Captain Mal has had it. That city slicker doctor has been acting shady since he first paid passenger fees on the sort-of-good ship Serenity, and Mal will be damned if he’s going to let a foppish *Chinese curse word* endanger his spaceship and his crew. The doctor has been paying strange, almost paranoid attention to a certain piece of his luggage: a large box with elaborate locks and mechanisms which suggest something expensive – or illegal – is contained within. The last thing Mal needs is the feds sniffing him out, and it’s his gorram ship, after all. And so he resolves to find out what’s inside.
A hiss of released pressure and fog-like dry ice puffs out of the box, along with a rush of freezing cold. Mal, suddenly apprehensive, leans over the lip of the box to look down into what’s packed inside.
He rears back in shock; takes a breath, looks again (just to make sure he wasn’t mistaken).
A girl, nestled amongst white quilted foam in the fetal position, unconscious, barely breathing. She’s very thin, folded up like a fan, skin very white, hair long and brown. She’s naked. It’s hard to tell how old she is. A teenager, maybe?
Mal looks up with a pensive “Huh.”
The doctor protests: “She’s not supposed to wake up yet!” he yells.
“Oh,” Mal retorts. “Was this one for you? Where did you get her? Were you saving her for personal use?” And, just as Mal’s ire at the horrors the rich are allowed to get away with bubbles to the surface again, the girl awakes with a jerk and a piercing shriek.
The crew cannot move for shock as the skinny naked girl, screaming, clambers out of the box and, shivering with cryogenic cold, collapses to the floor. The doctor runs to the girl, gathering her up tenderly in his arms, warming her, attempting to calm her.
“River? It’s me. It’s okay. It’s okay,” he repeats. Eventually her eyes focus on him and she tries to communicate something about a mysterious ‘them’, with heavy implications of torture and mistreatment.
Mal asks exactly what the audience is thinking at this moment: what the hell is going on?
Simon, over the shoulder of the shuddering, whimpering girl, explains, “This is my sister.”
As the story evolves, we learn that River Tam has been taken to a sham academy by the evil empire of that ‘verse, tortured, and her amygdala removed. What remains (after her brother helps her escape and smuggles her onto Serenity) is a 17-year-old with no inhibitions, whose brain is simultaneously in enormous emotional pain but is also so powerful that she can kill you with it – a woman who is yet an impulsive child. The first time we see her, she’s fully unclothed as she’s ‘birthed’ from cryogenic sleep (a trope also used in The Fifth Element and the Alien franchise to introduce us to similarly damaged-yet-kickass female characters), and the longest scenes in the whole (woefully only) series of Firefly featuring her are either flashbacks in which she is tortured, scenes where she forcibly undergoes medical examination (ostensibly ‘for her own good’), or examples of her childlike behaviour, lifting her skirts in innocent escape as she dances and twirls.
River Tam is a prime example of the third Problematic Badass Female Character Trope in my series of seven: Down the Rabbit Hole. This trope began with its namesake: Alice, descending into Wonderland, born of Lewis Carroll’s erotic photography and desire of prepubescent girls back in the late 1800s, and has persisted ever since. What #MeToo has shown us in 2018 is that this disturbing gratification of girl-torture is alive and well. Down The Rabbit Hole is the literary and cultural illustration of such. Because, hey: it’s fun (and quite titillating) to watch women get tortured, right? Especially if they’re childlike geniuses or diminutive teenage warriors who are gifted and kickass. Not actual children, no: that’s too far. But if they’re ostensibly grown women (and of course fully dependent on men to explain the world to them), then hey, you’re allowed.
Allowed to what?
Allowed to enjoy watching them be tortured, of course. It happens all the time, and unlike the Down the Rabbit Hole characters’ male counterparts (compare the heterosexual male gaze of Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo’s bloodily victorious fights to John Wick’s, for example), there’s a sexually sadistic component to this enjoyment. What the Down The Rabbit Hole trope does is to allow the viewer a sexually voyeuristic view of a female character behind the guise of feminism. She’s tough! She’s kickass! So it doesn’t count, right? The problem is, by torturing a particularly badass woman through a sexual lens, the character is then rendered essentially powerless. She may be strong and brilliant and otherwise display autonomy over her body and actions, but her brutalization (and infantalization) means she must depend on the men in her story to survive. Viewers, too, are invited to feel more powerful by watching her being tortured as they are placed in this sadistic position. River, after all, never becomes whole again, but must rely on her brother to live. Leeloo, for all her swiftly adaptable, advanced mind and body, cannot function at all without Korben Dallas leading the way.
Down The Rabbit Hole is, quite plainly, torture porn. Specifically, a bait and switch tactic of counterbalancing the potential discomfort of a woman who kicks ass by giving permission to enjoy the porn of her getting tortured. It’s almost as though she’s being tortured *because* she’s badass—as a punishment of sorts.
Often, these characters (like River Tam) are either actually children, or at least very childlike—sometimes they’re even clones or robots, conspicuously constructed in the form of a slender, infantile woman. You see the non-badass version of this all the time in horror films, the all-pervasive Damsel in Distress, in which the victimization of female characters is obvious. However, the Down the Rabbit Hole version isn’t so overt—the trope distracts you with a character’s mental and/or physical prowess (her badassery), then allows you to enjoy the powerful and titillating feeling of watching her suffer.
The kickass childlike genius who also can somehow kick roomfuls of butt (River, Leeloo, Buffy), or the diminutive yet warrior extreme (Beatrix Kiddo, Trinity) are presented to us as strong characters, and we’re expected to automatically and unquestioningly accept them as such, like the Wonder Woman Support Group members complained about in my last article. But if we do that without questioning the idea that we’re also then being invited to enjoy watching a strong woman be tortured (specifically because she’s portrayed as strong), we’re falling prey to what this trope does.
I would aver that this is why we have so many depictions (and even remakes) of Alice as a teenager. Especially post-#MeToo, lusting after little girls is all the more taboo than it already was, but if it’s a woman, who’s childlike or thin or teenaged or otherwise delicate, and also a genius (and high-level intelligence = badass)? You’ve got permission. It doesn’t stop with the brain that can kill you, either: River, in all her skinny smallness, is somehow able to physically take down hordes of evil Reavers. Buffy is a tiny teenager, but slays supernaturally strong vampires. Leeloo, it seems, can do anything—even though she’s bone-thin and dressed in nothing but straps. However, these kinds of female characters are also often made subservient, as she they were literally born yesterday, and need to follow a man in order to survive their new world. It doesn’t really make sense, does it?
One of the most insidious tropes of the seven, Down the Rabbit Hole takes a strong and often supernaturally smart female and does two things to her: it reduces her to helpless child status and sexualizes her, often in a violent manner. Helplessness, twofold. Can you imagine if River Tam were portrayed as a broad-beamed, fully mature, curvy woman? If Buffy the Vampire Slayer were a boy? Imagine how different the dynamic would be.
So why is it such a bad thing that tortured female badasses are sexualized? Only because their male counterparts aren’t. They’re tortured, surely, they go through all sorts of trials and tribulations (it’s a marvel Indiana Jones survived all the movies he did), but the gaze we as viewers are supposed to have for Trinity is way different than the one for Neo. The torture James Bond goes through (for example, as he escapes through the ventilation booby traps in Dr. No), or the elaborate tests John McClane goes through to save the day in Die Hard serve to show how tough and resourceful the characters are. Not so for female characters—with them, it’s all about titillation, and about keeping the female badass subservient withal.
Costumes, lines the characters speak, their infantalization—everything highlights the sexuality of the female badass as she’s put through the ringer. The male badass being put through the same ringer just doesn’t have the same gaze, the same suggestion of a sexual enjoyment to what we’re seeing. And here’s the kicker—the central argument for why representing women in this way is somehow permissible: we’re supposed to admire River, LeeLoo and Trinity, etc. because they’re presented to us as strong and capable. While this is valid to a point, again and again we see their strength undermined by their inevitable submission to male characters, whether its via gratuitous torture or because they’re ultimately useless without the men in their story. Even their scenes of kick-assery are a porn of sorts: pure visual enjoyment, without furthering the plot or enriching the story.
Before you accuse me of reading things into scenes that are not there, look at them again. And think about it. And understand that these movies have been influential to many of us since we were children: as our brains, identities, and social relationships were still developing. What does it say about our society’s work towards gender equality, that in popular culture, it’s sexually titillating to witness the torture of a little girl? Can it be possible to enjoy watching a female character challenged, with the ultimate goal being to celebrate her smarts, strength, and resolve, rather than pornographic enjoyment?
As I’ve said in earlier Problematic Badass Female Tropes articles, pinpointing these problems and analyzing them, even calling them out, doesn’t have to diminish our enjoyment of our favorite characters or favorite entertainment. But being aware of the sorts of things these hidden-within-badasses tropes do to our views and treatment of real women in the non-fictional world can only help us as a culture and society at large, and will make the real world that much kinder to the real life badasses of all sorts that are all around us.