Like anybody else who was raised on a steady diet of Disney animated films during their larval stage, I got real familiar with the whole romance narrative while I was growing up. As such, my first stories all had some kind of romance. I remember my surprisingly long-lived comic series, The Onions, which was about a pair of squirrels who smelled like onions, and fell in love due to their mutual freakishness. They then spawned an entire brood of onion-scented rodents, and the last time I tried to tell a story with them I was about 8 or 9 and they were going to Xanadu because I’d heard a song by the same title on the radio and it had catchy whiplash-guitar noises that sparked my imagination, man those were the days, but my point is that it started with the girl-meets-boy thing.
As I grew older and more openly and caustically judgmental of things, I started taking issue with the trope of the Designated Love-Interest. They were boring, they were constantly getting into trouble and making stupid decisions, and couldn’t ever get themselves out of a tight spot. The particular subject of my anti-love-interest agenda was Mary Jane Watson from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, to the point where I decided that no superhero story should ever have a love-interest, because they’re all completely useless.
Now, just to clarify: my issue was not that these characters were women. But my rationale did go something like: “the only female characters I ever seem to see in movies/TV/narrative media in general are love-interests. All the love-interests I seem to see are horribly-written, one-dimensional sex-objects that I know I’m supposed to find appealing because I’m male, and that’s how the people who make these movies/TV shows/videogames think. And they’re probably not going to write female characters any other way. And since that’s the case, then I’d honestly prefer that people just stop putting women in stories altogether.”
So … yeah.
Nowadays I get angry with the creator/s and producer/s (not always but by and large male) of such texts, not the characters within them, but that’s more or less the only thing that’s changed. Other than the whole ‘just don’t put women in things anymore’ thinking. That has also changed. *ahem* My point is that, while my issue has moved from the individual (the character) to the societal/political (writers, producers, directors, marketing people, historical context, cultural norms), it does nothing to change the fact that these kinds of characters are still fucking annoying, and by extension insulting.
Or are they?
Once you start looking at characters like Buttercup from The Princess Bride and calling her a bad character, not only is that shooting the messenger so to speak, but it’s also saying that the traits that she does possess – insecurity, pacifism, fatalism, shit now that I think about it Buttercup is a bit of a downer huh – are somehow inherently bad.
Let’s take the sequence in the Fire Swamp for example.
Yes, that one.
This entire sequence involves Buttercup being rescued by Westley
and some exposition.
He obviously has to carry her while expositing; she needs her energy for listening to him talk.
Then there’s the infamous R.O.U.S scene, wherein Westley does all the fighting
while Buttercup …
… does not.
She even picks up a log at one point, and just uses it to pet the ROUS’s nose. I mean I know she hasn’t exactly been training for this day or anything but still it’s a fucking stick that shit is basically instinctual.
Need I explain that this was written and directed by a man? Because it was. And adapted from a book that was also written by a man.
The Princess Bride is wonderful in that it is half-parody, so it’s not like there’s no level of self-reflexivity in this scene. All the same, the fact that Buttercup’s being incredibly ineffectual in this scenario is too exaggerated to quite take seriously does nothing to change the fact that she is incredibly ineffectual in this scenario.
But I still like her. I think that’s mostly because of Robin Wright, because on paper Buttercup is kind of insipid and sexist, because she’s the eternal victim. Whether it’s because she’s assailed from without
which paints a very broad picture of her as an almost too perfect Damsel in Distress, only topped by the likes of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and the chick from Rumpelstiltskin, who as far as I know never actually got a name.
Throw in the romance angle, which is the central premise of the entire story, and imagery like this:
and it’s not just a broad picture; it’s an icon. She is an iconic Damsel in Distress/Designated Love-Interest, and it’s even in the title: The Princess Bride. What do princesses do in stories? Get kidnapped and rescued. What do brides do? Get married and live happily ever after.
However, dismissing Buttercup just because she looks the part would be a very bad move in my opinion, because all of this trope-following, stereotype-fulfilling tunnel-vision erases some very important parts of her personality.
Let’s take this scene for instance:
Yet another Damsel in Distress scene, right?
I mean she even actively tries to escape and the story won’t allow it. Not only is she too naive to recognise her kidnappers when they not-at-all-suspiciously approach her in the woods
but now she is doubly naive for jumping off a ship in the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere AND so sheltered that she doesn’t know about the Shrieking Eels. Yay feminism.
Here’s my angle though: Buttercup may not be winning any nautically-themed pub quizzes in Florin anytime soon, but given what she does know and what her options are, she’s getting shit done.
Maybe not successfully, but that’s the story working against her, not any fault of her own.
That’s not all, though. It’s pretty easy to write even this act of defiance off as nothing more than a feeble attempt to show that, unlike all those other Damsels in Distress, Buttercup actually tries to escape – it’s just that it doesn’t work; but she tried, so now you can’t call her a poorly-written, one-dimensional character. Feminism.
I don’t agree with that argument myself, though I can see it being made. But what I’m actually thinking of is her interaction with Westley during his stint as the Dread Pirate Roberts.
After he basically calls the love of his life a gold-digging slut, Westley gets shoved down the hill (quite rightly), Buttercup comes tumbling after, and he goes on about how she was ridiculous to get upset about him getting murdered by pirates and move on with her life (by being … forced into marriage against her will …) because “death cannot stop true love”, and apparently it can’t stop misogyny, either.
The reason I like this is not, as you might suppose, because Westley is an ignorant entitled daydreamer who can’t recognise blatant misogyny either in the form of Prince Humperdinck having the power to force women to marry him or his own petulant whinging. The reason I like this is because Buttercup was trying to move on – that while it’s never explicitly stated in the film, what her actions show is that without her man she still had something to live for: herself.
Yes, she gets fatalistic. Yes, she gets depressed. Her boyfriend was killed; that’ll about do it. But the only time she actually goes so far as to contemplate suicide is after it seems like Humperdinck has already won, because regardless of whether Westley is alive or not, she has become Humperdinck’s possession by right of law, and he is now the king. Basically she is out of options at that point; and while I do not and never will condone suicide – I can see where she’s coming from. I’ll put it that way.
But what’s important to take away from this kill-the-chauvanist scene, as well as the Shrieking Eels scene, is that Buttercup hasn’t actually lost all will to live now that the man she loves has died. Unlike Westley, she’s actually willing to carry on without True Love. If not, she could have let the Eels kill her, or thrown herself off a bridge, or whatever. But she doesn’t. Even if it is only compared to some, Buttercup is brave.
The reason this is important is because this is where Buttercup resists the typical Designated Love-Interest role and does not go into a coma without her man by her side: because she is a realist. No, death does not stop true love, but that’s because true love is not necessarily a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Many people fall in and out of love, and then back in again, sometimes with the same person, and sometimes with a different person, or different people. If this story had been instead about Westley actually dying and then Buttercup falling in love with somebody else – Fezzik, for example – and that serving as the “death cannot stop true love” moral-of-the-story, I’d be willing to forgive this story’s backwards-ass woman-blaming crap.
And I still love this movie. This is one of my favourite movies with some of my favourite characters of all time; I do look past the problems and enjoy the hell out of it. But the problems are most definitely there.
And Buttercup is not one of them.
Again, I attribute this to Robin Wright, because I’ve never read the book. But her points of resistance set her apart from other Designated Love-Interests that I know about, and make her kind of, dare I say it, radical, albeit in a very minimalist kind of way. There’s certainly a danger of celebrating her for doing nothing more than not killing herself because her boyfriend dies, which is such a low bar to set that … just no. But I’m not really looking to argue for Buttercup as a good character because of her better-than-absolute-shit writing. I’m saying that she produces multiple points of resistance throughout the narrative that explicitly draw attention to the narrative itself, its conventions of romance and gender roles and its place in wider media. While ultimately the narrative keeps on telling both her and us that her pessimism is wrong and her fatalism unnecessary, why not look at her as a resisting, defiant, subversive character, whose actions may not resonate so much within the story she is placed within, but beyond it, to all the stories in which these points of resistance do not exist at all? And even if she is fatalistic and pessimistic and all the rest of it, even if she’s not one of the lovers and dreamers who’s found the rainbow connection – she has every right to be. It’s only the moral of the story that paints these traits in a negative light. But I think there could have been a whole other story there, where she finds liberation through that negativity because it’s realistic, and where she can come to find her own agency empowering, even if her initial framework was highly negative.
But that’s a fanfic for another time.
It took me writing this to articulate why, exactly, I like Buttercup as much as I do, and always have. Because I couldn’t see past the Damsel in Distress, the Designated Love-Interest, and yet there was something there, something that the rest of the story obscured and distracted me from. And now I think I get it: the shoe fits, but she does manage to dance a few steps to her own beat while wearing it.
While I still don’t like Designated Love-Interests or Damsels in Distress and am certainly not advocating continued reliance on these tired cliches played straight, I do think that there’s more to them than we might assume at first. Maybe not enough to justify them overall, but maybe enough to see that, actually, writing them off entirely without looking a little closer at what they might have to offer can be a missed opportunity.
So if there’s a problematic character that you like but don’t really know why you like them, try to take them out of the context of the story and its moral framework to see them with fresh eyes.
And also make gifs to express your opinions. That shit is fun.