When Death is Not Enough

Curley's Wife in "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

Curley's Wife in "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck

“When Death is not Enough: Reclaiming Expendable Women”

'Expendable Women' sounds like the name of a special forces group. And it is, but not in the usual sense. We encounter these female 'soldiers' most often in film, theatre, written word and song. Their characters are expendable because their primary purpose is to plump up a plot line by means of their own death. They’re usually minor characters, and the hero’s motivation is often catalyzed by their sacrifice.

Think back on some blockbuster films. Like Richard Kimble and his brilliant wife Helen in “The Fugitive,” or Martin Riggs and his angelic wife Victoria Lynn in “Lethal Weapon.” A little fuzzy about the women? Not surprisingly, while we all remember Harrison Ford and Mel Gibson in their leading roles, we probably don’t remember Sela Ward’s portrayal of Helen, and the part of Victoria Lynn was never even cast, only recalled. So their deaths served a purpose, but what of their lives?

The use of death to facilitate transformation is not just a Hollywood idea; it’s rooted in our most ancient mythology. Beginning with Sumerian poet Enheduanna’s “Descent of Inanna,” to the Greek myth of gorgon/goddess Medusa, powerful women have been submitting to death in order to evolve and be reborn. But there’s an important difference between the mythological Expendables and the Expendables of popular culture - The goddesses are dying for the sake of greater self agency, while the pop characters are dying for the sake of someone else, usually a man.

I want to look at several expendable women, characters from popular culture and folk songs, and imagine what their lives might have been like if we had been allowed to know them more deeply. Expendable women are a special population within the sacrificial feminine, and as such they deserve recognition.

Using patterns and insights from mythological archetypes, I hope to demonstrate that the expendable women of pop culture today are indeed members of a special force, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.

As for their mythological counterparts, while many expendable women in popular culture may appear most similar to Orpheus’s ill-fated bride Eurydice (who never got out of hell), with a stronger lens and clues from background, context, and subtext, I hope they might be reimagined more like Medusa, awaiting her transformation, or Inanna, reveling in her rebirth.

I hope to demonstrate that the deaths of Expendable Women are not just in service to the action of a male hero, but also because our culture has not been ready to let them live. Now it’s time for that to change. It’s time to write their back stories. It’s time to reconsider their narratives.  Because for these women - and the aspects of ourselves that are most like them - death is not enough.

Fay Hield sings 'When I was a Young Girl' at the Bristol Folk Festival, April 2011. Also known as ‘The Bad Girl’s Lament’, ‘One Morning in May,’ ‘The Unfortunate Lass’.