Killing Female Characters

In my small group discussion today, the questione was asked, “Why did Cordelia have to die?” This bothered me a lot when I finished reading King Lear, because Cordelia’s death doesn’t seem to have any immediate purpose other than increasing the drama and tragedy of the final scene. I want to talk about how Cordelia’s death was portrayed and offer my thoughts about why Shakespeare had her die.

One thing that I noticed first about Cordelia’s death was the lack of agency she had in it; Cordelia had no say in her death whatsoever. Comparing the treatment of her death to Lear’s death, both were jailed in the same place and Edmund contracted a soldier to kill both of them. However, Cordelia’s death occurs offstage, and the audience witnesses Lear carry her lifeless body onto the stage. Lear, however, despite being in the same place as Cordelia when she dies, is not killed, and even gets to kill the man that hung Cordelia. Lear dies onstage after a lengthy conversation and monologue, after the audience is made acutely aware of the pain Lear is suffering; and that’s what bothers me the most about Cordelia’s death. Cordelia’s death ultimately does not seem to be about her, despite being an event intrinsically tied to her.

It may seem silly to apply a modern trope to Shakespeare, but what I said above falls into the “Stuffed into the Fridge” trope, which is when “a character is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found . . . to cause someone serious anguish . . . The intent comes from the writer, who wants to rouse strong emotions from another character.” What happens when Cordelia dies is that Lear is pushed over the edge, his grief and madness reaching a breaking point. Previously, at the beginning of Act V, Scene 2, Lear was shown marching across the stage with Cordelia and her army, suggesting his strength. Even when they are captured in Act V, Scene 3, Lear talks about his luck in having Cordelia with him (“Have I caught thee?”). This sets up the anguish that Lear will feel when Cordelia dies, showing that, along with Lear’s display in the final scene, Cordelia’s death is used as a mechanism to cause Lear further grief. Her role in the story is reduced to this, and she literally becomes nothing but a body for Lear to sob over. Furthermore, Cordelia’s agency is further reduced when she isn’t even capable of defending herself; Lear is the one who kills the soldier and gets revenge for Cordelia, further highlighting the second half of the trope, which is to give the protagonist motivation for revenge. Cordelia’s death, to use another very modern term, is an excuse to give Lear intense ‘man pain’.

Killing off female characters to make male characters upset isn’t just confined to Shakespeare or the early 1600s when King Lear first appeared. Countless iterations of it have appeared in recent media. The trope itself got its name from the comic book series Green Lantern in which the eponymous protagonist discovers his girlfriend literally dead in a fridge. In Final Fantasy XV, released just last year, the main female character, Luna, is killed by the main villain in front of her love interest and the protagonist, providing more fuel for him to defeat the villain and tons of angst in the rest of the video game. In Revenge of the Sith, Padme is killed by Anakin to demonstrate the extent to which he has crossed it or into the dark side and to cause Anakin a lot of angst; furthermore, the audience is forced to watch Padme die. For obvious reasons, this pattern of killing off female characters for a male character’s storyline is incredibly troubling, and I think it’s important to point out how these types of storylines can have roots in works from hundreds of years ago, and still affect our culture and media today.

Edit 2/11/17: Beth asked if I could relate the Stuffed into the Fridge trope more explicitly to the housing crisis, so I will do my best to!

The Stuffed into the Fridge trope, at its essence, is about a character’s (usually female) death used to have an effect on another character (usually male). This effect can be “positive” in the sense that it spurs the character into action, or negative, as we saw with Lear’s death. However, this concept can be expanded to include groups who have been sacrificed, in a sense, for the benefit or detriment to another group. I think that it’s not wrong to say that the businessmen of finance and bankers behind the 2008 recession essentially sacrificed average Americans for their own benefit, and eventually to their own detriment when banks collapsed and businesses went bankrupt. In the first chapter of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, the focus isn’t really on the people affected by the bad investment decisions, but the people on the inside. Lewis talks about how “mobile home buyers were defaulting on their loans, their mobile homes were being repossessed, and the people who had lent them loans were receiving fractions of the original loans” (p. 14). But as even as the risky financial system was beginning to fall apart, as both The Big Short and the documentary Inside Job showed, the bankers/businesses continued outright dangerous practices, many of them walking away with the money they had made from essentially criminal activity. Inside Job showed a hearing between the Senate and an employee from one such business. The senator point-blank asked the employee that, isn’t is his job to look out for the common American? His roundabout answer showed that, no, protecting average Americans was never part of the system, and “instead what we had was a regime where those were the people who were protected the least” (Lewis, p. 19). The bankers/businessmen actively worked to dupe and ‘sacrifice’ those less powerful than them and less able to change their situations to keep themselves the ‘main characters’. In this sense, Cordelia and the people who lost their homes in 2008 are the same, both sacrificed by forces they could not control, and for a reason that had nothing to do with them. As Steve Eisman said to Lewis in The Big Short, “The system was really, ‘Fuck the poor.'” (p. 20).

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