Last night I began watching Rob Roy. It’s one of those movies I’ve meant to watch for quite a long time and simply hadn’t gotten around to. One thing I noticed was that Jessica Lange‘s performance was superb. Another thing I noticed was that there seems to be a trend in the treatment of women in these hero-legend films.
Let me clarify. I don’t mean treatment in regards to people’s behavior toward them (though that is a by-product of what I mean). I mean the portrayal of them. Their roles. The words that come out of their mouths and the way the writers decide what is going to happen to them. I’ve noticed a couple specific common threads:
1. Family focus: Most of these hero-legends involve some real or perceived threat to the wider scope of the protagonist’s life. The woman is the one who says, “No, your priority is your family.” To which the hero says something about duty and honor yadda yadda, which leads directly into…
2. Sexual violence: Murron in Braveheart is nearly raped by a particularly disgusting English soldier. Mary in Rob Roy is raped pretty brutally by Archibald Cunningham. This is usually used as a plot device to push the hero into the Big Bad Conflict with the antagonist. Murron is killed for even trying to fight back, and Mary screams at Rob Roy’s friend when he says his honor requires him to tell Robert MacGregor, “If I can bear it happening, you can bear the silence!”
Historians doubt the veracity of these claims — whether or not Marion Wallace (renamed Murron for the film) or Mary MacGregor were raped — and to that I would say that I think many people would prefer to think of the past as having some honor, to hope that rape would not have been as commonplace as I think it must have been. They may have dubbed it “ravishment,” but if it’s as common as it is in a time where women can vote, work, and hold public office, I have no reason whatsoever to doubt that it would have been a much more normal occurrence in a time where women were thought to have little intelligence and hardly any rights over their person and livelihood.
3. Martyrs: The women in these hero-legends are often depicted as martyrs. The Princess in Braveheart is a good example — she’s forced to marry Edward the II against her will, and her little form of rebellion is to sleep with Wallace. Murron flat out dies, and Mary has to bear her rapist’s child — yet the men (who generally also die) are considered the heroes and go to their graves only to have history make legends out of them.
The women are made into bait, martyrs, or even stumbling blocks for the heroes. You tell me what is more heroic: leaving your home open to raiders with no protection or being violated and then choosing to bear it in silence to prevent additional violence and the destruction of everything you love. The problem is, the latter doesn’t make for a spectacular film in the Hollywood rite.
This isn’t to say I dislike William Wallace or the legend of Rob Roy MacGregor, only the portrayal of the women in the films about them. We all know that Hollywood takes license with stories that have any basis in history, and it’s that I take issue with.
I would like to see a film where the women are not beaten, raped, and made into martyrs when the heroes are portrayed almost equally in a negative light because of their utter selfishness that destroys their women in its blindness. William Wallace refused to wait to marry Murron against her family’s wishes (which were for the decent reason of wanting to make sure Murron wouldn’t be widowed at an early age due to the rising tension in Scotland), and his carefree amorous glances drew the English’s attention. Rob Roy refused to listen to his wife and protect his home, leaving it open and unguarded when Cunningham arrived to burn it down and violate his wife.
These are both rather poor decisions, but the women bear the retaliation for their folly.
And this is why, since we’re on the topic of Scotland and legends, that I cannot wait for the movie Brave.
Some brilliant person in the Pixar world got the idea (or optioned the rights from a Ray Ban shaded author who is forever too cool for school) to turn the entire above stereotype on its head. Young Merida gets to be the one who wants to change her lot in life — and in her ignorance sparks a curse and has to undo it herself. The formula of a hero not listening to family and thus endangering everyone, then having to fix it? This time Merida isn’t the bait or the martyr, she’s the hero.
Bravo, Pixar. Bravo.
What this post really means, what these stereotypes of women in period films really say, is that growing up I looked around to see female heroes in my movies and TV shows and books and found very few. It was only men being the ones to save the world. In the past twenty years, this has begun to change. Buffy opened the door to it, but it’s really the creators of art that have control over where it goes from here. Having Joss Whedon in charge of The Avengers made me happy — Black Widow was in all ways a superhero — but the Wonder Woman movie couldn’t even get off the ground. It tried, but it ended up flailing around like a little kid in a cape. What does that tell us?
It doesn’t tell us that there’s no story there — it says Hollywood doesn’t think it can sell a female superhero.
So here’s to all of us who write — it’s our duty to show young women female heroes who are complex, strong, and flawed. It’s our job to show them that women are more than martyrs, that our lives have value beyond how we handle sexual violence, and that our voices matter. If we keep writing it, eventually we’ll see it happen.
Let’s change the lot of the XX.
Check out the Brave trailer:
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