It's 2017: Why Does This "Crazy Woman" Character Trope Still Exist?

Karen Ballard
Katherine Heigl, Isabella Kai Rice, and Rosario Dawson
Warning: this story includes minor spoilers for Unforgettable.
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On the bright side, Unforgettable passes the Bechdel Test. But beyond that shallow metric of feminism, this film is fuelled by every stereotype in the book. The most destructive of them all? That behind every pretty face, a crazy woman might lurk. Yes, it’s 2017, and we’re still battling the tired trope of a jealous Stepford ex-wife, hell-bent on revenge.
Meet Rosario Dawson’s Julia Banks, a subdued tech editor who moves to Southern California to marry a man she met a year ago. Though David Connover (Geoff Stults) has a cool brewery job, a sweet disposition, and a ton of money, the guy’s got baggage. And that baggage is — of course — his horse-riding, SUV-driving, rigidly-postured ex-wife Tessa, played by Katherine Heigl, who can’t accept that her husband has moved on.
As if marriage were a pact entered by way of revolving door, Julia’s stepping into the life that Tessa wishes she still inhabited. Tessa will do anything in her power, from texting Julia’s abusive ex-husband to breaking into her house to steal her wedding ring, to ensure that Julia can never sit comfortably in her new life, the life that was once Tessa’s.
Battle lines are drawn almost immediately. On her first night in David’s house, Julia’s expected take care of Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), the couple’s 7-year-old daughter, who has hair as pin-straight and blonde as her mother’s. Tessa unexpectedly drops by, armed with cold sneers and disparaging comments on Julia’s choice of “spicy food.” Julia’s rattled. While Julia remains composed, we see her process the notion that this straight-laced, uptight woman might be more than just a nuisance. Tessa might be a threat.
The film doesn’t hide Tessa’s villainy for a moment. We see her attempt to groom Lily into being a perfect little doll, as if a child’s character development were facilitated through combing their hair and applying perfume. We see her steal Julia’s phone and text her abusive ex-boyfriend, who then doggedly pursues an already fragile Julia. Things escalate to the point of Tessa throwing herself down the stairs, and pinning the blame on Julia.
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Each action is part of Tessa’s plan to frame Julia as being mentally unstable and irresponsible, as if, once Julia’s deemed crazy, David will leave her.
So, unlike in most psychological thrillers, the fun doesn’t come in guessing who’s good, who’s evil, and who’s hallucinating. There are no identity twists and turns. Julia’s always the prey; Tessa’s always the perpetrator of the aggressive crime. So, you ask, from where is the plot propelled? Julia and Tessa, both saddled with the label “crazy,” have to convince David and the police chief that the other woman is lying.
Karen Ballard
Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl
This tug-of-war takes a depressing amount of energy, since neither man is apt to believe either woman's story. No one takes Julia’s worries seriously until blood is shed.
David, a total dolt, waltzes throughout the movie with a perpetual expression of stung disbelief. He’s never quite convinced that Julia didn’t do what Tessa accused her of. For moral support, Julia talks to her friend, Ali, who believes her — because she’s a woman. It’s not until he’s faced with absolute proof that Ali believes Julia, his own fiancée, that he wipes the hurt look off his face.
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Then, there’s the even more concerning figure of the police chief, who scraps the whole "innocent until proven guilty" thing, and heads straight for judgement day. Julia lands in the interrogation room after her abusive ex shows up in her kitchen, wanting sex. How'd he track her down, after years of living with a restraining order? Tessa makes a fake Facebook profile in Julia's name, and sends him risqué photos she downloads from Julia's stolen phone. When the ex shows up, violence ensues; Julia stabs his leg and runs away. Though Julia pleads her innocence, the police investigator , dripping with condescension, condemns Julia’s actions (without proof of her guilt) and warns her fiancé of her dubious character.
In the Unforgettable universe, "crazy woman" is an iron-clad label. Sure, David discovers Tessa’s nature when she binds and gags him. But Julia also uncovers incontrovertible “proof” earlier, when she finds a document stating that, as a teenager, Tessa burned down the house where her father lived with his mistress. Julia’s just as relieved as David to hold evidence of Tessa’s immoral character, as if something a person did at 14 dictates who she is at 35.
News flash: Everyone was crazy as a teenager. While extreme, Katherine’s actions don’t make her a villain. They make her troubled.
Karen Ballard
Geoff Stults and Rosario Dawson
And that brings us to the real tragedy of Unforgettable: Like David and the police chief, the film doesn't take Tessa and Julia's stories seriously. The women's uniquely painful pasts are used as justification for why they want to be with David. But in no instance are Tessa and Julia just independent women — they are women running from men, winning over men, or trying to convince men they're not crazy.
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Fortunately, for every instance of a story boxing women into the loony bin, there are others that act as a refreshing antidote. For example, the characters Madeline and Ed in Big Little Lies show, with multi-faceted precision, the sticky process of getting over divorce. Moving on doesn't happen overnight, as people expected of Tessa. And though season 1 of Orange Is the New Black introduces a character called “Crazy Eyes,” as her identity develops, Crazy Eyes’ offensive nickname is exchanged for her real one: Suzanne. She reclaims her identity from the great silencer that is a label like "crazy."
By treating their characters as nuanced human beings, these shows live in the gray area — where we all do in the real world. Like us, these women are so much more than crazy. Unforgettable’s shallow characterisation and ill-conceived resurrection of the offensive "crazy woman" trope does all of us a disservice.
Unforgettable is released on Friday, April 21.
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