Does Christopher Nolan Have a Woman Problem?

Does Christopher Nolan Have a Woman Problem?

Is it sexist to kill off a female supporting character? Or sexist to complain about it?

I don’t generally write the feminist articles here at OTI. (If you want to read a traumatic but ultimately thought-provoking comment thread, check out the time I argued that  Showgirls isn’t so bad after all.) But I couldn’t help but notice that Christopher Nolan really loves killing off his female characters to motivate his male characters. Let’s roll the tape (lots of Nolan spoilers to follow):

  • Memento: A man with amnesia is obsessed with finding the killer of his beautiful wife.
  • Insomnia: A detective plays a cat and mouse game with the killer of a beautiful young girl.
  • The Prestige: A magician engages in a bitter rivalry with a former friend he blames for the death of his beautiful young wife.
  • The Dark Knight: The lives of a masked vigilante and a district attorney are shattered when the woman they both love is killed.
  • Inception: A dream thief struggles with the crushing guilt of his wife’s suicide.
  • And here’s a bonus: Nolan’s first feature, Following, apparently features a beautiful dead girl as a final twist.

The one movie that doesn’t fit the pattern is Batman Begins. But of course, the love interest dies in the sequel. And there is a dead mom to tide us over.

Shana, our resident feminist/Lostologist, introduced me to a name for this plot device: “fridge stuffing.” The term comes from a notorious issue of Green Lantern from 1994, in which Kyle Rayner came home to find his girlfriend not merely dead, but stuffed into his refrigerator. I can’t help but speculate as to WHY the villain, who is eye-rollingly named “Major Force,” would stuff his victim into a refrigerator. If he intended to eat her, the freezer is the way to go. If he wanted to hide the body somewhere no one would find it, this seems like a poor strategy; Green Lantern gotta eat. My best guess is that he wanted to instill a fear  of refrigerators in his enemy, so that Green Lantern would slowly starve to death. Think about it: if you opened a refrigerator to find your girlfriend’s dead body in there, you would have second thoughts about opening a refrigerator ever again. You’d be living on pasta and soup for a while.

You know what? I have to Google this.

[five minutes elapse]

Okay, from the single page of the comic I found, Major Force leaves a note on the table that says: “Surprise for you in the fridge. Love, A”  “Huh,” says Kyle. “Handwriting looks funny.” This was just silly on Major Force’s part. Was the Major honestly worried that, were it not for this note, Alex’s body would never be discovered? Can we all agree that however great Kyle’s shock, it would be that much greater if he sat around the apartment for two hours, watching ESPN and leafing through his mail, before he finally got up to see if there were anymore Coronas in the OH SWEET MOTHER OF MERCY!!

Hey, I wonder what Major Force did with all the food that was in the fridge?

Wait, what I am supposed to be writing about? Let me check my tattoo… oh right.

Now technically, not all of Nolan’s movies rise to the level of fridge stuffing. It’s my understanding that the cliché require that the female character be a real character in the story, that the audience kind of likes, and who is sacrificed so the male character has something to brood about. In Memento, Insomnia, and Inception, the girl is dead before the movie starts. Her identity is defined by her death… which isn’t exactly feminist, but isn’t quite fridge-stuffing. The death of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight qualifies, because we’ve had plenty of time to know Rachel before she gets exploded.

But no matter how much we dislike any given cliché in the abstract, you can always find counter-examples in which the cliché works brilliantly. After all, it wouldn’t be a cliché in the first place if it didn’t work. The Dark Knight is a perfect example. The death of Rachel Dawes is surprising, effective storytelling, moving the plot forward on several fronts. Shana was as enamored with this movie as any of us, despite the sad fate of the movie’s one female character. If you grade The Dark Knight as a work of feminism, it may not do very well. If you grade it as a movie, different story.

In fact, I love all of Christopher Nolan’s movies, and I wouldn’t change them one little bit. That’s what makes this article tricky to write: I don’t know what my thesis is. I have an observation, but I’m not sure how I feel about it. I think it’s clear that Christopher Nolan prefers male characters to female ones, but I don’t think he’s misogynistic. There are great parts for women in Memento, The Prestige, the Batman movies, and even Inception. I suppose there’s a soft misogyny in the way these men are haunted by angelic, sexualized ghosts. It’s kind of Dante. But Christopher Nolan isn’t Michael Bay. Hell, I can’t even recall a sex scene or nudity in any of his work.

So yeah, I don’t think Nolan is sexist. I DO think he has a fascination with dead love interests. Don’t bother searching his Wikipedia page; there’s no dead mother, sister, or girlfriend in his past. Besides, as Wrather noted on this week’s podcast, that kind of psychological determinism is seldom true in real life.

Maybe these dead ladies are an accidental byproduct of the noir world he likes to work in: if you love grim, driven men of action, you need to manufacture something for them to be grim about. The man who actually wrote that Green Lantern story eventually addressed the “woman in the fridge” controversy, saying:

To me the real difference is less male-female than main character-supporting character. In most cases, main characters, “title” characters who support their own books, are male.

There’s some truth to this. The movie is called The Dark Knight, and if taking away the only woman the titular character has ever loved isn’t fair game, what is?

And yet, it’s definitely true that, even when there are stories centered on women, you don’t see a lot of men stuffed in fridges. At the beginning of Kill Bill, Uma’s fiancé is slaughtered in front of her. But you really don’t get the impression that’s what she’s upset about when she wakes up. It’s unclear whether she even cares about the guy. What really drives her is her lost baby… which isn’t particularly feminist, actually. I asked the Overthinkers to suggest situations where a woman is out to avenge her dead lover. McNeil recalled The Brave One, a Jodi Foster revenge flick. Shana mentioned the Sun/Jin story arc on Lost, but with the disclaimer that it petered out pretty quickly.

(To bring it back to comic books for a second, someone made the interesting observation that when male superheroes die, they are often brought back to life with their powers restored. But when female characters die, their deaths are treated as a permanent tragedy.)

So while there’s nothing wrong with a story about a dead woman and the man who avenges her, there is something problematic about how commonplace and effective that trope is, and how seldom we see its gender inversion. There’s a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but there’s no Bros Avenging Bros Unit.

Or maybe there’s nothing problematic about it at all. Maybe we, as a species, are programmed to be more upset by the death of a woman than the death of a man. Remember the end of Dr. Strangelove, when he explained that in the mineshafts, the ideal ratio is ten women for every man? He has a point. When human existence is in jeopardy, protecting the women is smart evolutionary math – they are capable of producing fewer children, and therefore are the limiting factor in propagating the species. I’m sort of kidding, but I’m sort of not: men and women are different. Maybe it’s in our DNA to care more about the death of a woman than a man.

Still, even if my crazy theory is correct, it doesn’t mean fridge stuffing can’t be misogynistic. The writer is basically deciding that there is nothing that character can do that would be more interesting than getting butchered. That any possible plotlines she could be a part of wouldn’t be as effective as her funeral.

But then AGAIN, I’m certainly not arguing that it’s always wrong to kill off a female character.

Ag, I give up and throw it out to you. Is Christopher Nolan guilty of any sort of sexism? When is killing off a supporting female character wrong, and when is it fair game? If you were going to kill your arch-enemy’s lover and hide the body for him/her to find, where would you put it?

60 Comments on “Does Christopher Nolan Have a Woman Problem?”

  1. Kelli Marshall #

    Thanks for posting such a timely article; it’s especially worth reading next to this one from IFC:

    I have one question, however, about your interpretation of KILL BILL. You write, What really drives [Thurman’s character] is her lost baby… which isn’t particularly feminist, actually.

    Interesting. I’ve never read KILL BILL and/or Beatrix that way. Rather sheer, animalistic revenge drives the character: revenge for being beaten on her wedding day, revenge for losing four years of her life in a coma, revenge for being betrayed by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, revenge for being used as a blow-up doll (in the hospital), and then yes, revenge for her supposedly dead child.

    With that said, I do appreciate your consideration of Nolan’s troubling female characters; they are what I thought about off and on as I watched INCEPTION. Thanks again for the post! =)


    • mlawski OTI Staff #

      I agree with Kelli. To me, Kill Bill is a (mostly) feminist film. It’s about a woman whose body literally belonged to her boyfriend/boss. When she found out she was pregnant (with a daughter, don’t forget), she realized she had to take back her body, not just for herself, but for her kid. Remember, she not only wants the choice for herself, but she wants her daughter to have a choice, too–a choice about what kind of life to have when she grows up.

      So Beatrix asserts her power of choice and then is punished for it. Interestingly, she’s not only punished by the Man, but by a bunch of other women, each of whom could be read as a different kind of victim of the Patriarchy. Unfortunately, instead of taking their anger out on the dude who currently owns them, they lash out at Beatrix, mostly out of jealousy. They’re both jealous that she still gets most of Bill’s attention (the Patriarchy at work), but I think they’re also jealous that she was the only one brave enough to walk out the door.

      I guess you could say the film is anti-feminist in that it sometimes fetishizes its female characters–Gogo, anyone?–but, actually, for the most part, the film avoids this common pitfall.

      On the other hand, last week I saw Hard Candy, which is, in some ways, quite similar, plot-wise, to Kill Bill. I thought that film was horrid from a feminist perspective. (Actually, I thought it was horrid on almost every level. Ugggghhh.) So I guess it depends on how the plot elements are handled. Manohla Dargis wrote in one of her NYTimes reviews that revenge-for-being-raped-fantasies are almost always written by men, and they’re usually made to be uber-violent and fetishized. Kill Bill works for me, because Beatrix is a very sympathetic character–in my opinion, one of Tarantino’s most realistic characters (which, I realize, is not saying much). If Beatrix were portrayed as a psycho feminist bitch who got her revenge by literally castrating the men around her, the film might not seem so feminist anymore.


      • Gab #

        _Hard Candy_ *really* gave me the willies…


      • Kelli Marshall #

        Kill Bill works for me, because Beatrix is a very sympathetic character –- in my opinion, one of Tarantino’s most realistic characters (which, I realize, is not saying much).

        Yes, in fact, I think Tarantino’s reading of women is FAR more interesting than that of most (male) directors out there right now. That’s not to say that there aren’t some problems with his female characters, but overall, they’re extremely intriguing, complex, etc.

        Btw, has anyone considered adding “Subscribe to Comments” as a plug-in here?


  2. fenzel #

    There’s the time Jean Grey dies, which motivates Cyclops to keep sucking and being useless ;-)

    What, no love for Dalia Hassan? I sent that one to you last night — I guess other overthinkers don’t think of the latter seasons of 24 as “legitimate culture” or “any good.” How sort-of-wrong you are!


  3. Satish Naidu #

    I believe, Christopher Nolan, like a true gentleman always treats his woman with the greatest of respect. I don’t think there’s a even a single shot in all of his films where a woman is presented as an object. She is always a subject. I think that is something very noble.
    But what is interesting is, that in every movie of his, the female is an intruder into a men’s world. She is intruding and upsetting the general scheme of things.
    Memento: Natalie, intrudes, in what was otherwise a preset cat-and-mouse.
    Insomnia: Everybody believes the master. Nobody questions him. The Hilary Swank character does.
    The Prestige: Both Olivia and Sarah intrude the male world of revenge and ego-war at various times in various ways.
    Inception: Well, what do I say. Even Ardianne intrudes and pries upon Cobb’s secrets…

    I think, Nolan’s men respect their women, but do want their own private space. And they are so sweet they feel guilty about it. Inception could be described as a film about a man who is begging his wife to let him spend a weekend with his buddies and is feeling guilty about it.


    • Mike #

      Bonus Inception Intruding Woman Figure…. Mal erupts from Cobb’s subconscious into any world he tries to create for a dream.


      • Confanity #

        I’m pretty sure it’s Mol, as in Molly, an almost-stereotypically Irish name to match her Irish accent.


  4. WideAngle #

    The critique you level at Nolan could be applied to the vast amount of Western literature that is motivated by lost/missing women. Two quick examples. The Odyssey: motivated by Odysseus’ desire to get back to his wife. The Iliad: Helen of Troy. Of course, this doesn’t free Nolan from his participation in the lineage, but to say it’s a “Nolan problem” is inaccurate. The problem runs much, much deeper than that.


    • Tom Houseman #

      The difference being that in The Odyssey there are other women who serve other functions. Circe, for example, is an incredibly complex character with an incredibly complex relationship to Odysseus. There is no foil to Katie/Maggie in the Batman movies, and Ellen Page is just another sidekick in Inception. Her gender is irrelevant, which is nice to see, but doesn’t change the problem.


  5. Liz #

    My mother calls them “Dead Wife Movies,” and notes that Mel Gibson has built quite a career on them. In her variation, however, the wife exists solely at the very beginning to beam at the hero long enough for the audience to know how lovable he is, then dies horribly as a justification for all the gory violence in the back half of the film.

    Which doesn’t exactly fit what Nolan does – at least in Inception, which is the only one I’ve seen. Mal isn’t just a ghostly image. She has character and is a major part of the action throughout the film.

    One of the things I did like about Inception is that Ellen Page’s character did not exist to be the New Girl and screw up at a critical moment and then have to prove herself at the end. That would have irked me.

    It sounds like Nolan maybe reached into his storytelling bag of tricks and pulled this one out too often. He might want to take a look at that, but I don’t think it’s the same thing as sexism.

    @Satish I like that idea of intrusion. Neat.


  6. Gab #

    @Satish: Well, the intrusions could just be representations of how the world is. “This is a man’s world,” as one would say.

    In general: See, I find the, “Nolan is sexist!” arguments *so* difficult (as in uncomfortable) to sit in on, especially in light of stuff like this:

    I’ll be the first to admit, something like Rachel dying in _The Dark Knight_ comes across as sexist, especially given how she’s the only female with more than two lines. But Nolan’s *movies* aren’t about women. I have only seen some of season 1 of _Buffy_, but doesn’t she have a hard time in the keeping-men-around department? And (_DOLLHOUSE SPOILER_) Echo gets pretty damn pissed both times she thinks her guy is dead (for fakes and then for reals).

    I guess what I’m saying is Nolan is still working within the confines of the society in which he lives (again, “This is a man’s world,”); however, he tries to subvert them and around it by still making women that are independent, active, and not objects when they appear for more than a few scenes. Mal in _Inception_ may have been a projection of Cobb’s guilt, but look at how much power she had over him? And Ariadne gets in his face and argues with him. These characters, of course, are tricky to work with because how much of themselves they were shown to be is up for debate, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t well-written characters. When Scarlett Johansson’s character in _The Prestige_ figures out just how used she’s being, she leaves. Although damn, Christian Bale’s wife in that one hangs herself, so she becomes *his* fridge-stuffed woman… DAMN…

    Sigh, yeah. What a conundrum. I guess my conclusion would be that Nolan isn’t intentionally sexist and is trying to be FEMINIST when he writes, but that the mechanic of storytelling is so patriarchal that he can’t get around some underlying misogyny and sexism when he does depict women.


    • Rob #

      But isn’t writing stories only about men, or only with central male characters, sexist in itself? And sexist in a real, physical way (less opportunity for female actresses) as well as a representative way? The only Nolan movie I’ve seen was TDK, which fits the refridgerator trope to a T, so I can’t directly comment, but I think it’s kind of a dodge to go “I’m not sexist, all of my movies happen to be about men, so the women have to die for their character development.”

      I mean, why couldn’t a movie like, say, Memento be about a wife avenging her dead husband? There’s nothing wrong with having a male-led movie, but when you put all those individual films into larger perspective it starts to make a disturbing trend.


      • John Perich OTI Staff #

        Rob: speaking only for myself here, I agree with you. Making movies with only male protagonists, whose only relationship with women is to avenge them, is at least a little sexist. Sure, maybe Nolan’s deciding whether to make his next protagonist male or female by a coin toss, but the more times the coin comes up Heads, the more you’re allowed to suspect it’s weighted.

        (Let me preempt the “well, actually …”: I know that the 50/50 odds of a coin toss do not mean that any number of heads or tails are more or less likely for any given flip. But weighted coins do exist. And one of the exhibits of evidence we might use to condemn a coin as weighted is an unusual proportion of flips)

        All that being said: I do not believe Nolan should be expected to be less sexist than the culture in which he lives. Being egalitarian re: gender is hard! It takes a lot of conscious effort. And there are so many biological and social rewards to being sexist. So, “being no better than other action directors re: gender” is a faint damning.


        • Timothy J Swann #

          Might it be possible that the Nolan Brothers (minus Matthew, who has been charged with murder, in a story the papers quickly jumped on as as twisty as the screenplays they produce) are less comfortable writing women and or ethnic minorities because they don’t feel they have the right voice for them. I know I can feel that way as a writer sometimes, and if I were working on big screenplays, the temptation to write with a voice similar to my own would be higher.


      • Gab #

        Oh, don’t get me wrong- I wasn’t trying to say the trope isn’t sexist, but rather that Whedon tries to reinvent said trope by writing “strong” characters into it. Like I said, he’s operating in a patriarchal system, and in order to do so, he must follow it to some degree if he wants to be taken remotely seriously- but he attempts to circumvent conventional methods by putting his own spin on them. It’s unfortunate that he does use those tropes, but he takes those women that die and give them character development *outside* their deaths. Since you’ve only seen TDK, I’ll use Rachel as the catalyst (and she’s perfect, frankly). She’s a very well-written character, at least in my opinion, and her death is jarring because she was so important to me as a viewer and as her own person- I liked her not because Bruce loved her, but because she was awesome, so her death hurt me because a character I cared for was killed so suddenly, NOT because Bruce lost his love. The latter added to it, but that wasn’t the main focus for me as a viewer. And that’s how Nolan tries to change things, by tweaking the trope to give the women being stuffed in the fridge their own identities.


  7. Rob #

    “I’m sort of kidding, but I’m sort of not: men and women are different. Maybe it’s in our DNA to care more about the death of a woman than a man.”

    This is the only part of the article I totally reject. Even if sexism is in our DNA (and I’m yet to be convinced of this), that doesn’t make it okay. Very little about the world we live in is “natural”, and a truly egalitarian culture could probably counteract any innate gender roles.


  8. Chris #

    There is a scene of nudity in Memento, but it’s Ethan Hawke so it doesn’t really have much relevance to this conversation.

    As for this topic at hand, I wouldn’t say that any of Nolan’s works that I’ve seen (everything aside from Insomnia and Inception, or “Nolan’s “I” movies as nobody calls them) have come across as sexist to me, but you also certainly can’t say he has done much in the way of writing female characters well. I don’t know if it is because he’s incapable of it or because he doesn’t have an interest in it, but either way I wouldn’t qualify it as sexist or a major issue.

    Not having good female characters doesn’t make a film sexist. Having female characters who are treated horribly and/or are grotesque caricatures of female stereotypes and/or only exist to be leered at does. So if, for example, your film featured a man (perhaps in a bear suit) beating up women or had a woman straddling a motorcycle in some improbable way, then there might be an issue there.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Ethan Hawke? You mean Guy Pearce, surely?


      • Chris #

        Yes, of course I do, but I inexplicably continually confuse those two. My apologies.


    • mlawski OTI Staff #

      Not having good female characters doesn’t make a film sexist.

      I agree, and then I disagree. If one film doesn’t have good female characters, that blows, but I guess you can’t say the movie is necessarily sexist. But if a filmmaker’s entire oeuvre lacks any strong female characters, then I think it’s fair for audiences to say, “Hmm, maybe that filmmaker has a subconscious woman problem.” I think we can all agree that if a female writer-director made five blockbusters and killed off all of her underwritten male characters, people would comment.

      Look: Chris Nolan is a writer. Writers are supposed to write about the human condition, not just the male condition. Saying, “Well, I’m a man, so I don’t know how to write women” is about as ridiculous as saying, “I’m a movie director, so I don’t know how to write superheroes.” Actually, it’s a lot more ridiculous, because women make up half the world’s population. For goodness’ sake, even Woody Allen, who seemingly only knows how to write about himself, wrote Hannah and Her Sisters! If Nolan is so great, he should be able to write one female character who’s A) not an underwritten virgin or whore archetype and B) not killed off as quickly as possible to get the plot moving. Is that really so much to ask for from someone who is constantly called a genius by his fanboys?


      • Chris #

        I’m not saying that having poorly written female (or male) characters isn’t a flaw. In fact, I think when people say that they can’t “write women” or “write men” that’s nonsense because if you can write about people you can write for either.

        I’m just saying that unless a writer actively avoids writing well rounded female or male characters because they have an active dislike for them, they aren’t being sexist. I’m sure Nolan can write women well, since he’s a good writer, but for whatever reason he hasn’t yet. That reason is currently unknown, but I wouldn’t go as far as to put the label of “sexist” on him at this point. That would be unfair.


      • Gab #

        Just a specific example (or, rather, a set): None of the women in Firefly are your A or B. Zoe is married, Anara may be a prostitute but is so not an archetypal/stereotypical one, Kaylee is a great mixture of childish hope and worldly realism, and River is made of highly concentrated awesome and complexity, to the point where her sexual activity is of absolutely no matter whatsoever. And none of them die off. They may each get in danger somehow at some point, but so do the male characters in the series. And the movie.

        Sorry, I had to say something because imo, there are, in Firefly four counter-examples to tick off pretty easily. But my anxieties are better expressed below, so take this in conjunction with what I have to say there, too.

        I do love a good debate, though, so tell me if you think those women are written poorly and why, if you disagree (assuming you’ve seen the series, anyway).


  9. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @ Pete – Sorry, I got your email too late at night to really incorporate it. But yeah, I’m not a big 24 guy.

    @ Liz – I think you sum it up nicely for me: “It sounds like Nolan maybe reached into his storytelling bag of tricks and pulled this one out too often.” Most of the commenters seems to agree he’s not actively sexist – it’s just that he has certain tropes he likes to rehash. Individually, these stories are pretty unobjectionable. Taken together… well, they’re still probably unobjectionable, but it does start to seem like a funny pattern.

    It seems weird to write a whole post about something I don’t really have a problem with, but it seemed like a curious coincidence.

    You know what occurred to me? His next movie seems to be Batman 3, which will almost certainly feature scenes of Bruce Wayne brooding over his dead love interest. So that’s another one we can probably add to the list.


  10. Elizabeth Coleman #

    Even more specifically, Nolan has a thing for men being obliquely responsible for the death of their wives/girlfriends. I mentioned this to my boyfriend after seeing Inception, and he suggested that maybe that was the worst thing Nolan could imagine happening.
    That may be, and he does make it consistently work, but it doesn’t mean I won’t start giggling furiously in the middle of his movies when I realize he’s done it again.


  11. Dan #

    @ Matthew: While I think it’s a tad premature to make an assumption about the upcoming Batman film, I’m sure Nolan is enough of a completist to at least make some mention of Rachel’s death without brooding on it. Rather, I see him drawing parallels between Rachel’s death and his mother’s: Bruce Wayne witnessed both and was powerless to stop each. Which could lead to some interesting psychological – shall we say, tangents – insinuating Bruce’s ultimate fear of feminine commitments, explaining Batman’s eventual ‘relationship’ with a teenage boy in tights.

    Just sayin’.


  12. Anton Sirius #

    Dead male lovers as motivators are hard to come up with. Salt’s got one, doesn’t it? Of course the script was originally writtem for Tom Cruise, and the genders reversed…

    I think there’s a dead (or at least mutated) lover in Alice’s past in the Resident Evils, but beyond that I’m coming up empty. Sharon Stone was avenging her father in the Quick & the Dead though, and I guess you could argue that Ripley is avenging the whole Nostromo crew in Aliens.


  13. Gab #

    Unfortunately, I’m in the minority here, seeing as how it appears I’m the only person believing Whedon to be a good writer and, more importantly, a good writer of women on top of it. In his defense, I’ll reiterate that I believe while he may write within the confines of patriarchy and its tropes, he actively seeks to undermine that patriarchy from within by tweaking those tropes and giving his female characters their own identities and writing them well.

    And as I hinted before, these, “Joss Whedon is sexist,” conversations make me uncomfortable because he is a vocal, active proponent of feminism, and saying what he does isn’t enough or flat-out sexist totally undermines any progress he could potentially make for feminism. I know I’m being repetitive, but he can only do so much within the patriarchy and still expect to be taken remotely seriously, so he works from within, but in his own way- operating outside would do nothing to change things, after all, since it wouldn’t challenge the status quo on any legitimate ground. Pointing the finger at him and saying all his female characters are written badly or come across as sexist portrayals of women (as the tone of most of what’s above seems to take) negates what he advocates for. Plus, it not only ignores the myriad (and, frankly, majority) of authors that actively write negative stereotypes of women into their movies while still receiving acclaim (Judd Appatow, anybody????), it puts him in the same category as them- which is unsettling, because he is attempting to make *them* the abnormal ones. And I’m not trying to defend him as a fangirl or blind follower, but as a serious filmgoer- I felt he wrote great women well before I knew of his real-life activism, and that meta-knowledge has actually made me *more* critical of his work- but I still stand by the belief he does a good job, given what he is up against (for example, the speech I linked to earlier is him telling in a fictionalized anecdotal style how he’s constantly asked why/how he writes “strong females/women”- and how that shouldn’t even be an issue in the first place).

    So I must have a very different set of goggles than everybody else here- which I’m okay with, but if I’m pissing anybody else off, I’ll take a step back or something.


    • Hazbaz #

      Sorry Gab, I’m a little confused. I thought this was a discussion about Christopher Nolan, I don’t see anyone belittling Joss Whedon’s writing about women.


      • Gab #

        Oh crap.

        Oh crap crap crap.

        Why the crap did I do that.

        Ignore, like, everything I have said here. Seriously.


  14. stokes #

    Hey, you know what’s interesting? While there aren’t many narratives on the model of “woman is driven by the death of her male lover,” there are at least a couple of really important “man is driven by the death of his male lover” stories. The Illiad (Patroclos… fridged!), the Gilgamesh epic (Enkidu… fridged!). And if “object of homoerotic desire dies near the end of the book to teach the hero an important life lesson” counts, we can add A Seperate Peace, Brokeback Mountain, and Billy Budd.


    • JP #

      Well, actually…the Iliad never portrays Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the physical sense. That idea appears mainly in Athenian literature (e.g. Plato’s Symposium) written centuries after the Iliad (let’s not get into when/how/by whom the Iliad was “written”). The only time Achilles and Patroclus come close to hitting the sheets in the Iliad is in Book IX:

      “But Achilles slept in an inner room, and beside him the daughter of Phorbas lovely Diomede, whom he had carried off from Lesbos. Patroclus lay on the other side of the room, and with him fair Iphis whom Achilles had given him when he took Scyros the city of Enyeus.”

      (apologies for the clunky Samuel Butler translation, it was the first thing that came up in Google)

      I’m not saying that you can’t read the Achilles-Patroclus relationship as an erotic one. I am saying that the text is a bit more complicated than that.


      • stokes #

        Oh, nigglesnush.

        I tell you what, you read the epic poem you want to read, and I’ll read the epic poem I want to read. But regardless of their actual relationship, Patroclos still gets totally fridged, yeah? His only role in the story is to die so that Achilles can get mad.


        • JP #

          No, you’re right, Patroclus exists to die in order to get the story moving along. What I’m not sure about is whether that fits the exact definition of being “fridged,” which (as far as I can tell-I’d never heard the term until today) involves the combination of two-dimensional characters and problematic gender issues. Patroclus and Achilles (and Gilgamesh and Enkidu) have a relationship that avoids such issues. (“Let’s get together and fight things and get drunk, bro!”). Does it still count as fridging if the fridgee is not also the victim of some kind of sexism on the part of the writer?


          • stokes #

            To my mind, the fridging is when character A dies in order to provide character B with motivation.

            It’s the “in order to” part that’s significant. Some stories will contain death, and that’s fine – and obviously people are going to react to the deaths of their friends and loved ones. But when a death is transparently designed to provide motivation, it becomes a problem. This is why the Patroclos-Achilles thing feels like fridging, while the Hector-Priam thing does not: Hector’s death feels primarily like something that happens to Hector, which other people then react to. Enkidu-Gilgamesh is actually kind of a borderline case. It’s basically there to motivate Gilgamesh’s journey, but Enkidu does have his own arc, and his death is a part of it.

            You know what, actually there are two problems. First off, it’s lazy writing. The second problem, more-or-less unrelated, is the fact that the victims of this kind of thing are so overwhelmingly female. This shows a systemic bias. I don’t think that it’s about wanting to see women get hurt (at least not for most writers), rather, it’s like Belinkie said: “The writer is basically deciding that there is nothing that character can do that would be more interesting than getting butchered.”

    • fenzel #

      Well, Stokes, revenge is a dish best served cold, and, as we all know, men are far less likely to reheat their leftovers than women are. I’d say many women look down on the idea of serving a cold dish. If you’re going to the trouble of servinga dish, you’re not just going to do it because you’re hungry, you’re going to do it because it’s worthwhile to do, which means you should stick the thing the microwave and not be such a slob about it.

      Unsurprisingly, Russian- and Spanish-speaking women are more likely to commit themselves to vengeance than women in other cultures, because of the existence of borscht and gazpacho.


      • Gab #

        Fenzel, I have no idea who the eff you’re talking to or what would make you draw such drastically inaccurate conclusions, but I love cold Chinese food and serve up them leftovers all the bloody time. And pizza or steak right out of the fridge for breakfast= yum, and what’s more, they don’t even require a plate or flatware, so less cleanup after the noms.

        Really, dude, stop making sexist generalizations. I swear, you’re all the same. ::grumble::


        • mlawski OTI Staff #

          Mmmm, cold pizza……

          …Uh, sorry, what were we talking about again? Something about women?

          Man, Overthinking It. Why are you always making me hungry?


          • stokes #

            Mmmmm… day-old room temperature breakfast pizza. So good.

  15. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    An excerpt from my very-much unpublished graphic novel script, “4F.”


    Back to the present, full color.

    [1] A long view of a farmhouse in the middle of endless fields of grain. A red biplane flies overhead.

    [2] A low angle of Reynolds looking up at the sky. We can see the plane above him.
    Reynolds: How long does she spend up there?

    [3] A profile view of Reynolds looking up at the sky. Behind him, a middle-aged couple stands hand in hand. A classic farm couple – think American Gothic. They are Mr. And Mrs. Stokes.
    Mrs. Stokes: Just about the whole day. It’s like she’s afraid of the ground.
    Mr. Stokes: Uses up a fortune in gasoline, but she made several fortunes in her performing days.

    [4] Closer on the Stokes’. They look hopeful and worried.
    Mrs. Stokes: Mr. Reynolds, if you can get her to join your air show, we’d be so grateful.
    Mr. Stokes: We enjoy having her home and all, but she just hasn’t been right since… well, you know.

    [5] Over Reynolds’s shoulder, we see the biplane landing in a field 100 yards away.
    Reynolds: I’ll do my best, Mr. And Mrs. Stokes. Let me talk to her alone.

    [6] Reynolds approaches the parked plane. A young woman in a bomber jacket is filling it up from a big gas can.
    Reynolds: Mrs. Fleming? They say you’re the best female pilot in the United States.
    Fleming: If you’re a reporter, you’re going to get punched.
    Reynolds: No ma’am. I’m here to offer you a job.


    [1] Mrs. Fleming turns to face him. She’s gorgeous – blond, blue-eyed, lightly freckled. An All-American beauty. But sadness never leaves her face. Now she’s angry as well.
    Fleming: I only perform with my husband. And as he was ripped to shreds by Messerschmitts over Munich three months ago, I will not be performing.

    [2] Medium on Reynolds.
    Reynolds: How would you like to kill some Nazis?

    [3] Close on Mrs. Fleming. She seems frozen.

    [4] Same angle, but now her face is animated by a fearsome enthusiasm.
    Fleming: I’m in.

    [5] Over Reynolds’s shoulder, we see Fleming walk towards him.
    Reynolds: Just like that? You don’t want to hear…
    Fleming: You say I’ll get to kill Nazis?
    Reynolds: Yes…
    Fleming: Then I’m in.

    [6] Fleming stands very close to Reynolds. He seems a little uncomfortable with her intensity.
    Reynolds: Mrs. Fleming, it’s a dangerous mission.
    Fleming: You know what they used to call me?
    Reynolds: The Woman Without Fear.
    Fleming: And that was back when I had something to live for.

    [7] Close on Fleming. Her eyes are cold and sparkling.
    Fleming: I lived for that man. They took him from me. If you can give me revenge, there’s nothing more I need to know.

    [8] Reynolds looks at her seriously.
    Reynolds: I can give you such revenge as a widow never had.


    • cat #

      Love it.


  16. fenzel #

    One useful distinction I know is made in some social criticism literature is between being “ist” and being “alist” in a particular prejudicial trait.

    So, a scholar may make a distinction between an action that is is “racist” versus an action that is “racialist.” A “racist” action implies or reinforces domination and serves to reinforce a specific power structure. A “racialist” supports the distinctions made by racial classification (which of course do not exist a priori), buys into that dialectic, but does not necessarily support the domination of one race by another race.

    So, somebody can be “sexualist” without being “sexist” — seeing the sexes as different or alienated from one another without ascribing to the domination of one by the other.

    Part of why I introduce this is I abhor the term “reverse racism” — it’s such a backhanded, crappy phrase, because saying it is “reverse” implies that racism has a proper orientation in the first place — that there’s something especially wrong about it when it goes the other way. But there isn’t – racism is racism, as long as you’re directly or implicitly or inadvertantly advocating for or supporting the domination of one race by other races in some way.

    But it’s not fair or accurate to lump all identity political discourse under notions of domination — we have to strive toward a way to talk about thing without being either Luke chopping off Vader’s head in the cave or being Vader ourselves — but at the same time we are not entirely clean; we do reinforce the conensus around the existence of these a constructions when we talk about racism or sexism in a way that tries to repudiate domination — we do, ourselves, become part of the problem.

    So, for this, I kind of like the word “sexualist.”

    Now, is Nolan a sexist? A little bit, sure. But I’m not confident that there is a discourse people operate in right now that’s very robust that isn’t at least a little bit sexist. I don’t really see a fully realized, totally non-sexist discourse out there — a lot of the verbal tricks that try to repudiate sexism just draw angry attention to it and fail to realistically provide ways for disinterested people to communicate with each other. So, Nolan is a bit sexist, but it’s hard to come up with a way to reasonably expect him to not be sexist at all. He certainly does some things in his movies to show his heart is in the right place, more or less. He’s not the worst sinner in that brothel we call Earth.

    But is Nolan a sexualist? DEFINITELY. He’s a huge sexualist. he is extremely concerned with the distinctions between men and women, and sex and gender play huge roles in his movies — even to the point of providing metaphysical underpinnings for the way his characters understand the world.

    Contrast, say, Inception with Delta Force. Delta Force is a more sexist movie than Inception — most of the men have guns and women tend to be useless. But Inception is a lot more sexualist than Delta Force is. Delta Force is kind of unconcerned with matters of men and women. It is busier dealing with ethnicity and politics (and Delta Force is actually about the evils of the Holocaust and is a lot more Democrat-friendly than you might think).

    In Delta Force, you get the sense that if a chick showed up with a machine gun, a denim vest and a beard, they’d let her fight the terrorists too — not because they wouldn’t prefer her to be making babies, but rather because they wouldn’t be paying attention.


    • fenzel #

      One thing I’d add is that if you see feminism as primarily a Marxist matter — as a political struggle between the class of Men (and their allies) and the class of Women (and their allies) — and that “sexism” is playing for the Wrong Team: the class of Men who have been perpetrating crimes against the class of Women, pressing them into servitude, denying them rights, treating them like chattel, beating them, raping them, drowning them for indiscretions for which they would never punish themselves, etc. — if you see Men as the bad guys and Women as the good guys, which is perhaps a politically inconvenient opinion to hold but one which is very much part of the conversation and not entirely illegitimate if you look at the world in certain ways, then Nolan is very much not a sexist.

      All the harm Nolan does to the class of Women by not putting them as the protagonists of his movies and by having them die to motivate the main character is more than offset by the extent he goes to undermine traditional notions of masculine efficacy and moral right. In Nolan’s work, the World of Men is an effed-up place with little moral justification, and men who might be known in other milieu as heroes tend to be thrown into situations in random, chaotic and ambiguous ways, and with shady intentions.

      The most memorable Nolan characters are all bad men, and they’re bad in the way Men are often characterized as bad by Women in the war between the sexes. They are violent, they are ruled by primal urges, they are narcissists who lose sight of the effect of their actions on other people, they destroy themselves through cupidity and obsession with vaporous things, and they rarely accomplish anything that could even loosely be termed to be “Good.”

      So, maybe Nolan reinforces the idea that men are in charge of the world. Okay. But he certainly doesn’t seem to be of the opinion that they are well-suited for the task or doing a good job of it.


      • Gab #

        This, and what you wrote before it, too.

        Thank you.


  17. Dreadful_rauw #

    The 1968 Truffaut film “The Bride Wore Black” has a husband being fridged on his wedding day, and his bride taking revenge. Although it’s the opening sequence of the film, so we don’t really get to know him well.


  18. Hazbaz #

    One of the themes that crops up a lot in Nolan’s films is the notion that cold professionalism is the highest virtue one can aspire to. I wonder if this reads into his portrayal of women. rightly or wrongly, the hegemonic discourse seems to assign men the role of logistician and women the role of emotional intelligence. I don’t really have a point to amke with this, just thought it was interesting.


  19. Gab #

    Okay, yeah, as Hazbaz made clear, I for some reason started going off about Joss Whedon. And I was doing it from the very beginning so just ignore pretty much every single bloody thing I had to say before.

    I’m going to go make a nice humble pie, full of hat and with the essence of foot sprinkled on top.





  20. Sonja #

    I thought of one! “A Very Long Engagement” features two such driven women, one who’s trying to track down a reliable witness to the last few hours of her sentenced-to-execution-fiance and another woman who’s on the same track for the same reason (different guy), only the second woman is killing off the men she feels are responsible (and she’s also played by the same actress who plays the dead wife in Inception, so there’s that.)


  21. AsWicked #

    Monster’s Ball. Triple Fridge?


  22. callot #

    Great article and great comments. I’ve often been bothered by Nolan’s difficult relationship with female characters, but nowhere so much as in Inception. It was one of the reasons I had a hard time enjoying the movie.

    To be fair to Nolan, none of the characters in Inception, apart from Cobb (DiCaprio), are really very human. I think Nolan’s issue is similar to Kubrick’s; general misanthropy. All of Nolan’s main characters are shielded, damaged people who commit entirely to their single obsessive occupation – quieting the guilty voices in their heads. When it comes to connecting emotionally to the people in their lives, the protagonists are uninterested and incapable, often driving away those who try to help them (out of paranoid fear and self-hatred, mostly).

    In fact, misanthropy might be too light a diagnosis for Nolan’s protagonists. The Bale characters in Batman and The Prestige are so uncomfortable seeking comfort in others that they vacillate between high-functioning autism and sociopathic narcissism. Cobb is so distanced from valuing humanity that by the end he doesn’t even want to live in the real world anymore. Memento is another one: Guy Pearce actually chooses to preserve his pathological fantasy world rather than start a new life with real people.

    If that’s the case with Nolan, than his perceived misogyny is just a symptom of Nolan’s bigger point of view on narrative; the qualities that make a good protagonist (being active instead of passive, being intelligent and creative, being persistent in pursing goals) are the same qualities that are present in Nietzschean alienated ubermenschen. Being a protagonist necessarily puts you at such a distance to the rest of humanity that interhuman connection is impossible. Therefore being the hero of a story is the same as being a prisoner (The Prestige) stuck in an interminable (Memento) nightmare (Inception) where you’re obligated to do good (Batman) for a world you care nothing about (Insomnia).


  23. cat #

    “a myth does not really describe a situation; rather, it tries to bring about what it declares to exist” If the myth is that man is the norm, that male characters have some sort of greater depth or are more representative of the population or the species then casting predominantly male characters can’t do much to help that. I love the way this article is written. There is a thesis, or a least a driving force, which is to question, and that is always a good reason.


  24. Anne Bonney #

    Sorry to come so late to the comments, but:

    “I’m sort of kidding, but I’m sort of not: men and women are different. Maybe it’s in our DNA to care more about the death of a woman than a man.”

    I would argue that these are all examples of how we DON’T care about a woman’s death as much as a man’s. In Momento and Inception, the deaths of these women are catalysts of the stories (which is a certain position of narrative power, I guess), but that reduces them to a plot point, an pure object, only experienced through a man’s subjectivity. Presenting violence against/death of a woman as the genesis of a man’s story is inherently framing a woman’s life as only having meaning in that it influences and affects a man. For The Dark Knight, even though Rachel does have her own subjectivity, because this is a essentially a story about men, that takes a back seat to the symbolic aspects of her death. It seems to me that both men who are affected by her death aren’t mourning her as an individual, but as a love interest-object.

    (I do want to say that I don’t think this is a Nolan-specific problem, but a byproduct of the fact that most stories being told are centered on men and their experiences, with women populating the back ground and whose experiences are simply things that actually happen to the men who care about them. See “Taken”, which is entirely about violence against women filtered and only given meaning through a man’s perspective.)

    Also, with shows like L&O:SVU, it’s not going out on a limb to say that the overall effect of having all these female crime victims is to actually make their lives, victimhoods and deaths of little or no value at all. Because of the procedural, dead-hooker-of-the-week format, you aren’t meant to care about them, except insofar as they affect Olivia and Elliot and the other regs. I think this is a much more damaging kind of fridge-based sexism, because I believe it actually reinforces the negative real-life narratives of crimes against women: that they are a form of true-crime entertainment for people who think “that could never happen to me or mine”, and that these are things that no one but heroically dedicated law enforcement professionals could care about for any reason except passing titillation.

    I don’t think Nolan’s dead ladies are unproblematic, but they sure as hell aren’t the most sexist things out there as far as the trope goes.


  25. fenzel #

    And what does it say that, when the comic book cliche woman is stuffed into a fridge, she dies to motivate the main character, but when Indiana Jones is stuffed into a fridge, he survives a direct hit from a nuclear weapon?

    Huh? HUH? What does THAT say?


  26. Jessica #

    As one of the few Batgeeks on the planet who hated The Dark Knight, I have to say that the character of Rachel is only there to be a female ideal for the hero, then die. She’s an anima figure. She doesn’t really have her own agenda. Nolan wants Two-Face, so Dent gets shoehorned into the plot. In doing so, an elegant solution is missed: make Rachel Two-Face. I would have blowed up Dent, scarred her, and then sent her on Dent’s revenge kick. It would have been unexpected, and made good use of the character.

    Oh, and the TV show ALIAS was about a dead boyfriend, stuck in a different appliance/fixture: the bathtub.


  27. Igib #

    I like Nolan and I know nothing about him but his work is sexist. I’ll believe he has an obsession with dead love interests when we get a story about a female protagonist haunted by the death of her male lover who is only known to the audience through her. Otherwise? Nah.

    Also, I don’t mind sex and nude scenes if the woman is given something to do other than be the object the man projects all his issues onto/something for him to lust over. If she has agency and occasionally gets naked, that’s fine with me.


  28. plankton #

    About the fridge – The dead-guy-in-a-fridge also happened in Watchmen, when Rorschach found Moloch in a fridge. That scene was lifted from a Pink Panther movie… it goes backwards and backwards.

    I have my own theory. I could be wrong, but I *think* Inception is actually a deeply feminist film – but not in an easy way. I’ve written it up here – – but in brief: Cobb and Mal were in limbo together. Mal escaped, but Cobb is still there. The inception (suicide) was not done by Cobb to Mal, but by Mal to Cobb – it was her idea, she was the protagonist, and that idea (in projection-Mal form) is still following Cobb. But he can’t do it. He can’t do it because his being is focussed on believing himself to be the protagonist, and maintaining that belief is where the whole plot comes from. Every not-Mal part of the movie is constructed by Cobb in his own mind, and is a McGuffin. Totems included.

    One step further: I’d also argue that this is a movie about movies, and our movies are gendered – the men are *always* the protagonists. Nolan is quietly pulling inception on his audience, almost invisibly planting the idea that the real protagonist can be female.

    Unfortunately, following the film’s own example, inception doesn’t work.


  29. john #

    i hate u


  30. Sator Arepo #

    I found your article after googling for the many problems (of which bad female characters is only a mild one in comparison) of the emperor-has-no-clothes situation that is Oppenheimer. It is an objectively bad movie hyped up by fake reviews. I felt scammed walking out of it last week.

    I admire many of Nolans movies, particularly Interstellar as a science movie (which had good female roles), but he has lost me with this flick. I do wonder why Oppenheimer was so bad while not long ago he pulled off Interstellar, which to me was a masterpiece.

    I want to add that Nolan appears to be an almost open member of the world’s biggest remaining no-girls-allowed club. The after party of one of the Batman movies was at the main freemason’s hall (the one in London), Tenet is an occult formula, The Prestige is full of esoteric references.

    I assume here lies the problem: He is not exposed to the idea of a respectable female in these time-consuming circles. I visited talks at lodges for a while. But I can’t view boomers who badmouth their wives like old drunkards, feel no shame unironically making dated jokes about females, and can’t handle female visitors as brothers on a mission to self development and progressing society in the 2000s. Maybe I’m too young or something, or maybe it’s that I know several female scientists who in their 20s are more accomplished than anyone I’ve met at these lodges already.

    It seems Nolan did not see a problem in all this when he knocked the door.


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