Hysteria. If ever there was a word calculated to raise feminist hackles, this was probably it. It literally means something like “disturbance of the uterus,” and it used to be a specifically gendered medical diagnosis. These days it has two quite distinct senses. “Hysterically funny” is an altogether value-neutral term (as far as I can tell) that just means “very funny.” To be hysterical in the other sense – crying, wailing, gnashing your teeth, acting like Glenn Beck on a bad day – is still coded as feminine. Sure, men can be described as hysterical. I mean, look at Glenn Beck, right? But it inevitably implies that they are being womanish: that letting one’s emotions slip like this is some kind of unforgivable masculine lèse majesté. So when we say that the Cassandra character is defined by her hysterical response, well, things start getting uncomfortable. And this brings up another important point. If you go to the TV Trope page for Cassandra — don’t actually go to TV Tropes, because you won’t be back for hours, but if you did, you could scroll through dozens and dozens of examples of people who are never believed even though they really shouldn’t be… almost none of whom really feel like the character Cassandra, because they’re missing that crucial element of hysteria. Like take Mulder from the X-Files. Every episode starts out with him saying something like, “Huh, I wonder if this is a freaky chicken-worshiping death cult of shapeshifters?” To which Sculley and Skinner and the rest react by rolling their eyes and yawning theatrically. And every episode ends, mutatis mutandis, with the reveal of a freaky chicken-worshiping death cult of shapeshifters. But does Mulder feel like Cassandra? Or act like Cassandra? Not hardly. You know who does fit, though, is Dib from Invader Zim, who gets to be appropriately hysterical not because he’s female but because he’s a child. Maybe we can refine our definition of the type a little. A Cassandra, remember, predicts doom, is doubted, is treated as one insane, and then dies from the thing she tried to warn people about. Mulder does all of this except the dying part, which is always a little bit optional, depending on the specific audience it’s aimed at. What separates him from the original, then, is that when they treat her like a crazy person, she’s also acting like a crazy person. And Mulder does not do this. He’s got crazy beliefs, yeah, but he’s not muttering them on the subway to anyone who will listen. He speaks clearly and grooms himself. He acts — his manner, at least, is that of a normal, productive member of society. Which due to the already-discussed coded nature of hysteria means, like a real man.
Archetypes then, are not completely neutral. But there are still positive potentials to the Cassandra type. Since she’s marked as “not-male,” the fact that the men in her life tend to doom themselves by not taking her seriously could be seen as a feminist critique – maybe even as a valorization of the hysterical, “womanly” worldview that she’s supposed to represent. On the other hand, you can have a character like Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, who, if you reduce out her Mama Bear characteristics, is basically a Cassandra who eventually gets fed up with waiting for people to start paying attention to her, and starts, you know, setting the Trojan Horse on fire. Even so, the archetype engages with gender: it is emphatically not just a doomed fortune-teller character that happens to be female by accident. Even if you were to just make your Cassandra character a guy – although this is the move I’d suggest making, if you wanted to avoid the slightest hint of bad ideology – he would still engage with notions of what men are supposed to be like, and would require careful handling.
Whether there’s some kind of moral calculus involved with using or even deriving pleasure from characters that play into this kind of archetype, seems to me to be a very open question. The danger is that, through constant repetition, the archetype can become a part of what our conception of a particular minority group is supposed to be like – essentially, the archetype devolves into stereotype, and stereotypes have real-world consequences. On the other hand, we might be able to sidestep this problem just by reading the text with sufficient care. If we’re aware of the ways that a Cassandra character plays on an essentialized concept of femininity, aren’t we less likely to read that portrayal back into our own notion of the feminine? Maybe we can enjoy and deploy these troubling figures with impunity, as long as we keep our eyes fully open at all times.
But then again, being aware isn’t necessarily the same as being safe. You can ask Cassandra about that.