The Disposable Woman

At 17, I experienced a revelation while reading Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger In A Strange Land. I realized I didn’t have to finish a book just because I had started it.

Now, obviously, at the point at which I set aside the unfinished Heinlein novel never to pick it up again, there were other negatives in addition to the actual scene I was at that moment reading that made me decide I had had enough. In fact, that day I gained my basic rule of thumb for reading novels: If the positives outweigh the negatives, keep reading. If the negatives outweigh the positives, stop. In the interim, it doesn’t have to be perfect if I’m enjoying enough elements to keep me happy.

Pretty basic stuff (hey, I was young). As the years passed and my ways of reading changed both because of my experiences in life and my knowledge as a writer, more elements became problematic for me. Things that wouldn’t have bothered me when I was 17, bug me now. Books that I could have read then, no longer necessarily pass the test.

However, having said that, there are a very few things that, all by themselves, will cause me to immediately stop reading a book that otherwise is weighing on the positive side. I’m not talking about a steady accumulation of bad grammar, sloppy style, flat characterization, or idiot plotting; those are things that pile up on the negative side no matter what. I’m talking about things like, say, the unexpected insertion of gratuitous (or clueless) racism or sexism (i.e., that isn’t germane to characterization or world-building).

Or The Disposable Woman.

I know you were wondering when I would get to her.

She’s the young (always young, unless she’s someone’s mother), pretty (always pretty – do I even have to explain this?) ingenue who is introduced as the love interest or fresh-faced bride of the hero, and then quickly and conveniently dispatched – either by villains or unfortunate events – in order to motivate the hero.

She has no real personality and serves the same function in the plot as, say, a piece of expensive furniture or rare jewelry.

I’ve reached a point in my life where, if a such a character is introduced and I know at once from the associated markers framing her introduction that she is present solely so that she can be killed AND if I then I then flip forward a few pages to, indeed, find her untimely and tragic demise, I will stop reading a book that otherwise up to that point has weighted to the positive side.

This isn’t quite the same as the patented “throw-the-book-at-the-wall” moment, but they’re related. And such things aren’t quite pet peeves, either (or perhaps you would argue they are). What’s interesting is how they’re going to be different for every individual.

What are yours?

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  1. 1. Charlie Stross

    See also the “woman in refrigerator” trope in comics. (Which is related, but different: the disposable woman is used for a cheap shock, rather than a plot lever.)

    When this cliche occurs, it tells us …

    * The author wants the hero (yes, they’re usually male) to go on a quest

    * The author hasn’t thought through their protagonist’s character and background in sufficient detail to come up with a better plot lever

    * The author has a whole bunch of unexamined attitudes that really need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the examination room and scrutinised — until that happens, they’re going to keep coming up with stupid cliches because they haven’t thought things through in more detail.

    * Worst of all: If the disposable woman has no personality to speak of, what should we make of the man who’s purportedly in love with her? Doesn’t this subliminally telegraph that he’s actually rather shallow himself?

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I don’t know that I have any clear-cut make-or-break points like that. If I stop reading a book, it’s generally because of an overall demise in my interest and engagement, rather than any specific event I could point to. But even now, it’s rare for me to put a book down if I’ve gotten any substantial way into it; if I’m going to quit on it, I usually do so in the first twenty or fifty pages, which are my litmus test for whether I want to read it at all. Use of something like a disposable woman in that span of pages tells me this plot will be paint-by-numbers, so I don’t bother reading on.

  3. 3. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    I think the same sort of thing occurs with the disposable family. That always drives me nuts. I guess if they just wore red shirts so we’d be forewarned . . . hmmm.

    I’ve personally gotten tired of the Merlin/Gandalf/Dumbledore sort of disseminator and witholder of all things important for our protagonist to know. That will make me yawn.


  4. 4. Diatryma

    I dragged myself through Stranger in a weekend because I knew if I stopped reading it, I’d never pick it up again, and I wouldn’t be able to argue with a friend who adored it. It only got worse.

    I can’t think of anything that will make me stop reading a book every time, or even most times, but I’m more likely to admit to myself that I shouldn’t have started and I knew it all along (I’m a third of the way through a book I just shouldn’t have picked up, and I knew it, and I picked it up anyway, and it’s not even well-known enough that I would feel okay complaining about it). But yeah, characters marked for death, be they infatuations, mentors (why do old guys ever take on apprentices if they know they’re not getting out alive?), random people shown compassion on the street, they annoy me. If you want a kicked puppy to motivate the hero, you may as well find an actual puppy.

  5. 5. Ted Chiang

    Hey Alis; I came here via your LiveJournal.

    I doubt we’ll be seeing the end of the “revenge for death of a loved one” plot in popular entertainment any time soon, but there may be some slight variety creeping in. I recently saw a preview for the upcoming Jodie Foster movie The Brave One, which looks like a remake of Charles Bronson’s Death Wish with the genders swapped; Foster’s husband/boyfriend is killed by muggers and she becomes a vigilante. I’ve also seen a preview for Kevin Bacon’s Death Sentence, in which Bacon’s teenage son is killed and he seeks revenge. These offer some small variation from the typical arrangements, where a woman has to rescue her child (something Foster has done twice in recent years), or a man has to avenge the death of his wife/girlfriend.

    It also occurs to me that the cliche can be used to good effect; I’m thinking of the TV series Alias, in which Jennifer Garner’s fiance is murdered in the pilot episode. I think part of the reason I felt it worked well, aside from the gender reversal, had to do with the specific situation. Garner’s character Sydney Bristow couldn’t immediately seek revenge; she had to work as a double agent and continue to take orders from the man who had ordered the murder. Also, a journalist friend of hers, unaware of her job as a spy, investigates her fiance’s death, both complicating her situation and putting himself in jeopardy. (The series eventually went off the rails, but I was a big fan of the first two seasons.)

    Of course, all of these examples are from the visual media; I haven’t read a novel in ages that used the death of a loved one as a plot engine, and I’d defintely have less tolerance if I encountered it there; but I’m much more forgiving of movies and TV shows than I am of prose fiction.

  6. 6. Stephen Dedman

    Hey, “revenge for death of a loved one” worked for Shakespeare, though it wasn’t a new plot even then.

    The “disposable women” phenomenon is one with many variants, some which bug me more than others. I might have enjoyed ‘Deep Rising’ more if it hadn’t begun by feeding two blameless young Asian women to the monsters in unrelated incidents. That might have been coincidental, but it gave me the uneasy feeling that the director was racist as well as sexist, and I was unable to completely enjoy the rest of the movie.

    Travis McGee’s women rarely last past the end of the novel in which they feature, and if they do, they’re killed off in the next – but some of them leave of their own accord, so that doesn’t bug me as much as the Bond girls who never reappear. Of course, it may be that they think of Bond as just a disposable bit of rough.

    Then there’s the ones whose personality is disposable, who sleep with the hero simply because the plot demands it. Maggie Gyllenhall’s character in ‘Stranger than Fiction’ isn’t the worst example, but she’ll do for now.

    Admittedly, I used a “disposable girl in refrigerator” (well, a dumpster) in my first novel, but I’ve tried not to do it again.

    There are many things which may cause me to lose enthusiasm for a book, film, or an author’s later work, but one in particular is the reverse of the disposable woman: the omniscient, omnipotent, overbearing hero who has to beat everyone, including those on his own side! The most obvious example is Captain Kirk, somehow knowing more about science than Spock and more about medicine than McCoy.

  7. 7. Camille Bacon-Smith

    I don’t have much of a problem stumbling on the disposable woman in written work, because I pretty much only read people I know and trust these days–not enough time ro risk the disappointment, though I am ashamed of myself for that.

    But I have just been beating the drum about disposable woman in Supernatural on the CW again over on my LJ. I moved up my older post about the episode Heart, in which (SPOILER!)

    the girl doesn’t just die–the “hero” kills her. I’ve also posted on why I watch it when I know I shouldn’t, and when it upsets me pretty badly with its cavalier misogyny. Mythic archetypes played out in dead earnest in the popular culture arena are vanishingly rare and seldom done this powerfully in general.

    A vid done for a recent convention has re-sparked the debate about how women are treated in the show, however. I am hoping that the writers, who listen a little too closely to the heretofore more vocal anti-women part of the fan base, will take note and adjust their storytelling. I don’t think I will continue to watch if they don’t clean up their act. But the mythic archetypes are seldom kind to women.

  8. 8. Brittany Heiner

    Just as it’s no fun to play in a world where *everything* is against the hero, it’s equally no fun if things work out too easily. I love a book with really good twists, where the hero and the conflict sort of dance and circle each other in response to the other’s moves.

    One of my pet peeves is with books the prose of which I constantly rewrite in my head as I go along. Eragon, specifically, I struggled to read for three weeks, getting at last to page 100, before I finally gave up – then devoured *three* books in the next week. I apologize to Eragon fans – I just couldn’t do it.

    As far as disposable people.. I also don’t like too much thrown at me (be it plot, setting, what have you) before I’ve come to care about the world/characters. I started a book recently where I realized, as the conflict was revealed and the old save-the-world plot emerged, that I just didn’t care what happened to anyone. If the Disposable Woman is disposed of to motivate the hero, and it doesn’t motivate me, the reader, at the same time.. That’s just shallow and poor planning. Another book I recently started reading tried to introduce a world with a vastly different society and vastly different morality, and before establishing any common ground to make me comfortable there, proceeded to bombard me with characters and acts that perhaps fit with the setting, but were too much of a stretch for my budding concept of the world. I decided it was too much and too soon, my disbelief was not suspended but offended, and I stopped. Angrily. An author should take time to convince me why I should care, make sure I’m committed, before testing that commitment.

  9. 9. Tempest

    Love Triangles. Especially ham-handed ones that are obviously only there to manipulate my emotions. Also, subclass of that: The Guy I Don’t Like. Rape scenes almost always make me put a book down unless the good is SO good and there’s been no negative otherwise. Even then I get pissed off and point angrily at the book a lot.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    It isn’t quite Disposable Woman-hood, but it just occurred to me that part of why I never ended up finishing the video game Kingdom Hearts is that I just didn’t care about its story. Sure, your character wants to rescue the girl, but the girl is such a nonentity that there’s no real emotional drive toward that goal. And when other characters start doing bad things because it’s All For Her Sake, I really start rolling my eyes.

  11. 11. Diatryma

    I’m okay with love triangles, as long as they’re genuine triangles and everyone comes out alive at the end. But I haven’t read a great many of those.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    Charlie – yes, yes, yes, and exactly.

    I hate to admit this, but what precisely is the woman in the refrigerator trope from comics?

  13. 13. Kate Elliott

    Marie, it’s interesting how differently we all read, because I think I can put up with small things that bug me and which build up more than single things that make me lose my suspension of disbelief. Forex, with Stranger in a Strange Land, it was a single make or break moment, and that was it for me for the book.

  14. 14. Kate Elliott

    Characters Marked For Death – I can deal with this under certain circumstances, but it’s better if – as in the example Ted uses from Alias (never seen by me) – it’s done in an interesting way that has an actual impact on the unfolding plot rather than an artificial one. Similar, I suppose, to “Captain, we have 2 minutes until the engines explore” tension “device.”

  15. 15. Kate Elliott

    Ted, well, I dunno, I don’t mind it so much if the guy gets killed . . . .

    Nor do I necessarily want the ‘death of the loved one as motivator’ to go away, not if it is done well. But Stross really nailed in his post; what he said was exactly the sequence of thoughts i had when I hit that bit in the book.

    and I’m pretty forgiving of novels, on the whole. I think I’m less forgiving of film and tv.

  16. 16. Kate Elliott

    It’s late, I’m making way too many small errors in these posts, and I’m too tired to go figure out how to edit (that’s for another day).

    Tempest – I am totally agreed on The Guy I Don’t Like. But really, are these guys really “the nice guys”? The truly nice guys always seem to be sidekicks, if they’re allowed to be sidekicks. And what is it about love triangles especially that bugs you?

    As for rape, I can think of at least 3 novels that more or less started with a rape scene that I put down immediately, because I just couldn’t go there and want to keep reading. Of course, being as I dislike it as a plot device, I’ve had to deal with exactly this in my most recent ms.

    Stephen – the omniscient hero! Another good one. I’m wondering if this is at all related to the hero of old “school stories” in which there was a golden boy (I use that term advisedly) who did everything right and who was admired by all the other boys and was of course the teacher’s pet.

  17. 17. Kate Elliott

    Brittany – there’s a whole ‘other post (or series of posts) about pacing, tension, and introduction of a world and culture. Was it the morality element that made you struggle? That people were doing things that you couldn’t sympathize with even though the author meant to suggest it was due to a different way of looking at the world? Or just the sheer weight of new material bogging you down?

  18. 18. Estara

    re: Women in Refrigerators

    Here’s the link to the site which originated that term

  19. 19. Kayla Shifrin

    What I really hate–and it’s related to the disposable woman–is the Man Who Is Irresistible for No Reason. This one shows up in contemporary ‘realist’ fiction all the time as well as in scifi/fantasy. He’s the ordinary antihero jerk who gets laid by EVERY female character (who are all shallow, often bitchy, dependent, and usually gorgeous) and he’s not even charming, let alone Bondlike. It’s always obvious that this is the author’s fantasy, and it’s a major reason why I don’t read much modern realism.

  20. 20. Kelly J. Cooper

    Wandered in from Elizabeth Bear’s LJ…

    I find the “woman has to get raped to get tough” cliché more annoying than the disposable woman.

    Yet another reason to rewatch ALIEN.

  21. 21. Ginger Weil

    I also wandered in from Ms. Bear’s LJ…

    My pet peeve is the “woman rescues child” storyline. Any time a story introduces a tough, hard-as-nails seeming woman and then quickly introduces a child who she must rescue from danger/death/sacrifice, I get irritated and want to kick something. I think this is because I don’t see many (if any) books or movies where the woman rescues an adult man or another adult woman. The hierarchy is that man rescues woman, woman rescues child. I’m also irritated because I feel the message is that even if a woman seems hard, tough, competent, and deadly, secretly she is filled with this deep-wired maternal instinct. Or alternately, she is tough only because she must protect her child. The woman in these stories is not allowed to just be tough in the way male characters are allowed to be tough. (I do watch films with this theme because they often seem to be the only films starring tough women that I can find, but I have a lot of choice in tough women in books these days, so if I scent this plot in a book it is pretty much tossed aside.)

  22. 22. Naamen Tilahun

    I find the whole “woman can only be strong when her kids (or something else in the domestic or womanly sphere) is in danger” annoying as hell and very much a dealbreaker. Not to say that a female character can’t protect her children or home but if that’s the only time within the novel or series that she’s shown any initiative or power I get very annoyed.

Author Information

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.



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