Women on the Verge: Tragic Heroines, Then and Now

Images: Bette Davis/Public Domain; Rachel McAdams/CC/SpreePix/Flickr
Images: Bette Davis/Public Domain; Rachel McAdams/CC/SpreePix/Flickr

In the film of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, the titular heroine Claire (played by Rachel McAdams) watches Bette Davis in an adaptation of the play Dark Victory. We don’t see her reaction, but her tiny reflection appears on the television screen next to Davis’ face, linking not only the characters in their heartbreaking futures but also the actresses in what feels like a passing of the torch.

Though she’s done everything from comedy (“Mean Girls”) to action-adventure (“Sherlock Holmes”), McAdams’ biggest roles have come in popular tearjerkers like “The Notebook” and “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” stories that follow in the tradition of the “woman’s picture,” melodramas centered on and aimed at women. While cinema has offered some memorably intense performances from actresses in recent years — think Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road,” Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore in “The Hours,” Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique in “Precious” — few of those dramas were made specifically for a female audience.

The classic studio period of Hollywood was a golden era for women’s pictures, drawing the industry’s major talents while commanding big box-office returns. Often adapted from middlebrow novels and plays popular with women, these films were melodramas about the family or a romance (or sometimes both) that ended tragically, offering unforgettable lead roles for actresses: Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas,” Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers in “Imitation of Life,” Greta Garbo in “Camille,” Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce,” and, of course, Bette Davis in “Of Human Bondage,” “Dark Victory,” and “Jezebel.” Though the number of roles for actresses may be greater today, they lack the emotional and psychological complexity of these earlier heroines.

Fewer films are made for female audiences these days, particularly those that appeal to all ages, and most are standard romantic comedies. But with the commercial success of “The Notebook” in 2004, it seems as if the traditional woman’s drama may be undergoing a quiet revival, with acclaimed young actresses such as McAdams, Anne Hathaway (“Love and Other Drugs,” the upcoming romance “One Day” based on the book by David Nicholls), and Amanda Seyfried (“Letters to Juliet”) in these roles. Although they stick to the basic romantic or familial formula, the tragic nature of today’s films has evolved away from their forebears in a narrative development that goes back to popular tearjerkers of the 1980s (“Terms of Endearment,” “Beaches,” “Steel Magnolias”).

The classic tragic hero/ine, as defined by Aristotle, is a figure whose adversity arises from an error in judgment, rather than a quirk of fate. The female protagonists of these earlier productions clearly fit this archetype; the lives of the women in “Camille” and “Jezebel” turn forcefully on an instance of pride, for example, making them complicit in their own destiny. The modern tragic heroine, however, merely inherits, rather than determines, her heartbreaking ending, usually in the form of incurable disease or sudden death of a loved one. Though Claire, in “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” declares at one point, “I wanted to say it, to assert my own free will,” her future as the tragic wife is already cruelly set. Is it more tragic to bring your fate upon yourself or to have it irrevocably decided?

Whatever your perspective on these tearjerkers, there is no denying the emotional hold they have on audiences, who reach for these films as a catharsis and a comfort. As Debra Winger’s cancer-stricken character in “Terms of Endearment” says, “I want you to tell them it ain't so tragic! People do get better.”

  • Francesca in CT, USA

    Tragic heroines - wah wah wah
    Women are inherently strong albeit we do enjoy a tear jerker from time to time.
    Give me Kate Hepburn in any film she made.
    Strong, intelligent and capable are the kind of women that I like to see portrayed in films.
    That's Oscar winning material.
    Maybe I'm missing the point.

  • Denise

    Since I teach literature, I am biased in favor of the flawed hero / heroine who, in some way, brings on his or her own fate. This part of the formula celebrates the power we humans have over our own lives. As long as women are portrayed as victims of fate, rather than determiners thereof, they are second class citizens of the world, not unlike children. So, it is sad? Yes. Is it tragic? Does it produce that cathartic poignancy of epiphany and justice? No. Just another reason to cry over events out of our control. That's why I refuse to go see such simplistic tearjerkers -- they cheat, they're too easy. Actresses need to fight for more demanding roles, and we, the buyers of tickets, need to stop rewarding the shallow excuses for tragedy we are served. Is it any wonder men refuse to go see these with us?

  • StrongSTLwoman

    What about Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice? Does not get better/ more tragic/hard to watch/can't look away than her performance in that movie. I have yet to see a character on screen who haunts me more than that.

  • betty

    Oh my god they forgot Melanie Hamilton (played by Olivia DeHaviland in Gone with the Wind. God, who doesn't want to cry when she dies in the end? Even Rhett says that she is the only kind person he has ever met.

  • Elizabeth

    Great post! I'm really interested in how this trend is surfacing in television as well. I'm thinking of a show like Grey's Anatomy (where I know at least one female character got stricken with brain cancer) or House, in which Olivia Wilde's character is known to have a fatal genetic condition. Even "quality" television, then, like House, is not above deploying this trope for pathos-generating purposes.
    On a related note, can I say how tired I am of one particular iteration of the tragic heroine -- the dead wife? Who must be endlessly memorialized in flashbacks and dream sequences? Interestingly, this figure seems to have surfaced more recently in "men's films," like Shutter Island or Inception, where she becomes an impetus for male instability, and thus, pretty much to blame for the protagonist's bad decisions.

  • sakara

    "often adapted from middlebrow novels..."

    Even middlebrow novels of yesterday are better than the childish superhero movies that are made for teenage boys now days.

    (and Mrs. Robinson of THE GRADUATE is usually regarded as a tragic heroine.)

  • AL BAiley

    Sophia Loren in TWO WOMEN.