Monday, September 26, 2016

The Lady is a Plot Device

I like B movies. I grew up on the hyper-colored and noisy sci-fi, action, and fantasy films of the ‘80s, then discovered the depth of the post-war noir B movies that made so much mood with so little. Eventually, I worked as a crew member on films ranging from studio funded to micro-budget.

That career is long behind me, but when seeking out an evening movie to watch, my first impulse is to reach for a B movie that probably went straight to video in the first place. Most of these are action films of some variety with ninjas or cyborgs or rogue cops seeking vengeance. And here’s where the problem starts. Usually, this quest for justice is prompted by violence toward a woman who is close to the hero’s heart.

Skimming through the streaming options, looking at the plot synopses of these films highlights how much the woman is in peril (or dead), setting the man off on his journey. Paraphrasing: “Leader of a biker gang vows revenge after a rival gang kills his wife…” “When officer Joe Jones’s wife is kidnapped by cartel members…” and on and on. I know I’m not the first to point this out and others have done much more extensive analytical work in this area (Susan Sontag and Laura Mulvey come to mind).

I’m not fond of seeing women in this kind of danger, or harmed physically merely for the sake of the man’s motivation, and I try to avoid these films. But sometimes it sneaks up on you. Just the other night, my brother and I settled on a modern ninja film after passing on a lot of other typical storylines, only to find ourselves back in the standard revenge plot. When the hero’s loving wife announced to him early in Act I, “I’m pregnant,” my brother and I both groaned with despair, knowing she would be sacrificed to the sake of the man’s plot and lust for revenge. We were right - she didn’t make it past the next five minutes.

And that’s why I love romantic suspense. The woman is important. She’s 50% of the main characters. Yes, she can be imperiled and yes, the hero can come to her aid, but she’s not just a function of the plot. Her wants and needs are just as important as the man’s. Chef Hayley, the heroine of Countdown to Zero Hour, isn’t a soldier, but also isn’t completely helpless when it comes to standing up to the danger. The heroine of One Minute to Midnight, “Bolt Action” Mary, has a special ops background and rescues the hero more than once.

I don’t know if this plot device in action/adventure films will ever change, but I plan on staying as far away as possible. Reading and writing women who are participants in their story is so much more satisfying.

What about you? Can you watch these films without the plot device bothering you?

6 comments:

Anne Marie Becker said...

What a great perspective! I hadn't thought about "women in jeopardy" movies quite that way. And your comments reminded me of something I watched last week... The Lethal Weapon TV version that just aired. *spoiler alert* his pregnant wife dies in a crash in the first few minutes of the pilot episode. Of course, it's similar to what happens in the movies, but I had forgotten the whole motivation for why Riggs embraces crazy and risks his life daily. And yeah, I'm not a fan of killing or hurting women just to give the guy a reason to fight. ;)

jean harrington said...

Loved your blog, Nico. And I had the added enjoyment--after reading it--in realizing that a historical I'm currently polishing has a woman protagonist who saves the hero. And you know, that particular take on it hadn't consciously occurred to me just that way until I met your insightful post. Thanks!

Nico Rosso said...

I haven't seen the TV version of Lethal Weapon, Anne Marie, but the original film is a perfect example of this plot device. It's even a two-fer. Not only is the wife dead by the time the movie starts, but they also kidnap Murtaugh's daughter to up the stakes.

You're welcome, Jean! I'm glad the post helped with a little perspective. I love that your heroine is rescuing your hero. That's one of the great things about writing romance, we have the opportunities to go against the ingrained story structures and characters.

Rita said...

I have to say this plot device theme has bothered me for a long time. So few movies and books do not use it to one degree or another. Sigh.

Sami said...

YES! I can't believe this is still standard practice. It annoyed me as a teenager and since then nothing much has changed.

Nico Rosso said...

I'm with you, Rita and Sami. The device is so old, but still thrown in way too often.