Coughing, radiant, and disposable: The return of the consumptive heroine

Coughing, radiant, and disposable: The return of the consumptive heroine

Of all the movie tropes to see in movies in 2014, who would have guessed the consumptive heroine would make a comeback? As if a plaintive cough and early departure from the narrative were a woman’s most treasured accessories, these women stricken with tuberculosis only get more radiant and beautiful before they kick the bucket. The ur-consumptive heroine is Marguerite Gautier from Alexandre Dumas’ The Lady Of The Camellias, the 1852 stage play later adapted into the opera La Traviata. Gautier is a courtesan and a kept woman, but Dumas wanted to ensure that viewers would root for her. A proud mistress would be difficult for audiences to swallow, but a withering concubine would inspire sympathy. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! later borrowed this idea, giving consumption a Dior sheen.

This year, audiences have seen a pair of consumptive girls coughing for their affections: Winter’s Tale’s Beverly Penn and Nahoko Satomi in The Wind Rises, the final film of Hayao Miyazaki’s illustrious career. (It debuted at U.S. film festivals last year, but wasn’t released in theaters here until February.) In The Wind Rises, Nahoko (voiced by Emily Blunt) is less a character than a plot point, the second-act twist that gives the film its narrative arc. Viewers barely know a thing about her, except that she is beloved by her boyfriend, Jirô (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a World War II airplane designer torn between his desire to make art and a wish not to make war. But the movie never gets around to considering that Nahoko, too, might have a deep inner life or passions of her own. In Miyazaki’s Japan, dying girls don’t get agency.

For all of its faults, The Wind Rises has a basic understanding that tuberculosis is a communicable disease, instead of an opportunity for women to wax poetic about their death. In Winter’s Tale, Beverly (Jessica Brown Findlay) narrates the film in a voiceover so needlessly ornate it would make Edward Bulwer-Lytton blush. She tells viewers that stars are actually dead souls ascended to heaven,  we’re all created only for that special someone, and tuberculosis is actually beautiful, given the right perspective. Beverly describes herself as “full of light,” endlessly prattling on about how her untimely and tragic death is changing her perspective on the universe.

Ever virtuous, Beverly is a virgin, and when she meets a thief named Peter (Colin Farrell) from the wrong side of the tracks with a ’90s-rock-band haircut, it becomes his mission to deflower her. It never occurs to either character that this is a bad idea, because Peter could contract a degenerative disease. But plausibility isn’t a priority in a film where Beverly dies just so Peter can go on his hero’s journey, which ends with his flying into the sky on a winged horse to reunite with the celestial ghost of his dead girlfriend.

Winter’s Tale shows the consumptive heroine to be something of a misnomer. Beverly and Nahoko may be the female leads by default, but they aren’t the heroes of their own stories. In fact, Beverly is disposed of not even halfway through the film for Jennifer Connelly, a single mother looking for a cure for cancer for her daughter. That’s right: Winter’s Tale features not one, but two dead-girl story lines, as if, like Sam’s Club inventory, decaying females are best delivered in bulk. However, the dying daughter isn’t given much weight in the narrative, besides being relegated to a subplot by director and screenwriter, Akiva Goldsman. This is because dead girls exist not for their own journey, but because of their relationship to the hero and the passion they arouse in him. The movie will never be about the dying daughter; it’s always going to be about Peter’s quest.

These women are something of a sad, softly degenerating cousin to Nathan Rabin’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl. A MPDG is a force of nature that teaches men about their purpose through her will to live; in the case of what we’ll call the Touching Time Bomb, it’s both her joie de vivre and her utter disposability that inspires the male to seize the day. She’s sent to, and removed from, Earth to make him a better person. Practically glowing with death, the TTB seems not quite of this world, because she’s not a person. She’s a concept.

Cinema history has plenty Touching Time Bombs. In Sweet November, Charlize Theron plays a free-spirited cancer lady named Sara who vows to spend her last days showing Keanu Reeves how to emote. Autumn In New York and Gus Van Sant’s Restless likewise show cancer patients to be capable of amazing and uplifting things at the end of their lives—and many are—but these romantic bike rides and ice-skating trips mostly serve to make the Touching Time Bomb even more radiant and beautiful. Ali MacGraw was so good at smiling through her illness that Roger Ebert named her otherwise unspecified ailment “Ali MacGraw’s Disease.” The New York TimesVincent Canby remarked that her condition appeared to be a form of some “vaguely unpleasant Elizabeth Arden treatment.”

What’s funny about the TTB is that she doesn’t regret not buying Apple stock when it was cheap or never backpacking across Europe. The great tragedy of her life is that she has yet to find true love, or will die a virgin like poor Beverly and Nahoko. Beverly’s problems are, thus, solved when Peter actually fucks her to death. After marrying Jirô, Nahoko sacrifices treatment in a sanitarium to be by his side while he lives his dreams. Nahoko doesn’t fight or make much of a fuss; she just lovingly fades into the background where she can die offscreen, like Sara in Sweet November. It’s a lot easier to be inspiring when male screenwriters don’t have to deal with death as a reality, just an opportunity to pen purple prose about the women who will never get to write their own story.

In Winter’s Tale, Beverly mentions that inside of everyone is exactly one miracle to be cashed in, but the Touching Time Bombs of the world shouldn’t waste it on a man. They should use it to be more than somebody’s life lesson.


Nico Lang is the Opinion Editor at The Daily Dot and the co-editor of the BOYS anthology series, as well as a contributor for The L.A. Times, Salon, The Huffington Post, PolicyMic and The Advocate

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