On October 14th, Hollywood lost boundary-breaking actor Piper Laurie, who passed away at 91. After starting out as a Golden-Age studio starlet, Laurie carved her own path in showbiz. Her decades-long career included guest spots on sitcoms like Frasier, a freaky turn as the devious Catherine Martell on Twin Peaks, and a 10-year break from acting altogether. While Laurie is credited in dozens of movies and shows, she will perhaps always be best known for her role in the 1976 blockbuster Carrie as religious fanatic, Margaret White.
Laurie’s terrifying performance is the epitome of a trope that’s become, in recent years, a mainstay in movies and TV: the zealous woman. Think: Septa Unella in Game of Thrones, Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, and Bev Keane in Midnight Mass. These characters are almost always white, Christian-coded, sexually repressed, and relentless in their fundamentalism. Margaret was one of the first of this archetype onscreen, but certainly not the last. Why are we so fascinated by fanatical women, and what can their prevalence in modern media teach us about our fears and beliefs?
Let’s start from the top. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Carrie follows a teen outcast (and a telekinetic) in her quest to be accepted by her classmates. The story’s true villain is her mother, Margaret, who is violently protective and unwaveringly devout. Fixated on the “sinfulness” of her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality, Margaret goes to increasingly extreme lengths to control Carrie, who begins to question her unique religious upbringing and step into her (literal) power. According to King, he took inspiration from people he encountered in Maine for the book, including an “intensely religious” woman he met at a laundromat. He writes that he “wondered what her children were like.”
In a 2016 conversation with Alex Simon for The Hollywood Interview, Laurie reflected on her character’s motivations: “Margaret did love God. She loved Jesus. . . . She was a true believer.” Throughout filming, however, Laurie had no idea how serious Carrie was. In a 2011 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, she said of playing Margaret, “I thought I was hilarious.” Little did she know then that she would be nominated for an Oscar for her part and that Margaret would — directly or indirectly — inspire decades of future fictional fanatical women.
During the late 2000s and 2010s, the cultural discourse around feminism began to shift. With the rise of online publications like Jezebel and Feministing, the growing popularity of gender studies programs, and the growth of social media, feminism was becoming “mainstream.” Google searches for “slut shaming,” for instance, reached an all-time high in early 2013. Searches for “feminism” peaked in 2014. It’s no coincidence that movie and TV studios capitalized on these cultural trends or that fanatical women began appearing more and more onscreen, including in the 2013 reboot of Carrie.
The zealous woman trope really took off in the years surrounding the 2016 election when these characters became vessels for broader political commentary, not just cautionary tales about the dangers of individual religious extremism. The Handmaid’s Tale, which premiered in 2017, is a prime example. Although Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was more than 30 years old when the screen adaptation first aired, the story had a timeliness that primed it for success: Many in the U.S. were still reeling from Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, and audiences were eager for media that took the threat of his presidency seriously and validated their fears, particularly around women’s bodily autonomy.
Set in a not-so-distant fictional future, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a world in which fertility rates have dropped and women of childbearing age — Handmaids — are subjected to sexual slavery within a new theocratic regime. In this series, fanatical women abound. There are the “aunts” who oversee the Handmaids in their regressive sexual re-education. And there are “wives,” the barren upper-class women who benefit from the Handmaids’ enslavement and steal their children.
In the same way that real-life protestors identified with the Handmaids, often donning their attire while marching against anti-abortion legislation, they associated conservative women with the zealous aunts and wives. To many, cruel female foot soldiers for Gilead like Aunt Lydia and Serena Waterford, mirrored real-life “gender traitors,” the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, Michelle Duggars, and Sarah Huckabee Sanderses. (At the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf said as much.) The Handmaid’s Tale painted a picture of what real right-wing women would do — and have done — if given a chance: bolster the patriarchy, undo progress, and sell out other women, all against their own best interest and in God’s name.
With no recourse against the fanatical women in power in the real world, these fictional zealots also became the media’s favorite punching bags for a time. In the season five finale of Game of Thrones, Septa Unella (Hannah Waddingham) walks a naked Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) through the city of King’s Landing, ringing a bell and shouting “Shame! Shame!” as punishment for the queen’s many sinful crimes. But in season six (which aired in 2016), Cersei gets her revenge against the devoted follower of the High Sparrow. In scenes that Waddingham said were “hellish” to film, Cersei waterboards Septa Unella with wine before unleashing The Mountain, the queen’s monstrous bodyguard, upon her. Reportedly, the septa was meant to be raped onscreen by the zombified knight, but the scene was changed at the last minute due to the public backlash to gratuitous sexual violence in the series.
In the mid-2010s, we felt validated by portrayals of fanatical women who recognized them as legitimate political threats and delighted in their downfall. However, as Septa Unella’s fate in Game of Thrones shows, zealous women onscreen were still women, and the punishments for their fanaticism were often violently gendered.
In the years since Trump’s presidency, these women zealots have been afforded a bit more depth onscreen and their characterization has changed, which is perhaps not a coincidence. Iben (Maria Erwolter) on the short-lived international Netflix series 1899, for example, is at first nothing more than a religious fundamentalist. But when her family’s traumatic backstory is later revealed, it becomes clear that her belief in God is a coping mechanism. Some might also classify the girls of Yellowjackets as fanatics, particularly Lottie (Courtney Eaton/Simone Kessell). But unlike the clear-cut zealots of the past, the teens’ cultish belief in the spirits of the forest isn’t necessarily good or bad and their fervor is almost aspirational, although they are no less frightening.
Laurie’s Margaret may have started it all, but today, zealous women are everywhere in movies and TV, from horror films to dystopian series to epic fantasies. They reflect our fears back to us with strong-willed determination and pathetic desperation. They are political warnings and sources of catharsis. But more than that, they are proof that the most terrifying thing in the world is a woman with a deeply held belief.