The peculiar portrayal of widows

Desperate, predatory husband-stealers… Sultry seductresses who’ll drain the life out of you… Why does the media present such a warped image of women who’ve lost their husbands?

My friend Helen has been at a terrible loss since her husband Bill died two years ago. She has three daughters and, although they take up a lot of her time, there’s still a big gaping hubby-shaped hole in her life.

We meet for lunch in a restaurant near to where she lives in Oxford. She’s lonely, she tells me, and would like to find love again, but isn’t 100% comfortable with her new status of ‘widow’.

Nor, it would seem, are some of the men she’s met recently. Like many thoroughly modern women in their forties, Helen joined a dating website and was shocked by some of the responses she got from potential paramours once she mentioned she was widowed.

I got the feeling he thought death might be somehow contagious and that if he got together with me, he’d ‘catch’ it

“Some men backed off immediately,” she says. “With one, we were mid-conversation and as soon as I dropped the w-word, he stopped chatting and went offline!”

She persevered, only to find that he was one of a type. “One chap nervously asked how my husband had died,” she sighs. “I got the feeling he thought death might be somehow contagious and that if he got together with me, he’d ‘catch’ it! I got a bit snippy with him: he made his excuses and disappeared.”

So what is it about a widow that might make a man fearful?

Well, for starters, widows in films and literature really don’t get really get good press. There was the popular Widows TV series back in 1983 (now a film, released on November 16th this year) – and what a bunch of bad girls they were! Widows appear frequently in horror movies – check out Curse Of the Black Widow and Blood Widow for starters. They’re the subject of all kinds of novels and presented in a variety of peculiar ways.

Then, of course, there’s the way the word ‘widow’ has been used in news stories over the years. The female Chechen suicide bombers of the 1990s were known as Black-Widow bombers. No denying they were fierce – oh, and merciless terrorist killers too.

More recently, there was the story of Sally Jones, aka The White Widow, a pale-faced middle-aged English woman who allegedly had links to Isis and who was reported killed in a US drone attack. Her face appeared all over the front pages of the newspapers last year – wearing a white hijab and toting a pistol, staring, empty-eyed into the camera: pretty scary.

Even the fresh-faced models cast for the famous Scottish Widows adverts* come across as a bit evil and predatory. (Get a load of those vampire capes!) An article on satire site The Poke ran a story called If Those Scottish Widows Ads Actually Told the Truth – a photo-feature, intended as humour but spiky enough to chill the bones of even the most trusting of husbands!

There were men who found me being a widow rather exciting

Top media psychologist Emma Kenny says that people often see widows as needy, desperate or difficult. “They can be seen as draining too – emotionally and sexually, possibly financially. This is enough to scare away potential partners.”

My friend Helen, however, sometimes found the opposite to be true. “There were men who found me being a widow rather exciting,” she says. “One evening, while I was chatting online to a very enthusiastic suitor, it occurred to me: oh my God, he thinks I’m rich! I laughed out loud as this man’s sad fantasy couldn’t have been further from the truth!”

Soon she learnt it wasn’t just her imagined wealth that was a big turn-on – it turned out a couple of men she spoke to had a ‘thing’ – a sexual thing – about widows.

It’s no real revelation that some men would find widows sexy, says psychologist Emma Kenny. “Widows are often presented in in a very sexual way by the media. This is because, in general, people don’t cope very well with death, so to make it more palatable, we dress it up, create caricatures…” She adds that women – even bereaved ones – are always objectified. “The perception is that, even in their grief, they have to be alluring.”

Helen sips her coffee and tells me she thinks it has something to do with spiders – “the black widow sort,” she says, “and their violent mating ritual. I think some men subconsciously link it to that. And I think some men like the idea of that fear element.” Not surprisingly, despite recently discovering that there are specialist widow and widower dating sites – hundreds of them – Helen has now given up on the online dating.

Being a widow was becoming a burden, she decided. One evening, sat in front of her computer, she idly tapped the word ‘widow’ into the search bar on her computer. She clicked on ‘images’ because she wanted to see what other widows looked like, whether they looked as tired and fed up and heartbroken as her. She was expecting to be presented with a selection of pictures of grey and grieving old ladies, sniffing into small lace handkerchiefs, but that’s not what her search returned.

There’s a topless widow in a marionette-like pose, a Manga widow, a widow in a latex catsuit. There are widows in their knickers, widows with nunchucks and widows in see-through dresses…

The images that flashed up in front of her were of young women, some vampire-like in appearance; bewitching seductresses, sultry sirens with come-hither eyes and ‘I’m going to eat you up’ smiles. I decided to check for myself….

I tapped in the word ‘widow’. Just ‘widow’ – not ‘black widow’ or ‘sexy superhero widow’, just ‘widow’…. And there they were! All of them young, all of them wearing a lot of dark make-up, several with guns… Guns! Why, of course – all widows carry guns!

There’s a topless widow in a marionette-like pose, a Manga widow, a widow in a latex catsuit. There are widows in their knickers, widows with nunchucks and widows in see-through dresses. The iconic Scottish Widows* from the insurance ad don’t appear till halfway down the page, pushed out by this new breed of rubber-clad, s-shaped super-widow.

(I later Googled images for ‘widower’ only to find photos of silver-haired gentlemen with tears in their eyes, standing at their wives’ gravesides or being comforted by concerned relatives. What a contrast!)

So why has this happened and is this warped representation of widows likely to continue? Family therapist Katerina Georgiou thinks so. She says: “Women have always been subject to terrible prejudices and are typically polarised between evil/good, whore/virgin, witch/angel with little scope for them to exist wholly on all sides of the spectrum as human beings. Widows are no exception, and having them represented in this polarised witch/sex object way in media/film feeds into this dynamic which, in turn can perpetuate the prejudice.”

* I asked Scottish Widows why the women cast in their ads are always young and beautiful. Head of Brand Caroline Adams, said: “As our brand ambassador, the Widow reflects the iconic aspects of the brand by being personable, trusted and caring. She is one of the most recognisable aspects of Scottish Widows and is used alongside a broader range of images that reflect the diversity of our customers and their lives.”

So there you have it.

© 2017 JRP Group
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