7 Classic Film Heroines Who Suck at Personal Safety

by Jennifer Hargis and Susan Schorn

Hollywood has given us many strong, smart, heroic female characters. But for every Grace Kelly in High Noon, gunning down one of her husband’s enemies and gouging out another’s eye with her thumb, we’re afflicted with a real dud of a heroine — one who seems to willfully put herself in harm’s way. Here are seven female characters who set terrible examples of personal safety. And while we would never presume to tell a real woman who has suffered violence what she did “wrong,” we do have some advice for today’s screenwriters and directors: Personal safety is often just common sense. Is that too much to ask for in our heroines?

1. Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in King Kong: Unemployed actress Darrow falls into conversation with a movie director she’s never met, promptly gets on a boat with him and a bunch of lecherous men, and travels to a desolate island where she is abducted twice (first by natives, then by a giant ape) and almost eaten by three different kinds of dinosaurs. Upon her return to civilization, she is again kidnapped by the ape and narrowly escapes plummeting to her death from the Empire State Building.

How to not be Ann Darrow: Predators — be they giant apes, sexual assailants, or megalomaniac film directors — prefer to isolate their victims. They’ll target people in an out-of-the-way spot, or take them to one: a desolate island, a sacrificial altar way off in the jungle, or the top of 102-story skyscraper. Your best bet in a risky situation is to move toward more-populated, better-lit, and noisier areas, where more people can notice what is happening to you.

Likewise, a predator wants his victims to vanish without a trace. You can make that a lot harder by leaving a note or a voicemail with friends about your plans, snapping a photo of your date’s license plate and texting it to your roommate, or checking in via social media. And plan ahead on these things, because cell phone service tends to be spotty on remote jungle islands.

2. Margot Channing (Bette Davis) in All About Eve: Successful actress Channing has a problem with boundaries. She takes pity on poor Eve Harrington, a supposed war widow and ardent fan. Flattered by Harrington’s gushing attention, Channing takes the younger woman into her home and allows her near-total access to every facet of her life. Before long Channing’s career is threatened and her relationship is in tatters.

How to not be Margot Channing: Don’t let flattery override common sense. Set and maintain healthy boundaries with the people around you, no matter how well you know them, how much you like them, or how much they seem to like you. And for heaven’s sake, check a person’s references before you hire her or move her into your home.

3. Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: We’ll skip over the whole “moving in with seven strange men” thing; escaping from an attempted murder could cloud anyone’s judgment, and Snow White does follow our advice for Ann Darrow above — she moves away from the dark forest toward the relative safety of the bustling dwarf household. But her luck runs out when she forgets some basic safety precautions regarding fast-talking salespeople at her door.

“All alone, my pet?” the strange old lady with a basket of apples asks, to which Snow White honestly but unwisely replies, “Why, yes I am!” Snow White then ushers the creepy stranger into the house and falls for a patently stupid story about a “magic wishing apple” (which, admittedly, might not seem so peculiar to someone who lives with dishwashing chipmunks). And so she is poisoned, stuck in a glass box, and has to lie around waiting for a prince to rescue her.

How to not be Snow White: Learn to say “No.” Don’t volunteer information to strangers, and don’t feel obligated to provide honest answers, or any answer at all, to personal questions. A simple “I’m not comfortable sharing that information with you” will do the trick, whether you’re dealing with telemarketers, strangers at bus stops, or your disguised evil stepmother queen.

4. Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) in The Day the Earth Stood Still: Benson, a widowed boarding house owner, takes in a new tenant without ever suspecting that he might be the alien from another planet who recently landed downtown and is now the subject of a nationwide manhunt. She then goes off on a date with her boyfriend, allowing her new boarder to babysit her young son Bobby. The alien takes Bobby to see the spaceship, which is surrounded by tanks and armed troops — the perfect field trip!

How to not be Helen Benson: Single moms often struggle financially and may have little free time to spend getting to know someone before accepting their help. Thus they are ready targets for the sort of men (and space aliens) who like to play hero. Just as we cautioned Margot Channing, you shouldn’t trust new acquaintances without doing some kind of background check.

And maybe don’t go out on a date when a nearby alien spaceship is causing an international crisis, either.

5. Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) in Touch of Evil: Newlywed Vargas leaves the hotel where she’s staying to escape a creepy guy, and moves into another hotel recommended by another creepy guy. She doesn’t tell her husband she is doing this, and she ignores a number of ominous signs: a) the new hotel has no other guests; b) it’s staffed by a single, mentally deficient worker; and c) the place is quickly infiltrated by family members of the creepy guy from the first hotel. Vargas ends up being kidnapped, drugged, and framed for murder. And then she has to act happy when Charlton Heston rescues her.

How to not be Susie Vargas: Listen to your gut. If you need to get out of a bad situation, seek information from reliable sources, and (as we suggested in Ann Darrow’s case), keep your friends and family informed of your plans. Also, don’t marry Charlton Heston. Have a little self respect.

6. Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) in It Happened One Night: Andrews has eloped with a man her millionaire father hates, so Dad, naturally, kidnaps her and holds her hostage on his yacht. She runs away to join her new husband and in the process allows herself to be blackmailed by an unemployed newspaper man who recognizes her and sees a career opportunity. Andrews then roams the countryside with him, sharing hotel rooms and listening to him berate her and her family. In the end she makes her father happy by jilting her first husband and marrying the journalist.

How to not be Ellie Andrews: Get a job. Do not allow yourself to become dependent, financially or otherwise, on any other human. When you have no resources of your own, you have no options. And when you don’t have options, you tend to do dumb things. Also: You’re over 21 and your father is confining you against your will? Don’t just knock over the tea-tray, sister; call the police.

7. Buttercup (Robin Wright) in The Princess Bride: We know Buttercup was set up to be kidnapped by her cad of a fiancé, Prince Humperdinck, so we won’t quibble about her irritating passivity with her captors (up to the point when she finally snaps and pushes the wrong guy — her true love Westley — into the Fireswamp). It’s Buttercup’s conduct in the Fireswamp, when confronting a Rodent of Unusual Size, that makes us weep with frustration. Watching Westley struggle with the enormous rat, all Buttercup can manage is a frozen look of dismay. She can’t lean down and pick up the sword Westley is trying to reach; she can’t even kick the beast as it gnaws on her true love right in front of her. Only after she falls down, allowing the rat to bite her foot, does she think to pick up a branch and defend herself half-heartedly with it.

How to not be Buttercup: KICK THE RAT, stupid.

And another thing: Be aware of your stance. Buttercup is one of the multitude of film heroines who fall down at critical moments. They fall down stairs, off towers or cliffs or rooftops; sometimes they simply fall down for no apparent reason and sprain their ankles. We doubt real women are as accident-prone as Hollywood heroines seem to be, but it’s nonetheless good policy to practice walking and standing confidently. Because you never know when a Rodent of Unusual Size will show up, and you can’t count on Westley being there to save you.

Jennifer Hargis is an actress and amateur film historian who blogs about classic films here. Susan Schorn is the author of Smile at Strangers, and Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly; she also writes the column Bitchslap for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.