So everyone recognises at least one of the above, right? We’ve got a few movies in there, some TV shows, a handful of video games, even a beloved Shakespeare play. If you’ve seen any of the above, then you’re already familiar with the trope we’re about to dissect.
This gruesome plot device involves a male protagonist’s wife and child - usually daughter - being murdered. Often we never even see the wife and child (unless you count their mangled corpses), or even catch their names. This harrowing experience is then used as an excuse for our male protagonist to throw his fists into the air, whilst screaming “Nooooo!”
Perhaps while it’s raining.
But more importantly, the murders of these women will then be used to justify another 108 minutes (in the case of Once Upon a Time In Mexico) of our champion rampaging the streets, shooting baddies, and walking coolly away from explosions. See the bottom of this article for the list of examples I could find that use this trope.
However, what I struggle with here is figuring out if this trope is even a problem.
Firstly, there have been so many thousands of films made, that you can probably find a few hundred that have the same origin story. That doesn’t mean that the trope is common, only that a lot of movies have been made with lazy writing.
Secondly, every genre has some associated tropes. Sometimes it’s an almost integral part of the experience. What would Die Hard be without a German villain? What would Bridget Jones Diary be without a guy telling Bridget he likes her “just the way she is”? Would anyone really watch the Scream movies without an obscene amount of spurting ketchup blood? Some tropes just come with a genre, and maybe murdered wives and children is just a necessary trope of action movies.
Are there lots of movies where the sole motivation for our protagonist is the murder of the women in their lives (who are typically considered to be dependants of our chiselled action hero)? Or have there just been so many movies that anything can seem like a pattern?
The answer here lies not in the fact that I found thirty examples after a cursory glance at Google, but in how popular and highly grossing these films are. For instance, Guardians of the Galaxy features Drax - everyone’s favourite muscled, literal, red tattooed alien – whose wife and daughter (unnamed) were murdered, obliging Drax to spend the rest of the movie reaping revenge. Guardians of the Galaxy was also the highest grossing superhero movie of 2014.
Let’s take some more examples: Max Payne. Hard assed ex-DEA Agent with a murdered wife and daughter. In 2001 when the game was released, it won no less than twenty gaming awards, including a BAFTA. Popular children’s books ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ spends the fourteen-book series searching for justice from the villains who stole away his wife and daughter, during which the author won eight awards, as well as being nominated for a further two. Marvel’s ‘The Punisher’ (based on the comics) was nominated for ten awards, winning Best New Media Superhero Series.
Is this what the public wants to see? While it’s common knowledge that the nuclear family dynamic is on the decline, is this really the way we want it portrayed? Why does media that portrays women as silenced and fragile do so well? Why are movies where women are used as plot devices heralded so much more than movies that have developed female characters?
Every genre has associated tropes, so is a dead wife and daughter motivating a male protagonist just an example of this?
It’s a possibility. Tropes are nothing new, and not necessarily something bad – sometimes they can be comical, and even endearing. But I do think that this trope is something to be treated with caution.
Lack of female representation in Hollywood and the videogame industry is well documented, and problematic. The infamous Bechdel Test questions whether a film includes two speaking female characters that discuss something other than a man. According to the BBC in 2018, more than half of the films named Best Picture in the Oscars failed this test. So action movies that use the murdered wife and daughter trope don’t just harmlessly use a theatrical device, they also contribute to the lack of representation of females in the media.
It will surprise no one to learn that while I found thirty or so examples of our trope after a quick google search, I found only two examples where the roles were reversed. Only the movie ‘Peppermint’ and webcomic ‘Moon Knight’ included a woman whose husband and child have been murdered, sending her on a quest of vengeance.
Equally in the videogame industry, studies like this one and this one show that there are far fewer female playable and non-playable characters. If a female character does manage to make it into a game, they also have far less game relevant action. Suggested reasons for this include the lack of female staff in game design companies (see here), resulting in an unrealistic and damaging depiction of women within videogames (often portrayed in a Tomb Raider style, with gargantuan breasts, skin tight clothing, and barbie-like waist).
So when we look at the popular trope of the dead female characters, we’re perpetuating the idea that women have nothing of value to add, that women are in need of protection (by a guy – preferably chiselled, and with a concealed carry permit). This is especially true when the media that uses this trope is so highly revered and awarded.
Research shows that women internalize these messages. When you go see the highest grossing movie of the year, or watch the new Netflix No. 1 show and the only females included are dead, you will take something from that.
Twisting the knife, research exploring Learned Helplessness suggests that the ubiquity of media displaying women as victims - frequently at risk of being attacked or murdered - puts women in a heightened state of alert and anxiety. It limits what women feel they can and cannot do (for example, going out at night) for fear of violence. Learned Helplessness states that the huge number of media examples that depict women as victims acts as a form of social control, indirectly telling women how they should behave.
At best, this is sloppy writing. It feels profoundly lazy to come to a point in a story where you need to motivate a character, and you just go – “well, guess we’ll kill off his wife and daughter again.”
Certainly there are other, more dynamic, less flimsy ways to impassion a character. Don’t screen writers realise that it would be more powerful for the audience to actually know the wife/daughter/expendable female who’s about to die, and then to have them killed off? Maybe we could even learn their name.
At worst, this is perpetuating some really nasty messages about how women are powerless, frail, and secondary, exacerbating feelings that women already experience about victimhood and the likelihood of danger.
Of course, this isn’t just bad for women. As with all issues of patriarchy, this is also harmful to men. This trope perpetuates the time worn tale men hear regarding their masculinity: that they must be brave and strong, and so emotionless that if your family is murdered you can just get on with your shit. That it is a man’s job to protect “his” women – or at minimum, avenge their deaths with an arsenal of weaponry, an incredibly high pain tolerance, and a witty line for when they finally kill those son-of-a-bitches.
Examples I Found