Well, actually more like Disney. Think of the allegory of aging in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Remember how the Wicked Queen drinks her chemical cocktail and transforms before our eyes from a charismatic beauty into a hunchbacked hag? “My hands!” she shrieks as they turn gnarly while her fingernails grow into claws. “My voice!” she cries with a terrifying cackle. “To whiten my hair, a scream of fright,” she had intoned, and even her underground ravens recoil in fear when they see the “disguise.”
Here’s Spencer Kornhaber of The Atlantic on the “red woman” in Game of Thrones:
Melisandre always seemed to harbor a secret, and now we know it’s that she, like someone in a Catfish episode or like many witches of centuries-old folklore, is secretly saggy. Only Thrones could pull off precisely this kind of fun, meta twist. After the show has spent so long jamming spears through handsome young prince heads in order to prove that it’s not reliant on fairy-tale tropes, it can occasionally shock simply by serving up some of the oldest magic tricks in the storybooks. What are we watching, after all, if not what the thoroughly demented Brothers’ Grimm might create on an HBO budget?
The female body turned grotesque with age: only something like that can compete with the blood and gore ritually served up by Game of Thrones.
I’m reminded of an incident in another cultural zone–not the fairy-tale world but a dystopic novel. In 1984, Winston writes in his diary about a memory that has been “tormenting” him.
It had got to be written down, it had got to be confessed. What he had suddenly seen in the lamplight was that the woman was OLD. The paint was plastered so thick on her face that it looked as though it might crack like a cardboard mask. There were streaks of white in her hair; but the truly dreadful detail was that her mouth had fallen a little open, revealing nothing except a cavernous blackness. She had no teeth at all.
He wrote hurriedly, in scrabbling handwriting:
When I saw her in the light she was quite an old woman, fifty years old at least. But I went ahead and did it just the same.
He pressed his fingers against his eyelids again. He had written it down at last, but it made no difference. The therapy had not worked. The urge to shout filthy words at the top of his voice was as strong as ever.
Cougar culture may have changed the number (70 is the new 50), but the crone continues to embody our anxieties about aging, and there is nothing more frightening that the sight of her withered breasts and sagging flesh.
Killing the Dames (a related piece I wrote about a year ago after watching Vee Parker run down in Orange is the New Black)
These days, we are still following the advice of the French playwright Victorine Sardou to torture the woman, just as we have never stopped heeding the words of Edgar Allan Poe about the death of a beautiful woman as the most “poetical topic in the world.” Sometimes these young women are victims of ritual murder, as in “True Detective.” Sometimes they appear as narcotized teens at the mercy of drug lords. Often we see them in a basement, bound and gagged, struggling against their kidnappers.
Now a new casualty seems to be joining up with these victims: the middle-aged, matronly types, whose messy, repulsive deaths challenge us to wonder what has changed in the moral calculus of cinematic productions. The second season of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix ends with Vee Parker, sprawled on the road, her vacant eyes staring out at us. “Always so rude, that one,” intones Rosa, an inmate on the lam who is herself terminally ill. After slamming her van into Vee, Rosa leaves the corpse on the road, with barely a glance into the rear-view mirror. As “Don’t Fear the Reaper” plays on the radio, Rosa morphs back into a stunningly beautiful young woman, embracing adventure on the wide-open highway. Rosa’s victim is a grotesquely exaggerated form of the “bad mother,” an archetype that haunts fairy tales as stepmother, ogre, or witch. A drug dealer who preys on orphans and recruits them to “connect” on inner-city streets, Vee is a woman whose nurturing gestures mask behavior that is deceptive, exploitative, and cruel.
While the body count in HBO’s “The Leftovers” is unusually high, we witness only a few disappearances in a series based on the premise that 2% of the world’s population mysteriously vanishes, with no messy corpses left behind. By contrast, the show turns up close and personal for the deaths of two members of the Guilty Remnant, a spooky cult group whose members wear white and ostentatiously smoke in pairs while stalking people they do not like (meaning almost everyone who tries to get on with their lives in the picturesque Mapleton).
Gladys, middle-aged, bespectacled, and overweight, is the first to die in a protracted stoning scene that begins episode five. The camera lingers on her bloodied features as one rock after another batters her face and smashes her skull while she pleads with her captors.
“Kevin, you can’t kill me,” Patti, the heavyset, matronly leader of the Guilty Remnant, tells Mapleton’s beleaguered police chief. Picking up a piece of broken glass, she calls out Kevin’s name and plunges the shard into her neck, cutting her throat in an act designed to demonstrate the senselessness of life. The massive blood-soaked body dressed in white at the end of episode eight builds an arc back to Gladys and her stoning, with both scenes offering up spectacles that point us to the womb as much as to the tomb.
The punishment of dames, domestic and demonic, is nothing new. For years, Disney Studios capitalized on the excesses of fairy-tale villains, staging the death of heartless dowagers (in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked queen plunges headlong from a cliff) and monstrous monarchs (in The Little Mermaid, Ursula is impaled by the mast of a ship). But its resurgence on screen in adult entertainments is nothing short of astonishing at a time when the headlines report the beheadings of male journalists, news websites routinely offer slide shows displaying the corpses of men and boys in combat zones, and stories featuring wounded warriors dominate magazine culture.
Our on-screen entertainments rarely replay real-life anxieties. Instead they haunt us in ways that are often errant and unpredictable. In a culture that has renounced the ideal of beauty, the beautiful dead woman of Edgar Allan Poe’s fantasies may now have moved into middle age. Instead of languorous sleeping beauties, we are faced with the grotesquely mutilated corpses of aging women. Once upon a time, grandmother had to perish in older versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” for successive generations to survive and flourish—granny’s blood and flesh are consumed by the girl before she escapes from the wolf. Now our freshly imagined warrior women may need some blood sacrifices beyond the immediate targets of their revenge.