Strong Female Characters: Matilda

For those of you that don’t know, Matilda Wormwood is the main character of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda (and proud owner of the ‘Worst Surname Ever’ trophy). A brilliant young girl who isn’t appreciated by her family, the plot follows her attempts to get back at the adults who are making her and her friends’ lives miserable – namely, Matilda’s parents and headmistress. The book sold countless copies all around the world – currently, there are 4.5 million copies in print in the US alone – and has been turned into a musical, a radio play and a movie starring Mara Wilson (which is far too American for my tastes). Regardless of the medium, Matilda has been praised since the day it was first published, and is often seen as a modern classic of children’s fiction. As for Matilda herself, she paved the way for intelligent female characters (you’re welcome, Hermione) and is seen as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

At the start of the book, Matilda is a very young girl – the oldest we ever see her is six years old. Obviously, she can’t be fully in control of her own destiny because of this, as there are some things which she’s going to need adult help or supervision for. It would be very easy for Dahl to reduce her agency down to nothing and keep the story realistic.

However, this is not the case. Matilda is shown to be a very strong-willed young girl, and even though she’s placed under a lot of restrictions (by her parents, her headmistress and simply by being very young) she doesn’t really let that stop her. Her parents want her to sit around and watch TV with them, refusing to encourage her interest in reading; she walks to the library by herself AT THE AGE OF FOUR and reads in secret. Her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, won’t let her study at a more advanced level and abuses her power over the children; she comes up with a plan to put Miss Trunchbull in her place and never bother the children again. She even manages to engineer her own adoption at the very end of the story, because she doesn’t want to stay with her abusive family. Not bad for a six-year-old girl.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

One of Matilda’s favourite pastimes is reading. She learns to read by herself at a very young age, with no encouragement or help from her family, and is reading at an adult level by the time she starts school. This is also something she has to keep secret from her family, as they disapprove of her interest to the point where they destroy her library books.

Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)
Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Her goals and beliefs are somewhat intertwined, but they are equally well-developed. She has a very strong sense of justice and fairness, believing that people should be held accountable for their actions even if they are big enough to get away with them. Throughout every adaptation, she spends most of her time trying to make this happen – usually by playing pranks on people abusing their power.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Throughout the story, Matilda is consistently shown to be an intelligent, serious little girl with a very keen sense of right from wrong, and this is a constant part of her character. What’s most interesting about her is the skills she develops – namely, her AWESOME TELEKINETIC MIND POWERS. These develop as a result of her frustrated intelligence: she’s placed in a class well below her intellectual capacity, finds no real challenges to keep her mind stimulated, and is also unhappy with her home life. But they also aren’t something which she immediately learns to control. She has to work to learn how to use them, starting very small and building her way up. They also aren’t something that comes without a cost; she finds using her powers exhausting and gets headaches after she does so, although it does get easier over time. It’s something that she has to maintain, too, and when she’s placed in a more advanced class (and no longer intellectually frustrated) she loses her powers. This is a very realistic depiction of learning any skill, so she passes my test.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

An intelligent, serious little girl who tries to deliver justice to people who abuse their power over her and her friends.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Being six years old, Matilda doesn’t have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply. Most of her decisions are influenced by her strong beliefs in what constitutes right and wrong behaviour, or by the desire to protect and avenge her friends.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Over the course of the story, Matilda develops in some aspects of her personality, but not in others. As the story progresses she gains a lot more control over her own life, building an environment that allows her to express herself and feel comfortable as she grows up. In this respect she does develop, as her agency as a character exponentially increases. However, in terms of her personality, she doesn’t really change – she doesn’t work to overcome a flaw or try and learn a lesson, because her personality’s pretty much perfect to begin with. For that reason, I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Matilda doesn’t really have that many weaknesses to speak of, and this is really one of the shakiest parts of her character. She’s got a real mischievous streak and often pranks other characters, but this is never really treated as a weakness because it never has any negative consequences. When she pranks people, it’s only those who deserve it, and she never uses disproportionate force or underestimates the effects of her actions. She’s innocent and a little naïve (which is pretty standard for most six-year-olds), but never in a way that would lead her to make a mistake, as many normal six-year-olds do. That doesn’t really count as a flaw. This becomes even more problematic when you look at her upbringing – and for those of you that don’t fancy a discussion of Matilda’s abusive family life, feel free to skip this next paragraph.

And here's some kittens to send you on your way. (image: giphy.com)
And here’s some kittens to send you on your way. (image: giphy.com)

Despite having a family that routinely call her names, belittle her interests and destroy her possessions, this doesn’t have much of an effect on her. Many charities classify this behaviour as emotional or psychological abuse, and many studies have shown that it can seriously affect a child’s self-esteem and general well-being, particularly at such a young age. Matilda doesn’t display any of the negative effects you would expect to see given her upbringing, and this is where things get a little tricky. On the one hand, it’s very uplifting, because it reassures the reader that Matilda will be all right and shows that children can overcome adversity. But on the other hand, it undermines this adversity by reducing the effect it has on her to a bare minimum, and can also give people false expectations about how survivors recover from abuse.

Matilda is largely immune to the effects of her family’s behaviour. In part, this is due to the conventions of the genre – children’s fiction doesn’t tend to go into a great amount of detail about these kinds of subjects, and it wouldn’t fit well with the fairy-tale ending Dahl sets up at the end of the book. But regardless of your opinion on how her family background should have affected her, the fact remains that even when you discard that part of her character entirely she still doesn’t have any weaknesses. The only thing that holds her back is her own youth, and that’s something that we all grow out of.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Matilda drives the plot forward at every turn, and it’s mostly through actions she undertakes herself. Obviously, she’s not the only force on the plot, and the decisions of other characters do affect her decisions too, but for the most part she’s the one in charge. Whether she’s pursuing her love of learning or bringing people to justice in her own small way, she’s a real influence on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Gender stereotypes have hardly any effect on Matilda’s character. She’s fiercely intelligent, very serious, independent, proactive, resourceful and considers herself equal to if not better than many of the adults in her life. These are the last traits people would traditionally associate with six-year-old girls, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Matilda has a number of relationships with female characters, and while a lot of these aren’t always explored in a great amount of detail, they are often illustrated with smaller details that really bring them to life. She finds a friend (and accomplice) in her classmate Lavender, admires and comes to love her teacher Miss Honey, regards the older schoolgirl Hortensia with awe after finding out about her attempts to prank the headmistress, and feels a mixture of contempt and fear for Miss Trunchbull. But unlike many other female characters, Matilda doesn’t have much of a relationship with her mother.

But they've got so much in common... (image: giphy.com)
But they’ve got so much in common… (image: giphy.com)

We barely see them interact at all, and while this is fleshed out a little more in the film, it still doesn’t really factor into the story. This is really unusual, as mother characters are often a staple of children’s literature. Regardless, Matilda still has a range of different relationships with a range of different characters, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Matilda is a fiercely intelligent, independent and serious little girl, who’s firmly in control of her own life and continually influences the plot. While she may not have many weaknesses, she’s a consistent character with her own beliefs, goals and hobbies, and relates to different female characters in different ways. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my all-time favourite films, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marion Ravenwood, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Advertisements

Strong Female Characters: Dorothy Gale

For those of you that don’t know, Dorothy Gale is the main character of L. Frank Baum’s timeless novel, The Wizard of Oz. The plot follows the adventures of Dorothy, a young girl from Kansas who finds herself transported to the magical land of Oz and tries to get back home again. Written over a hundred years ago, the book has come to be seen as a classic of children’s fiction. After several movie adaptations (one of which changed the face of modern film), several more literary re-imaginings (one of which portrays Dorothy as a sex-crazed dictator) and a handful of musicals thrown into the mix, The Wizard of Oz has become a staple of the popular consciousness. Dorothy herself has become an icon, recognisable by her shoes alone, and has continued to influence millions of people’s childhoods.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

In both the book and the movie, Dorothy isn’t really in control of her own destiny. After getting caught in the tornado that whisks her away to Oz, she immediately decides that she wants to go back home to Kansas. In this respect she has power over her own fate, as she’s ultimately decided what she wants to do, but in fulfilling this goal, she doesn’t have control over her own destiny at all become she can’t get home under her own steam. The second she arrives in Oz, she is sent to ask the Wizard for help, and this isn’t really a journey that she wants to make. Similarly, when she reaches the Emerald City, the Wizard says that he will only help her if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West – Dorothy doesn’t want to go anywhere near the Witch, let alone kill her.

Throughout the story Dorothy is sent off on quests by different characters to different places, none of which she really wants to do – she’s pushed through the plot like a pawn across a chess board. She does display moments of agency – like throwing water on the witch, or demanding that the Wizard send her home when his secret is revealed – but ultimately, her fate is entirely in the hands of other people.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Dorothy’s main goal throughout most adaptations of The Wizard of Oz is to get home to her family, and this can count as something that she came up with on her own – it’s a direct result of her love for her family, but also of her being stranded in a strange land with no means of support. As far as her beliefs and hobbies go I’m drawing a blank. No hobbies she enjoys are mentioned at all, and she doesn’t really seem to believe in much of anything either. You could make a case for her believing in being kind, good and polite to people, but this is mainly conjecture based on social courtesies rather than evidence of any concrete beliefs. For that reason, I’m withholding the point.

Baby, don't be like that... (image: giphy.com)
Baby, don’t be like that… (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Dorothy is a pretty consistent character. Throughout both the book and the movie she functions as a kind of ‘Everyman’ – a relatively blank slate with no strongly defining characteristics to mark her out from the other people she encounters on her journey. She’s kind, innocent, a little gullible, and capable of being brave when she needs to be, but this isn’t anything new in terms of characterisation of women, or even of people in general. However, she does display elements of a more defining character – mainly her tendency towards petulance and the bravery she shows, so I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. She doesn’t develop any spontaneous abilities to make the plot move along, either, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young girl transported to a magical land must find her way back home.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Dorothy doesn’t have a love life at all – no matter what fanfiction says. Most of her decisions are influenced by the situation around her, or by her love for her family, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Dorothy’s development is actually pretty hard to pin down. In the book, she doesn’t really develop much at all, but in the final scene of the movie, she’s asked by the other characters what she’s learned on her travels, to which she responds ‘there’s no place like home’. It’s pretty clear that the filmmakers want the audience to take this as the moral of the story – despite the distractions of the colourful world of Oz, Dorothy has learned the true value of the home she took for granted and reaffirmed her love for her family.

D'aaaaaawwwwwww. (image: blogspot.com)
D’aaaaaawwwwwww. (image: blogspot.com)

However, this development doesn’t really hold up, and that’s mainly because of what comes before it. Dorothy never once expresses a desire to explore Oz, or even stay there for any length of time – she only travels across it because she has to, and she’s never tempted to stay. At the very beginning of the film, she attempts to run away from home before she travels to Oz, but doesn’t get very far. She turns back pretty quickly when a travelling magician tells her he sees her Aunty Em getting sick, and Dorothy rushes back so quickly that her family only notice she’s gone when the cyclone hits. From the minute she arrives in Oz, all she wants to do is go home, because even though she’s been showered with gifts and praise from almost everyone she meets, the only thing she really values is her family. This isn’t something she’s learned from her journey, it’s something she’s learned before her journey even starts. As both a message and as character development, ‘there’s no place like home’ ultimately falls flat, because Dorothy never seriously entertains any other option.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Dorothy does have a few weaknesses, but they don’t really hold her back as she moves through her story. She’s gullible, not particularly bright, and occasionally petulant, and even though these do count as weaknesses, the way she relates to them makes them much less effective.

The main problem with Dorothy’s weaknesses is that they don’t really hold her back. As she progresses through the plot, her weaknesses either have no effect on the way others treat her or they are seen as charming, endearing character traits that only help her win more friends. As a result, they’re not really something she has to struggle with, because her behaviour has no consequences. For that reason, I’m giving her half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Dorothy does influence the plot of both the book and the movie, but often her influence is limited to smaller-scale decisions rather than the ones the plot depends on. She goes on a quest – first to find the Wizard of Oz, and then to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West – but she doesn’t decide to go on that quest under her own steam; she goes because she’s been told she has to. That’s not to say that she doesn’t have any influence on the plot: she brings together the principal characters, defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and exposes the Wizard as a fraud. She also gets captured by the Wicked Witch, but crucially, she gets herself out of trouble rather than waiting around for someone to do it for her.

However, the most important thing to note is that a lot of Dorothy’s adventures happen because of the position she’s in, rather than because of the decisions she makes. She’s been dropped into a magical world and comes into possession of a very powerful artefact – the ruby slippers (silver, if you go by the book). She can’t get rid of these shoes, but the Wicked Witch of the West wants them, so she sends various minions to get them from her and Dorothy is forced to seek the Wizard’s protection. Basically, it wouldn’t matter if Dorothy had decided to stay in Munchkinland the moment she arrived – simply because she’s got a pair of magical shoes, the plot will happen around her. As I’ve already discussed, this doesn’t really count as agency. She does influence the plot, but only on a relatively small scale.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In terms of characterisation, Dorothy is a pretty generic young girl. She’s kind, pretty, polite, makes friends easily, isn’t particularly intelligent and is devoted to her family. Part of this ties into her functioning as an ‘Everyman’ character – it’s very easy to empathise with her because the things she wants are things that everybody wants, and the character traits she displays are those that everyone wants to display. Another part of this is simply the time that it was written. At the beginning of the twentieth century, child characters weren’t always given a whole lot of distinct character traits because of Victorian ideals about the sanctity and innocence of childhood. A lot of Dorothy’s dominant character traits can be chalked up to any of these alternative explanations, rather than gender stereotypes.

But this is really where the book and the movie start to differ. In L Frank Baum’s original novel, Dorothy is a very young girl; her exact age is not given, but going by her behaviour and the original illustrations, she’s clearly a pre-pubescent girl. In the books, she’s a lot more practical and forthright, and doesn’t seem to cry very easily. She’s shown as someone who’s capable of adventure and handling great change from a very young age. What’s more, even though at the end of the first novel, she finds her way safely back to Kansas, in later books she goes back to Oz, revealing a real taste for adventure and a love of new things. This goes against traditional stereotypes surrounding women – namely, the view that they can’t deal with adventure, hardship and change – and also lines up with L Frank Baum’s personal views about gender equality.

That's a feminist moustache. (image: wikipedia.org)
That’s a feminist moustache. (image: wikipedia.org)

In the film, however, her character relates to gender stereotypes in a very different way. First of all, it should be noted that the movie version of Dorothy is much older – no matter how much Judy Garland tries to hide it, she’s very clearly a teenage girl approaching adulthood. In the film, her child-like qualities are emphasised (perhaps to hide Garland’s age) and much of her practical and adaptable nature is played down. She also cries a lot more than her literary counterpart, and most crucially at all, her killing the Wicked Witch of the West is made into an accident. While neither version of Dorothy knew that water would kill her, in the novel Dorothy throws the water over the Wicked Witch because she lost her temper, rather than to put out the burning scarecrow as she does in the movie. What this means in practical terms is that the film’s version of Dorothy has a lot less agency, hardly any flaws and far less of an appetite for adventure – she’s conforming to a lot more gender stereotypes about submission than L Frank Baum’s original version. This also gives ‘There’s no place like home’ a different context: it’s very easy to read Dorothy’s return to her family as a reinforcement of the belief that women should settle down and aspire to lead a more domestic kind of life. It’s worth remembering that this is only one interpretation of the film, and that it is also a product of a studio which had to adhere to much more conservative values than L Frank Baum’s. But the fact remains that even though the literary version of Dorothy is a lot younger (and in some ways, less well-known), she doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes anywhere near as much as Garland’s interpretation. Because of the sheer amount of interpretations available and the nuances of the different adaptations, I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Dorothy’s relationships with female characters aren’t really the focus of the story, and none of them are really given any significant depth. She’s awestruck by the good witches – who she doesn’t interact with much in the book or the film, but she regards them with a detached respect. She’s afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West, and with good reason, but this relationship is never really developed beyond that. She has a range of friendships with other female characters (most notably Princess Ozma, in the later books), but none of them are really fleshed out. The most interesting relationship is with her Aunty Em – a woman who is not Dorothy’s biological mother, but who has raised her from a very young age. Aunty Em and Dorothy frequently disagree about things, but they really do love each other, and this familial love is really what drives Dorothy through her journey. However, this is never explored in any real detail during the story. Dorothy’s relationships with other female characters are characterised by quantity, rather than quality, so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Dorothy is a character who has been interpreted differently across many different types of media, but ultimately, there isn’t really enough to her character. While she does display consistent character traits, she doesn’t have any weaknesses that hold her back, she doesn’t really develop over the course of the story, she isn’t in control of her wider destiny and most crucially of all, her character is informed by a compilation of gender stereotypes and storytelling devices.

But does this mean she doesn’t have value as a character? I don’t think so. While she may not be the best-developed of characters, she’s been a huge influence on the childhoods of millions all over the world. The Wizard of Oz is an easily accessible adventure story that has inspired countless people, and while Dorothy may not be fleshed out to the extent of other popular characters, she serves as an Everyman onto which people can project their own experiences and emotions – and it is exactly this that makes her so accessible and easy to love. She may not have passed my test, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll stop enjoying her adventures any time soon.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the work of one of my favourite authors – Roald Dahl. Matilda, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters: Lisbeth Salander

For those of you that don’t know, Lisbeth Salander is the main character of Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful Millennium Trilogy. Set in contemporary Sweden, the trilogy follows the exploits of Lisbeth, a brilliant young hacker investigating a series of incredibly brutal crimes. The series became phenomenally successful, selling millions of copies across the world and with two major film adaptations – and just last week, the next title in the series was announced (written by a ghostwriter, what with Larsson being dead and all). Many critics praised the novels as works that redefined the crime genre, and Lisbeth herself was hailed as one of the most original characters to be seen in decades.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: Seeing as I’m going to be discussing the events of the Millennium Trilogy in some detail, this review will contain discussion of sexual abuse, rape, and other violent sex crimes. I’ll try and keep the post from going into too much detail, but if you think you might be affected by some of the content of this post, proceed with caution and remember to take care of yourselves.

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Lisbeth’s control over her life is a really interesting part of the series. Over the course of the novels it’s revealed that at the age of twelve, Lisbeth committed a violent crime to protect a member of her family, but was declared legally insane due to the victim’s political connections. She spent several years in a mental institution, and one of the first things we hear about her when she’s introduced is that from a legal standpoint, she is not responsible for her own actions. At the age of twenty-four, she is under the care of a guardian who has control over her finances, her personal life and can send her back to a mental institution if they see fit. When she’s under the care of a sympathetic guardian, her legal status doesn’t really impact her life much – Holger Palmgren, her first guardian, doesn’t interfere with her personal life, helps her get a job and gives her free reign over her finances. But when she’s under the care of her second guardian, Nils Bjurman, her financial and personal freedoms are curtailed as he begins abusing her.

However, Lisbeth doesn’t really let this stop her. After a traumatic sexual assault caught on a hidden camera, Lisbeth subdues, tortures and blackmails Bjurman into relinquishing his control, forcing him to recommend that the legal restrictions placed upon her are lifted. She spends a substantial part of the trilogy fighting to be responsible for her own life, and isn’t afraid to use any means necessary. Similarly, when she’s arrested and waiting to stand trial, she uses her time to prepare statements and help her legal team come up with a plan – she doesn’t intend to stop pursuing her goals because of a little thing like prison.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

As far as her hobbies go, Lisbeth doesn’t have many – she’s a pretty anti-social person, but she enjoys solving maths equations, hacking, and it’s also implied that she’s dabbled in the underground music scene. Her goals and beliefs are much more interesting. Lisbeth has her own moral code which drives her through the series. The core of this is that any form of sexual abuse is morally repugnant, and can be punished however she sees fit. Often, this takes the form of avoiding the involvement of law enforcement and extracting a very personal, violent revenge. Most of Lisbeth’s goals in the series revolve around this moral code – most of the time, she’s trying to punish men who have committed violent sex crimes against women by bringing their crimes to light or smashing them into tiny little pieces.

Much like this. (image: giphy.com)
Much like this. (image: giphy.com)

This code – and the incredibly powerful drive to fulfil it – is a direct result of Lisbeth’s abusive upbringing. It has very little to do with the societal norms surrounding morality, and is something that Lisbeth put together herself after witnessing over a decade of abuse, often covered up by the people who were supposed to protect her family. It’s a visceral belief system that fuels Lisbeth throughout the novels, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Lisbeth is a pretty consistent character. She’s cold but brilliant, frequently anti-social, and only opens up to the people she knows she can trust, and this is a constant feature throughout the novels. Her skills are pretty consistent too – she’s an extremely talented hacker with a photographic memory, and once again, this remains the case throughout the series.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A fiercely brilliant hacker determined to bring abusers to justice, by any means necessary.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Lisbeth’s love life isn’t really a feature of the series – most of the plot centres around the various crimes she is trying to uncover. We see her having several relationships with both men and women, but these don’t affect her decisions all that much. Most of her decisions are influenced by her burning desire to deliver (preferably painful) justice, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Through most of the books, Lisbeth remains a pretty static character. She’s a very spiky, antisocial kind of woman, which makes her a very consistent character, but these are also serious flaws which create a lot of problems for her. Lisbeth’s shortcomings are seen as a part of her brilliance, and celebrated accordingly. Her moral code, which can be vicious and cruel (particularly when she condemns a rape victim for not having the courage to publicly denounce her rapist), is questioned by other characters, but ultimately “proven” by the course the story takes. The Millennium Trilogy shows that its villains are only capable of understanding – and being bested by – extreme violence, and because Lisbeth’s moral code aligns with this, the narrative as a wider force is tacitly endorsing her morality.

In some parts of the novels, this is not necessarily a bad thing – Lisbeth’s bloody sense of justice forces the reader to question their own beliefs about mercy, forgiveness and punishment, and whether the end truly justifies the means. However, in other parts of the books this doesn’t work so well. Put simply, Lisbeth is always right, and this doesn’t give her an opportunity to grow as a character. She can’t learn from her mistakes because she just doesn’t make any. Over the course of the series, she does end up trusting more people and forgiving Blomkvist for ending their relationship, but she doesn’t do this in a way that challenges her beliefs. The people she ends up trusting are those who she’s known for years, closely connected to people she already trusts and have had to prove themselves so many times that they must all be exhausted. This isn’t really development, because she hasn’t really learned anything new.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Lisbeth is very anti-social, often harsh and unforgiving, finds it difficult to bond with people, is capable of extremely cruel and violent acts and has a deeply-rooted distrust of authority figures. These are all things that should prevent her from flourishing, but they’re often treated as a part of her brilliance, rather than a flaw which she should work to overcome. This is mainly due to the age-old stereotype of the ‘Troubled Genius’. We’ve all seen this before – someone who finds it difficult to fit in with normal society is capable of doing incredible things, such as solving impossible maths problems, composing wonderful music or being a very talented actor. Obviously, this is a bit of a thorny issue, so I’d just like to pre-emptively apologise for stepping on anyone’s toes here.

I am British, after all. (image: giphy.com)
I am British, after all. (image: giphy.com)

The problem with this trope is that the character’s flaws – which in this particular trope, can encompass anything from difficulty with social interaction to severe mental illnesses – are treated as part of the character’s brilliance: according to this cliché, they are the price of genius. This is actually a really damaging idea, because it can make very damaging mental illnesses seem like a part of someone’s personality – and therefore, something which they (and everyone around them) just have to put up with. In real life, this can make it much less likely for people with mental illnesses to seek out treatment, as mental illness is not always treated with the seriousness that life-threatening conditions should be. Lisbeth falls right into this bracket. The narrative treats Lisbeth’s condition – parts of which can be classified as the product of intense psychological trauma – as a part of her personality, rather than as something that affects her personality: they’re a side-effect of her own brilliance. In this respect, the Millennium Trilogy often treats Lisbeth’s aggression, difficulty socialising and capacity for extreme violence as flaws in her personality, rather than as the product of mental illness. This is a really interesting (and complicated) topic that deals with the lines that divide personality traits and personality disorders, but the narrative doesn’t really address this implication. Whether you consider these parts of her personality to be flaws or illnesses, they don’t really prevent her from moving through the story, and for that reason, I’m giving her half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Lisbeth drives the plot forward at every turn – whether she’s investigating companies or doling out justice, she’s a real influence on the plot. She doesn’t influence the plot simply by being in it, either – she actively goes out and makes things happen.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Lisbeth pretty much destroys every gender stereotype she comes across.

See, Thor knows how she does it. (image: giphy.com)
See, Thor knows how she does it. (image: giphy.com)

She’s aggressive, reticent, very good with computers, anti-social and not afraid of going to extremes – hardly traits associated with young women. She has a similar effect on stereotypes surrounding sexuality. Lisbeth is bisexual, and while most of her relationships are casual, she will only start a relationship with someone if she trusts them. This goes against one of the most prominent stereotypes about bisexuals – the belief that bisexuality is just a cover for promiscuous behaviour, and that they don’t take their relationships seriously. Lisbeth’s relationships may be casual, but she definitely takes them seriously; with all her sexual partners, we see her getting to know them before the sexual part of their relationship begins, and she rarely forms a sexual relationship with someone she doesn’t trust.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Lisbeth has a lot of difficulty building up relationships with any kind of character, no matter what gender they are. However, she does have a varied range of relationships with women. She has a sexual relationship with her on-again, off-again girlfriend, Mimi, who she eventually ends up driving away when Lisbeth goes to trial. She mistrusts Blomkvist’s partner Erika, and even envies her, but eventually comes to respect her. She gets on well with Annika, her lawyer, trusting her enough to tell her about her childhood and plan the case together. She has a very difficult relationship with her sister, who we never meet in the novels, and feels a strange kind of angry contempt towards Harriet Vanger, the woman she is asked to find in the first novel. That’s a range of relationships consistent with her character, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Lisbeth is an incredibly complex character. With a traumatic childhood that has seriously affected the way she relates to other people, she’s a compelling presence in the books, taking full control of both her own life and the wider plot. She doesn’t conform to anything, displays a consistent level of strengths and abilities, and while she might not develop all that much as the story progresses, she is nevertheless an enigmatic and powerful presence throughout all three novels.

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, I’m coming for you…and your little dog, too!

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters: Katara

For those of you that don’t know, Katara is one of the principal characters in the hit cartoon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Set in a world where people can control one of the four elements, the plot follows the adventures of the Avatar – the one person in the world who can control all four elements – as he attempts to defeat the evil Fire Lord and restore balance to the world. Katara is not the main character, but she stars in almost every episode and plays a significant role in helping the Avatar on his quest. The show was hailed as a modern classic – particularly for the ways it dealt with adult themes and problems in a show aimed at children – and Katara herself was has been described as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Katara has a really interesting relationship with her wider destiny. When we first meet her she is a member of a very small village, and it’s quickly made clear that after her tribe was decimated by war, she had to take on a lot of responsibility and put her dreams on hold. When she gets her grandmother’s blessing to leave, she is given control over her own future and gets to travel the world, become a master waterbender and help stop the Fire Lord. Throughout most of the show she is in control of her own destiny – she gets to decide where the group goes, whether to help the people they meet and picks the battles she wants to fight – but she’s always very aware of the fact that at times, she will have to put her own goals on hold in order to help the Avatar.

This ties in to parts of the traditional ‘Chosen One’ narrative in that Katara feels she has a destiny that she cannot walk away from; she could go back to her normal life, but she can’t do it in good conscience. The difference between Katara’s story and this traditional narrative is that while she may be on a difficult and dangerous path, it is a path she chose to walk. Unlike characters like Buffy and Sailor Moon, Katara has an easy way out – if she wanted to, she could just go back home at a moment’s notice, because there are no higher powers compelling her to fight evil. However, she chooses to fight it anyway, even though it can mean putting her personal goals to one side and putting herself in danger. To my mind, that’s a much more meaningful narrative than being shoe-horned into place by destiny.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Katara has a very clear set of goals that come from a variety of different places. She wants to become a master waterbender, allowing her to telekinetically control water, snow and ice, and this is something she’s wanted to do for most of her life. She also wants to help the Avatar, stop the Fire Nation from conquering the world and rebuild her village in the South Pole – these are mainly goals that have come about from her involvement in the war with the Fire Nation. Her beliefs tie into this: she believes in helping as many people as she can, not leaving people behind and in helping people reach their fullest potential – all of which are linked to the things she has worked for. As far as hobbies go, she doesn’t have many to speak of – apart from a very strong interest in fortune-telling – but two out of three isn’t bad.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

On the whole, Katara is a pretty consistent character. Throughout the series she remains a brave, passionate young girl who tries to be kind to everyone but is prone to holding grudges. As the series progresses, her skills do too – she starts out knowing almost nothing about waterbending, and has to figure out much of it on her own, but eventually becomes good enough to teach the Avatar. This progression of skill is handled pretty well – it’s a slow, gradual process that spans over sixty episodes, and she’s never simply handed the ability to immediately crush her enemies. She really has to work for it, and that’s what makes her transformation so believable.

I feel like I could also make some sort of joke about the splash zone here. (image: comicvine.com)
I feel like I could also make some sort of joke about the splash zone here. (image: comicvine.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young girl determined to bring down a conquering empire, become a master of her craft and protect her friends and family.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Katara has a brief crush on a ‘freedom fighter’, Jet, but that quickly turns sour. The rest of the series is spent establishing an extremely tentative, awkward relationship between her and Aang. However, this is actually a really minor part of the show, and doesn’t affect many of Katara’s decisions. Most of her decisions are influenced by her goals, her beliefs and her concern for the people she cares about.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Katara undergoes quite a bit of character development over the course of all three series. She grows into her abilities, becoming a waterbending master who can fight and heal with equal skill. More importantly, she takes control of her own destiny, works towards overcoming the grudges she holds and learns to loosen up a little.

This is also an accurate representation of me, when confronted by Twilight. (image: giphy.com)
This is also an accurate representation of me, when confronted by Twilight. (image: giphy.com)

That’s a range of character development for a range of problems, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Katara exhibits a whole range of weaknesses on the show, some of which she overcomes and some of which she doesn’t. She can be extremely stubborn, very fussy, can lose her temper over irrational things, has a very rigid moral code that doesn’t allow for a lot of flexibility, and finds it extremely difficult to forgive people. This last flaw in particular really holds her back, as it can take her years to come to terms with what the other person has done, let alone forgive them for it, but it is something she tries to work on as the series progresses.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Over the course of the series, Katara is a driving force for the plot. Her actions, goals and beliefs directly influence the plot of each episode – on more than one occasion, she gets to decide where they go, what they do, and who she fights. She does get captured a handful of times, but these occasions are par for the course in Avatar – all the main cast members each get captured at least three times. What’s more important is that this is far from her only influence on the plot, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Katara is a traditionally feminine character. She often acts as a kind of caretaker to the other characters, providing them with emotional support, acting as a moral compass and even doing a lot of the cooking and sewing required for their journey. It’s made pretty clear (through the comments of her occasionally sexist brother) that this is both the result of an upbringing where she had to take on a lot of responsibility after the death of her mother, and the result of growing up in a culture where gender roles seem to be pretty rigid.

However, the traditionally feminine parts of her personality never hold her back. She becomes a waterbending master, using her powers to heal people and to deliver beatings when needed. She’s very resourceful and driven, keeping the group on track when the others are flagging. She also actively fights against sexism, particularly when her first waterbending teacher initially refuses to teach her because she’s a girl – she demonstrates her skills by beating the smugness out of him and manages to change his mind – albeit not in the way she originally planned.

Much like Sailor Moon, Katara does not deny the more feminine parts of her personality in order to be strong. She takes on the role of group mother, provides emotional support for her friends and keeps them all together, but it’s very clear that this never once detracts from her strength.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Katara has a range of relationships with a range of female characters. She both loves and is frustrated by her grandmother, who took care of her after her mother’s death. She has a very strong friendship with Toph, even though they are polar opposites and frequently butt heads. She’s also intensely antagonistic towards Azula, the Fire Lord’s daughter – over the course of the series, Katara grows to hate and fear her, while Azula remains largely indifferent. Her relationships depend very much on the character she forms them with, so she passes this round spectacularly.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Another perfect score! Like Granny Weatherwax before her, Katara has completely aced my test, and it’s not hard to see why. With a range of strengths and weaknesses, Katara is a character who fights against stereotypes, develops over the series and remains in control of her own destiny – not bad for someone who’s only supposed to be fourteen years old. But one of the best things about Katara’s role in the show is that she isn’t it’s main female star – it’s filled with compelling female characters and I’d really recommend watching it.

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Millennium Trilogy. Lisbeth Salander, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

Strong Female Characters: Bella Swan (April Fools’ Edition)

For those of you that don’t know, Bella Swan is the protagonist of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Set in the perpetually rainy town of Forks (which only gets a week of sunshine a year and is somehow not an honorary part of the UK), the plot follows Bella’s involvement with a group of mysterious, sparkly vampires. She falls in love with the most glittery vampire of them all, Edward Cullen, has some run-ins with a bunch of shirtless werewolves, and generally spends most of the series getting into scrapes with various supernatural entities. The books became an instant success, with over one hundred million copies sold worldwide, and spawned a series of movies, T-shirts, action figures and is widely seen as one of the defining crazes of the late 2000s. Bella herself has come in for a lot of criticism, which mainly centres around the question of whether she is a good role model for young girls.

Let’s settle this once and for all and see if she lives up to the hype. Is Bella Swan a strong female character?

(image: evaferreira.com.ar)
(image: evaferreira.com.ar)

 

 

 

… April Fools’.