is a common pattern in a story or a recognizable feature in a character that conveys information to the audience. Unfortunately, tropes often perpetuate offensive stereotypes.)

Consider the three tropes elaborated below in the context of the quotes at the beginning of this section:

Victims used to further the protagonist’s story:

  • Redshirts: In the original Star Trek series, the severity of a given situation was often demonstrated through the death of crewmen in the Security branch, whose uniforms included red shirts. The use of this device was so heavy-handed that the term “Redshirt” has become synonymous with characters who are written into a story only to have their injury or death serve the dramatic tension.
  • The Black Guy Dies: This trope describes a trend that crops up frequently in action and horror films as well as in television, games, and comic books. The name of the trope describes the trend of black characters more frequently dying off than their white counterparts.
  • Women in Refrigerators: Comic book writer Gail Simone noted the trend of female comic book characters being victimized in order to further the plot of their male significant others and teammates. The term is derived from the death of superhero Green Lantern’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt, who was killed by a super-villain and left in the hero’s refrigerator. This trend is also frequently observed in video games and movies.

Although these three tropes deal with different types of victims, all share the fact that they describe instances in which violence is perpetrated against a secondary character in order to further the story arc of the protagonist. A common reaction to this trend is the response “So what? These are action and adventure stories. Bad things happen all around. The hero gets in fights and gets beat up all the time too.” While this is true, the context of the adversity faced by these different types of characters is not the same.

These deaths are most often used to create a narrative for the white male hero to seek revenge or overcome adversity. In response to accusations that she was ignoring the fact that male heroes frequently suffer victimization as well, Gail Simone examined the plight of similar male characters and found a wholly different trend. While female characters were typically made irrelevant through death, insanity, or disempowerment, their male counterparts tended to experience such setbacks (even death) as temporary obstacles to an eventual triumphant return.

These trends do not necessarily describe a conscious decision on the part of media producers to promote senseless violence against women and minorities; rather it illustrates the problem of representation and diversity in the media. It is not unexpected that the hero of a given narrative triumphs over adversity and is forced to cope with the death of loved ones. What these trends demonstrate, however, is that women and minorities will more often be cast in secondary roles rather than be seen as heroes themselves.

We should learn to spot this trend and notice the lack of quality female or minority characters and the lack of attention that is paid culturally to the stories of these groups. The experiences and struggles of minority and female characters are trivialized and made subordinate to the experience of a typically gender conforming, heterosexual, fully enabled, usually white male hero.

For further exploration into how the media represent women and people of various minority backgrounds, see our diversity section. Our section on privilege further explores what it means to have one’s experience subordinated because of one’s minority status.