Staring into the Music Box: A Defense of Barbra
Kelly M. Hudson
A lot of criticism has been levelled at the character of Barbra from the original Night of the Living Dead, not the least of which from the co-scripter and director of the movie himself, George A. Romero. He has said he wished that he’d written her character to be a stronger female type. He’s not alone in his denigrations of Barbra because many, many others have piled on, retroactively chiding her for being a simple and stereotypical view of the women of her time. She falls into a catatonia after being mildly hysterical for a scene and doesn’t really do much other than sit there and look dazed for the majority of the picture. You don’t need to be a feminist to see the problems with this.
Bringing the standards of today’s society to a film from fifty years ago is an argument whose validity can be debated, but the simple fact is, time moved on, and women’s roles, while certainly not getting much better over the years, has improved, garnering such fabulously powerful and engaging characters like Ripley from the Alien films, and no less than Barbara herself in the 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake. And certainly, there’s plenty of legitimacy to many of these sentiments. But I’d like to argue for a different interpretation of Barbra and her character, one that often gets overlooked in all the hyper-politicization and retro-critiques of the movie and her character. I think Barbra was the most human of all the characters in the film.
Think about things from her perspective:
She’s spent all day in a car with her brother, who she obviously loves and adores and tries to please, yet he’s been complaining the entire trip. He grumbles almost non-stop once they arrive at the cemetery; there’s no telling what she had to listen to on the entire ride. For hours. So she’s tired and probably a little grumpy or at the very least, irritated. Then they arrive, they find the grave, and her brother starts taunting her. He dredges up old fears from her childhood, and although he’s only kidding around, they trigger something within her, a deep fear that she had maybe forgotten about or pushed aside. In any case, he got her scared, and then he gets attacked by some strange man stumbling through the graveyard. This is the stuff of nightmares. One minute her brother is vamping like Boris Karloff, the next he’s had his head bashed into the side of a grave stone. And then the man who did the killing looks up at Barbra with an obvious lust for her death, as well. Lightning flashes on his face and Barbra runs, the fight or flight instinct kicking in. She’s smart enough to whip off the shoes that are slowing her down and she’s smart enough to figure out how to get the car moving when it seems impossibly stuck and her murder is imminent. Yes, she screams a lot, and yes, she makes mistakes, but who wouldn’t in such circumstances? A drive up to a cemetery to place flowers on a grave has turned into the murder of her brother and a flight for her life from the man who killed her sibling. That’s not normal. There’s no telling how anyone would respond in such a situation.
She crashes the car, yes, but she has the presence of mind to get away yet again. She runs, finding a road and following it until she sees a farmhouse across the fields. Surely someone there can help her. It’s a nice little farmhouse, a slice of safety in a world that has gone suddenly mad. But when she arrives, she finds the place empty. Oh, and the man chasing her? Well, he’s out there, and he’s looking around. She flees to the upstairs only to find a partially devoured corpse. Partially. Devoured. She screams, just like anyone would. What was going through her mind right then? How has the world changed so utterly and fundamentally in the space of just a few minutes? She runs out of the house, whether from panic or a sense of preservation. That’s when Ben arrives, his truck lights splashing the porch.
It’s clear right away to the viewer than Ben is a good guy. This isn’t necessarily so clear to Barbra. Remember, she’s been attacked, her brother has been killed, and the man who did the killing is outside, milling around, with a group of other men who appear just as disheveled and confused as the killer. What’s going on? She doesn’t know they’re ghouls. She doesn’t know anything yet except reality has flipped over and crashed. When Ben grabs her and starts talking to her, you can see she accepts him as a bit of normalcy. He talks and he’s reasonable, even if he is more than a bit rough with her. Ben goes to work securing the house, telling his story, but only after he kills another murderer hiding in a closet, one that almost gets Barbra.
Think about that for a moment. Everywhere she turns, there are men trying to kill her. Why? What could possibly be happening? There’s no understanding for her, only reaction. How much can a person’s mind take before it snaps?
Ben tells his story. He’s calm and collected but obviously repulsed and frightened. Barbra sits and listens. When he finishes, she decides to tell her own story. From it we learn a little bit about how she thinks and feels about what’s happening. We get just how frightened and confused she is. But she doesn’t tell her story as calmly as Ben does, and she gets chided for it. In fact, it all ends with her getting punched in the face. Yes, punched. Not slapped. Punched. This is the event that seems to finally send Barbra down that rabbit whole of catatonia. And really, who can blame her? After all that has happened, she’s finally had enough.
The scene with the music box, I think, is the most symbolic of her character. She seems fascinated by it, staring and absorbing the music. There is a look of wonder and disbelief on her face. The box is a reminder of the old world, the normal world, the one before this night. How can it be reconciled with what she is going through?
Most of the movie she sits on the couch, staring off into space. We can see the wheels are turning inside of her mind, but she’s just grinding gears. She’s searching for something, looking for an answer inside her own head, but she’s not finding it. She’s aware of what’s going on around her. She sees Ben and Harry Cooper arguing over her. And even in her blasted state of awareness, she can fundamentally see who is good and who is bad, and she doesn’t just roll up into a ball and stop breathing. She follows what she’s asked to do and she is somewhat reactive.
When the others are talking about tuning in to the three o’clock news, she chimes in with her own opinion and you know what? Her manner and presentation isn’t much different than earlier in the movie, when she was dealing with her brother. She’s more distant and clearly more rattled. She sounds somewhat like an infant, but her reasoning is not that of an infant’s. In fact, she talks to the others around her like they are the children, and she’s trying to make them understand. These are not the actions of someone disengaged and cowardly. These are the actions of a real, thinking and feeling human, trying to make sense of the world around her, even as her mind has shut down parts of it itself for the protection of her sanity.
Barbra doesn’t do much for a good chunk of the film. She’s just sort of there, nothing more than a piece of furniture. But at the end, we see the transformation of Barbra. All the other characters never really change, do they? Ben stays the steely hero. Cooper is more complicated than others give him credit for (when he’s dying, and he knows he’s dying, he heads straight for his sick daughter, wanting to be with her when he passes, which is the move of a very human character despite his earlier, heinous actions) but still, for the most part, his selfish desires and need for control doesn’t waver. Helen is who she is, a wife that has learned to put up with a foolish husband but still able to spit acid when she needs to. She’s tough and that doesn’t change. Tom and Judy are pretty much just there to die (and if you wanted to make a case about stereotypical females from that era, I think a great one could be made about Judy, who doesn’t exist except to please Tom). Barbra has an arc, as evidenced by the final attack scene with the ghouls.
When the crap hits the fan, and the ghouls are tearing down the door and smashing in the windows, and good guy Ben and straight-shooter Helen are about to get overwhelmed, Barbra, sitting on the couch out of it, looks up and sees the face of her dead brother through the shattered door. Here’s the moment where, if she’s a coward, if she’s simply just some kind of poorly-written, weak female character stereotype, she would either sit and scream or do nothing. But not Barbra. She snaps from her fugue and jumps up. She throws her body into the maelstrom to help save her friends. She scraps and claws and screams. Barbra is no wilting willow. She’s a fighter.
How ironic and cruel, then, that she gets dragged off to be killed and eaten by her beloved brother. To me, her death is just as tragic as Ben’s, only in a different way. The last we see of Barbra, brave, frightened, confused Barbra, is being swallowed by the masses of ghouls, firmly in the clutches of the dead brother she loved so much.
Barbra’s character has a long and interesting arc. She goes from woman in peril to woman in retreat to woman on the attack. I think people get her wrong, and I think they get actress Judith O’Dea’s performance wrong. Barbra is a complicated, very human character. Not everyone reacts with immediate bravado. Not everyone does the right thing or has all the answers. Most of us, in fact, would probably do just what Barbra did, and that’s to shut down and retreat. It’s not called fight or flight for nothing, and both are perfectly natural reactions to stressful situations. No, I think most people get angry with Barbra because they see how easily her reaction could be theirs, and they don’t like it.
In the end, I think Barbra is more representative of humanity than most people would be willing to admit. And that’s exactly why she’s an unsung part of the brilliant legacy that is Night of the Living Dead.