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 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 (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.[1]

Although these three tropes deal with different types of victims, they all 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. 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. Women’s deaths, on the other hand, are most often used to create a narrative for the white male hero to seek revenge or overcome adversity.

Some scholars have attributed the increase in “hyper-masculine superhero and action films” in the last decade to the disproportionate job loss in male dominated fields compared to female ones following the 2008 financial crisis, arguing that a perceived loss of masculinity caused the film and television industries to invest heavily in hypermasculine genres such as superheroes and action.[2] Films that followed this, such as Spider-Man, Wolverine and Iron Man are full of “’angry or embattled white male protagonists’ here to abate the…crisis of masculinity.”[3] Even when women are given roles in these action films, “men are constantly the ones to show true unbridled strength.”[4]

In the last few years, the female hero has become more prevalent in action films, specifically superhero features like Wonder Woman and 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. While the commercial success of these movies “shows that people enjoy films with strong and physically powerful female protagonists,”[5] researchers have found that most female protagonists “attach feelings of embarrassment and shame to [their] situation.”[6]

News media also portray violence differently depending on who is involved. Research has found that news reports about Black people are almost four times more likely to include violent content than those about white people.[7] The murders of Black people, particularly those killed by police, are routinely justified by saying the victim was “no angel,”[8] while white people who commit violent acts are much more likely than Black people to have their actions attributed to mental illness.[9] Similarly, news coverage of violence against women – especially domestic violence – often foregrounds the voice of law enforcement, rather than women, their families or experts in violence against women, typically framing it as an isolated incident.[10] A recent Canadian study of media coverage of femicides (murders of women because they are women) found that while almost none framed the story in such a way as to blame the victim, nine in ten framed it as an individual crime rather than part of a broader social problem, fewer than one in ten referred to the perpetrator’s history of violence against women and only one in 50 included any information about resources for victims of violence against women.[11]

These trends do not necessarily describe a conscious decision on the part of media producers to promote senseless violence against disadvantaged communities or a lack of agency attributed to women in film; rather, they illustrate 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 do demonstrate, however, is that members of marginalized communities will more often be cast in secondary roles rather than as heroes themselves.

We should learn to spot this trend, notice the lack of quality diverse characters and the lack of attention that is paid culturally to the stories of these groups.

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



[1] Simone, G. (1999) “Women in Refrigerators.” Retrieved from

[2] Murphy, J (2015) The role of women in film. Journalism Undergraduate Honours Theses. 2.

[3] Christian, A. J. (2009) “Angry Men Helm This Year’s Breakout Hits.” Televisual. Retrieved from

[4] Kunsey, I (2018) Representations of women in popular film: A study of gender inequality in 2018. Cinema and Television Arts, Elon University. 10(2) 27-37.

[5] Dapolito, M (2016) A contemporary analysis of films with female leads. Inquiries journal. 8(9), 1-2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Frankham, E. (2020). Victim or Villain? Racial/ethnic Differences in News Portrayals of Individuals with Mental Illness Killed by Police. The Sociological Quarterly, 61(2), 231-253.

[8] Dukes, K. N., & Gaither, S. E. (2017). Black racial stereotypes and victim blaming: Implications for media coverage and criminal proceedings in cases of police violence against racial and ethnic minorities. Journal of Social Issues, 73(4), 789-807.

[9] Frankham, E. (2020). Victim or Villain? Racial/ethnic Differences in News Portrayals of Individuals with Mental Illness Killed by Police. The Sociological Quarterly, 61(2), 231-253.

[10] Easteal, P., Holland, K., & Judd, K. (2015). Enduring themes and silences in media portrayals of violence against women. Women's Studies International Forum,48, 103-113. doi:10.1016/j.wsif.2014.10.01510

[11] Hancock L. (2021) Femicide Report. Ontario Association of Interval & Transition Houses. Retrieved from