Christopher Nolan is currently one of the most critically acclaimed directors and I was recently thinking about the way he uses women in his films. Nolan consistently uses one-dimensional female characters in order to flesh out three-dimensional male characters, and it frustrates me how one of the most popular directors can repeatedly use such a sexist trope.
(The Lost Lenore)
There is a trope named The Lost Lenore that involves the killing of a love interest to move the story along. Often the death occurs before or very early on in the story. Christopher Nolan has used this trope in EVERY MOVIE he’s directed (minus latest Dunkirk… I think… I haven’t seen it). Following, Memento, Insomnia, Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige, Inception, Interstellar all use the killing off of female characters, mostly wives, to motivate the male leads. Let’s take a closer look at couple of them:
Leonard has anterograde amnesia as a result of a traumatic attack by two men who raped and killed his wife. Thus, the movie follows Leonard’s investigation to find these men using a system of Polaroids and tattoos to remember the information.
We never find out the wife’s name, she is literally defined by her death. The fact that he survived and she was raped and strangled presents her as weak. Also, the memories that he has of their marriage before the incident are dodgy; the longest scene we see of their marriage is Leonard lecturing his wife about how rereading her favourite book is pointless.
There is even a hint at the conclusion that Leonard’s wife survived the traumatic event but couldn’t deal with his condition and so let him keep injecting her with the insulin used to treat her diabetes until she died. If this possibility is true then she is not only a weak character with very confusing motives, this also feeds into another common theme in Nolan movies in which the men are often guilty of murdering their wives, but somehow it’s still not their fault within the realm of the film and they never feel the appropriate guilt from it.
We have a bonus two dead wives, one for each male lead, in this movie.
This story about the rivalry of two obsessive magicians, Angier and Borden, kicks off when Angier’s wife, (a magician’s assistant) Julia, is bound in ropes and dropped in a water tank from which she frees herself and escapes as the big show finale. Julia claims she can do the trick with the riskier slipknot and, despite Angier’s opposition to the idea, she consents to Borden tying her up with this knot. Julia fails to escape the knot and drowns in the water tank, devastating Angier and igniting his deep-seated grudge against Borden.
Similarly to Memento, Angier’s wife is defined by her death. Despite being the female in this film with the shortest screen time, she is the only female to show any of her own agency. However, her decision-making turns out to be poor and ends up getting her killed. It turns out her husband was wiser and should have made all decisions for her.
This supports the theme of men killing women and not feeling the correct guilt from it as we do not see much remorse from Borden; he mentions it twice and both times he says he doesn’t remember. Borden continues with his Angier rivalry, showing that he doesn’t feel very responsible for murdering his ex-friend’s wife.
Wife number two, Sarah, marries Borden and has a daughter with him years after the Angier wife death. Sarah is constantly worried that Borden is keeping secrets from her and feels that he often doesn’t mean it when he says he loves her. SPOILER ALERT: Borden turns out to be twins living one life. Sarah never knows this truth, but Borden’s contradictory nature leads her to depression and suicide.
Essentially, the Borden twins were messing around with this woman’s emotions and sanity by making her more and more paranoid and confused. When he finds his wife hanging, he leaves the house and continues the magician rivalry. Sarah is the definition of a disposable character; her only purpose is to show how far the obsession has gone. At the end it’s revealed that only one of the Borden twins loved her, so the other one had to pretend, and the latter twin gets hanged. However, again, the twin who loved her doesn’t appear to show any guilt when it is just as much his fault (if not more) as the other twin that she was driven to suicide. At the end, the Borden twin that survived says to Angier “We both had half of a full life, which was somehow enough for us. But not for them.” As if to say the wife was just one of the sacrifices that had to be made for pursuit of their passion.
I mean, pretty much everyone has seen or at least knows the general premise of Inception, as it has become a pop culture phenomenon. So I’ll skip the back-story and go straight into the character of Cobb’s ‘crazy’ dead wife, Mal, who appears in all his dreams and sabotages his mission. Straight away we see that the wife is defined through Cobb, as it is literally his mind manifesting this psychopathic version of her. Cobb is performing this heist in order to regain custody of his children and clear his name of murdering his wife. We’re meant to be rooting for him to succeed because he didn’t physically push her out the window and therefore shouldn’t go to jail, right? Well, let’s just think about what Cobb did: whilst the two were stuck in “limbo,” he entered her mind without consent and planted an idea in her ‘mind safe’ that her world wasn’t real and that she has to kill herself to wake up in the real world. Then when she wakes up in the real world, the idea has still been planted and she is slowly driven mad thinking that she has to kill herself and then proceeds to commit suicide. Did Cobb physically push her out of the window? No. But is he entirely to blame for her suicide? Yes, absolutely. What he did was beyond wrong and he doesn’t deserve custody or the ability to still practice entering people’s dreams. Yet, somehow this film is about Cobb’s personal journey to deal with her death and gain closure. So, again a woman’s death is used as a tool for a man’s emotional journey.
WOMEN WHO SURVIVE
(But are still problematic)
In case anyone was worried, a woman does not have to die in a Nolan film to be completely expendable and solely service a man’s character development. These three women that I will be looking at who don’t die are some of Nolan’s most developed female characters. On the surface they can seem more interesting, but the further you look, the more problematic they seem.
Scarlett Johansson’s character Olivia plays a sort of femme fatale role in this film. She starts off as Angier’s assistant and lover and then is ordered to be a double agent for Borden, but then ends up being Borden’s lover. It’s kept a mystery as to which side she’s actually on and this never gets concluded. Her motives are completely unclear and unexplored; she’s just used as a means for the men to investigate each other more. She gets nothing out of her relationship with either Angier or Borden and seems to have no agency of her own. It seems as though Nolan just thought “I need a disposable character to transfer diaries and information between the two magicians that I can then forget about later on” and thus came up with Olivia. The only motive I could see her having is that she just really wants to be in a relationship with a magician who loves her. But, overall, she’s a seductive messenger that the two men use to further their goals and obsessions.
Ellen Page’s character, Ariadne, begins in a promising way, as she is a talented architect who can clearly think for herself. However, for about the first half an hour of the film she is just used for exposition. Meaning that she asks a lot of “what does that mean?” and gets back various white men explaining to her how the world works and what the rules are. The endless mansplaining means that she doesn’t get to do anything as a character. Then for the rest of the movie, Ariadne falls into a very common trap for females in action movies, which is that she becomes the moral compass. This is a very boring, unsubstantial, and common role for women. Overall, her character would not be as problematic if she wasn’t the only woman in the heist team. This is why representation is important; when there’s only one woman, then we see her as depiction of all women. So to have this representation of females to be so submissive, needing everything explained to her, and boring, becomes problematic. If more women were cast with different roles in the group, Ariadne is an acceptable character.
Anne Hathaway’s character, Brand… what is the point of her? All she does is mess up the missions, adore Cooper, and look after the embryos (because that’s all that doctorate-level, intelligent, female astronauts are good for). She’s also very over-emotional, that often gets in the way of her scientific reasoning and results in most of her screen time being her crying.
Overall, there is nothing wrong about a man’s life changing because his wife has died, but the continuous repetition of it from Nolan makes him seem both lazy and misogynistic. He is essentially saying these wives have nothing of interest to bring to a plot other than death; that women cannot service the narrative independent of male characters; that any other possible storylines they could have had will never be as noteworthy as their funerals. Nolan’s films can be very intelligent and good pieces of filmmaking, but I’m finding that enjoying his films and being a feminist are becoming mutually exclusive. Women don’t have to be set up just to be a means for the male lead to do amazing, broody, Oscar-worthy, man-in-pain acting. There are other things that can motivate people other than this trope of a dead love interest (that never seems to be used with the genders reversed).
This was just a rant, really…
By: Freyja Pakarinen