A couple of hours ago I asked on Twitter how women react when they see something terrible. My proximate reason for asking was that I’ve discovered Netflix has Murder, She Wrote available streaming; in watching it, I’ve been reminded of the standard-issue scream uttered by women in TV and movies when they find a dead body. You know the one: hands to the cheeks, mouth and eyes wide in horror, a high-pitched and wordless shriek coming from her mouth.
It’s always seemed weird to me because I don’t do that. Okay, to be fair, I’ve never come across a dead body. But I have accidentally lit myself on fire — my clothing, anyway — and my reaction at the time was to bellow “FUCK!” at the top of my lungs while beating at the flames with my other sleeve until they went out. The top of my lungs . . . but not the top of my range. Same thing when my husband accidentally kicked my badly-sprained toe, causing me no small amount of pain. I don’t scream so much as yell, often with a great deal of profanity.
So I posted on Twitter because I wanted to know: how many women out there do scream at such things? Is it the majority, and I’m a weird outlier, or is that just a convention of media that doesn’t happen so much in real life? Twitter anecdata thus far suggests a moderately even split; there are definitely women who do the high-pitched wordless shriek thing, but not an overwhelming majority by any means. (Also, at least one guy has testified to uttering a scream of his own when subjected to sudden pain.) It seems the trope isn’t unfounded, then, but it’s also not universal. Which, because I’m an anthropologist at heart, means I’m now wondering whether that reaction has become less common over time (as women are no longer socialized in the same way as thirty or fifty years ago) and whether our media depictions have changed as well.
I have no idea. But it’s interesting to think about, because the standard-issue scream has always felt so very fake to me.