An orphaned character starts out damaged. It is the easiest road to both sympathy and empathy.

The Baudelaire Orphans (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events)

My mother died when I was thirteen and my youngest brother was five. It was sudden and it took too long. I was sleeping over a friend’s house the day she got sick. The next morning no one came to pick me up. I called home to find my mother was in the hospital. No one knew what was wrong, or if they did, they didn’t tell me. She was in a coma less than twelve hours later and before the next weekend she was dead.

I remember her dropping me off at Amy’s. I sat in the front seat of the car. I remember talking, but I don’t remember the topic. I don’t know what either of us wore. I had a sleeping bag with me. Amy lived in a condo that had a wooden deck and we slept outside that night, under the stars. I don’t remember my mother’s face or how she said goodbye. I don’t remember her eyes. But that was the last time I saw them open. That was the last time I heard her voice. 

I saw her once more after that. Before she died, but after she was no longer alive. She was in the ICU, in a big room full of patients, all in various stages of dying. They wanted me to talk to her but I had nothing to say. I already knew. She wasn’t my mother anymore, just a body kept alive by machines. Afterwards I sat alone in the hallway, waiting again for someone to remember to bring me home. My chair was green and plastic and impossible to be comfortable in. The walls were yellow. It was never quiet but the noise was subdued. I thought about all the things I didn’t say.

This is my traumatic origin story. A series of unfortunate events followed. At age twenty-one I was the eldest person in my whole family. It didn’t get better.

If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.

-Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning

Why are there so many orphans in fiction?

For one, parents get in the way. It’s easier to write them out than to write around the desire to protect their child from [insert heroic plot point here]. Loss ages a character. My childhood died with my mother. A twelve or fifteen year old orphan, especially one a story is centered around, is expected to be wiser than their years. Loss makes the hero sympathetic, and the loss of a parent is universally understood because everyone has parents. The audience does not need to experience that loss to relate to it as earth-shattering; if they have experienced it, they relate even harder. Finally, it turns the character into a survivor, which creates the foundation for their heroic final form. Or in the case of villains, their tragedy serves as a reason and sets up a redemption.

Bruce Wayne (Gotham)

I love Bruce Wayne. Not Batman. Not the comics or the many adaptations. Not Gotham, the supporting cast, or the gadgets. Not the vigilantism, not the philosophy, not the grit. Not Batman. I like all those things, but the part that I love is Bruce Wayne.

Bruce and I don’t have a lot in common. His billions give him security and opportunity that I can’t even imagine. He’s a night owl and I’m a morning person. I want to kill capitalism and he owns a corporation. His parents were murdered, mine succumbed to disease. But we both like costumes and identity play. And we both have more anger than we know what to do with. 

Anger is acceptable in Batman. Expected and encouraged. Batman is a male power fantasy, which is another reason I prefer Bruce, the silly, needy, pretty boy. Batman is aggressive and violent. He solves puzzles with his brain but he solves problems with his fists. 

Anger is discouraged in women. Like Bruce, the four pictured above are orphans who carry around a lot of anger. Unlike Bruce, their narrative punishes them for it. They all grew up in a system that treated them as a mistake, a problem to be solved. They all rebelled and ran away from it, gaining freedom but paying the cost with isolation. Sara (CSI)is reprimanded and nearly fired for her temper on more than one occasion. Parker (Leverage) is introduced as crazy and dangerous, and thinks she’s unlovable. Emma (Once Upon a Time) is arrested, gives up her child, and watches multiple love interests die in her arms. Sylvie (Loki) lives through a succession of literal world-ending tragedies in order to evade the authorities who claim she shouldn’t exist. Ultimately, her inability to let go of her anger and need for vengeance throws the entire multiverse into chaos.

I’m not saying Batman doesn’t have just as much baggage as these women, he absolutely does. But their anger is seen as part of their problem; his anger is part of his solution. 

I am Catwoman. Hear me roar!

Like Sara, Parker, Emma, Sylvie, and Selina, I’ve been told my life would be easier if I wasn’t so argumentative. If I was willing to accept the world as it is instead of insisting it evolve. Instead of demanding it make space for me and all the other problem children. 

But my mother was an activist. She stood up for kids, public schools, the environment. She was heavily involved in local politics; the mayor gave a eulogy at her funeral. She protested war and guns and she bought weed at the farmer’s market, right in front of us kids. One of my earliest memories is her telling me Ronald Reagan, then president, was a villain we had to fight. I was raised to break rules. I was raised to be angry at an unjust world. I was raised to be loud about it.

I’m twice the age I was when my father died and I’m still too young to be parentless. I’d rather have my mother back than whatever resilience I gained from her absence. But this is my traumatic origin story. This is who I am.

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Just a reminder that this is still happening:

Where to find my angry women:

  • CSI and CSI: Vegas are available on Paramount+. CSI is also available on Hulu.
  • Leverage and Leverage: Redemption are available on Amazon Freevee.
  • Once Upon a Time and Loki are available on Disney+.
  • Gotham is available on Netflix.

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