Suicide Girls: Archetypal Females Choosing the Final Slumber


As I think about some of the most famous female characters in literature and drama, I am struck by how many of them wind up taking their own lives: Antigone, Jocasta (Antigone’s mother), Eurydice (Antigone’s aunt)—and that’s just one ancient Greek storyline. If you throw Shakespeare into the mix, the list gets even longer: Juliet, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Goneril, Portia, Cleopatra…et. al.

Moving into the modern era, the body count grows: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, Edna Pontilier, Joan Gilling (from Sylvia Plath’s The Belle Jar—and later, Plath herself). Even the character Rose DeWitt Bukater (played by Kate Winslet) from the box office blockbuster film Titanic contemplates throwing herself off the back of the ship until Jack Dawson steps in to save her.

So why is it that so many heroines choose to consign themselves to oblivion (or as Hamlet describes it, “the undiscovered country”)? Statistically, more women than men attempt suicide. However, men are much more successful at it than women, often because they choose methods that are more violent. (In the U.S., for instance, male death rates due to suicide are at least four times greater than those for women. In other countries, such as Lithuania and Russia, the male to female ratio is five to one.) If men take their own lives more often, why are female suicides so disproportionately represented in stories and on screen?

To answer these questions, it may be helpful to examine the topic historically. In Classical myths, for example, women typically commit suicide for the following reasons: abandonment, grief, unrequited love, shame, rape, incest, madness, self-sacrifice, fear, and frustration. (Paradoxically, this last category seems to apply to immortals only; both the Sirens and the Sphinx leap to their deaths after Odysseus and Oedipus overcome their powers.) The methods these women use to do themselves in include hanging, drowning, jumping to their deaths, stabbing, leaping into fire, drinking poison, and or even being swallowed by the earth.

Victorian female characters often end their lives for similar reasons, and like today, they usually choose more passive means than their male counterparts, such as drinking poison or drowning. Even in modern stories, suicidal female characters will usually opt for a bottle of pills or a razor blade rather than jumping in front of a train or reaching into the gun cabinet.

Regardless of their methods, the women who choose the path of suicide seem to fall into two main categories: those who are downright delusional and those whose suicide is an act of desperation or defiance because they feel backed into a corner in some way. Ophelia and Lady Macbeth are clearly in the delusional camp (although some would argue that Ophelia’s delusion is the result of feeling trapped by male expectations). Others, like Edna Pontilier, feel so trapped by the male power-brokers in their world that they see death as their only way out. The doomed wife, April Wheeler, from the book Revolutionary Road definitely falls into this category.

Then there are those particular characters (some would say the statistical majority of women who attempt to take their own lives) who use suicide as a way of drawing attention to themselves—the proverbial “cry for help.” Susanna Kaysen (Wynonna Ryder’s character in the film Girl Interrupted) is a prime example of this, as is Charlotte Bronte’s character, Mary Cave (from the novel Shirley) who dies of starvation for love. Are these women desperate? Delusional? Or are there different psychological issues at work here?

Through the ages, critics have argued that some suicidal women demonstrate their own brand of heroism by becoming the ultimate masters of their fates. In certain cases this may be true, such as the two female leads in Quentin Tarantino’s movie, Inglourious Basterds (Shoshana, who embarks on a suicide mission, and Bridget von Hammersmark, a screen actress who understands the inherent risks associated with wartime espionage). However, whether or not other types of suicides are considered acts of courage or cowardice is as much a reflection of the audiences’ sensibilities as it is the characters’. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why writers have historically included suicidal women in their narratives. Not only does it reflect a disturbing reality of society, it also brings about powerful dramatic tension—a staple of good storytelling.

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Would Shakespeare tweet?

Are the new fangled communication tools like text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook, too short and simplistic to be of any real value?  Not at all. They are simply different mediums with their own rules and conventions, but still with incredibly flexibility when used correctly.  Hemingway’s famous “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” spawned a whole series of six word stories.  NPR has been running a fantastic Three-Minute Fiction contest this summer.  On Twitter, I’ve seen profound, thoughtful, and witty statements fully self contained in 140 characters.

More classic forms of writing, like short fiction, novels, plays, and screenplays, each have their own strengths, characteristics, and limitations. The abbreviated form of social media tools can be a very effective writing medium if used correctly.  Would it have stood up to the requirements of William Shakespeare if the Twitterverse had been his stage rather than the Globe?

@Romeo and @Juliet

  • Romeo: Just got a job at a the PR form Montague and Associates! Stoked!
  • Benvolio: LOL! Montague is for suckers. Smoking interns are at Cap-U-Let, the new media firm.
  • Benvolio: My #followfriday goes out to @Tybalt, @Mercutio, @Rosaline, and @Juliet
  • Romeo: follow Juliet
  • Juliet: Stuck at my mom’s stupid feast – boring!! Location isn’t even BrightKite.
  • Romeo: OMG! What hawtness through yonder profile breaks?
  • Juliet: SRSLY – I am soooo bored right now.
  • Romeo [direct to Juliet]: Friend me on Facebook – let’s hook up!
  • Juliet [direct to Romeo]: I can’t! My freaking MOM is on there – everyone will see!
  • Romeo: @Juliet Just use the Privacy settings and it will be cool:
  • Romeo: Oops! That was supposed to be a DM!
  • Benvolio: LOL! Secret hookup FAIL there, dude!
  • Tybalt: @Romeo What the hell?!?! Get away from her, stalker!
  • Mercutio: @Tybalt Back off, n00b. You can’t even change your Twitter background…
  • Tybalt: @spam Mercutio
  • Romeo: OMG! You got Mercutio suspended!  You douchebag!
  • Romeo: @spam Tybalt
  • Juliet: Nooo! Tybalt!  This is too much!
  • Juliet: @sapm Juliet
  • Paris: @Romeo Nice work – you pissed her off so bad she suspended herself!
  • Romeo: @Paris Shut up!
  • Romeo: @spam Paris
  • Romeo: No tweet was ever as sweet as thine, Fair Juliet!
  • Romeo: @spam Romeo
  • Juliet: Wait, what? No!  I was kidding before! I said sapm… not spam…
  • Juliet: Hello?
  • Juliet: Crap.
  • Juliet: @spam Juliet
  • Montague: Um… is anyone still out there?

Or then again, maybe he would have stuck with plays…