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The Wild Woman Trope - A Story of Radical Self-Discovery

How do you spot a Wild Woman onscreen? Rarely the protagonist, she tends to be a side character having kick-ass adventures on her own. Or this too-independent woman might come across to other characters as a cautionary tale, showcasing our shared anxieties about a truly free lifestyle. But at her core, the Wild Woman represents individuation, and our primal desire to live fully and freely as our authentic selves. Here’s our Take on the Wild Woman and what happens when she takes center stage, bringing us along on a journey of radical self-discovery.

TRANSCRIPT

Dancing to the beat of her own drum, the Wild Woman is an admirable symbol of freedom. But onscreen, she’s often marginalized and painted as a basket case you should stay away from. So how do you spot a wild woman onscreen?

She’s a free spirit who can’t be tied down, she’s mysterious, and a little aloof, hiding much of herself from public view. But, if you do get a glimpse of her feelings, you see she’s intense, even ferocious. Self-reliant and carving her own path, she’s often alone, but not lonely.

Elsa: “Yes, I’m alone, but I’m alone and free.” - Frozen

Frequently with no boyfriend in sight, she might have a lot of good friends who are girls. She could be the “cool aunt” — and all this might be code for being queer. Rarely the protagonist, she tends to be a side character having kick-ass adventures on her own just off-screen. Or this too-independent woman might come across to other characters as a cautionary tale, showcasing our shared anxieties about a truly free lifestyle. But at her core, the Wild Woman represents individuation, and our primal desire to live fully and freely as our authentic selves. Here’s our take on the Wild Woman and what happens when she takes center stage, bringing us along on a journey of radical self-discovery.

Her Wild History

This character type is a natural woman — The original Wild Woman was Artemis, virgin goddess of nature and the hunt. Artemis, known as Diana to the Romans, was the twin sister of Apollo, the god of civilized things like the sun, art, and math. But his sister ruled over a more feral domain.

Artemis is most famous for two things: never marrying, and killing the one man who ever saw her naked. A Wild Woman’s independence is core to her sense of self, and she is very protective of it.

Jo March: “I don’t believe I will ever marry. I’m happy as I am.” - Little Women

Modern-day Dianas are fierce, attuned to nature, stand up for the vulnerable, and don’t worry about seeming un-feminine.

A Wild Woman also retains Diana’s anger issues.

Rosa Diaz: “Then I rip off his arm and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Then I reach down his throat… and shake his hand.” - Brooklyn 99, 1x08

When you’re beloved by a Wild Woman, you are really truly loved, but her affections can flip on a dime, and you do not want to get on her bad side. Katniss Everdeen starts the Hunger Games series as a prototypical Artemis, preferring to hide out in the woods and hunt to survive. We see this character’s protective side when her sister is threatened, which leads to Katniss’ volunteering as a tribute. Eventually her wild refusal to bow down results in her leading the revolution — but not without a lot of resistance to that role.

Incidentally, Jennifer Lawrence’s breakout role, Winter’s Bone, also is an Artemis type, who’s comfortable in nature and driven by looking out for her more vulnerable loved ones

Ree Dolly: “I got a little brother and a little sister, 12 and 6.”

Army recruiter: “Well, who’s taking care of them right now?”

Ree Dolly: “I am.” - Winter’s Bone

You might say the Wild Woman’s big moment in 20th-century culture was as the Flapper. This new woman who rose to prominence in the 1920s was known for her boyish physique, her wild dancing, and her independent streak. She broke with her foremothers via her androgynous look, through abandoning corsets and cutting off her hair. And the look was linked to political empowerment since it came into vogue right as women were gaining the right to vote. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Joan Crawford was “the best example of the flapper — dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal. Young things with a talent for living.”

Well into her middle age, Crawford’s star persona was defined by her independence and the fact that men were intimidated by her strength. Katherine Hepburn, on the other hand, was a Wild Woman who did find her equal. The Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn pairing lasted decades on screen, casting Tracy as the only man not intimidated by Hepburn’s Wild Woman nature.

Sam Craig: “I love you.”

Tess Harding: “Even when I’m sober?”

Sam Craig: “Even when you’re brilliant.” - Woman of the Year

The Hepburn-Tracy duo echoes Artemis’ relationship with Orion, the only man in the ancient world who could handle the Wild Goddess — though it’s unclear whether Orion and Artemis were lovers or just hunting buddies, just as the true nature of Hepburn and Tracy’s relationship is still a matter of considerable debate.

Meanwhile, Marlene Dietrich made androgyny both normal and a glamorous, movie-star look, notably in her iconic tuxedo scene in 1930’s Morocco.

The Wild Woman came to TV sitcoms in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as tomboys were finally given space on the small screen. Jo drove her motorcycle into The Facts of Life in 1980 and clashed with girly-girl Blair (or flirted, depending on your perspective).

On Happy Days, rock star Suzi Quatro played cool chick Leather Tuscadero, known for her tomboyish personality and appearance. Leather formed an all-girl band on the show, and Quatro was a major inspiration for real-life Wild Woman, Joan Jett, to learn guitar and co-found the Runaways.

Joan: “I’m the f***ing Glycerine Queen.”

Friend: “Suzi Quatro.”

Joan: “I’m the f***ing Wild One!” - Runaways

Crawford, Hepburn, Dietrich, Jo, and Leather all fit certain non-traditional female stereotypes society has about queer women, which play into another common aspect of the wild woman: queercoding.

Queercoding a Goddess

The original wild woman Diana — with her independent nature, her pack of gal pals, and her refusal to marry a man — is often considered a symbol of lesbian liberation.

Because queerness is usually something that can only be hinted at in American pop culture, sneaking LGBTQIA+ references into an otherwise straight work is known as queercoding. So, watching stories about wild women can sometimes invite reading between the lines. In the ’90s, Xena and Gabrielle were two Wild Women who were written as a couple: they raise a child together, they literally die for each other on multiple occasions and generally wander ancient Greece in a cloud of sexual tension.

Xena: “Come on, Gabrielle, let’s get wet! Come on, Gabrielle! Get your gear off!” - Xena: Warrior Princess, 3x18

But this great romance happened wholly in code. As co-creator Rob Tapert told Entertainment Weekly, “The studio was so concerned that it would be perceived as a lesbian show that they would not allow us to have Xena and Gabrielle in the same frame of the opening titles.”

Studios are still gun-shy about featuring explicitly queer characters in blockbuster movies. Valkyrie, a Wild Woman who has relationships with men and women in the comic books, had the one scene confirming her sexual orientation cut from Thor: Ragnarok.

The queercoded wild woman often gets shunted into roles of the gay coded best friend, or the cautionary tale Wild Woman. The 1996 film Foxfire centers on a girl gang that coalesces around Wild Woman Legs, played by Angelina Jolie. Viewpoint character Maddy eventually goes back to her boyfriend and her college plans, and Legs represents a dangerous road-not-taken in Maddy’s more conventional story: that time she had a crush on a girl and almost killed a guy.

On the flip side, the idealized version of the Wild Woman side character is the Cool Role Model the protagonist wants to be like. She lives how she wants, and it’s not ruining her life like with the Cautionary Tale.

It’s no accident that a common sub-trope of the Wild Woman is the (often queer-coded) Cool Aunt. An aunt is a mother-like figure just outside of the nuclear family who represents a parallel universe — a glimpse of what the future could be if the child diverges from their actual mother’s values. In the Daria episode, I Don’t, our favorite teen curmudgeon feels trapped in her family’s stifling, heteronormative melodrama until she’s whisked away by her cool aunt Amy.

Amy: “Things are getting ugly. I suggest we make a hasty but unobtrusive exit.”

Daria: “Really?”

Amy: “Let’s go find a place that sells cheese fries.” - Daria, 2x4

Amy’s presence reassures Daria that she doesn’t have to become her mother when she grows up.

Daria: “I found myself all grown up with my own point of view, and I felt no particular obligation to anyone else’s BS” - Daria, 2x4

Becoming a Main Character

For centuries, the Wild Woman has existed on the edges of the narrative because the Wild Woman’s care-free, independent lifestyle sounds unrealistic and outside of what society tells us is “normal behavior” for women.

So when a Wild Woman is the focal point, the narrative is often a rebuke of the society that deems her wild. Carol Danvers is too unruly for both humans and the Kree. Her impetuousness and emotional volatility are her strengths, but society has convinced her they’re weaknesses. Captain Marvel centers on Carol reconnecting with her emotions and learning how to gain power from them.

Carol Danvers: “I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back. But what happens when I’m finally set free?” - Captain Marvel

It’s a love story because it’s a woman falling in love with her own resilience. And if you ask some viewers, it’s also a love story between two women in the Air Force.

The Frozen series is another where the Wild Woman gets to lead. Elsa is a Wild Woman who’s taught to rein in her emotion-based superpowers because they scare the patriarchy, aka her dad, the King.

King Agnarr: “Conceal it,”

Elsa: “Don’t feel it.”

King Agnarr and Elsa: “Don’t let it show” - Frozen

While her sister longs for romance, Elsa wants to feel accepted, and to feel alive. But over her two movies, Elsa discovers that she’s not meant to lead over civilization; she belongs in nature, like Artemis. She’s supposed to love herself, ride horses made of water, and flirt with forest maidens.

Conclusion

A Wild Woman’s quest for freedom is a journey of finding identity. In the words of Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés from her book Women Who Run with the Wolves, “Developing a relationship with the wildish nature is an essential part of women’s individuation. In order to accomplish this, a woman must go into the dark, but at the same time she must not be irreparably trapped, captured, or killed on her way there or back.” Hardship is often the catalyst for a Wild Woman’s inner exploration — whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or being ground down by the patriarchy. But the wild woman does not become feral. She rediscovers her authentic self; reflecting on her innate, primal instincts and reassessing her core values in life. And she’s a mirror to help us dip our toes in the water of self-discovery.

So, what can we learn from the Wild Women of pop culture? Love your solitude and your freedom,

Jo March: “I love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up.” - Little Women

don’t worry about what the world thinks, own your inner ferocity and protectiveness — and don’t let anyone mess with you. Embrace your inner cool aunt,

Ryan: “By the way, your aunt’s really cool.”

Seth: “Yeah I know, she’s a little unpredictable sometimes.” - The O.C., 1x14

and live unafraid. That’s the Wild Woman motto.

SOURCES

Abrams, Natalie. “‘Xena: Warrior Princess’: Why Xena and Gabrielle Never Got Together.” Entertainment Weekly, 6 May 2016, http://ew.com/article/2016/05/06/xena-warrior-princess-gabrielle-lesbian/

Epstein, Rob and Jeffrey Friedman, directors. The Celluloid Closet. HBO Films, Channel Four Films, 1996.

Ennis, Tricia. “The Strange, Difficult History of Queer Coding.” SYFY WIRE, 1 May 2020, www.syfy.com/syfywire/the-strange-difficult-history-of-queer-coding.

Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. Reissue, Ballantine Books, 1996.

Mann, William J. Kate: the Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn. Faber, 2007.

Nicholson, Amy. “How Tessa Thompson Went From Indie Actor to ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ Badass.” Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-features/how-tessa-thompson-went-from-indie-actor-to-thor-ragnarok-badass-116635/.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Harper & Row, 1981.

Tyrnauer, Matt. Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Altimeter Films, 2017.