Exploring The Disposable Woman Trope
My bio mentions a Peeping Tom who plagued our house when I was around twelve years old. And, when I say plagued, I mean he visited our home once or twice a week for over a year. And he was never caught!
My mother was a beautiful actress with two young daughters, so you could say maybe he just wanted to, um, look. But here’s the thing: he wanted us to know that even though we thought we were safe inside our house, he was there…looking. He controlled the situation to ensure we felt vulnerable.
He wanted to terrify us.
Each time before he left, he would rap sharply on the dark window with the half-inch gap in the curtain. Or, he’d grab the doorknob and shake it really hard! He left stuff behind, too. Cigarette butts, candy wrappers, beer and soda cans. He didn’t need to worry about DNA; it wasn’t available at that time. Back then, the police would point out the muddy footprints under the windows but didn’t bother collecting any evidence…that was my job the next day. I kept his trash in a box in my closet, proof in the event that I ever caught him.
One night my mother was washing dishes and saw him standing at the kitchen window, peering over the café curtains. “Don’t look at the window,” she said while casually telling me to go in the other room and call the police. Another time, I was home alone, babysitting my three-year-old sister, and I clearly remember making her crawl along the baseboard all the way from the family room, where he banged on the door, to the other end of the house and the bathroom (the only room with a lock.) I brought the phone in with me and hid my sister in a cabinet behind the towels before calling my mother at the bowling alley.
There was even one early evening when my mother was getting ready to go out. She was dressed in a full slip and putting on makeup. It was hot in Phoenix, Arizona, and we didn’t have air-conditioning so open windows were a matter of survival. He let her know he was there and she—completely fed up—grabbed a small handgun out of a box in her closet and took off out the door after him. She chased him for several blocks down busy Glendale Avenue…in a slip…waving a handgun!
I guess I come by my kick-ass girl chops honestly!
My mother always appeared sort of nonplussed by the whole man-at-the-window thing, but then she could have just been putting on a show for us kids. For me it was mission accomplished! For years I was terrified of the dark and what was lurking outside my window. I trained myself to sleep with one eye open. I would lie in bed, listening for every snap of twig or crunch of grass. As often as I could, I slept in my clothes. When I finally had my own apartments, they were always on the second floor. I’m pretty sure half my life passed before I got a full night of REM sleep.
It’s interesting to look back on this in the context of the time, set against the politics of the women’s movement and the zeitgeist of scream queens whom we knew and cared about. As they dominated the box office, suburban Phoenix seemed pretty safe back then, even with the peeper. Now, all these years later, that box of trash from my closet is long gone, but the impact of growing up with that as a backdrop is not.
You only need to browse the headlines superficially to understand that real, actual women are not that safe anymore.
Our beloved scream queens have slid from starring roles where they survived against monsters to a darker and different kind of trope. Specifically, it is the unnamed woman, usually the wife, sweetheart, sister, daughter, or close female friend of the protagonist who is kidnapped, raped, murdered or, all of the above, but never shown or named as a person. She is simply the victim!
There’s a name for this; it’s called the disposable woman trope. The disposable woman trope used to create undeserved misfortune for the protagonist, giving him the impetus, as well as implied permission, to wreak revenge throughout the rest of the book, movie, or series. It’s the basis of every Criminal Minds episode ever, as well as Liam Neeson’s recent movies. It’s even used in the reverse in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Frances McDormand plays the mother of a disposable woman trying to get the local authorities to care enough to try to solve her daughter’s murder. Today, in the context of a new women’s movement—one with actual teeth—the notion of free use of the disposable woman to sell books or movie tickets has passed its sell-by date.
The problem with using the unnamed woman as a plot device is that she’s nothing more than a prop, a McGuffin. And that casual attitude has the potential to desensitize society’s view of violence against women. Anti-violence action groups are targeting the disposable woman trope as something that needs to change. And the new #metoo generation of feminism is also chiming in.
Is there a cure for the disposable woman trope? Can we still write and produce exciting thrillers full of tension without sacrificing an unnamed woman? Yes!
The smart, strong girl/woman protagonist has been a thing for a while. But we can do more to round out these characters and make sure they are archetypes, worthy of a fictional conflict, not stereotypes just checking a box. These women should think for themselves, make their own mistakes, and never ask, “What should we do now?” If our female characters are strong enough to kick off a story, they should be strong enough to survive whatever we throw at them. This is an important distinction.
There is plenty of violence against men in films and books. But it is perceived differently, almost as if a threat against a male character isn’t enough unless you add a disposable woman or two onto the storyline. Let’s strive to create incidents strong enough to launch these men into the story without perpetuating a dangerous stereotype. The idea that a male protagonist needs a weak, vulnerable living (for a short time anyway) prop to justify and pin his action on is an idea that seriously needs to go.
A great example might be the tension-packed, young adult fantasy thriller Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. This book, in which world destruction is at stake, features a team of six dangerous outcasts, each with their own skill set and baggage. The women in this book not only thrive, they are even more deadly than the men. Trope destroyed…and we’re still having fun!
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is another example of a tense and heartbreaking story featuring a YA trio that didn’t need to pile tragedy onto an unknown woman to make the reader feel something!
I choose to write young adult fiction because I’ve known for some time that the transformation away from so many undesirable things in our society has already begun here, in this community. For the most part, this audience, and the authors who write for them, are into smart, feisty, girl-types who are capable of leading a revolt, busting out of zip-tie handcuffs, creating weapons out of everyday items, and catching killers with science instead of firepower. If you’re looking to explore a mystery/thriller with strong, appropriate women’s issues, check out an offering from the young adult shelf.
As for my peeper, your legacy is as strong today as it was back then, only now you are helping to shape vulnerable young girls’ perceptions of safety through my stories. Boo-yah!
Sheryl Scarborough is the author of To Catch A Killer and To Right The Wrongs, a mystery/thriller series from TorTeen about a sixteen-year-old girl who uses forensics and her biology lab to solve the cold-case murder of her mother and the recent murder of her biology teacher.