It may have been her cousin Helen who had the face “to launch a thousand ships,” but Penelope, wife and presumed widow of god-like Odysseus, was the woman the men of ancient Greece most doggedly pursued. As her husband fought his way back to their olive tree bed, she spent two decades alone and lonely, fending off innumerable suitors who wished to take both her body and her property. She succeeded, but only because, at her moment of weakness, Odysseus finally returned.
The widow’s lot has hardly improved in the intervening millennia. When Hollywood wanted to “freely adapt” The Scarlet Letter for the new millennium, director Roland Joffé cast Demi Moore as an all-too-worldly Hester Prynne, whose husband’s disappearance at sea sets the stage for a full-blown Puritan sex panic. More recently, in Widows, Alice (Elizabeth Debicki)’s money-hungry mother goads the svelte blonde into work as a sugar baby, a few days after her husband’s fiery death in a shootout with the Chicago PD. In Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) describes herself as “a crazy slut with a dead husband.” Even P.S. I Love You, which is perhaps the most prominent film ever made about a widow and certainly the most treacly, can’t let Holly (Hilary Swank) grieve in peace: A bartender hits on her in the middle of her husband’s funeral and her friends’ best pass at a pep talk is to remind her that, as a widow, she has a lot more to offer a man than the average girl.
Despite the widow’s omnipresence in society—most women outlive their husbands—she remains an object of dangerous fixation. Unlike single women who are their father’s property or married women who belong to their husbands, widows own themselves. They have their own property, savings, and line of credit. They are not virgins, but they have attained their sexual experience through the sacrament of marriage, so it is difficult to shame or shun them. Yet this carnal knowledge seems to emanate from widows, risking havoc. This leaves only one course of action: to contain them and their sex appeal.
Of course, men who have lost their wives are their own kind of thirst trap. But it’s primarily because they don’t seek out or seduce. Widowers are floppy and pathetic and that’s what makes them attractive to potential paramours. This trope, defined by Emily Yoffe as an “emotionally distant older man brought back to life by the madcap, innocent girl,” appears in movies as diverse as Sleepless in Seattle, The Sound of Music, Just Like Heaven, and Dan in Real Life. “His pain is at the heart of his appeal—because, the fantasy forces you to conclude that only you can heal it.”
Given her uneasy role in society, it is much rarer for a widow to make her way from the last line of an obit—“he is survived by his wife”—to the glittering heart of a romantic comedy. The only one that immediately comes to mind is Moonstruck, which is essentially a film about the widowed Loretta (Cher) coming back to herself with the help of her one-handed, bread-baking paramour Johnny (a lupine Nicolas Cage). Instead, most widows end up in a thicket of revenge plots and bloody not-so-domestic dramas. For it’s in those high-octane environments a woman can explore the boundaries of her newfound autonomy. And it’s her autonomy that makes the widow so controversial, so problematic—so desirable.
We first meet Hollywood’s Hester Prynne in the year 1666. Newly arrived in the New World, she goes about setting up a home for her husband, due any day from England. As she goes about her days of Bible reading and forest wandering, Hester kindles a mutual fascination with the young and zealous Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (Gary Oldman). The two keep their distance until evidence arrives that the Algonquian tribe has killed Hester’s older, unsightly husband. That very night, Hester and the reverend finally consummate their love. From this single barnyard union, a child is born—and with little Pearl, the titular scarlet letter on Hester’s chest.
This “A” for adultress is an invention of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in 1850 penned the uniquely New England novel upon which this film is based. But Hawthorne’s letter reflects his deeper understanding of a widow’s place in society. For most of history, widows have been treated as disposable objects, encouraged to self-immolate on their husband’s funeral pyre, forced into marriage with his surviving kin, or left to a life of extreme poverty. It was only in the 15th century that European women began to inherit their dead husband’s property directly, giving them unprecedented power over their assets and bodies. No longer disposable, widows became obstacles.
The Scarlet Letter reflects this uneasy state. Joffé depicts Hester as both the object of sexual desire and the objectifier. Her body is exposed in stark detail, but so too is the reverend’s, who Hester spies jumping nude into a lake. At the same time the camera voyeuristically traces Moore’s naked body, there’s something in the way she looks at herself in the bathroom mirror that complicates the narrative. Even in the comparatively prudish book, Hester has what Joan Didion would call self-respect: She makes her bed, and she lies in it.
Hester’s pregnancy and further refusal to name the father of her child drives the men and women of the Massachusetts Bay Company cataleptic. They conclude that Pearl is the daughter of the devil himself, and Hester an incurably wayward woman. Had she been a good widow, she would have lived as a border under the watchful eye of an older woman; after seven years without contact from her husband, she would be officially single, and allowed to quietly marry again. Instead, she admitted she had desires, a faux pas in itself, and then she acted on them. Along the way, she corrupted others—perhaps, the other women of Boston must worry, one of their own husbands.
Widows have always had more to lose than widowers. With their husband goes any semblance of wealth, prestige, or safety. In Widows, Veronica’s (Viola Davis) motivation isn’t greed or bloodlust, but debt. Her husband’s dirty deals bought them a car, a driver, and a swanky condo filled with luxury goods. Continuing to maintain the lifestyle she’s used to will require some ethical compromises of her own. With Chicago’s criminal underworld nipping at her Louboutin heels, she decides to carry out her husband’s last heist, bringing together the two willing widows of his co-conspirators to pull it off. In a moment repeated ad nauseum in trailers, she tells these women, still skeptical about their ability to execute this plan without being arrested or killed, that, “The best thing we have going for us is who we are…Because no one thinks we have the balls to pull this off.”
She means it literally.
Widows, which is based on a 1983 British TV miniseries of the same name, is merely a feminist inversion of the timeless theme of the troublesome widow, not a new story altogether. They can own businesses, ask for a divorce, buy guns, and maintain their own line of credit. But they are still overlooked and underestimated by the patriarchy that they now genuinely seek to undermine. By dying, their husbands have driven them to confirm society’s worst suspicions about the widow. Armed, independent, and aggrieved, they are on the prowl for unsuspecting men. Only it’s not about sex. It’s about revenge.
Despite its strictly utilitarian origins, the heist teaches the women important lessons they would not have otherwise learned. Alice, in particular, experiences an emotional growth spurt over the 128-minute film. When Veronica tasks her with buying guns and securing a van, Alice initially balks at the assignment, but checks both items off her to do list by manipulating others with her appearance, alternately doe-eyed and seductive. Later, all of the women use the proceeds from their heist to pay off their respective debts and, it’s implied, move forward with their lives stronger than they were before. The Wall Street Journal adequately summed up this feel-good murder spree in a single headline: “Mourning Loss, Seizing Power.”
This empowered take on an old trope is also on the small screen: The Widow, an eight-episode Amazon Prime miniseries, introduces us to a still-distraught Welsh widow named Georgia (Kate Beckinsale), whose husband Will (Matthew Le Nevez) died three years ago in a fiery plane crash in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When Georgia thinks she sees Will on the news, very much alive in Kinshasa and still wearing his favorite orange Rumpel4skin hat, she flies to the conflict-ridden country to find him. Almost everyone who helps in her search dies. But luck and past military service somehow keep Georgia alive.
In one of The Widow’s most symbolically-rich scenes, highway robbers commandeer a medic van transporting Georgia and three doctors to a remote village. They take, among other things, Georgia’s wedding rings. She’s ready to accept this fate, until one of the men decides to take her hostage as a sex slave. Suddenly, Georgia, who up until this point has confined herself to sweating and crying gracefully in the jungle heat, takes decisive action. She shoots the man dead and fishes her diamond out of his pocket before the badly-shaken group drives off.
Georgia’s refusal to let go of her wedding rings, now or at any point in the three years since her husband’s death, marks her as a classically good widow. It’s the modern equivalent of widow weeds, the traditional black mourning garb Queen Victoria famously wore from the time of her husband Albert’s death until her own 40 years later. Georgia, Veronica, and even Victoria have something Hester lacked: true and abiding love for their husbands. Their exile is self-imposed, their grief real. They behave as society demands, but for reasons that are deeply personal.
But Georgia’s gun-slinging tells a different, though not necessarily contradictory, story. She may uphold the sanctity of her marriage in a way the Puritans would certainly admire, but she is also a modern woman fully capable of protecting herself, just as they feared. For Georgia, these contradictions have always co-existed, are in fact foundational to who she is. The army didn’t allow women in combat, she explains, but she still got the same training as everyone else. Like Veronica and Alice in Widows, Georgia is as surprised as anyone that she’s had to put these skills to use. Apparently, when the good widow puts her grief aside, she becomes a great vigilante.
Nowadays, the widow has more options than she’s ever had, both in real life and in film. But one stubborn plot twist persists: Just as the widow begins rebuilding her life without her husband, he returns.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne’s odious older husband emerges from the wilds, and swears her to secrecy. As a physician in a medicine-starved colony, he is able to administer a unique kind of torture to Dimmesdale, ostensibly treating him for his pain, but really sickening the reverend as punishment for sleeping with his wife. In Widows, Veronica’s husband Harry killed his henchmen, so that he could run away with one of the men’s wives, with whom he had a baby. In The Widow, Georgia’s husband did something similar, if much less sinister. When Will’s friend warned him a bomb was set to go off on his plane, he grabbed hold of the opportunity to fake his death, move to Rwanda, and start another family.
But why do writers always resurrect the husband?
For one, it’s a lot of fun. No one knows this better than Jane the Virgin, the cotton candy meta-telenovela now in its final season. The show was built on a love triangle between Jane (Gina Rodriguez), her cop boyfriend Michael (Brett Dier), and her baby-daddy-by-accidental-artificial-insemination Rafael (Justin Baldoni). In season two, she finally chose Michael, but just as they settled into the rhythm of married life, he died unexpectedly. After a three year leap into the future, right over the most acute stages of Jane’s grief, she and Rafael slowly made their way back to each other. Then, just as Rafael was preparing to propose, Michael returns. He was never dead, just erased. This description is exhausting because the show is: Right when you think the ride is coming to an end, a new twist in the emotional rollercoaster appears, none more dramatic than the undead husband.
But the zombie groom also has some basis in reality. Sailors and soldiers often didn’t return from their far-flung excursions. Without clear evidence of their husband’s death, wives were left to wonder if they might return and, in many cases, waste away in an unforgiving society. Perhaps the most dramatic historical example is that of 16th century peasant Martin Guerre, the impetus for the incredible 1982 French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre.
We first meet Bertrande at her wedding to an indolent teenage Martin. A young girl with flowers in her hair, she listens as their parents finalize her dowry: 30 acres of wheat, 40 of millet, a pair of oxen, some woodland, a few dresses, one mattress, and two pillows. But the marriage is not what she hoped for. Eventually, Martin disappears. Without clear evidence of his death, Bertrande (Nathalie Baye) is stuck in a limbo, Roman Catholic law being even stricter than the of the Puritans.
Then, almost a decade later, a new and improved Martin (Gérard Depardieu) returns. No longer sullen or cruel, he is deeply devoted to Bertrande, his family, and their village. It’s only when vagabonds identify Martin as an imposter from another village named Arnaud that his sturdy house of cards collapses. Moments before the court in Toulouse delivers its verdict, the real Martin (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) arrives, vengeful and peg-legged. He wants only to ensure his continued ownership of the land he hates farming and the wife he despises. He succeeds and Arnaud is hanged for his crimes. For Bertrande, who has now known life as something other than a good exchanged for other goods, it is a tragedy. For everyone else, it is a triumph of social order.
But that’s to be expected. In real life and in fiction, the return of a man presumed dead is, above all else, a test of loyalty for all who knew him. Penelope, the archetypal widow in Western storytelling, patiently waits for her husband Odysseus to return, using clever tricks to resist dogged suitors, who are all the more enamored with Penelope thanks to her feminine fidelity to her first spouse. As Emily Wilson, the first female translator of The Odyssey notes, Penelope is an inscrutable woman; the original text never makes clear how she feels when, after 20 years away, her husband finally arrives back in Ithaca. All we know is that she passes his tests and, unlike so many Odysseus feels have betrayed him, keeps her life.
Every subsequent story owes a debt to Penelope’s mythological devotion, whether the new tale subverts or supports her. Hester keeps her husband’s return a secret, even as it kills the man she really loves. Veronica shoots Harry dead, but only after he makes it clear he’ll murder her first. Georgia leaves her cowardly husband behind, allowing him to keep his new life, and giving her the chance to start her own. Through it all, the widow’s freedom—and the money, sexual experience, and self-confidence that supposedly come with marriage and maturity—continues to make both characters and viewers thirst. But as her fidelity has slowly turned from her husband to herself, the widow is more of a trap than ever.