Wives, Shrews and Mary Sues: a guide to your favourite female character tropes
Women. Ain’t they a mystery? According to a large proportion of screenwriters, yes they are, which is why, when inserting female characters into stories, it’s easier to fall back on some of these trusty tropes than it is to try and write women as if they are people. The archetypes of female characters we have come to know and love – wife/love interest/mother figure – can be divided into further sub-categories, and today we will explore just a handful of our favourites, as gathered from the far reaches of the collective unconscious (and YouTube).
Not quite a damsel in distress, she can ‘take care of herself’ until she can’t, and a man has to step in and save her. She always looks smokin’ hot even when buildings are collapsing on her or she’s been running miles to escape the Bad Thing. If you replaced her character with a lamp, it wouldn’t make much difference (as long as the lamp was sexy).
(examples: Laura from The Day After Tomorrow, Blake from San Andreas, Mikaela from Transformers)
Pretty sure the inimitable Lindsay Ellis coined this term, you can find her work here!
Sexy Puff of Air
She’s a motivation for the hero to go on his journey and vanquish those monsters, but she’s not really…there for, like, 90% of the movie. When she does appear, she faints a lot, has no discernible characteristics other than being perfect, and tends to kind of just stand (or lie) in the background as a placeholder, waiting for the hero to return as soon as he’s done with his adventure.
(examples: Jennifer from Back to the Future, Grace from Armageddon, Irene from Drive)
Although she may look plain (in a beautiful sort of way), there’s Something Special about Mary Sue. She’s mysterious, unconditionally loving, and she has exceptional skills that set her apart from the other girls, turning her into an object of male desire. We might see her as boring, but the male characters are driven to turn their lives upside down for her. Seriously – does this girl have a single flaw?
(examples: Bella from Twilight, Elizabeth from Pirates of the Caribbean, Rey from Star Wars)
A woman who exists solely to get killed, raped, captured or horribly beaten in some way so that the male hero either a) gets all angry and vengeance-seeking; b) broods a lot whilst frequently dreaming about his lost love; or c) has a full-on mental breakdown. Either way, the ‘fridged’ woman is not really a character, just a device whose death/abuse furthers the hero’s story. Extra points scored if she dies while pregnant!
(examples: most Christopher Nolan movies, Tracy from Seven, Dolores from Shutter Island)
We have Shakespeare to thank for this one. The Shrew is a woman who just needs to have some fun, god-dammit! She’s an uptight, intelligent outsider who maybe let loose, once, when she was in college or something. Up until our hero comes along, she had ‘lost touch’ with the fun-loving part of herself…thank god he’s here to help her find it.
(examples: Principal Mullins from School of Rock, Veronica from Anchorman, Alison from Knocked Up)
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
SHE’S. NOT. LIKE. THE. OTHER. GIRLS! MPDGs are kooky loners, a little mentally unhinged, and a favourite of the ‘soft boi’ screenwriter; in the words of critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term, the MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”
(examples: Summer from 500 Days of Summer, Claire from Elizabethtown, Sam from Garden State)
He Tarzan, she Jane. There’s no graceful way to really put it…BF is there to get banged by the hero, and then leave or get killed. Sometimes she’s revealed to be a baddy (after the copulation has taken place, obviously) so her death is justified. It’s a testament to our patriarchal society that being a ‘Bond Girl’ is presented as some glamorous honour, like any actress should think herself lucky to be featured in a movie where her only purpose is to get shagged.
(examples: where there’s a James Bond, Indiana Jones or Conan the Barbarian, there will be a BF!)
That’s just it. She married the hero once, and now here she is, sometimes nagging, sometimes hanging around in the kitchen, and pretty much always woefully under-developed as a character. In the odd film she’ll be given a few breadcrumbs of a subplot, as a treat, but it will almost always involve protecting the children.
(examples: most movies. Like, pretty much all of them have a ‘His Wife’ hanging around somewhere.)
Listen to The Bechdel Cast for some hardcore ‘His Wife’-spotting and in-depth dissection of many other tropes!
She’s got a body you could crack eggs on and she can handle herself in a fight, but dammit, you just can’t trust her! Whether she’s in it for the money, or is a double-agent doing the antagonist’s dirty work, her motivations certainly aren’t in line with supporting our hero. And for that, she will probably die.
(examples: Darling from Baby Driver, Lori from Total Recall, Pris from Blade Runner)
Born Sexy Yesterday
A favourite of sci-fi screenwriters everywhere, she’s too naïve to realise what a douchebag our hero is, and that sets her apart from all the other women who presumably have brains and opinions. It’s like falling in love with a sweet little girl, but y’know, not creepy ‘cause she looks like Milla Jovovich.
(examples: Leeloo from The Fifth Element, Nova from Planet of the Apes, Madison from Splash)
Watch Pop Culture Detective’s excellent video essay on the subject of this trope
Sassy Black Woman/Spicy Latina
Two racist stereotypes for the price of one! Always a side character, these women come with bags of sass and always tell it like it is. Under their tough, confrontational exterior there hides a wise and soulful spirit, but this is easy to overlook as they are usually relegated to comic relief duties or (Spicy Latina especially) sexually liberated eye-candy.
(examples…it’s easier to just name the handful of actresses often typecast in these roles: Queen Latifah, Salma Hayek, Loretta Devine, Michelle Rodriguez, Cleo King)
Sometimes dressed up as a high-powered career woman, or a loveable klutz, or a Serious Journalist, the main thing we need to know about Cinderella is that her life is missing something, and that something is man-shaped. Her biggest fear is being over 40 without a husband. The horror!
(examples: Born from Disney, obviously, Cinderella is kept alive through the medium of romantic comedies)
The Kooky Friend
Advisor to Cinderella, she pops in to a handful of scenes and offers support and sass. She’s funny, so that must mean she is sexually unfulfilled and probably has a husband and some kids she hates loitering in the background. Mainly she spends her time living vicariously through her more attractive and adventurous friend.
(examples: literally pick any rom-com)
Have we missed any of your favourites? Let us know in the comments!