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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Commentary: Exploring obsession and mystique in female protagonists

Breaking down the “obsessed prodigy” trope in popular films and television shows 


By VIVI KIM — arts@theaggie.org


Out of all the popular character tropes seen in movies and television shows, one that never fails to paint an intriguing protagonist is that of the “obsessed artist.” This character typically exhibits some exceptional skill or talent that fuels their drive for success. However, in their pursuit of perfection, they end up losing themselves in a cycle of self-destructive behavior. 

These characters stereotypically highlight the disturbing aspects of obsession, addiction and competition in an interesting way — especially when they are women. 

When you see female-centric films like “Clueless” or “Black Widow,” where the lead is either a superficial teenage ditz or an undeniably strong and empowering heroine, it is easier to spot their underlying motives, behaviors and not-so-subtle quirks. Though they don’t exude quite the same charisma as these traditional female archetypes, the “obsessed artist” character shows a type of vulnerability and raw struggle that is far more nuanced and impactful. The question is, how exactly are these characters depicted in modern film and television? 

Nina Sayers, the protagonist of “Black Swan,” is a ballerina whose passion turns into paranoia after she is threatened with losing her lead role in “Swan Lake.” Throughout the film, the delicate, naive ingénue is destroyed by perfectionism and sabotaged by her own delusions. 

Intense and even horrifying in some parts, “Black Swan” highlights the intrusiveness and psychotic nature of Nina’s thoughts with quick cuts and mirror illusions. But the film displays her obsession while simultaneously making her a paragon of beauty and poise. As a result, her passionate talent is not the only lens through which we see her character. Her obsession and dangerous behavior is displayed next to an innocent and delicate personality, creating layers of conflict. 

The character Beth Harmon from “The Queen’s Gambit” is a young chess prodigy who, despite her adverse upbringing, struggle with addiction and prior failures, rises to the top of a male-dominated field. Though she is depicted as an outcast, her looks and attitude are also made a prominent feature of her character. She is shown wearing flamboyant outfits while maintaining her confidence, boldness and wit. 

Toward the end of the series, Beth is essentially at the lowest point in her career. She has grown insecure in her chess skills, and in one scene, she is shown ignoring all contact from her friends, instead dancing around her living room, drinking excessively. While the moment is a culmination of their obsessive behaviors and unhealthy addiction, all the while, she maintains her pretty, feminine looks and mysterious aura. 

Both of these examples not only depict the female protagonists as alluring and elegant but also highlight these traits in contrast to their more unappealing ones. These stories commonly depict two sides of obsession — one where skill and artistry are met with beauty and one where the strive for perfection is taken to unhealthy extremes. 


Written by: Vivi Kim — arts@theaggie.org