Exploring the Dead Wives in Family Movies Trope

Robert Downey, Jr.’s first starring vehicle since hanging up his Iron Man suit, Dolittle (out Jan. 17), opens with a dreamy animated sequence, which may be the most responsibly spent line item in its reportedly $175 million budget. It introduces us, in fairy tale fashion, to the extraordinary John Dolittle, a doctor who has the ability to speak to animals of every species. It also introduces us to his beautiful, brave, and kind wife, Lily (Kasia Smutniak) — an explorer who is his perfect match.

Oh no, I thought in the theater. Here it comes…

The fairy tale is revealed to be a tragedy, because Lily is — of course — now dead.

The Dead Wife is a popular non-character in family-oriented movies. She supplies motivation to the love she left behind or puts him in a position of being unwilling or unable to cope with everyday life. If there are children, they look to her as a flawlessly preserved example of generosity and loveliness. If she was ever petty or too exhausted to care or blamed the server for a long wait that was probably the kitchen’s fault, those mistakes died with her. She is perfect in death, and that fuels the narrative.

Robert Downey Jr. and a gorilla in Dolittle.

In reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” TV Tropes calls her “The Lost Lenore” and outlines three pieces of criteria. She must “[be] a love interest of a prominent character,” be dead or believed to be dead either early in the story or before it begins, and impact the narrative in some way in her absence.

One of the most aggressively heartbreaking examples of our friend the Dead Wife is Ellie from Pixar’s Up. Dolittle’s attempt at manipulating our emotions has nothing on the first 10 minutes of that movie, which shows us a montage of the long and mostly happy life she and Carl spent together. In similar fashion to Downey’s Dr. Dolittle, Carl retreats from the world after Ellie passes and begins his adventure reluctantly. So do Belle’s father Maurice in Beauty and the Beast and Marlin in Finding Nemo. (Rarely does a Disney woman live into her 40s, it seems.)

Finding Nemo's Coral is another of Disney's infamous Dead Wives.

But not every family movie widower withdraws. In 2011’s We Bought A Zoo, Matt Damon’s character’s grief over his wife’s death prompts him to…well, you already know what he does.

What holds true across every example of the Dead Wife trope is that she herself is stagnant. The story doesn’t belong to her, no matter how many times she’s invoked. The continued popularity of the device betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between agency and significance. If a female character cannot make her own choices and process her own experiences within a story, the representation just doesn’t count.

Dolittle smugly informs of us Lily’s achievements, not only giving her a male-coded profession but insisting that she was the very best explorer in the world. After being forced to come to the aid of the ailing Queen Victoria (Jessie Buckley) at the risk of losing the home (and amateur nature preserve) that he and his wife built, Dolittle must go on a voyage to a mysterious island, charted only by Lily. With her, the journey would be easier, he keeps lamenting — a sentiment that’s somewhat undercut by the fact that Lily died at sea. On the way, he stops at the island where Lily was born to retrieve her journal, which holds the secrets of his destination; their shared grief prevents her war lord father (Antonio Banderas) from executing Dolittle for the theft. 

Robert Downey Jr. on a boat with animals.

But a badass action hero of a Dead Wife is still a Dead Wife, and Dolittle’s attempt to put a progressive filter over the trope feels disingenuous at best. It doesn’t help that the only other human female characters in the movie are the sick queen, who sleeps prettily on her sick bed until she’s granted a few lines, and a young lady of her court (Carmel Laniado), who is able to rouse Dolittle out of his funk when she goes to fetch him to the palace but is nonetheless left out of the rest of the adventure so that she can do the very important job of holding the queen’s hand and looking very concerned indeed. It also bears mentioning that Dolittle doesn’t even have a wife in the original stories, so this adaptation created one just to off her.

As Dolittle extolled the virtues of Lily, I was left wondering why the hell I wasn’t watching a movie about her. Her journal is bulging, representing decades of exploits. What’s more, there’s no persuasive reason for preemptively killing her. The threat on their land would still force the Dolittles to cure the queen, and his emotional arc could still involve his reluctance to take young Stubbins (Sonny Ashbourne Serkis) on as a ward. The choice to take Lily off of the board kills this prospective story, in which the couple round up their animal friends and take on the task together. Dead Wives are almost always less interesting than living ones, but especially in this case.

The saddest scene in the movie Up.

Unfortunately, Dead Wives and fridging (the act of killing off a female character to motivate a male) are devices employed across genre. When they’re used in family films, it’s especially troubling. Children of all genders are being denied adult women characters who directly drive stories, rather than haunting them. Instead, these films uphold an outdated concept of womanhood, which argues that it’s better to be enshrined in memory than cope with the complicated reality of existence.

Featured Image: Disney/Pixar

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