Victim narratives in our culture have reinforced the idea that once you become a victim, that’s all you’ll ever be. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the “Superheroic Survivor” story can be equally one-dimensional, simplistic and uninterested in a real person’s experience.
Victim narratives in our culture have reinforced the idea that once you become a victim, that’s all you’ll ever be. Looking at a number of these stories (which typically center on women), we can see some patterns in the (often damaging) messages they send: The victim is voiceless, rarely allowed to tell her own story in depth, or else not listened to. Instead, the details of her life and her drama are used to reveal windows into other characters’ complex psychology. The victim is idealized — turned into a perfect blank slate and (often) an object of lust — as if the tragedy of her death is in part that she’s no longer sexually attainable. Even if the victim doesn’t die, she’s forever a victim — paralyzed by the tragedy that hangs over her and traps her in time. Frequently, the victim is blamed and shamed and painted as weak — perpetuating the insidious, false idea that a victim could (or should) have done something differently, or that getting taken advantage of was somehow a personal failure.
In the aftermath of the Me Too movement, many people have criticized the use of the victim label itself, now instead referring to people who’ve experienced trauma as survivors.
“The reason I consider myself a survivor is because I did not let this break me down.” - Surviving R. Kelly
Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the “Superheroic Survivor” story — the flipside to the classic victim narrative in our culture — can be equally one-dimensional, simplistic and uninterested in a real person’s experience.
The stories we see on screen typically illustrate the victim as an idea of a person, a symbol, or a reflection of the other characters in their narrative, rather than a fully developed individual who has a complete life and personality. In Forrest Gump, the crux of beautiful, illusive Jenny’s character is her inability to escape the trauma of her childhood abuse — she’s linked to the image of a damaged bird who can’t fly away as she wants to. Given the story’s point of view, her self-destructive decisions serve as motivations for Forrest and she’s stuck in this spiraling state until the very conclusion of the movie, when (after briefly finding some stability) she dies.
In a 2018 interview with Variety, Keira Knightley called attention to just how often the victimized woman is reduced to being a tragic story set-up in explaining why she doesn’t do many modern movies.
Keira Knightley: “I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped” - Variety
Framing the victim as a intriguing mystery to anchor the story structure around can be seen in shows from Desperate Housewives and The Killing, to Top of the Lake, but perhaps the most iconic, quintessential example is Twin Peaks, a series that starting in 1990 established the magnetic power of framing the beautiful victim as an enticing puzzle we can enjoy solving. The murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer is the inciting incident for an entire town of quirky characters to reveal all of their dark secrets.
A major problem with victim narratives is that they often don’t feature or give sufficient weight to the victim’s voice or her experience of events. Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon — an even earlier example of using the victim event as a central mystery to reveal other characters’ intricacies and points of view — centers around differing accounts of Masako’s assault. Her attack is her character’s defining moment, but her voice is just one of several that are framed as equally unreliable, as the various versions of events compete with each other to determine whether she is weak, helpless, deceitful or even in some way responsible.
13 Reasons Why is a modern example showing we’re still framing plots around idealized victims who illuminate other characters. Here the suicide victim Hannah Baker does have a prominent voice — each episode focuses on a different tape recorded by Hannah implicating people as partly responsible for her death.
Hannah Baker: “I’m about to tell you the story of my life, specifically why my life ended.” - 13 Reasons Why
But Hannah still is there to be the catalyst for others like Clay’s character development, as he works to avenge the one-dimensional idealized version of Hannah he has created in his head. Part of Twin Peaks’ power was how it subverted the ideal of the perfect, virtuous victim. Blonde “good girl” Laura is revealed to live a chaotic double life filled with secret romances, drug abuse and sex work. But she’s still depicted as an almost ethereal being—the hidden dark side of her personality coming across as dangerous yet sexy, entrancing, even mystical. So it almost feels as though the most tragic aspect of Laura’s death is that she was so beautiful. Much like Laura, female victims in genre films are often represented through a disconcerting mix of idealization and sexualization after death. Archetypes like The Hitchcock Blonde, or the beautiful victims of Italian giallo films, are as gorgeous as they are doomed.
This tendency to define deceased women by both their suffering and their sex appeal unfortunately also shapes how our culture reports on or dramatizes the stories of real-life murder victims. The 1980 murder of Playboy Playmate Of The Year and rising star Dorothy Stratten was sensationalized in highly exploitative media treatments (like this 1981 TV movie Death of a Centerfold with the tagline “every man’s fantasy, one man’s obsession.” You can still see the same thing happening in this 2013 front page of UK tabloid The Sun, blatantly objectifying Reeva Steenkamp in a bikini while reporting about her murder by Oscar Pistoroius. The 1969 coverage of the death of actress Sharon Tate (arguably more famous as a victim of the Manson family murders than for her screen career which was cut short) focused heavily on her sex appeal
“Ms. Tate, who starred in Valley of the Dolls, was eight months pregnant and was found in a bikini-tight nightgown.” - NBC News
Newspapers used promiscuous photos of her for their front pages, and The Sunday Mirror reported on the murder with lines like: “Sharon, 26, who sometimes called herself “sexy little me,” died with another woman and three men…” Quentin Tarantino revisits Tate’s story in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and has said he wanted to undo her legacy.
Quentin Tarantino: “The fact that she’s a person consigned to history for the most part defined completely and utterly by her tragic death… They saw she was more than that” - DGA Podcast
The film purposely rewrites history, imagining a world where this murder is prevented, and (according to Tarantino) aims to lend Tate an air of “normalcy” and show she was “more than [her victim status]... you actually watch her doing things that people do in a life, running errands, driving the car, just life stuff.” This gets at a huge problem with our cultural framing of murders and assaults, both fictional and non-fictional — too often they equate the victim in our shared consciousness with the worst thing that ever happened to them, erasing the rest of their personalities.
After she was murdered in 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson became dehumanized to the point that she’s now almost solely known for being the victim in the O.J Simpson murder trial. Even despite Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s intentions to correct this trend of making victimhood a permanent identity, though, the film’s portrayal of Tate is still underdeveloped—one-dimensionally lovely, with very little dialogue, story or conflict.
So it continues to play into the classic victim narrative’s use of a purely innocent, unbelievably sexy woman as a symbol that means something to others (instead of telling her story from inside her experience). In the comedy realm, Search Party cleverly exposes just how self-serving and false the whole glamorous, romanticized victim story has always been. Central protagonist Dory becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a hauntingly tragic victim—but the missing Chantel turns out not even to be a victim, let alone some profound source of meaning, and it’s clear Dory was just projecting a lack of direction in her life onto this non-story
One-dimensional depictions of the victim as a beautiful image or metaphor are frustrating for anyone looking to see themselves represented on screen. So plenty of stories take the opposite path, giving us the warrior-like badass survivor — but is this alternative really as empowering as it seems?
The Anti-victim - Super-survivor Narratives
The inspirational Survivor is often portrayed on screen as a near superhero with unmatched resilience and a determination to avenge their own trauma while stopping these wrongs from being inflicted on others. This corrects some problems with the victim narrative — giving the survivor more agency — but it still risks reducing the character to something one-dimensional and not fully human.
In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander’s trauma acts as an origin story for her becoming this impressive, empathetic “survivor superhero” as she goes after the same kind of men who inflicted pain upon her.
Lisbeth Salander: “If I find a girl in here with you, whether she came of her own free will or not, I’ll kill you” - The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Survivor narratives metaphorically split characters into two people: the person before the trauma, and the person who is forever changed after the event. And a big problem with this is that these stories implicitly frame the survivor’s trauma as (to quote Jessica Chastain) a “phoenix moment” that actually gifts them with immeasurable strength. Like Lisbeth Salander, Red Sparrow’s Dominika Ergova credits her impressive skillset as an undercover operative to the pain she’s undergone (in this case, both her sadistic, torturous training, and having survived a sexual assault).
In Audition, Asami’s brutal ability to overpower any man she feels has wronged her (as a direct result of her abuse) highlights another recurring theme in survivor stories: all these women seek physical revenge, with the kind of violence and strength typically reserved for male characters and respected by men. In reality, though, living through abuse doesn’t automatically make someone stronger, probably won’t lead to them becoming an awesome fighter, and is far more likely to hinder their progress or reverse their growth in many ways.
Promising Young Woman to this revenge story, with protagonist Cassie resorting to psychological tactics rather than physical. As she seeks to avenge the assault and suicide of her best friend Nina, Cassie does transform into someone more bold and vengeful; however, this isn’t all good—in her personal life, this shift is self-destructive and unproductive to her goals. Her transformation is most explicit in the film’s climax, when she adopts a combination of Nina’s persona and the supernaturally confident female avenger. But this sequence ends in Cassie’s death—as she’s a woman alone in a room with a dangerous man who’s physically stronger than her—a shocking ending that draws attention to the fragility of both Cassie and the survivor narrative itself.
Not everyone does survive attacks, so turning survivors into super-empowered, aspirational archetypes is limiting, and perhaps distracting from the reality.
Moving Beyond the Binary
In the wake of the Me Too movement survivor stories have flooded the cultural zeitgeist, with women reclaiming their agency and taking control of their voices. These real life stories reveal how unhelpful the victim vs survivor binary truly is.
Chanel Miller: “I am a victim, I have no qualms with this word, only with the idea that it is all that I am. However, I am not Brock Turner’s victim. I am not his anything. I don’t belong to him.” - Know My Name
One of the key changes in recent years is that, finally, our society is interested in listening to the voices of victims-slash-survivors. Miller was a watershed example of that, when her viral written statement got her named a Glamour 2016 Woman of the Year (then anonymously as “Emily Doe”) before Know My Name made it onto numerous top book lists of 2019.
The same shift can be seen in how more and more of the public finally believes Dylan Farrow’s testimony of abuse by Woody Allen in 1992. Documentary series Allen v. Farrow tracks the way that significant evidence of these events — in addition to Farrow’s voice and unwavering account — have been ignored and rejected for decades due to Allen’s immense popularity and backing from powerful people. And the documentary sheds light on the added trauma of having to fight against people denying your reality, while knowing that an abuser hasn’t been punished and may be inflicting the same kind of suffering onto others.
A similar shift has happened in our culture’s shared reevaluation of its shocking collective mistreatment of Monica Lewinsky, who now describes her relationship with Bill Clinton as a “gross abuse of power.’ After years of being victim-blamed and slut-shamed, Lewinsky is finally getting a voice in her own story, both through her influential anti-bullying work and through her involvement in retelling those Clinton era events on American Crime Story: Impeachment.
Monica Lewinsky: “I’ve been incredibly lucky the last few years to reclaim my narrative. And so the opportunity to have a seat at the table around that was really meaningful to me.” - TODAY Show
These real-life examples underscore that, far from a person being either a victim or a survivor, the truth lies in both of these things co-existing. The use of the term survivor in Surviving R Kelly acknowledges the resilience of the women who had their power stolen for so long — but that strength doesn’t negate and conclude their hardship. In the Larry Nassar case (documented in 2020’s Athlete A), the powerful victim impact statements that gymnasts including Simone Biles read aloud in court before his sentencing, illustrated both these women’s strength and the shocking ramifications of Nassar’s abuse
Kyle Stephens - “My parents chose to believe Larry Nassar over me. I watched my father realize what he had put me through. My father and I did our best to patch up our tattered relationship before he committed suicide in 2016.” - Global News
Part of the complication of the victim vs survivor binary is that people are often unaware or not fully conscious of the level of trauma they’ve undergone until after the fact; it can take years to process the experience. In cases of sexual assault, it’s common for survivors to have fragmented memories, so it’s not easy to draw a clear line through the before and after of a traumatic event.
In Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, based on the director’s own life experiences, the protagonist is initially confused when confronted with a story she wrote as a child detailing a sexual assault. At first she refuses to label herself a victim, but slowly she is able to face the truth that she’s buried for her entire adult life. In I May Destroy You, a semi-autobiographical story from Mikaela Coel, Arabella attempts to piece together a sexual assault that she doesn’t at first remember, and then is assaulted again in an encounter she doesn’t initially know is an abuse.
Arabella Essiedu: “He placated my shock, and gaslighted me with such intention that I didn’t have a second to understand the heinous crime which had occurred.” - I May Destroy You
Her process of coming to terms with what’s happened to her and how it’s changed her is chaotic and many-layered. At times she adopts the survivor superhero mentality and becomes a social media influencer, but ultimately dramatic revenge or even the closure of seeing her attacker punished aren’t possible. She can only achieve a level of peace through looking inward and trying to understand the complexities of her psychology.
In Room, the moment where Jack escapes the shed that he and his mother have been imprisoned in is genuinely euphoric, but rather than this climax being the film’s end, it’s also just the beginning of that shift from victim to survivor. We watch as Joy navigates the difficult process of reassimilating into the greater world, which no longer resembles the life she knew before she was kidnapped as a young woman. We’ve seen her display incredible resilience raising a son in this environment (and even, miraculously, giving him a mostly happy early childhood). But her trauma hasn’t made her stronger—it’s something she’s powerful in spite of, which frequently drags her down and emotionally cripples her. After the escape, she’s not transformed into a badass, heroic, warrior woman; she’s fraught with anxiety, and struggles to adapt to normalcy
These more nuanced representations of victimhood and survival acknowledge that being a survivor is an ongoing process that may never really be over; moving forward is possible, but it’s not a clear-cut, one-size-fits-all path. Oversimplifying this narrative—or using victim’s voices in an exploitative, for-profit way—is likewise a problem today.
We see this in Feel Good, when Mae tells her agent about her history of harassment and assault, we see her experiencing uncertainty, but her agent quickly leaps on her experience as a post-Me Too marketing opportunity. Moreover, just because more people are listening to survivor’s stories, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still huge backlash against women who speak out or that they don’t face the prospect of this news story taking over their public profile in a lasting way. It’s also important for all of us to continue to educate ourselves on the many forms that abuse, assault and victimization can take. I May Destroy You dramatizes how Arabella’s friend Kwame, a gay man, experiences an assault that’s totally dismissed by the police, who aren’t properly trained to recognize attacks that aren’t on cis straight women or don’t fit the typical profile.
To this day, thanks to the victim narratives we’ve all been raised on, sadly those who suffer trauma can be quick to blame themselves. One of the hardest challenges for a survivor is in how to adjust their self-image to include this thing that happened to them, without letting that overwhelm or erase the rest of themselves. It’s also hard for victims not to feel their recovery should have a time limit, or that they need to rush towards some state of acceptance and inner strength. Ultimately, by throwing out the victim-survivor binary, we can end the pressure to oversimplify. We can be both victims and survivors at the same time, and readjusting after a traumatic event is different for everyone—just as defining who we are is a constantly evolving, life-long process.