Pop Culture’s Fascination With Captive Women

From drama to comedy, current works of television and cinema are putting a new spin on a very old trope.

Kimmy Schmidt is, all things considered, just happy to be here. (Netflix)

Thirteen is a BBC miniseries, now airing in the U.S., about a 26-year-old woman who was kidnapped when she was 13 and held captive for, yes, 13 years. It begins as a tale of triumph—The Lovely Bones, with a happy ending—but the joyousness of the rescued captive quickly takes a turn: Is Ivy Moxam telling the truth about the horrors she claims to have experienced? Is Ivy actually the girl who was kidnapped 13 years ago? How, exactly, did she escape captivity?

One reason Ivy’s case inspires doubt among both inspectors within the show and viewers watching it is that her situation—a girl is taken, then escapes—is unprecedented, at least in the lightly fictionalized version of the U.K. Thirteen presents. As an inspector informs his colleagues, explaining why there’s no set protocol for the handling of Moxam’s case: Usually all they find is bones.

But in another sense, Ivy isn’t fully unique. Her situation is akin to those experienced by several other recent characters in pop culture. Room, the captivity drama that won Brie Larson an Academy Award, tells the story of a young woman held hostage in a one-room shed. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt offers a more comedic spin on that same story. Game of Thrones offers a more epic one. Even The Shallows, the recent Blake Lively “survival thriller”—which is about a woman trapped by a Great White shark that’s preying on her—can be seen as part of the genre. Popular culture has long been interested in the plight of the captive woman, whether she be Sleeping Beauty or Christina Ricci or the victims of Hannibal Lecter; recently though, the focus has been less on passivity and more on empowerment. Which prompts the question: Is liberating women by first forcing them into victimhood actually a sign of progress?

In the nonfictional world, kidnappings—particularly when the victims are girls or young women—have long been a favorite subject for prurient news stories. We know the names of Patty Hearst and Elizabeth Smart and Elisabeth Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard and Amber Hagerman and Michelle Knight and Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus because the American news media covered the horrors they experienced to an almost obsessive extent.

The media also turned their stories into warnings. The creators who are ascendent in Hollywood at the moment, the writers and producers and directors of TV and movies, are now in their 30s and 40s, making them very much of the generation that came of age during the height of the “stranger danger” panic in the U.S. Today’s young(ish) adults grew up during a time when the milk cartons that sat on breakfast tables across the country were festooned with the faces of children who had been snatched—and when a prime lesson that parents and schools imparted to their children was “don’t talk to strangers.”

You could read the current crop of captive-woman fascination as a latent response to all that: to a culture that simmered with the anxiety that children, and especially female children, could be snatched and stolen at any moment. But the stories of captive women being produced now are not just about imprisonment; they are, more directly, about escape. The current iteration of the trope focuses on women who save themselves from their own imprisonment. They tend to be stories of triumph over adversity. They tend to be, in their way, feminist fables.

Thirteen begins in the place many similar stories end: with Ivy escaping her captivity. Room gets its emotional ballast from the fact that, far from allowing herself to be a passive victim, Ma uses the few resources available to her—emotional and physical—to give her son a childhood (and to do, without spoilers, even more than that). In The Shallows, Nancy uses a watch and a GoPro and a buoy in an attempt to flee the beast who is hunting her. In Game of Thrones, Sansa and Arya and Dany and Margaery and Cersei all find ways to escape their respective imprisonments, whether they’re physical walls, emotional abuse, or, most commonly, a combination of the two. Kimmy Schmidt’s story, within the show that is named for her and that dubs her “unbreakable,” begins with her escape—and each new episode starts with its theme song’s declaration that “females are strong as hell.” Even the inmates of Orange Is the New Black, a show about captive women in the most literal way possible, are empowered—not through escape, per se, but through the freedom, and the dignity, that comes with the telling of their stories.

It’s a notable shift, this empowerment-via-captivity messaging. The current crop of imprisoned-woman stories call to mind the narrative logic not just of Sleeping Beauty, but also of Snow White, and Rapunzel, and Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast, and even, for a more modern spin on things, Shrek. They, like their grim (and Grimm) predecessors, tell tales of women who are captured by cruel humans or through crueler magic. But the women of fairy tales suggested a darker metaphor: Whether they were locked in a tower or entranced in ongoing slumber or held in domestic servitude, their captivity served as a symbol of a society that robbed women of power. Their stories represented, and reinforced, a system for which a certain kind of captivity was not the exception but the rule for women.

Those stories also, in their metaphorical way, reinforced the marriage plot. During a time when being a single woman was itself a form of social and economic captivity, marriage was its own form of rescue, those tales suggest. The classic fairy tale, whoever the princess or soon-to-be-princess who stars in it, ends with the lady in question being rescued by a man (a prince, ideally, but any guy, even an ogre, would do). Symbolically, and often literally, she is saved from a life of sad solitude by finding—or more specifically being found by—a husband.

The current versions of the gendered captivity tale place a decidedly contemporary spin on the retrograde story lines. They are almost uniformly concerned with the woman actively rescuing herself. And yet they don’t necessarily represent a reversal of the Grimm story; rather, they complicate it for a time of upheaval and anxiety when it comes to women’s roles. They certainly don’t glorify victimhood, but they do suggest that victimhood, for these women, has been a source of a kind of reluctant power: Nancy is a bit of a ditz before being forced to battle the shark. Sansa is a typical teenager before she faces Ramsay. Ditto Kimmy and the Reverend.

In that sense, you could read all these captive-woman stories as attempts to negotiate a culture that is itself (re-)negotiating its relationship with feminine victimization and feminine power. Despite all the political progress women have made in the past decades in the U.S., many people still insist on situating them within a pernicious dialectic: victimization and manipulation. She’s lying. She asked for it. Etc. Thirteen is particularly compelling because it explores that tension: Its characters, in wondering whether Ivy has Stockholm syndrome, treat the abuses she endured not just as abuses, but also as a reason to judge her testimonies as the assertions of an unreliable narrator. The show encourages viewers, too, to doubt—and perhaps occasionally even to blame—the victim. It’s a powerful, if unsettling, commentary.

But it’s also a sign, in its way, of progress. The movie Mother, May I Sleep With Danger—which, along with Sleeping With the Enemy and Kindergarten Cop and a handful of others, anticipated the trope of the captive woman with the trope of the stalked one—was recently remade for Lifetime. The show was conceived, however, not as another woman-entranced-by-a-charming-sadist story, but rather as … a vampire fantasy. There is so little appetite, anymore, for a woman who is simply victimized—or, worse, who is complicit in her victimization, but not in her salvation—that a remake demanded a full rethinking of the original. The iconic line of the first movie was not “Mother, may I sleep with danger?” but the more blunt “He’s a killer and he’s got my daughter!” That line makes less and less sense in a world in which daughters can, much more than they could before, speak up for, and free, themselves.