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Zombieland and Unlikely Damsels in Distress

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I’m thinking about a fairly old movie today, partly because I just saw it on Netflix, and partly because I think it perfectly demonstrates how pervasive certain tropes about female characters can be.

Zombieland was, overall, an incredibly fun movie. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse survival movie, where nothing is taken particularly seriously and a lot of our genre expectations are turned on their heads. Heck, it’s a movie where the bad-ass, gun-wielding character’s main motivation is finding a Twinkie bar during the end of the world. It’s not one to take too seriously. But the movie’s otherwise clever and irreverent writing becomes lazy when it comes to its female characters.

Our two female characters, Wichita and Little Rock, are introduced to us as ruthless badasses, in a scene that plays on our expectations of a zombie movie. The twelve-year-old Little Rock has apparently been bitten by a zombie, and she insists her sister has to kill her before she turns. Except that it’s all a trick so that the two girls can get their hands on our male protagonists’ guns, car and supplies. Their introduction makes a strong statement about the sort of characters they are — not damsels in distress, but female characters who can take care of themselves, who are as in control as one can be during a zombie apocalypse, who protect one another and put each other first, and who are not afraid to be ruthless when they need to be. They outsmart our two male protagonists more than once, and, as we get to know them more, we see that they are generally compelling, well-written characters.

And then comes the movie’s conclusion, when they abandon the others and light up an entire theme park, attracting every zombie in the area. Their dramatic-finale worthy attempt to escape involves them climbing on a drop tower (which will, of course, drop them back into the middle of the zombies the moment the ride is done), and they have to be saved by our hero/Wichita’s love interest. In short, they lose all of their previous savvyness and survival instincts in order to fill the role of damsels in distress for the dramatic final rescue scene.

And with that, a movie that’s worked hard to play with and subvert narrative expectations suddenly plays right into them. Of course, we want to see our male protagonist embrace his badassery, fight off the zombies, find love and ride off into the sunset. We want that satisfaction. But instead of finding a way to make that ending work with all we’ve seen before, the movie sacrifices its female characters to the demands of the genre. Yes, they can have personality and strength and strong survival instincts, but the narrative seems to need them to play the familiar role of damsels, regardless of all that came before.

It’s lazy writing, but it’s also, I think, demonstrative of the power of tropes. Movies want “strong female characters” now, but they still want the comforting familiarity of old “final fight”/”happily ever after” tropes. And that means that the hero must not only get the girl, but must save the girl.

And the trope is so pervasive that it’s really difficult to notice it. Even when the damsel ending runs counter to everything we’ve seen before, as it does here, we subconsciously expect it from the narrative, and so we’re more likely to view it uncritically when it arrives. It’s so well-worn that even a movie which plays with expectations and tropes, and likes to make fun of them or flip them onto their heads, finds itself including it with nary a critical look in sight. It’s simply how the movie feels it has to end, even when it shouldn’t feel that way at all.

 

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

7 thoughts on “Zombieland and Unlikely Damsels in Distress

  1. “Of course, we want to see our male protagonist embrace his badassery, fight off the zombies, find love and ride off into the sunset. ”

    Just my opinion but:

    No, we don’t. Some people want that, others don’t. In fact I was really disappointed. No only because they change the female characters, but the main narrative where the male main character said that he survived because he didn’t take innecesary risk. More to the point, one of the “rules” is “Don’t be a hero”. That ending broke the whole survival rules the movie is based on. If you exchange Wichita for Tallahassee going in to a Twinkie factory full of zombies, getting surrounded by zombies and needing to be rescued, it wouldn’t make sense either that they try to save him and succed. They should fail and die.

    By the way, after all movie talking about the twinkie and not talking about a theme park, it would have make a lot more sense if it was Tallahasee the one to take a stupid risk, after all, he was the one obsesed.

    So no, an ending similar to dead set (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1285482/) would have been more satisfying for people like me. Either that or the survivalist refusing to rescue him because “rule don’t be a hero”. And if you want to show him his rules are wrong, it should be others to do that. Maybe Talahasee or Wichita rescuing another person who latter helps them, showing that “being a hero” could increase your survival chances. The way it’s done, show just “dumb luck”.

    Anyway, it’s true that they allways resort to the same tropes. It’s lazy writting and it shows that relationships in movies are broken. After all, would have been wrong a relationship between equals? Or one that doesn’t need rescuing?

    1. OK, good point. I do think it would have changed the tone of the movie a lot, though, if they’d all failed and died. Although I can see them pulling it off with the narration and the “as I said, don’t be a hero” thing.

      1. OK, it’s true that america likes more lighthearted stories. But then, maybe instead of making woman weak for the sake of the (weaker) male character to “redeem” himself and fell “strong”, maybe, just maybe, the could have ended with a raid in to a twinkie factorie. The four of them, because survival worth nothing withouth the litle pleasures. They want to live, not just survive. And in sharing a victory (even small for people who can just buy a twinke) you create a conection and the spark of a romance between equals… No need to make female characters dumb so the boy could play the hero part. Wich makes me think that the male character don’t have anything to offer besides the rescue. No personality, no good traits, nothing to be atracted if it’s not forced by the situation… XD

        Or you make the movie about survival versus being alive. Then, thats something that aplies to all characters.

        1. By the way, I recomend you “In the flesh”. It’s short and a really good zombie show. The main character and his best friend are zombies that are treated so they can remember their lives before becoming zombies. The story start when they return to their town. It’s completely worth it and don’t resort to old tropes.

        2. That idea for a raid on a Twinkie factory would have been perfect. It’s infested with zombies, but they NEED this… humorous action, bad-assery, and a good conclusion to the movie that fit its themes. I would have loved that.

          1. Yeah, I would have liked this, because that don’t disprove the rules of survival, just changes the priorities. Also, Tallahaasee it’s the one in that movie that needs saving. I mean, he’s clearly depressed (with good reason) and withouth something that gives you reason to keep going, you are bound to give up. So getting some twinkies it’s a way for the other characters to show they care about him, that he has a family (Even if it’s strange). So yes, they need twinkies and other things that could seem “trivial” but that bring some joy and conection in an otherwise shitty world.

            Or maybe I think too much. hahaha

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