From the damsel in distress to the hot headed fiery and uncontrollable female predator, the stereotypical portrayal of women in the gothic genre either needs a serious shake up or to be locked up in Whitby Abbey forever.
The gothic genre became popular in the 1760s and it was rare for women in these stories to presented as strong willed (unless they had intentions of bloody murder) or powerful (unless they haunted the protagonist) or intelligent (unless they intended to manipulate men). Surely these tired presentations of women as either blood thirsty or timid have little to offer a modern reader.
Macbeth, the renowned play by William Shakespeare, written 1606 reflects several elements of the Gothic. From the setting of an eerie castle to the display of the supernatural to the burdened male protagonist, it just keeps ticking the boxes. However, it is Lady Macbeth who intrigues me. She is hot tempered, manipulative and cruel. Similarly, the three witches pique my interest; with their hag-like description, they lack appeal and are “withered”. These undesirable characters lay the foundations for sexist constructs of detestable women who later feature in the gothic.
But Shakespeare isn’t the only one guilty of displaying two dimensional, misogynistic portrayals of evil women. Susan Hill provides a villain so frightening that even after finishing the novel, The Woman in Black, you think the woman will be after you next. The woman in question, Jennet Humfrye, is a raging vengeful ghost who haunts the town, taking innocent lives ruthlessly, as she had lost an innocent life herself: her child. Why is it that it is instinct to portray the women of the gothic as revenge seeking, or power hungry?
However, these wicked women have not been the only common portrayal of women as more often than not women are stereotyped as being a helpless damsel in distress. Look at Kristina Van Tassel in Sleepy Hollow (1999) where several plot points centered around her being helpless and saved by the burdened male protagonist (another feature of the gothic). Similarly, in Apostle released 2018, the movie mostly revolves around Thomas Richardson saving his sister Jennifer from the cult which had captured her. Several scenes within the movie display Jennifer feeble and dependent on the help she will receive from her brother. However, there is a female character, Andrea Howe, who does attempt to save Jennifer although she is eventually imprisoned and again relies on the aid of Thomas.
In Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, it is interesting to see how Dr Frankenstein refuses to create a female counterpart for his Creature as he fears women’s power to recreate. This could be Shelley critiquing men’s fear of female equality in 1818, however, many writers, be it of movies, novels, poetry or more, still convey this ideology even in modern day with examples from novels such as Twilight which has several elements of the gothic and portrays more than one character as the damsel in distress, such as Bella, Rosalie (when human) and Emily Young.
Finally, I turned to The Phantom of the Opera, which is a novel, movie, and musical. Christine Daaé is unequivocally the damsel in distress. Whether she is being manipulated by men or finds herself stuck and in a lethal situation she relies on other men to save her. Even as the adaptations step into modern day, she is meek and vulnerable which can be seen when she is threatened and says that she needs Raoul De Chagne.
So, I must conclude that the portrayal of women within the gothic is overly-simplistic and harmful as they are relentlessly categorized as either lusting for power to such an extent that they will go to any length to do evil if they will outmatch others or subordinate to men and desperate to be saved. These stereotypes must be changed, and I call for modern writers and creators to modernize these ideas and create more healthy representations of women within the gothic.