The Myth of the Humanizing Woman

Why do films so often hold women responsible for men’s behavior?

I have mentioned one of my least favorite tropes—the Dead Wives Club/Avenge-the-Woman-Murderquest™—on several occasions over the past year or so, but I realized recently that I have never written an article for FSR fully dedicated to the subject.

It’s time to fix that.

That said, the Avenge-the-Woman-Murderquest™ is actually part of a much greater whole that I like to call the Myth of the Humanizing Woman. Add a Humanizing Woman, and a cold-blooded criminal/monster/shell of a man becomes a “real human being and a real hero” (here’s looking at you, Drive), subtract a humanizing woman and an average Joe/family man becomes a vengeance-driven rage monster (Star Trek 2009) or Frankenstein (Frankenstein). The former case occurs when the Humanizing Woman is removed from the equation by factors outside of our protagonist’s control, the latter when he removes himself from her humanizing presence by choice. I name Frankenstein because he is the most famous example, but the general trajectory was more truly introduced as a narrative staple, particularly here in the U.S., by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Unlike Shelley, Hawthorne did not craft one iconic example but instead made the trajectory something of a signature move, as described by cultural historical Taylor Stoehr: “Hawthorne’s stock figure … is an isolated man whose mentality and special pursuits tear him away from the warmth of (usually female) society until he hardens into a frozen or petrified monster.”

When it comes to tropes and gender, I am generally a member of the “turnabout is fair play” school of thought—if it goes both ways, well, at least it’s relatively fair. Sure, there may be some I don’t like, but just because something is not my cup of tea does not make it wrong or a problem. But this trope features little to no turnabout—I can’t think of any “humanizing man” examples off the top of my head, but considering how many hundreds of films are released every year, there must be at least a handful somewhere—and film’s love of the Humanizing Woman trope has consistently contributed to aggravatingly flat female characterization.

In truth, my biggest issues with the Humanizing Woman myth have even more to do with it in practice than theory. Because while it, at this stage of the game, makes for an irritatingly repetitive and overplayed dynamic regardless, on a purely theoretical level it does not necessarily have to coincide with extremely one-dimensional female characters—it just overwhelmingly has in practice. I think no case makes this point more evident than looking at biopics. I recently did a semester-long study of the history of scientist biopics, and I found the Humanizing Woman trope to be one of the most persistent features of scientist biopics from the 1930s to the present day. And the truly incredible thing is that this trope is repeatedly invoked at the cost of historical accuracy—that is, from Edison, the Man in 1940 to A Beautiful Mind in 2001, the actual history and personalities of scientist’s wives are repeatedly more or less overwritten to make themselves ideal humanizing women figures—steadfast, bottomless wells of emotional support and affection—when in reality, of course, these women were individuals with their own lives, goals and issues to deal with. Mary Edison, née Stillwell, was by most accounts miserable and died at the age of twenty-nine, while Alicia Nash, née Larde, divorced her husband in 1963 and the two did not remarry until 2001, an almost forty-year break that A Beautiful Mind conveniently skips over.

It hardly makes for good storytelling, either. While critics did praise Jennifer Connelly’s performance as Alicia Nash (and yes, she did win an Oscar), the writing of her character was one of the elements reviewers most consistently took issue with. As Kirk Honeycutt wrote in his review for The Hollywood Reporter, “The major drawback is Alicia; while Connelly gives a grounded, effective performance, she is written sketchily by Goldsman… hers becomes a totally reactive role.”

There are certainly a number of reasons writers might keep returning to this fallacy, but I think one of the most prevalent might be that the Humanizing Woman character allows men to maintain their macho “manliness” while having actual feelings by using a humanizing woman figure as a conduit.

But as is usually the case in writing, there’s already someone out there who has said it better. So, to illustrate what I’m getting at, let us take a quick detour to one of my favorite novels, that has, as far as I am aware, has never been adapted for a screen of any kind: Willa Cather’s Lucy Gayheart, published in 1935. At one point, Cather switches from the perspective of the eponymous protagonist to one of her suitors, a wealthy banker by the name of Harry Gordon, who has counted his chickens before they have hatched and imagines their future together: “He was full of his own plans, and the future looked bright to him. There was a part of himself that Harry was ashamed to live out in the open (he hated a sentimental man), but he could live it through Lucy. She would be his excuse for doing a great many pleasant things he wouldn’t do on his own account.”

Harry is ultimately unsuccessful, and the kicker is that if he had been more open and honest with Lucy about this part of himself his chances with her would have actually been much better. Lucy Gayheart is, in this way, a deconstruction of an incredibly popular trope. Our hero, a man’s man kind of guy, isn’t supposed to be the sentimental type, but loving a woman is okay, and being sentimental is a girly thing so a sentimental woman is okay, and if our hero becomes a little sentimental by association, well, emotions are contagious like that Australian flu that’s been going around and women are, of course, just full of them. So you can’t really blame a guy for getting infected.

There’s been a lot of talk of toxic masculinity as of late. A lot of times this trope can be used as sort of a toxic masculinity work-around—as in, look see this man is expressing his feelings we’re not part of the problem while also “sticking to the script” by making these emotions a female-induced state.

But let’s switch from movies for a moment to talk about real life. Because at the end of the day, the real myth at the heart of the Humanizing Woman trope is that women are somehow responsible for men’s feelings, and that is a myth at the heart of so many reoccurring misogynistic fallacies.

Correlation does not imply causation. I’m not saying that the fact that so many beloved films prominently feature the Humanizing Woman myth—from Drive to Baby Driver to Taxi Driver to Leon: The Professional to Beauty and the Beast to The Bourne Supremacy to A Beautiful Mind—is responsible for the way women are so frequently held responsible for men’s feelings and actions due to those feelings in blatantly sexist ways. I’m not saying it’s responsible for how often people bring up a woman’s clothing choices in discussions of sexual assault and harassment, or how dress code regulations for girls are often argued as being necessary to prevent them “distracting” male students (or teachers), as if this is somehow more reasonable than expecting men to possess self-control. I’m not saying that the prevalence of the Humanizing Woman myth is responsible for the way that discussions of crimes against women so frequently involve pleas that define women in terms of their emotional significance to others (“she’s someone’s daughter, etc.”). I’m just saying it’s all connected, and that the Myth of the Humanizing Woman is a tired and overused trope that often results in incredibly flat characters, and it is high time we gave it a rest.

Ciara Wardlow :Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.