Neither Seen Nor Heard: Women, Excess, and Misogyny in Popular Media

Or: How TV Tropes Can Help Us Understand Violence Against Women In The Real World, Or: How Violence Against Women Can Help Us Understand TV Tropes, Or: The Dangers Of Excess, Or: This Is How You Find Out About My Love For Digressions, Or: Please Stop Ignoring The Sociopathy Of Western Culture’s Behaviour Towards Women.

[Trigger Warnings: mentions of: death; murder; violence against women; self-harm; sex; food and eating disorders.]

I am worried that this seems excessive.
It is March 21st, 2015. I have lived in Melbourne for three months and I’m sitting in the café down the street after putting out an invitation to my Facebook friends to let me read tarot for them.
Isn’t that a bit much? I think to myself. Who even does tarot in a café? Who believes in that crap? Wait, we’re wearing that skirt? Oh and we’re taking another selfie? Are we overthinking this? Just be less thoughtful, less vain, less weird, less needy.
I am worried, these days, about everything I do and its potential for excess.
And there’s a whole book just in that. But the bigger issue is that, as a woman within western society, I have been taught that my entire gender is excessive and needs to be contained: be seen but not heard, diet your body into oblivion, lock up your sex drive, keep your hemlines below the knee. Hide. Shrink. Shut up.

On March 17th, 2015, 17 year old Masa Vukotic was found dead in a park in Doncaster.
My aversion to excess makes me word that sentence carefully. You can’t name the man who, yesterday, turned himself in to police in relation to her death. He’s innocent until proven guilty, even if he did come forward himself, even if the evidence seems to point towards him, has he confessed, has he been tried? Maybe you can’t even say she was murdered. I mean, she was stabbed and dumped in a park but maybe you can’t say ‘murder’ until it’s been proven beyond reasonable doubt. Be careful what you say about this.
Sometimes I find myself thinking like a lawyer, by which I mean thinking like a robot that has never lived in a real human society.
Sometimes that’s easier.
My point is that Masa, a 17 year old girl whose friends all say she was quiet and studious and kind, was murdered by a man in a park and dumped like garbage. I was leered at twice by male motorists while waiting at the one pedestrian crossing between my house and the café. And somehow I am still the one worried about how my behaviour is excessive.
Never mind the fact that Masa could have been foul-mouthed or cruel or undereducated or wearing a miniskirt or walking around topless with a back tattoo saying MURDER ME and she still would have had the right to walk safely through public spaces.
Never mind that her alleged murderer appears to have been motivated his own social and psychological deficiencies and not any particular vendetta against Masa herself or women in general (except inasmuch as our whole society has a sociopathic hatred towards women, and a man who treats women like garbage might well be mentally ill but is also very clearly the product of a culture of mixed messages and misogyny).
This is not actually about Masa. Except when it is.
This is about pop culture, this is about representation, this is about the women we construct from the distilled essences of all our cultural and social and racial baggage. This is about the paradox that we don’t expect female characters to actually reflect the lives of real women and yet they are subject to the same forces and the same biases. Women have been coded as excessive more or less since the scientific revolution, when the rational ability of humans to observe, categorise and draw conclusions from the world around them became the pinnacle of human value. Women—their bodies, their minds, their occupations—are coded into this uncomfortable space of both being incapable of rational self-control and evading men’s abilities to control them. We (the White Western We) don’t explicitly think this way, necessarily, and if we did we’d be forced to acknowledge that, as a culture, we still regard women more like zoo exhibits than persons. But when we make films, write books, record songs, it is highly probable that the female characters (especially the ones we’re meant to dislike, dismiss, or find funny, but also many of those we’re meant to respect) will be too much of something.

Maybe a woman who is physically excessive—a fat woman taking up too much space like Rebel Wilson’s characters in Pitch Perfect and The Bachelorette, a fat woman who must be a sidekick because she is already taking up too much space simply by being present and visible. Fat bodies of all genders are treated as grotesque, but it is comparatively rare for fat men to be treated as though they are a threat to others: when Homer Simpson becomes absurdly obese in ‘King-Size Homer’, he is rewarded for it; when Lee Adama puts on weight in the third season of Battlestar Galactica, he loses respect but also eventually loses the weight; when Fat Amy gets in a fight with a man in Pitch Perfect she threatens to ‘finish him like a cheesecake’, a metaphor that suggests that her appetite is a potential weapon. There are also the women with ‘comically large’ breasts, or indeed women who acknowledge their breasts at all, like Karen, the ditsy girl in Mean Girls whose breasts can be used to tell if it is raining.

In fact, any type of physical vanity is too much, and female characters who care too much about their appearance are generally shown as doing so at the expense of other, more important concerns. This is the source of many negative analyses of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones regarding her as a vapid princess who is naively ignorant of the harsh realities that surround her, as evidenced by her interest in pretty dresses and fawning over men [1]. However, as for many of the female characters in Game of Thrones (Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell, and the other women at court), there is in fact a great deal of value in Sansa’s ability to weaponise her appearance and sexuality in a world where political and physical power is almost exclusively masculine. This is also part of why Peggy Carter is such an important character, especially as the protagonist of her own TV serial: not only can we see her pride in her appearance as a historically relevant act of patriotism, but her adherence to the beauty standards of the time is a vital part of her ability to continue to hold her job in a workplace dominated by men.

A woman’s relationship with her sexuality is a double-edged sword, as she can be either ‘too sexy’ or ‘too prudish’, and, in both cases, she is unlikely to be taken seriously. Female villains in particular will use their excessive sexuality as a weapon against hapless men, from the fembots in Austin Powers whose breasts literally become laser guns to Xenia Onatopp, the absurdly named villain in Goldeneye who gains apparent sexual pleasure while firing a machine gun and who kills men by crushing them with her thighs. The James Bond film franchise is notorious for its one-dimensionally excessive women; Casino Royale is a grittier and more realistic film than Goldeneye, but once again, Vesper Lynd uses her sex and affection to deceive Bond. And Irene Adler, in BBC’s Sherlock, manages the same feat against the otherwise pathologically sexless Sherlock Holmes.

Physical excess is a very literal interpretation of this tendency, but too sexy regularly intersects with the more abstract category of too crazy, in a perpetuation of the Victorian notion that sexual contact and desire have a negative effect on women’s mental health. The oversexed woman and the crazy woman are often so close as to be indistinguishable, particularly through the obsessive pursuit of sexual pleasure or the trope of the sex worker who is only pursuing sex work due to a history of unresolved trauma. Female sexual prowess is posed as a threat to masculinity, as a phase, or as something borderline pathological: Kathryn Merteuil in Cruel Intentions is unconcerned by the consequences of her actions and is indirectly responsible for the death of her brother; Lee Holloway in Secretary has a history of self-harm prior to her submission to E. Edward Grey.

Mostly, though, too crazy is a stand-in for too emotional. Crazy = emotional explains why Taylor Swift’s long list of ex-lovers would tell us that she’s insane: the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is too emotionally invested in a relationship that has run its course. (The Crazy Girlfriend is a slightly different trope but can manifest in the same way: she’s taking it too fast, she’s too obsessed, or else she is obsessive about something else, like porcelain dolls or stuffed toys ringed around the conjugal bed.) But, while physical excess tends to be reserved for comedic characters and sidekicks, emotional excess is a way of disempowering strong, nuanced female characters [2] across the board.

It seems as though every female character in a professional position has been accused of being ‘too emotional’ by a concerned male authority figure. Detective Kate Beckett, Agent Olivia Dunham, Agent Carrie Mathison: strong women in positions of power, whose ability to do their jobs whilst under the influence of human feelings is called into question. I haven’t watched The X Files since the 1990s, but I’d be willing to bet that even Dana Scully, usually positioned as the sceptic and the rationalist, would have been on the receiving end of the ‘your emotions have no place in this job’ speech at some point in her eight seasons. In pop culture terms, a woman can also be too intellectual, too smart or too rational, usually in order to turn her into a comedic figure; Community’s Annie Edison gets the worst of both worlds, being too smart and too emotional (as well as too crazy and too sexy). Importantly, though, women who possess rational masculine qualities are able to access masculine power in a way that women who use their emotions during their working lives are not. Scully, Beckett, and Dunham all fall into this category at different times, and even Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, struggling with a diagnosed mental illness, suffers both as a result of her own psychology and of a workplace culture that actively discourages emotional engagement. Dunham’s response [3] to her own ‘too emotional’ moment highlights the way in which it is not her emotions that are problematic, but rather the response of a masculine military culture to her approach to cases:

“I understand that you think I acted too emotionally. And putting aside the fact that men always say that about women they work with, I’ll get straight to the point. I am emotional. I do bring it into my work. It’s what motivates me. It helps me to get into the headspace of our victims. See what they’ve seen. Even if I don’t want to, even if it horrifies me. I think it makes me a better agent. If you have a problem with that, sorry. You can fire me. But I hope you don’t.”

Conversely, success, especially in the corporate world, is coded as the result of masculine behaviour and traits. Portia de Rossi’s character in the short lived and underrated corporate sitcom Better Off Ted is a source of comedic material because she is too masculine, too driven, too emotionless and robotic, and, notably, without a natural affinity for children.

Too much, too much, aren’t you being a bit much, aren’t you being too vocal, aren’t you thinking too much, feeling too much, doing too much, saying too much?
In art as in life, being too feminine means you can’t be taken seriously, being too masculine means you can’t be taken seriously, and the middle ground leaves little room for a real, well-developed, healthy, and nuanced personality. Balance is virtually impossible, and excess, we are told time and again, is not just undesirable but often fatal.

Emma Bovary read too much and killed herself. Anna Karenina loved too much and killed herself.

In the film adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s novel Perfume, the murderer Grenouille kills his final and most ‘important’ victim because she is too beautiful, too perfect. Her scent is so excessive that Grenouille can sense it from miles away. The book, thankfully, depicts this murder as grotesque and pathological rather than reasonable, but nonetheless, the message is the same: ladies, if you want to be safe, you need to shrink yourself, to make sure you are beneath the notice of those who want to harm you. (And, as plenty of feminists have pointed out, this is also tantamount to saying ‘they will rape and murder someone else first’ rather than making any attempt to stop rapes and murders from occurring at all.)

This ‘shrinking’ is what our culture expects of women, and is, perhaps, related to our cultural tendency to treat women as objects and as instruments towards other people’s satisfaction. Excess becomes linked to selfishness, another key feminine ‘vice’. Women’s selfhood becomes less important than what they can provide for other people.

The message in all of this is the same: be less than you are. Be less than you can be.
1. Julianne Ross, ‘Why Sansa Stark Is The Strongest Character On Game Of Thrones
2. Tasha Robinson, ‘We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters To Trinity Syndrome
3. Jen Girdish, The Pit Of Olivia Dunham


One thought on “Neither Seen Nor Heard: Women, Excess, and Misogyny in Popular Media

  1. This speaks to me. Even as a physically “petite” person I spend my time making sure I dont-take-up- space, that I’m not too loud or shrewish or naggy, but at the same time I’m told I must assert myself! Demand all the things! Work is a particularly fraught space for me right now, my desire to succeed in the workplace rubs against my desire to be the “good girl”.

    Your writing is so good. Please write more so that I may read it

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