Tropes: Hollywood and Male Protagonists

Recently, I've been reading "A Series of Unfortunate Events" by Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler). The book series is one that I really only became aware of because of the movie adaptation, but I was fairly certain that I would like the books because I enjoyed the movie and because I enjoy bleak stories where terrible things happen to the protagonists over and over again. (I'm not sure what that says about me as a person, but there you have it.)

Despite being confident that I would like the series, I've been surprised (and pleased!) by how stellar the writing is. The three Baudelaire orphans (Violet, Klaus, and Sunny) are very well characterized and are all deeply sympathetic in their roles as inventor, bookworm, and biter. I'm particularly taken with the eldest, Violet, and I think it's clear from the writing that Violet is David Handler's favorite as well. In what is almost certainly a deliberate gender swap from traditional literary roles, Violet is the active scientific inventor in the family whereas her brother Klaus is the passive bookworm reader. Both the children get to save the day plenty of times (as does baby Sunny), but Violet as the eldest generally takes on the "hero" job of creating and directing the save-the-day plans and her siblings' roles within those plans.

Allow me to illustrate. In the first three books alone, Violet creates a grappling hook from scratch in order to scale a tower (to rescue her sister while her brother sleeps), creates a homemade lock-pick to break into a padlocked suitcase (while her sister and brother create a distraction), and offers to build a telephone from scratch. Violet knows more about electrical engineering than I do, and I have a degree in the subject. She is just that awesome, and she pulls it all off without ever being a Mary Sue or a know-it-all. Klaus is always right there beside her, explaining local legal codes and reading up on the effects of snake venom and deciphering coded letters, but he's no stranger to the support role for his heroic older sister, and the end result is that the three children feel like an unstoppable team with Violet as their fearless leader.

And then there's the movie. I like the movie adaptation, I really do - I don't want to sound like I don't. But I watched it the other day for the first time since I started reading the series, and while I like the way the plot integrated the first three novels (A Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window) into a cohesive whole, I'm not sure how I feel about some of the characterization and narration changes.

To start with, Klaus takes a much more active role in the movie and becomes very clearly the narrative eye for the piece. He searches the ruined Baudelaire mansion for answers while his sisters grieve quietly in the background and he is the one who finds the clue of his parents' spyglass (in, it must be noted, his father's desk). He expresses the most dissatisfaction with their living situation with Count Olaf while Violet lamely blurts, "This is our home now," and confines her behavior to comforting her younger siblings as a surrogate mother. When noting the disappointment that Uncle Monty's secret of the spyglass cannot be revealed to the children, the narrator laments, "This was more than Klaus could bear." Couldn't the script have just read "This was more than the children could bear"?

On the flip side, Violet's character has been toned down and heavily chickified. She's still the inventor who saves the day, but she really only invents when Klaus tells her to - "Violet, I think you need to put your hair up." In spite of book-characterization to the contrary, she now tends heavily towards the "girly" spectrum: Even though Book-Violet cannot cook (she even burns toast!), Movie-Violet takes charge when the orphans are ordered to cook dinner. Even though Book-Sunny spends equal time being held and carried by either sibling, Movie-Sunny is almost always in Violet's arms now. Throughout the movie, Violet is utterly uninterested in the mystery of their parents' death, and only cares about the orphans' short-term survival - she is now a completely reactive force, whereas Klaus is the active, investigative one.

And, the thing is, I get some of this, I do. ASoUE was released in 2004, after the first two "Harry Potter" movies were released to incredible profit - it seems reasonable that producers wouldn't want to deviate from a successful formula. "Harry Potter" had proved that childrens' movies with male protagonists could make money; surely no one wanted to rock the boat by testing whether or not the same thing could be said for female protagonists. And, to be fair, some of the changes make sense from a movie perspective. Maybe Book-Violet scaled the tower and outsmarted Count Olaf at the wedding, but if Movie-Klaus does the tower scaling during the wedding, then it's two scenes from the book crammed into the movie for the same run-time overall. And if it's also Movie-Klaus that does the outsmarting during the wedding (instead of Violet), well, that made for a twist that the book fans wouldn't be expecting. Fine.

And yet... there's so many other things that could have been done right that just weren't; there's so many scenes where Klaus is the star while Violet is forced to just look lamely on, even though the roles could have easily been swapped for that scene.

One scene that sticks out in particular is an added scene where Count Olaf pushes Klaus' head into the Lachrymose Lake in order to simulate drowning so that Olaf can "rescue" Klaus as Mr. Poe's boat approaches. There's no reason this scene had to focus on Klaus yet again - he's already had far more active screen time than Violet at this point - except that audiences would perhaps be terribly disturbed at seeing a girl be subjected to drowning. This is the point, though: Count Olaf is supposed to be disturbing. At this point in both the book and the movie, Olaf is already responsible for at least three on-screen murders (Uncle Monty, Assistant Gustav, and Aunt Josephine). If the image of Aunt Josephine slowly sinking into the lake with the Nightmare Fuel carnivore leeches writhing around the boat wasn't too disturbing to show to audiences, then why not Violet being pushed into the water for two seconds?

Not disturbing.

Too disturbing for words to describe.

There's a trope on TV Tropes that holds that if something violent has to happen on-screen to a character, then it's very likely going to happen to a male character, because audiences are more distressed by violence toward women than they are by violence toward men. This is sometimes viewed as unfair because it would seem to indicate that women are more valuable than men, hence trope name "Men Are The Disposable Gender". I think this name is misleading, however, because it's worth pointing out that this trope works against women in media far more than it works for them.

You see, part of being the protagonist is having particularly nasty things done to you by the villain. But if nasty things can only be done to males - because male-on-female violence is considered off-limits - then by logical extension, only males can be the protagonists.

The unfortunate implication here is that, of all the Baudelaire children, only Klaus is the protagonist - only he can have his hopes smashed, his face slapped, his dreams crushed, and his head shoved into Lachrymose Lake. By being protected from the overt violence in the series, Violet and Sunny are downgraded from protagonists to support characters - they suffer when Klaus suffers and triumph when Klaus triumphs, but their losses and victories are dependent on their brother.

They don't have to suffer as the primary victims of the villain's violence, but the trade-off is that they don't get to be the heroes that bring about the villain's demise, either. The final act is spent with Sunny trapped in a cage and Violet trapped in a wedding dress while Klaus invents a grappling hook, scales a tower, and uses the mystical fire-starter machine to burn up the marriage contract. All Violet and Sunny get to do is look attractive and distressed. 

And there is a point here. The one exception to the rule that females are exempt from violence is the exemption that covers sexualized violence. Violet may not get to have her head pushed into Lachrymose Lake, but she can still be threatened by the implication that Count Olaf intends to keep her as a "wife" long after her siblings have been disposed of. The problem here is that if the only violence that female characters can be subjected to is sexualized violence, then we're still reinforcing the notion that women's roles are defined only by their gender and by their relation to the men around them.

David Handler managed to write a 13-book series about a girl who invents amazing machines, actively solves mysteries, and suffers just as much pain and heartbreak as her younger brother. He's proved that - in books, at least - we're willing to let our female protagonists be actual protagonists.

Hollywood, on the other hand, may not quite be there yet.


Charlotte Griffin said...

I love that movie, and sadly, I  have to agree with your analysis. However, I would like to say that the moment at the end, contemplating the climb with the grappling hook, where Klaus mutters, "What would Violet do?" is hilariously wonderful.

Charleen Merced said...

This is an excellent post Ana. I read the books prior to the movies and I loved them. They were so good and ingenious. They made me laugh and attend negotiations in my head wherein I pleaded with the author for a little bit of luck for my characters. I was quite distressed over book 2 and Uncle Monty.

I think you are very correct in your analysis. Although the movie may have captured the feel and look of the books, it did not quite capture the characters. Especially Violet. 

Kit Whitfield said...


Am I the only one who suspects that men being the disposable gender and hence women being favoured is an idea cooked up by men? And possibly men who - how to say this? - aren't all that conversant with the female perspective? 

Silver Adept said...

Kit Whitfield Oh, no, certainly not. Considering what often comes out of Hollywood in relation to women and their roles, it's almost an aggressive default that Men Do Things, Women Wait On the Railroad Tracks. When we have kickass women, it's usually in some situation or costume that sexualizes them while they do so. When Hollywood produces, regardless of whether it makes money, several movies where women do stuff in sensible shoes and clothes, then we might revisit this argument. But not likely until.

Ana Mardoll said...

Silver Adept Your comment reminded me of this article:

Particularly the bit about the strong women being crowbar-ed into sexy outfits.

Silver Adept said...

Ana Mardoll I think that says it better than I did - we need not only to pass the Bechdel test in every movie where there are two women or more, but we need to have more productions where the women aren't on the polar opposites of Damsel In Distress and I Need No Man to Kick Ass (but I will fall in love with one, anyway.)

MaryKaye said...

My only disagreement with this analysis would be that I think as the books go along, through a strange and mysterious sea-change, *Sunny* becomes the author's favorite.  Of the three, she has far and away the most character development. 

This would be unspeakably hard to show in a movie.  Half of Sunny's character is conveyed through the narrator's interpretation of what she is "saying" and that device has very limited potential on screen.  Subtitles?  Voice-overs?  You could do a few, but not enough, I think.

They are such verbal books I would never have thought to film them in the first place!

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