Reveeenge! (Against Common Tropes For Strong Female Characters)

Written by Connie

Mild spoilers for Revenge up to 1.12 Infamy. When I refer to Emily, I refer to the protagonist of the show.

Every time I hear or read the phrase “strong female characters” I get flashbacks to Kate Beaton’s comic about it. Characters like Sarah Connor and Xena were pretty ground-breaking at the time for being bad-ass female protagonists, but it feels like pop culture hasn’t progressed very far in their definitions of what a bad-ass female character should be. Too often creators seem to believe that “bad-ass” means making a woman hold a gun and fighting rough while spouting sarcastic one-liners. There’s often no internal motivation or driving force behind that character besides “being bad-ass” (read: being a male fantasy and nothing else).

Revenge is a TV show (very) loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo and features a female protagonist. I was delighted when I heard about the premise because Dumas is one of my favourite authors, but my delight turned to full-blown worship after I actually watched the show.

I think what elevates the show from “alright” to “exceptional” is how it avoids the common gender tropes for female bad-asses, and subverts many of them. When I really thought about it, I realised that most shows that purportedly had strong female protagonists usually engaged with at least one of the following tropes that would irritate me, yet Revenge hasn’t (yet). I’ve got my fingers crossed that the writers will continue to treat Emily (nee Amanda) with the awesome she deserves and not have me hastily retconning the content of this post.

To be clear, I don’t think the following tropes are problematic in isolation, but they’re macroproblematic representations of women, especially when media engages with more than one of them at a time. The issue is not the representation itself, but the fact that there are very few other representations of women:

1. Women are more emotional and sentimental.

Part of what the actress Emily VanCamp does beautifully is her portrayal of a single-minded, focused woman who is actually operating deep undercover. A lot of media fall into the trap of women being “fooled” by their own emotions while undercover, such as accidentally developing feelings for people they’re meant to dislike. I think the writers tried to incorporate this into the text, but I hope they gave up on it. VanCamp plays the duality perfectly – in one moment she is warm and friendly to her enemies, and in the next moment we see her coldly plotting their demise.

It’s refreshing to see a woman who is not sympathetic to sob stories and who can’t be swayed by appeals to her emotion. It is a male character, Nolan, who frequently has to play The Heart and moral compass to Emily’s scheming – to varying levels of success.

What’s even more heartening is the lack of emotional attachment to the consensual sex she has while undercover. Women who have sex with people they don’t love or even like are usually presented as having an unhealthy emotional motivation. She’s insecure. She’s lying to herself about her feelings. She wants to make someone else jealous.

In this case, Emily has sex with Daniel because it’s useful to her quest for revenge, and there’s nothing more to it. What we see instead is Daniel becoming attached to her after sex. Which makes sense given how Emily is deliberately plotting to attract him.

2. Women react to events rather than take initiative.

You are the Chosen One, go slay some vampires. Your son is going to lead a future rebellion, protect him. Something nasty is after you, pick up a gun. In many cases the actions of female protagonists are brought about by fight or die situations where characters have limited choices, and their only motivation is to stay alive.

Emily’s decision to exact a slow and terrible revenge on everyone in the Hamptons stem from her father’s death, but it’s hardly a forgone conclusion. Most of us would probably take the money and run. But rather than accepting the status quo, Emily takes initiative and makes plans to shape events and her world so it aligns with her beliefs. What’s exciting is watching events unfold as a direct manifestation of her will – a woman who has an impact on the world because she chooses to, not because she’s forced to.

3. Women are unable to achieve their goals without the help of others.

I’m a big fan of action movies where the lone wolf (or lone wolf plus side-kick/partner) trope is often invoked. Sadly there aren’t many female action heroes generally and the ones that do exist often do fall into the other tropes I’ve mentioned. Other portrayals of leading bad-ass women (Buffy and Veronica Mars for example) require them to receive help from their network of friends and allies — which is fine, but I’d love to see a female MacGyver, for example.

So far Emily has called in exactly two favours – everyone else she has manipulated, blackmailed or otherwise persuaded. She saves and navigates herself out of tricky situations – the favours she calls aren’t white knights or deus ex machina and still required a lot of her own scheming to work. While she receives assistance from Nolan, it’s clear that she initially doesn’t want it, will never ever need it, and probably doesn’t rely on it. Their dynamic seems to imply that she lets Nolan help as a favour to him, rather than as assistance to her.

It helps, of course, that she has a ridiculous amount of money. But so does Batman.

4. Women use sex to get what they want.

Emily is not a femme fatale. She has a sexual relationship with Daniel, but the sex is a byproduct of having that relationship. They have sex because she convinces him that they’re a romantic match and that she loves him; not because he’s suddenly lost all rationality because a woman wants to sleep with him.

Instead of overdone come-ons and seduction plots, we see Emily deftly using information and subterfuge to draw suspicion on others, and manipulating relationships to her advantage. It’s clear that she’s not only extremely intelligent, but also extremely competent. Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.

Revenge subverts the femme fatale trope in many ways because the people we see wielding sexual power to manipulate others are men – Nolan and Tyler. Nolan seduces Tyler and makes a sex tape, Nolan is the the dinner date diversion while Emily blows shit up. Both are common plotlines would ordinarily be given to women.

And this is why Revenge is so compelling for me. The femme fatale story and the superspy story have already been told a thousand times – I don’t need to watch another iteration. But when you reverse the gender roles that story becomes different and infinitely more interesting. It highlights how much storytelling is about the choices of creators and that while certain choices are being made over and over to the point of needless repetition, other stories are being completely ignored.

19 thoughts on “Reveeenge! (Against Common Tropes For Strong Female Characters)”

  1. I feel like I really need to marshal my thoughts some more on the issues around how we want to see strong women represented. I just love how Emily is portrayed, and now your post is making me think more about how I want to see other female protagonists portrayed.

    I also want to point out that Emily is shown to be very emotional about her father and her dog, and it’s clear she cares hugely for them, as most humans would. But she’s not caring or emotional about many other people – that is, she is not generally a caring or nurturing person to all and sundry. That trope is done to death on a man but so rarely applied to a woman. And Van Camp executes it perfectly.

    Also I’m not sure about the extent to which Xena falls into any of the tropes Emily avoids, but I haven’t watched very much Xena.

    I am however really glad you put Buffy in because I don’t find Buffy to be as feminist as it imagines itself to be, for many of the reasons you raised here.

    1. she is not generally a caring or nurturing person to all and sundry.

      I think the key is that she doesn’t form new emotional/sentimental attachments easily. Her father and her dog are obviously part of memories of a happier time so they’re exceptions. It fits so well with her character development too because she’s been screwed over by all these people she used to trust, and so naturally it would take a long time for her to form bonds.

      I actually think Xena generally avoids the tropes I listed, although it varies from episode to episode. I think she’s most guilty of tropes #1 and occasionally #4 though. Then again I haven’t watched the series all that recently.

  2. I do think that we’re supposed to get a sense of Emily developing feelings for Daniel, but rather than falling in love for him because he’s just so darn lovable, she gets sort of wistful about him – because he’s had such an easy life (even though his parents are horrible people they protected and nurtured him) and because he’s a good person despite the back-stabbing money-grubbing privileged world he’s grown up in. She insists that Daniel isn’t a target and seems to genuinely want to protect him from the fallout as much as possible. Some big stuff happens in episode 1.13 that goes with this as well. It’s a fantastic exploration of Emily’s humanity, not femininity. I love this show to itty bitty bits.

    1. Yeah, I think the writers might be trying to push us to Emily developing feelings for Daniel – or at least might feel a bit bad if he got hurt. I kind of read Emily’s feelings in the context of Dumas’ book though – in the Count of Monte Cristo Edmond takes both revenge against people who’ve wronged him, but also rewards those who have helped him. In my opinion, Emily wanting to contain the collateral damage is because she actually has a strong belief that she’s just giving people what they deserve. Initially she think they’re all complicit and deserve what’s happening, but as she gets to know some of the characters she realises that some of them don’t actually deserve what she has planned and that complicates her own sense of morality, as well as her over all schemes.

      /tangentally-related fannish ranting

  3. I’m loving Revenge for these reasons – I thought it’d be a guilty pleasure and just cheesy light viewing. But the fact that it is going against the grain with so many of these tropes is very enjoyable.
    I was getting a bit worried when Emily’s mentor said she was falling for Daniel. So I hope that doesn’t come to pass. Or at the very least – it does in a unique way.

    1. I was getting a bit worried when Emily’s mentor said she was falling for Daniel. So I hope that doesn’t come to pass.

      Me too. I felt the writers tried to push this angle (which I touched on briefly in #1), but I think VanCamp plays the role of Emily completely devoid of romantic feelings for Daniel. I’m hoping the writers gave up on it and changed direction after they saw how she was playing Emily’s character.

  4. I loved this post. I am tempted to actually watch Revenge now (someone seems to have already downloaded it to my pc). Maybe I’ll watch once I’ve finished Downton.

    “Too often we’re just told that a bad-ass female character is smart, only for the narrative to limit the demonstrations of her talents to her physical allure and nothing else.”

    INDEED. I hate when this happens!

  5. I only just started watching this show, and while I became hooked pretty quickly, I have to admit I’m a little confused about the plot. I’ll probably figure it out eventually though.

    I do wonder, however, if the reason for Emily coming across as so different from other heroines is not so much because of a deliberate attempt by a writers to subvert female tropes, but because Emily is based upon an established male hero. Just some food for thought.

    In any case, I’m curious about your comment about Buffy, as I would argue that she shows a great deal of both autonomy and independence, particularly compared to male chosen ones like Harry Potter or even Neo. Consider how she was always at odds with the Watcher’s Council or when she deliberately takes on the Ubervamp on by herself in the last season.

    Mr. Potter on the other hand tended to succeed either through luck, the help of his friends/Dumbledor, and on certain occasion his own will and talents. He also never has a choice about confronting Voldermort, as the Dark Lord had marked him at birth for death. As long as Mr. Riddle was alive, Harry was going to have to face him.

    Brilliant article as usual by the way.

    1. I do wonder, however, if the reason for Emily coming across as so different from other heroines is not so much because of a deliberate attempt by a writers to subvert female tropes, but because Emily is based upon an established male hero.

      When I say the TV show is loosely based on the Count of Monte Cristo, I mean “so loosely that I wouldn’t recognise a resemblance if I hadn’t been told about it”. But you could be right that they constructed Emily’s character while keeping in mind Edmond from the books, and that’s why she’s quite different from a lot of other female protagonists.

      The problem with comparing shows that have female protagonists with those that have male protagonists is that there is so much more of the latter and so many more representations. So even if Buffy is more autonomous and independent than Harry Potter, she’s still less autonomous than a lot of other male leads.

      I do think shows like Buffy were groundbreaking at the time and still contain (more or less) strong feminist messages. But because it was so popular I kind of feel like the media industry became fixated on a certain type of heroine being physically strong and capable without looking to models for their characters.

      1. The reason I bring up Harry Potter is because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to compare different types of characters or characters from radically different genres. For example it wouldn’t make sense to compare Buffy with James Bond or Indiana Jones. However it would make sense to compare Buffy with other chosen ones/fantasy hero’s, such as Neo, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, etc. The point I was getting at is that Buffy, as a chosen one, displays a great deal more autonomy then other chosen ones.

        I mean the choice chosen ones tend to have to make is:
        A) Fight evil
        B) Pick any of the following depending on the particulars of the story
        -Have world be destroyed
        -Have family and friends tortured and killed
        -Have evil emperor/wizard/computers/machines rule galaxy/world forever
        -Be killed yourself

        Which is why I mentioned Buffy showing more autonomy compared to other chosen ones/fantasy hero’s. Buffy, I would argue, started showing autonomy right from season 2 and 3. In comparison, most chosen ones don’t start showing autonomy until much latter on in there journey. Harry Potter started showing autonomy during Order of the Phoenix and Luke Skywalker didn’t show autonomy in Return of the Jedi.

        As for Emily, it would make the most sense to compare her with other characters from the revenge drama (The Punisher, The Bride from Kill Bill). Not exactly my favorite genre so there are only a few examples to choose from, so I’m probably not the best person to be making the comparison. But I’ll try. Kill Bill’s The Bride probably can be said to promote cliche number 1 but otherwise violates or subverts the other 3. That is the Bride is shown to be acting for emotional and sentimental reasons quite often.

        I mean the choices people in revenge flicks tend to have to make is:
        A) Seek Revenge
        B) Go and life a quiet happy life in obscurity.

        Obviously, people in TV and movies never choose B (that would make for boring TV etc.) but I think their circumstances may lend the illusion that these characters are acting with more autonomy than those who are “chosen” to save the world.

        I haven’t seen enough of Revenge to know though, but I just thought I would bring it up. In any case, from what I’ve seen Revenge does seem to be doing a good job of subverting 1 and 3.

        However, I think I question 4 as well, because if you expand 4 to “Woman are more manipulative and sex is one tool of many they use to manipulate men” then Emily definitely falls into this trope.

        In fact what little I’ve seen of Revenge, the most manipulative characters are Female (Emily, Mrs. Grayson), Queer (Nolan), or Evil/unlikeable (Daniel’s annoying friend whose trying to get into Mr. Grayson’s good graces). Daniel, his Father, and the bartender dude whose name I’ve forgotten, aren’t really shown hatching any devious Machiavelien schemes but rather are the ones being manipulated. Again, this is from the few episodes I’ve seen, so I could be really off base here. But I thought I would put the thought out there.

        1. I know this is not my discussion and I don’t have much to add to the other points, but I want to pipe up to say that your last idea is off base. In fact Daniel’s dad, Conrad, is the person truly responsible for the horrible manipulation of David Clarke. Also, Conrad constantly tries to manipulate everyone around him in the present. I think it takes a few episodes for this to become really clear though, so I totally understand how you could miss it! 🙂

        2. I can see your point about comparing within genres, but I guess my point is also that there are so very few women within this particular genre (and let’s be honest, could be better represented in all genres), that it’s refreshing to see it happen.

          My point about 4 is that Emily is not a femme fatale archetype and sex is completely incidental to her other machinations. The femme fatale is a trope but I don’t think women simply using sex as a weapon is necessarily a trope and that Revenge treads the line well there.

          (And being up to date in the series – pretty much every character on the show is manipulative except Daniel and Jack, and I’m not sure how long either of them are staying that way.)

  6. I’m so glad you wrote this! My grandmother reccomended “Revenge,” and since she’s usually right, I just watched all the episodes. I thought it would be so shallow, but it’s actually incredible for all the reasons you mentioned. So intrigued to know it’s loosely based on Count of Monte Cristo.

  7. Hello, first I wanted to say that love this blog, and I really liked this post. I’d never even heard of Revenge, but now I’ll definitely check it out.

    Second, I happen to love to write (I haven’t professionally, but I hope to one day) therefore I like getting people’s opinions, especially when it comes to characters.

    It seems like when it comes to (strong) female characters the readers seem split down the middle. Some feel that if they are too serious (i.e. unemotional) it is unrealistic because a female can be strong but not emotionally devoid. On the other hand, some act as though it’s wrong for a strong female to be emotional at all, even if it’s only once or for a legitimate reason.

    While I know it’s impossible to please everyone, I’d like to find some sort of middle ground on this, and was wondering if you’d have any tips on the subject. I’m sorry if this has been addressed before, or if this got be too long.

    Thanks for your time!

    1. My thoughts are that emotionless characters are boring and unrelatable, regardless of gender. Characters need motives, passions, fears. That is no more or less true of female characters than it is of male ones. Writing female characters as more emotionally driven than male characters in the same situation is sexist.

      Emily is emotional enough to be interesting – she has her motive, she has people she cares about even if she’s not always willing to put them ahead of her revenge, etc – but it’s the bare minimum. She’s not more emotional than she would be if she’d been written as a man.

  8. I agree with you completely about Revenge’s feminist credentials (except that I do think she’s meant to be falling for Daniel a little bit, not that she’ll let it stop her), and I’m pleased with the way they’ve handled Nolan’s sexuality too.

    However, later on in the series it starts to fail in other ways. First there’s the Scary Black Man(tm) and the Wise Asian Mentor(tm), which is really cringy, and then in episode eleven there’s some rather spectacular ablism with regards to Tyler’s mental illness. Emily’s leap from “anti-psychotic meds” to “Ohshit he’s dangerous” pissed me off, but not as much as her being shown to be right in that ignorant, offensive assumption.

    1. So I totally thought I had already commented in reply to this, but turned out I hadn’t. Basically I absolutely agree with you on the other fails, and it’s definitely not a show without problems.

      1. Is anything?

        I’m just so disappointed. For a while there I had something I both enjoyed and approved of. *sigh*

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