With the movie season in these parts bracketed, roughly, by Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn and White Girl’s Leah, I initially thought it might be good to pause a sec and cast a jaundiced eye at the “Sexy, Troubled Girl” trope.
Except then it hit me that neither of these characters fits the bill. And that’s because neither is troubled, not really.
What distinguishes them, in fact, is the degree to which they make peace with internal conflicts that might tear others apart. It’s not always an easy process, to be sure, and at times sacrifice is required. Leah, one could argue, doesn’t actually grasp the depth at which these divisions occur, or the utter necessity of compartmentalizing the dangerous from the everyday until, perhaps, that final shot of Elizabeth Wood’s film. For her part, HQ doesn’t worry too much about compartmentalizing anything because she’s transcended the need for it, already having landed firmly on one side of the equation. So though her backstory reveals that internal schisms were once an issue, after she’s been transfigured from white collar professional into the same sort of “psycho” she once treated—powerfully turning what had been object into subject—she’s no so longer torn. Not between societal norms and personal desire. Not between moral imperatives and self-actualization. Instead, she surrenders to the voices that tell her to give it all up and create herself anew. And that’s why she, like Leah, can consistently demonstrate agency, even audacity.
Not so with the characters that Sarah Gadon has been playing recently. In The 9th Life of Louis Drax her Natalie is daring, in a way, but never audacious. The opposite, in fact: she is secretive and opaque, and so her daringness reeks of quiet, and ultimately pathetic, desperation. And of course it’s more than a stretch to call her a girl, as Gadon herself is pushing thirty and Natalie is the mother of the nine-year-old title character. But “girls” are not what I’m calling such characters—that’s what the trope, and its adherents, are doing. Because that’s how such characters show up from the perspective of the male protagonist. Their allure and occasional worldliness notwithstanding, “sexy, troubled girls” are basically helpless: hence the girlishness. It has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with being unable to navigate the demands of adulthood in some fundamental way. Sometimes, in the hands of more thoughtful creators, the trope is used to indict those societal demands themselves, and the character’s inability to give into them is a sign, per R.D. Laing, of society’s madness, not the individual’s.
An example of the latter would be Gadon’s other recent role, namely, her unforgettable turn in James Schamus’s Indignation. Not a “bad girl” (just as Natalie isn’t a femme fatale despite gestures in that direction), Gadon’s Olivia is more like a Shadow version of the “manic pixie dream girl.” She transforms the male protagonist not with playful light but with sudden, intense darkness wrapped deceptively in a package of blonde goodness, purity, and conventionality—concepts that 1951 America no doubt conflated. And that’s where the artistry of Philip Roth enters the picture: we come to see that young Marcus’s inability to “deal with her” is the same as society’s inability to deal with her. Cultural repression, moral hypocrisy, and blindness to the abuse she’s endured work together to turn a victim into a temptress, into a “bad influence”; and they also turn her genuine affection, the attraction she feels to Marcus, into “sluttiness” simply because of her agency in matters sexual. Both she and Natalie are torn—between, respectively, the personae of nice college girl and faithful, long-suffering mother… and who they really are.
In both Drax and Indignation, Gadon’s characters share a similar fate: exiled and isolated, they’re psychically quarantined from the rest of us. In short, they constitute the Repressed, both for society and their male opposites. The only difference is that Drax portrays this process as a kind of justice while Indignation revels in its tragically romantic dimensions. Indeed, Olivia knows what love is, as its memory abides even after she loses everything else.
And that’s the problem with this trope—these women are used, structurally, to introduce sex in ways that are abrupt and/or liberating… and yet are also used to convey love way too belatedly. I’m not suggesting that love and sex always go, or need to go, hand-in-hand, but the fact that the male characters equate them is what’s at issue. That’s what makes the delayed recognition of love so truly troubling: it’s not that the men, Jamie Dornan and Logan Lerman’s characters, simply love those who unexpectedly desire them, but rather that this desire triggers their own dormant passion—and that that’s all they seem to care about. They’re grateful, but that’s about it. Thus the sexy, troubled girl is not an external, the romantic object of one’s ardor, but rather the introjected symbol of one’s own repressed sexuality as well as one’s rebellion against the established order. Which is pretty sad, if you think about it.
Nowhere is this more clear than in HBO’s recently concluded mini-series The Night Of. Andrea Cornish represents all the things to Naz that Olivia represents to Marcus: she is liberation from the world he was reared in, and she is the catalyst for his awakening into a different way of being. Yet she, too, is quarantined and repressed—this time in death. One would expect all the ensuing episodes after the first one to shine some light on her as a distinct person apart from the role she plays in Naz’s life—The Night Of , after all, is a mystery, so one anticipates new revelations. The opposite occurs, though. Andrea retreats more and more into the realm of the symbolic. Her drug abuse and attempts at recovery are chronicled in addition to her financial realities and challenges. All of that, however, just adds to her “troubled” status in the broadest of clichéd terms. In Naz, she sees her archetypal (in the Jungian sense) completion in the same way that he sees his in her. They are each other’s mutual escape.
Of course the difference is that he survives. In a coda that’s meant to be wistfully, ruefully touching, Naz conducts a private memorial to Andrea on the waterfront, and this made-up ritual is a vigil to the love he has gradually come to acknowledge. He’d been asked about it during his trial: did he really care about her… or was she just a fling? Finally, released and free again, he can honor what she meant in the greater context of his life—not a forbidden flame but an extension of himself without which he will forever be fragmented, incomplete. His failure to love and protect her when those things actually meant something exposes his belated remorse as mere emotional convenience. For at this point his love can have no effect on her, and so serves as just a deeply-felt instance of mournful self-regard. Through flashbacks, he relives his experience with her in simple terms of blood and lust; deep down, he knows it was much more than that, but now all he can invoke are those empty symbols instead of her real humanity and distinct individuality. And that’s the true tragedy.
Gamera Obscura is a column about the ill effects of watching too many movies over too many years. Peter Gutiérrez also writes the Blockbuster Central column for Screen Education, and can be hunted down on Twitter @suddenlyquiet.