Why The “Dying Girl Redeems Man” Trope Is The Worst

Photo: Snap Stills/REX Shutterstock.
When I turned 13 in 2002, I got exactly what I wanted — a VHS copy of what I believed to be the very height of cinematic genius: A Walk To Remember. Over the next few years, I practically wore out the tape, watching and re-watching the most erotic scene I had a ever seen: Shane West gently blowing on the temporary tattoo being transferred to Mandy Moore's otherwise bare shoulder. Re-watching the movie now, it's more than the sexiness of shoulder-blowing that doesn't hold up.
Even though Mandy Moore might have been the bigger star at the time, the movie isn't actually about her character, the poor, sick Jamie. It's really about Landon, the boy who grows up to become a doctor, but only because he meets the right terminally ill girl. The only purpose of her incredibly short time on Earth — she's only 18 when she dies — is to inspire Landon to be less of an asshole. Unfortunately, A Walk To Remember is just one film in a long cinematic tradition of women on death's door who save men from themselves.
The worst culprit of films employing this trope is Sweet November (which will be celebrating its 15th anniversary tomorrow), in which Keanu Reeves plays Nelson, who is the worst to a comical degree. He likes business and money, and he doesn't like other people. He probably hates puppies, too. Enter Charlize Theron's Sara, who makes adorkable Zooey Deschanel characters look like gray pantsuit-wearing, no-nonsense businesswomen by comparison. She drips with whimsy.
Sara is a very self-aware woman and recognizes her magic ability to save men from themselves. She's actually turned her apartment into a sort of Airbnb/douchebag rehab facility. Though Sara is 100% the more interesting — or at least, in my opinion, the more empathetic — character in Sweet November, she disappears to die, leaving us to watch Nelson contemplate his tortured, but now more caring, soul.
The pre-death stage doesn't need to be drawn out for the woman's noble demise to bring a man redemption, proven by 2011's One Day. In this romance saga that unfolds over several decades, Anne Hathaway plays Emma, a nice — if initially awkward — young woman who continues to love her longtime friend Dexter (Jim Sturgess) in spite of long periods of dick moves on his behalf. But when they finally get together and she's killed in an accident, an ex helpfully tells a mourning Dexter, "She made you decent and you made her so happy." You see, Emma repaid the privilege of a not-so-nice dude's company during her brief life by turning him into a decent human being. How benevolent of her.
Even though the aforementioned examples exploit a female life for the sole purpose of male character growth and development, I'm not saying this concept isn't one worthy of being employed in stories. There are ways to do it that better serve both characters — especially the female ones. Surely, screenwriters can come up with ways to avoid these narratives where dying women seem like tools, or a mere means to an end unworthy of their own stories. Otherwise, this movie trope is actually sort of sickening...terrible pun intended.
I still have "Cry" on my iPhone, though.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series