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  • Jenna Burtch

Ophelia, Evelyn McHale, and Gwen Stacy: How a Patriarchy Portrays a Tragedy

Beauty before tragedy:

A scene played out upon canvas, a beauty who floats effortlessly down a river. Her eyes as glossy as perfect blue marbles, her mouth agape to exhale her final breath and her hands spread to beckon forth her demise. A willow descending upon a serene Ophelia, poppies painted in vivid crimsons, indigos, violets, and yellows as radiant as the sun, surround her as her lifeless vessel is carted away by the stream.

Ophelia painted by Sir John Everett Millais in 1851, is highly regarded as one of the best paintings of the Victorian Era. A image that, while renowned for its attention to detail and vibrant use of color for the time, was also regarded in an erotic sense. Ophelia, as one of Shakespeare's characters, died from the madness and grief she felt due to her father’s death at the hands of her love, Hamlet. Her death, while sad, was also beautiful for many. To her father, Hamlet, and many others she was the eternal virgin, her “purity” of vessel would live on while her actual soul and mind were gone. She became the perfect woman to many, simply by dying, and this is reflected in Millais’ painting in his portrayal of her beauty without actual expression of personality or thought. Ophelia became reduced to a traditionally beautiful piece of flesh, just out of reach but still observable as any view saw fit.

This elevation of purity through the removal of the women’s own thoughts and feelings has acted as a springboard and platform for modern day beauty standards that are continually pushed through different sources of media. Another example of this beauty beyond death ideology is in Ralph Wiles’ photo, “The Most Beautiful Suicide” as dubbed by Andy Warhol. Wiles, a college student, witnessed the commotion of Evelyn McHale’s final moments after she leapt from the empire state building in 1947. Wiles was able to photograph Evelyn just moments after her legacy was etched into the top of a limousine outside the building. This photo thrusted Wiles into the spotlight, but not because of his composition, attention to detail, or photographic skill, but because of the beauty of the subject herself. Evelyn was a California native, she joined the Women’s Army Corps out of high school and while in reserves she worked as a bookkeeper in Manhattan. She had met her husband, Barry Rhodes while in Manhattan and showed no signs of suicidal thoughts, however she had a family history of depression. Evelyn was seemingly a normal woman with a normal life, but her tragic death and proceeding picture resulted in the sensationalization of her passing. Her entire life leading to her death was thrown to the side due to her looks and she became regarded as a tragic beauty. Within her final portrait, she lay crossed legged, eyes closed and hands resting so gently she seems to just be resting or calming thinking. While this all remains devastatingly untrue, famous artist Andy Warhol enjoyed the picture so much he included it in his own work, Suicide (Fallen Body) in 1962, a composition of the same image of Evelyn over and over and over in a washed-over turquoise gradient.

Her outward beauty, while traditional and standardized, was not the only thing to draw many in. It can be thought that much of the outpour of love and admiration for her demise was brought on by her death itself. Evelyn, much like Ophelia, was admired only in her passing. Her quietness, lack of temperament and serenity all opened a door for a perfect image to form. She was a woman who could not talk back or do what she wanted. She was just a vessel to be looked at and her beauty made many people want to look, even with her tragic death.

This consistent view of women was not only created by patriarchal views of women but also acts as ways of perpetuating this. Gwen Stacy, one of Spider-man’s love interests in Marvel Comics and movies, plays a more recent and active role in this phenomenon. Gwen Stacy, as played by Emma Stone in The Amazing Spider-man 2, is known for her relationship with Andrew Garfield’s Spider-man as well as her death after Spider-man is unable to save her. This death acts as a pivotal moment for Spider-man and acts as a plot device to further his character’s development. Her death, while sad, is yet another example of this objectification of feminine death. She is just another beautiful tragedy, no longer seen for her accomplishments or life prior, but for a sentiment or idea beyond herself that her death is able to be applied to. In this case, Stacy’s death, while crushing to any viewer, changes her character from a dynamic love interest to a plot point to move Spider-man’s own story along. She is beautiful while in life, but only truly needed for the male protagonist in death.

Through these different examples, one is able to see this continuous issue in mass media as it takes many forms and is so highly integrated into society it is hard to escape. However, there is hope for change and by supporting writers, artists, producers and many other media creators, this deep rooted issue may finally change.


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