A while ago we had a post discussing female protagonists who are being watched over/controlled by men/patriarchal organizations. Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Orphan Black were primary examples. Today, I would like to expand on the ideas of that post and talk about a subset of this type of female characters—female characters who are not only overseen by men/organizations (often patriarchal, though perhaps not always) but are also raised to be killers and assassins against their will. I’m a bit torn when it comes to this type of character. On one hand, these women are complex and their tragic backstories allow for character development and growth. But on the other hand, the misogynistic undertones in their arcs are troubling.
It is bad enough when you have a system like in Orphan Black, where an organization run by men uses (mostly) other men to monitor women and perform medical procedures on them without their consent, essentially taking away their privacy and bodily autonomy. But add to it an aspect of training and conditioning, against their will, from a young age, accompanied by psychological and/or physical abuse, and it rises to a whole new level of horribleness. Four characters like this come to mind: Helena (Orphan Black), River Song (Doctor Who), River Tam (Firefly), and Dutch (Killjoys). River Song and River Tam were basically kidnapped—River Song before she was even born—by mysterious government organizations and turned into assassins. Helena and Dutch were turned into killers by male “tutors”, if you will; although unlike Helena, Dutch wasn’t indoctrinated to believe in the righteousness of the killings—her tutor Khlyen taught her, as a small girl, to kill or be killed.
These girls and women not only have no choice in what is done to them, they are also forced to do horrible things. Sometimes, as in Helena’s case, they are convinced that they’re doing God’s work and that their victims deserve to die. River Tam isn’t even aware when her “killer sequence” is activated and she kills everyone in sight. Compare this to male characters. Even characters like Oliver Queen (Arrow) may have been forced into learning to fight/kill, but they still retain a certain degree of personal agency because they were adults when it happened to them. In theory, they had more control over what happened to them, and in Oliver’s case, he was likely led to this fate by a series of poor life choices.
Female warriors of this kind are not your typical “strong women”, although they can fight and they’re intelligent and resourceful in a way that special black ops men usually are on TV. However, unlike those men, who are often haunted by demons of their own making because they, as adults, chose to follow dubious orders, these female characters were children and had no way to choose to become killers. In a particularly horrible flashback of Dutch’s childhood, she’s shown bound in the same room with a man (likewise bound) and a knife between them. She is told by Khlyen, her “tutor”, that whoever frees themselves first and kills the other one gets to live. Naturally, Dutch frees herself and kills the man. In contrast, characters like John Reese (Person of Interest) may be suffering and regretful, but it doesn’t change the fact that he joined a black ops division of his own free will and, even though hesitant at first, became a ruthless killer.
Given these tragic backstories, it makes sense that what most female weapon character arcs have in common is running away from their captors (who may be pursuing them). Helena and Dutch’s arcs are particularly interesting. Helena undergoes one of my favorite redemption arcs, especially worth noting because female characters so rarely get them. She leaves the people who brought her up and joins her sisters in their fight for personal autonomy. Dutch’s story is just beginning, but as of writing this post, she has decided to go after Khlyen and kill him to stop him pursuing her and making her kill random people. Even though perhaps it’s most obvious in Helena’s case, essentially the arcs of all these characters boil down to fighting for autonomy and freedom from the abusive patriarchal forces that, in a way, created them. Now, they have to recreate themselves and become someone they want to be. Although I must say that it is rather poorly executed in River Song’s case, given that all she cares about is the Doctor, and she was raised to obsess over him and eventually kill him.
Another aspect of the “running away” arc is the character trying to become their own person. To change from what they were made to be, they develop friendships and bonds with people. The latter, in particular, is in defiance to their upbringing because the trainers usually kept the girls isolated and, in Dutch’s case, taught her that having people you care about makes you weak. Despite this, Dutch has a very close, sibling-like bond with her bounty hunting partner John. Helena becomes a part of the Clone Club family. On the other hand, male killers, like the aforementioned Oliver Queen and John Reese, used to have relationships and people they cared about in the past, but have lost (some of) them, and are reluctant to form new attachments to protect themselves and others from hurt. They generally find themselves having a group of friends against their will.
Things become more complicated when it comes to these female characters’ gender expression and sexuality. Interestingly, they are usually not hypersexualized, while retaining a certain degree of femininity. River Tam wears loose dresses. Dutch and River Song, while generally preferring practical clothing, like to dress up on undercover missions. However, during these missions, they sometimes use her femininity/sexuality to get what they need, which is likely what their masters taught them. Their femininity feels like camouflage, meant to mislead, to make these women appear non-threatening to their victims. Additionally, it makes them more palatable to a heteronormative audience, especially men. The latter is also helped by the fact that all of these women only show romantic/sexual interest in men (even though Moffat has said that River Song is bisexual). This is also somewhat troubling, because these are women who grew up being abused by men, but they show no distrust/fear of them, which would be totally natural and expected in such situations.
Which brings me to another trait of these characters—their mental health. I mean, naturally, everything they’ve gone through has had an effect on these women. They all have slightly different issues, but what all of these women have in common though seems to be violence. River Tam experiences violent outbursts. Helena harms herself and seems to quite enjoy hurting others, at least in the beginning. River Song simply likes shooting things. Dutch is the only one who neither relishes nor bursts into violence; she refuses to take on bounty hunting jobs that require her to kill the target, but, when attacked, she doesn’t hold back and will do anything to survive. However, the shows don’t really explore the mental health issues, PTSD, or psychological trauma these women surely must have.
All in all, female characters who were raised to be killers/weapons but broke away are fascinating, but this trope is problematic and troubling as well. On the positive side, a tragic backstory like that gives the character a complex role typically given to men, makes them more than just “strong women”, and allows for character growth, with the added benefit that no women need to be fridged. On the other hand, it seems that women only get to be complex characters because they were hurt as children and had their agency taken away. However, stories like Helena and Dutch’s are stories of women who refuse to be the way their abusers wanted them to be. They may be haunted by their pasts and unable to change what happened, but they’re their own women.