Strong Female Characters: Sophie Hatter

For those of you that don’t know, Sophie Hatter is the main character of Diana Wynne Jones’ 1986 novel, Howl’s Moving Castle. The plot follows the adventures of Sophie, a young woman who gets cursed with premature old age and runs off to live with a fearsome wizard – who actually turns out to be a terrible whiner. While trying to break her curse, she gets caught up in the search for a missing prince, a lost wizard and various family dramas – all while trying to stay out of the path of a rampaging witch. A childhood classic for many, the book was made into a phenomenally successful film by Studio Ghibli that won pretty much all the awards. Sophie herself has come to be seen as an iconic character and 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?

What really sets Sophie off on her journey is the curse she’s been placed under. The Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her that gives her the body of a ninety-year-old woman – not exactly something that an eighteen-year-old girl would wish for. After she’s cursed, Sophie leaves her family’s hat shop behind and starts looking for a way to break the spell, eventually striking a bargain with the Wizard Howl’s fire demon, Calcifer. From this point onwards, most of her arc through the story is the result of her own actions.

Sophie’s relationship to her ‘destiny’ is a really interesting one. She’s the eldest of three sisters and she firmly believes that her life is doomed to failure, because only the youngest one will get to go off and seek her fortune. At the beginning of the book – and the film adaptation – she’s resigned herself to working in her family’s hat shop because of this belief, even though she isn’t happy there and is perfectly capable of finding an alternative option. In this respect, she is in control of her own destiny because she’s cutting herself off from her own happiness, even though she doesn’t feel that’s the case. This continues as the story progresses. Many of the other characters try to break the spell, but it’s partially maintained by Sophie’s stubborn nature and the fact that she finds being in an older body much more liberating. This creates a really interesting situation: Sophie’s in control of her own destiny both through her actions – namely, trying to break the curse – and through her own subconscious mind, which is trying to sustain the curse due to the benefits it brings her. That’s a really interesting way of influencing the story, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Sophie doesn’t really have many hobbies. She does find a sense of satisfaction in making her hats, but she works in a hat shop – she has to make the hats or the shop would close down. Her goals and beliefs are a lot more clearly defined, especially after she gets cursed. She spends much of the book trying to break the spell, and goes to some lengths in order to do so. She also thoroughly disapproves of Howl’s endless attempts to ‘slither out’ of his responsibilities – and his fickle attitude to women. These are all a product of her situation in life, which is a very realistic development, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

For the most part, Sophie is a pretty consistent character. She’s stubborn, kind, wants the best for her family and friends and has very strong ideas about the way things are ‘supposed’ to play out – which are often linked to her tendency to put faith in things like clichés and appearances. Her self-confidence grows as the story progresses, although it is jump-started by the cursed the Witch of the Waste puts on her. However, given the importance Sophie places on appearances and preconceptions at the beginning of her story, I don’t think this is an unrealistic development.

No seriously, she's totally confident... (image: giphy.com)
No seriously, she’s totally confident… (image: giphy.com)

Her skills continue in much the same vein. While they’re absent from the Studio Ghibli film, in the book Sophie has powers that allow her to talk life into objects. She starts off small, casting spells on hats to make the wearer look younger or prettier without even realising she’s doing it. This ability grows over the course of the book, sometimes without Sophie even being aware of it. It’s something that develops gradually and doesn’t grant her any spontaneous deus-ex-machina powers, so she passes this round.

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 shy young woman who finds her self-confidence and takes control of her life when she is cursed to live as an old woman.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Most of Sophie’s decisions are influenced by her desire to break the spell she’s under and to protect her friends and family. Over the course of the story she falls in love with Howl, but it happens so slowly and naturally that when she does allow her love life to affect her decisions, it doesn’t seem out of place. It doesn’t eclipse her decisions or previous motivations, so once again, she’s passed.

It's handled pretty subtly, even though it's also SO adorable. (image: giphy.com)
It’s handled pretty subtly, even though it’s also SO adorable. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

In both the book and the Studio Ghibli film, Sophie begins the story as quite a shy young woman who feels seriously hampered by other people’s expectations of her. She becomes very isolated very quickly, and gets so embarrassed in some situations that she literally runs away. When she’s transformed into an old woman, she becomes much bossier, much more confident, and much more involved in her own life. Both versions of the story recount Sophie’s journey to becoming a more confident and active woman, whether she’s old or young.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sophie has several weaknesses that hold her back over the course of the story. As I’ve already mentioned, she’s not very confident in herself, and actively struggles against this for most of the story. She’s also inclined to hold herself back for fear of meeting with some terrible disaster, a character trait that actually sustains her curse, according to some interpretations. She can be incredibly clueless about the way other people feel about her, and this is particularly evident in the book, where she doesn’t realise that Howl has fallen in love with her and actively pushes her family away after she is cursed. These are all weaknesses that actively hold her back and make things difficult for her, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

It’s pretty easy to argue that for much of Howl’s Moving Castle Sophie’s journey is influenced by other characters – particularly the Witch of the Waste, whose curse effectively sent Sophie on her quest. However, this doesn’t mean that Sophie has no direct influence on the plot. She actively seeks out the Wizard Howl and tries to lift the curse, works out how to break Calcifer’s contract with Howl, and she also tries to make sure that her family and friends are safe.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

As I mentioned earlier, Sophie is a character that considers clichés to be an immovable part of how life works, and this is reflected in her behaviour. The type of clichés she’s talking about are usually the ones that show up in fairy tales, rather than the ones that typically affect women in real life, but some do still appear. At the beginning of the novel Sophie is a shy, lonely young woman who feels an almost oppressive duty to her family. But once she gets transformed into a ninety-year-old, her personality completely changes. Almost instantly, she becomes a bossy, interfering kind of person who thinks nothing of inviting herself into people’s houses and making herself at home. The interfering old lady is a stock character in popular culture – as seen here in this slightly NSFW Monty Python clip:

 

What stops this from being purely stereotypical is that Sophie allows this transformation to give her a new kind of power. Once she’s in the body of an old woman, she doesn’t feel any of the restrictions that she imposed on herself when she was young; if anything, she enjoys the experience as it allows her to assert herself more. She’s using these clichés to her advantage, and they get results. It’s also worth noting that for the most part, Sophie isn’t really scared by this transformation – the reality of losing her youth and looks doesn’t seem to faze her much (although her occasional heart troubles certainly do). Once the curse has lifted, she doesn’t go back to her previous personality; she’s learned the value of being more assertive and doesn’t see clichés as such an important part of her worldview.

This leaves me with a really interesting – albeit tricky – situation to try and make sense of. On the one hand, in many ways Sophie is a very traditional woman: she spends a lot of the novel cooking, cleaning, sewing, making clothes and doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work that nobody really seems to appreciate. On the other hand, she’s still presented as a very strong character. She still manages to have an active role in the story despite some considerable handicaps, and she proves herself to be just as capable as the rest of the characters when it comes to defeating evil and removing her own curse. Part of her power comes from the way she exploits other people’s expectations of her behaviour, which subverts a lot of the ways that she conforms to gender stereotypes, so I’ll be generous and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sophie has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, but it has to be said that most of these are nowhere near as well-developed in the Studio Ghibli film as they are in the book. She loves and worries about her younger sisters, and also comes to envy the way they fixed their own situations. She disapproves of Howl’s sister, and considers her to be very unfair towards him. She’s afraid of the Witch of the Waste, envies Miss Angorian, and respects Howl’s old teacher, Mrs. Pentsemmon. But by far the most interesting relationship she has is with her stepmother. At the beginning of the novel, Sophie regards her stepmother with something like suspicion: she doesn’t explicitly see her as an ‘evil stepmother’ type, but she doesn’t trust her either – particularly after she remarries. When she’s cursed with premature old age, she comes to see her stepmother in a much more sympathetic light. Instead of seeing her as a heartless woman who abandoned her father’s memory, Sophie eventually sees her stepmother as someone who still has a large part of her life ahead of her and who wants to live it to the fullest. She also realises that her stepmother does genuinely care about her – a welcome change from many other fairy tales.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Another perfect score! Sophie is a well-developed character with real agency in her own story, a range of relationships with a range of different female characters and some serious weaknesses that she has to work against. She relates to gender stereotypes in a very interesting and subversive way, develops her skills in a consistent manner, and her motivations and personality aren’t completely eclipsed by her love story. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Pitch Perfect films. Beca Mitchell, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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

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Strong Female Characters: Jane Eyre

For those of you that don’t know, Jane Eyre is the main character of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel…well, Jane Eyre. The plot follows the life of a young woman, who goes on to become a governess after a frankly horrible childhood. She falls in love with the master of the house, but when she discovers his dark secret she runs away (although she does still end up with him at the end of the book). The novel is regarded as one of literature’s classic love stories – despite the fact that in one scene, the hero dresses up as an old woman to try and trick Jane – and has become a staple of countless GCSE English courses. As for Jane herself, many academics regard her as one of the first truly feminist heroines in fiction, who continues to have an effect on modern literature.

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?

For the most part, Jane Eyre is a character who is in control of her own wider destiny, but not always in a direct sense. She gets her guardian to send her away to school, giving her an education; later on, she gets herself a job there, teaching her former classmates for about two years. When she gets bored, she gets herself a new job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, and when she believes that she will be losing her job she starts looking for another. She makes all of these decisions herself, even though she must depend on other people’s compliance for them to come to fruition. She’s also fully capable of taking control of her life when other people don’t want to help her. After her failed wedding to Mr Rochester, he asks her to be his mistress (less than a day after she discovered he had a mad wife locked up in the attic, GREAT TIMING EDWARD); she doesn’t want to compromise her beliefs, so she runs away. She does the same thing when her long-lost cousin St. John (weirdly, pronounced Sinjeon) tries to force her into a loveless marriage.

Unlike Lizzie Bennet, who is always constrained by the conventions of the English gentry, Jane has no ties to the aristocracy and consequently has a lot more freedom. This was normal for nineteenth-century England, as the social restrictions placed on ‘ladies’ couldn’t realistically be applied to anyone who had to work for a living. But even when she is briefly lumped into the nobility bracket – when she’s Mr Rochester’s fiancée and when she inherits a large sum of money – she still does not bow to the pressures of social convention. She is perfectly prepared to walk out of her situation with nothing but the clothes on her back, and does so – twice. She’s still expected to marry, as all nineteenth-century women were, but she does so on her own terms. Much like Lizzie Bennet, she turns down an offer of marriage from a clergyman, who were the nineteenth-century equivalent of shirtless firefighters when it came to marriage prospects. She may be under certain social pressures, but she doesn’t let that hold her back.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We actually find out quite a lot about Jane’s goals, beliefs and hobbies over the course of the novel. She likes to draw, and learn languages, and read poetry. These are all part of the accomplishments that any nineteenth-century woman would be expected to have, but Jane expresses a clear preference for these activities over things like dancing, singing, or playing the piano (which are also things that an ‘accomplished’ young woman would be expected to do).

Who's an accomplished little kitty? (image: giphy.com)
Who’s an accomplished little kitty? (image: giphy.com)

As far as her goals go, her main aims in the novel are to find some kind of useful occupation for herself, and to find a home where she won’t be constantly trampled on. Her beliefs are much more clearly defined: she’s a devout Christian who believes in constantly keeping herself busy, she thinks people should be given opportunities regardless of their social class and she passionately believes that children should be taught kindly, rather than with all the relentless cane-brandishing that the Victorians were so famous for. These are all the results of her upbringing and experiences, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Jane’s a pretty consistent character. She’s an intelligent, serious young woman who can be plain-spoken to the point of brusqueness. She has a very calm exterior, but she is capable of an incredible depth of feeling. Her skills remain largely consistent too – she picks up languages very quickly, but as it’s been established that she used to teach languages, this is no surprise to the reader.

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’?

This is where it gets a little tricky. Jane Eyre is, at its core, a romance novel, so you can’t really talk about Jane’s progression as a character without mentioning her love life. This is the closest I was able to get –

“A serious young woman becomes a governess and learns a dark secret about her employer.”

– but frankly, that sounds more like the plot to a murder mystery novel. While Jane’s personality, goals and prospects are not as intricately linked to her love life as Lizzie Bennet’s are, her progress through the novel cannot be divorced from her romantic decisions. I’ll give her half a point, because I was able to come up with something, even if it did sound murder-y.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

For the heroine of a romance novel, a surprising amount of Jane’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life at all. Most of the romantic situations are engineered by Mr Rochester, Jane’s employer, who spends most of the book pursuing her. As she’s his servant, she has little choice but to obey his orders and go along with whatever weird scenario he’s set up.

Mr Rochester is the one on the right, dressed up as an old gypsy woman. Seriously. (image: jane-eyre.com)
Mr Rochester is the one on the right, dressed up as an old gypsy woman. Seriously. (image: jane-eyre.com)

Most of her decisions are influenced by her own goals and beliefs, whether she’s deciding to make herself useful, to follow her dream of teaching people, or standing by her principles and refusing to enter into a loveless marriage. Interestingly, the most significant decision she makes – to leave Mr Rochester when he asks her to become his mistress – goes directly against her romantic wishes. She wants to stay with Mr Rochester and freely admits that she still loves him, but her Christian beliefs are too strong for her to her to seriously consider this as an option. She doesn’t let her romantic feelings overwhelm all her other beliefs, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Jane is a constantly progressing character. In the first part of the novel we see her as a child, unloved by the aunt who took her in. She lashes out at her aunt and cousins and is prone to frequent rages, but eventually learns to control her temper and forgive her adopted family. Over the course of the novel, we see her become a more confident character, secure in her own beliefs. While the bulk of the character progression happens in the first part of the novel, it is nevertheless significant and drastically affects her actions through the rest of the book. What’s more, she continues to develop in other ways, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Jane Eyre is written in first-person, and Jane spends a significant part of the novel telling the reader just how rubbish she is. She lists her flaws at length, but I don’t think that half of them actually count as weaknesses. She’s constantly telling her audience that she’s too passionate, but that doesn’t actually get her into any trouble – when it comes down to it, she’s able to resist her passions just fine. A lot of the flaws she sees in herself (such as being plain, or passionate, or uninteresting) may well have been considered flaws by a nineteenth-century readership, but I’m not sure how many modern readers would say the same thing.

However, in my view this is exactly where Jane’s true weakness lies. She’s constantly telling her readers how plain she is, how unimportant she is, how many flaws she has. This is her flaw: her sense of self-confidence has been so shot to pieces by her abusive upbringing that she puts herself down all the time, cuts herself off emotionally, and genuinely cannot believe that anyone could actually love her. Not only does this hold her back over the course of the story (as her unwillingness to believe anyone could love her makes her actively hide her true feelings), it’s also a very realistic portrayal of how some victims of childhood abuse attempt to rationalise their experiences.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Jane drives the plot forward at every turn. While a substantial amount of the romantic elements to the story are arranged by Mr Rochester, Jane’s decisions form the focal points of the novel. She is the one who decides where she goes and what she does, and while other characters do influence her decisions, she still has an impact on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In order to properly discuss gender stereotypes in Jane Eyre, you have to look at the novel through two lenses: one considering nineteenth-century gender stereotypes, and one considering modern gender stereotypes. Get your time travel hats on.

By Victorian standards, Jane is a ground-breaking character. She’s brusque, impertinent, insults the people who took her in and is a woman actively pursuing a career – and this is presented in a favourable light all throughout the novel. This is far from the ideal of the demure Victorian lady, so when Jane Eyre was first published, she would have been a revolutionary character.

By modern standards, she’s not quite so progressive. A lot of the ways that she brushes aside Victorian gender stereotypes still apply, but they can’t form the bulk of the way she interacts with clichés simply because society has changed so much. She really buys into the idea of female purity, consistently idolising it all through the novel. She’s always in the role of caretaker, whether she’s looking after children or sick people. She’s constantly pushed around by the two men who propose to her, and never really sees either of them as her equal: she describes St. John as a Greek god who could crush her with the sheer force of his willpower, and she never once stops referring to Mr Rochester as her ‘master’, even after she stopped being his servant. She considers both of them to be far superior to her, even when they demonstrate their flaws or actively make her unhappy. And now, we come to Jane’s relationship with Mr Rochester himself.

As I already mentioned, Jane completely idolises Mr Rochester. She thinks everything he does is pretty much perfect, and never really addresses his flaws. Mr Rochester has considerable social power over Jane, and steamrollers over her wishes more than once: when he’s preparing for their wedding, he insists on buying her extravagant clothes and jewellery, and although she manages to persuade him to spend less, he still doesn’t pay much attention to the fact that she’s uncomfortable with it. What’s more, he manipulates her into their relationship. He makes her jealous by faking feelings for a society lady, and watches to see if it makes her miserable. He tries to trick her into committing bigamy – a crime which, in Victorian England, would have left Jane’s reputation in tatters and may well have landed her in jail. Even after it’s revealed that he’s imprisoned his mad wife in the attic for TEN YEARS, Jane never considers him to have done anything wrong, and it’s only when he’s been blinded and lost a hand that Jane considers herself his equal.

Juuuuuuust gonna leave this here.
Juuuuuuust gonna leave this here. (image: pinterest.com)

Part of this could reasonably be chalked up to the ways that first love can completely blind-side you – and it’s worth remembering that for most of the novel, Jane is a teenage girl. However, by modern standards this relationship is unhealthy, and yet it’s still held up as one of English literature’s great romances. For most of the novel Jane sees herself as utterly beneath Mr Rochester, and she makes a lot more allowances for his flaws than she does for any other character. As far as gender stereotypes go, what Jane’s relationship with Mr Rochester really represents is the idea that women can forgive any flaw if they love someone enough, and that any kind of behaviour is acceptable in a relationship – especially if it’s ‘true love’. I’ll give her half a point for her impact on Victorian morals, but I can’t help feeling I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Jane has a number of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She’s terrified of the first Mrs Rochester, even though she rarely sees her. She’s also afraid of Grace Poole, who she initially blames for all of Mrs Rochester’s attempts to harm people, but she actively tries to ward her off with veiled threats. She gets on well with the servants at Thornfield Hall, has a sisterly relationship with her long-lost cousins, and has a mother-daughter relationship with her pupil, Adele. At the beginning of the novel she hates her guardian, Mrs Reed, and her two daughters, but as the novel goes on she forgives them and sees their flaws in a more dispassionate light.

Her relationships get really interesting when you look at how she views the women she looks up to. Over the course of the story Jane meets several women who she ends up idolising – Miss Temple and Helen Burns being chief among them. She spends several pages waxing on about their kindness, their goodness, and goes into great detail about their physical attractiveness. Jane spends a huge amount of time describing attractive women in the novel – even those she actively dislikes or barely knows, such as Blanche Ingram and Rosamond Oliver. Some people have interpreted this as sexual attraction, and while Jane’s lengthy descriptions are the only part of the text that supports this, it does nevertheless add another layer to these relationships. I found an article where you can read more about it here – it’s not very serious and can get a little sweary, but it sums up the evidence pretty nicely.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Jane Eyre is a well-developed, consistent character who’s firmly in control of her own life. She has very clearly defined goals and beliefs that stay with her all through the novel, she doesn’t let her love life overwhelm all her decisions and she struggles with a realistic weakness that continually holds her back. While her character might not be quite as ground-breaking as it was when the novel was first published, Jane Eyre is nevertheless a compelling character.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Howl’s Moving Castle. Sophie Hatter, 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: Black Widow

For those of you that don’t know, Black Widow is a member of Marvel’s Avengers: an elite team of superheroes who fight to defend the universe from various evils. Fighting alongside gods, time-travellers and a guy with a bow and arrow, Black Widow’s exploits have been detailed in a series of phenomenally successful films. While she may not have been at the centre of these films, the character has nevertheless gained a substantial fan following, which is only partially explained by how good Scarlet Johansson looks in a catsuit. Hailed as a progressive character and as a breakthrough for feminism in comics, Black Widow has become an incredibly popular character and a staple of the Marvel franchise, despite being the subject of recent controversy.

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

NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’ll be focussing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s interpretation of the character. I know that her character is a lot more detailed in the comics, but as much as I’d like to read them I simply don’t have time.

 

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

In most of Black Widow’s cinematic appearances, she’s acting on someone else’s orders. We see her fulfilling missions that somebody else (usually Nick Fury) has given to her, and while she does get to use her own initiative when she’s out in the field she’s not the one making the big decisions. But this is actually pretty normal when you consider her role within the movies: she’s a spy and assassin, so it stands to reason that she’d be following orders a lot. While she may have been recruited by someone else (Hawkeye), she makes it pretty clear that she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. as a means to atone for her past. This establishes that following orders is pretty personal for her, as it helps her come to terms with what she did.

There’s a couple of reasons why this gets a little problematic. The first is that we almost never see Black Widow do anything outside of her missions. When she’s not beating someone into a bloody pulp, she seems lost, and none more so than when she contemplates leaving S.H.I.E.L.D. For a brief moment, she considers running away with the Hulk and even starts to plan it, but it ultimately fails when he runs off after the final battle. The second is that while the Avengers are all still working as a team that receives its orders from someone else, all the other members of the team get to strike out on their own every once in a while. Black Widow is never given this opportunity. Her team members get the chance to pursue their own goals and develop their characters separate from their role as Avengers, but Black Widow’s role is so caught up in her identity as an Avenger that it’s very difficult to separate her from it. It’s implied at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier that she goes off on her own to figure this out, but as we don’t see any of this it kind of falls flat. As I mentioned earlier, there are some pretty serious mitigating circumstances, but I can’t let her pass this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

We know absolutely nothing about Black Widow’s hobbies. The most we get is a line in Iron Man 2, where Tony Stark mentions how many languages she speaks, but this could just as easily be a requirement for her job as a spy. This can be chalked up to the mystery surrounding her character – which is really emphasised in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – but it would be just as easy to show Black Widow enjoying a book or something without compromising her air of mystery. We don’t get a lot about her goals and beliefs, either, but the two seem to be intertwined. She believes that she can make up for her past as a Soviet agent by working for an agency that wants to protect humankind, and this forms the basis of her motivation for most of the films.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Black Widow’s personality is pretty consistent: she’s resourceful, practical, doesn’t back down, has some serious emotional walls in place but usually finds it relatively easy to get along with people once she’s gotten to know them. Her skills follow a pretty similar pattern. She’s consistently shown to be a very skilled fighter, good with computers and vehicles, and various interrogation/infiltration techniques. This is all pretty plausible, considering her extensive training as a spy, so she passes this round.

And she'd totally mace me if she didn't. (image: giphy.com)
And she’d totally mace me if she didn’t. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

A mysterious and resourceful spy, determined to make up for her past by doing good.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

For the most part, Black Widow doesn’t really have much of a love life – but then again, as I already discussed, she doesn’t make a lot of her own decisions, either. The calls of judgement she makes during the field – who to chase, who to fight, which part of the enemy’s plan she wants to foil – are influenced by her desire to make up for her past, but could just as easily be influenced by her rigorous spy training.

As seen here. (image: giphy.com)
As seen here. (image: giphy.com)

Crucially, one of the big decisions that she makes (aside from joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first place) is hugely influenced by her love life – the decision to stop being Black Widow and run away with the Hulk. This is one of the few moments that we see Black Widow really take control of her life and move away from her endless missions, and her motivations are purely romantic. This carries some unfortunate implications about gender which I’ll discuss in the appropriate section, but because it’s one of the few big decisions she makes for herself, wholly unconnected from her work as a secret agent, purely motivated by love and drastically goes against her pre-established goals, I’m going to have to withhold the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Over the course of her many on-screen appearances, Black Widow gradually starts to open up to the people she trusts. In her first appearance in Iron Man 2, she’s got some pretty serious walls in place, but by the time she gets round to Avengers: Age of Ultron she’s comfortable enough to tell her friends about her past. This is actually a huge deal for both her character and the audience. The details of her pre-Avengers activities are only hinted at, to keep her air of mystery, but it’s pretty clear that she’s done some things she really regrets and finds it difficult to talk about. That’s some solid and believable development for a character in her position, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Black Widow doesn’t really have much of a weakness. As I mentioned in question six, she does struggle with emotional intimacy and takes a long time to open up to people, but I can’t really call this a weakness because it doesn’t hold her back. She doesn’t struggle to form bonds with people, or constantly question her friends’ motivations, or forgo social situations because she thinks she’d be safer that way. It takes a long time for her to trust people, but this is often portrayed as a sign of her strength, and it never affects her personal life. When she starts pursuing the Hulk in Age of Ultron, she’s actively trying to start a relationship with him; there’s no sign of her trust issues at all.

I can’t help but wonder if the reason why she hasn’t been given any substantial weaknesses is because for most of her on-screen appearances, she’s the only female Avenger. When she’s the only female character with a significant amount of dialogue and screen time, she becomes a much more representative character: she’s not so much herself as she is a representation of ‘women’ as a larger group. As such, when you give her flaws it makes stereotypes a much more pressing consideration – as a writer, you’re always wondering how giving her certain character traits would be received in a wider social context, and this tampers with the development of the character.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

For most of her movie appearances, Black Widow drives the plot along without getting captured or killed. As I’ve already discussed, she doesn’t always make a lot of the big decisions but she is nevertheless a key player in the films. Whether she’s beating up the bad guys, interrogating the bad guys, or simply jumping about on the bad guys’ cars and/or planes, she’s an active player. The only time she does get captured is in Age of Ultron, but it’s not for very long and she manages to get a message to the Avengers – including the location of the bad guy’s super-secret lair. This kind of balances out the fact that she got captured, as it didn’t stop her from influencing the plot, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

As far as relating to gender stereotypes goes, Black Widow is a pretty complex character. In some ways she can be quite subversive: she’s good with weapons, technology and most kinds of vehicles, and can quite literally kill a man with her bare hands. Most importantly, she uses other characters’ pre-existing assumptions about gender to her advantage, exploiting the way that other characters see her as vulnerable. These are not exactly traits you would associate with women, so it’s very easy to look at Black Widow and automatically assume she’s a feminist character when you see her punching sexists in the face.

But gender stereotypes – particularly modern ones – are not that obvious. They influence our perception of both fictional characters and real people in some very subtle ways, and sometimes can only be spotted when you’ve thought about their implications in quite some detail. They’re a much more insidious problem and are often pretty difficult to pin down.

STRAP IN, KIDS.

You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)
You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)
  1. Black Widow isn’t really in control of her own life. I’ve already discussed this in earlier questions, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it still bears repeating because of what this implies about gender stereotypes. I’m going to focus on her decision to join S.H.I.E.L.D. – arguably the biggest decision she made of her own free will. In Avengers, Black Widow states that she joined S.H.I.E.L.D. when Hawkeye was sent to kill her, and he ended up persuading her to join the good guys instead. Basically, he rescued her. We don’t even know if she wanted to be rescued: it’s implied she was brainwashed by the KGB and we have no way of knowing if she went along with him willingly. If she sought out and joined S.H.I.E.L.D. of her own free will, this would lend a lot more weight to her motivations as a character (and make for a really interesting movie), but as it stands, it’s just another story where a woman can’t get herself out of trouble until a man comes along.
  1. She’s always presented as a sexual character. She spends most of her time swanning around in a skin-tight black catsuit with a very low neckline, and while tight costumes are standard superhero fare, none of the other Avengers look quite so bondage-y. What’s more, her sexual attractiveness is commented on by other characters in all her films. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark even finds pictures of her modelling in Tokyo (which is frankly terrible cover for a super-secret spy). She’s fully prepared to use this when it suits her, which does lessen the impact a bit, but the audience is never once allowed to forget how hot she is. It gets a bit ridiculous at times – just look at the way she fights:

    She strikes poses during fights, and the way she moves is constantly emphasising her figure and flexibility. I can tell you from experience (I’m actually a black belt) that it’s really difficult and inefficient to fight like that. It’s also a way of fighting that leaves a lot of your really vulnerable parts (namely, your groin) exposed – and I think we can all agree that’s the last thing that anyone would want in a fight.

  1. She always takes a back seat to the other characters. Black Widow’s character development isn’t really given the same amount of screen time as many of the other characters, and so her role in the story is often more of a facilitator for another character. Granted, this may just be because there is no Black Widow movie, but it can’t be denied that for a lot of her screen time she’s helping other characters along with their stories rather than exploring her own. She’s also been minimised in the marketing, the merchandise, and the interviews with the cast. This is a huge problem, as it basically implies that women’s stories aren’t worth telling.
  1. She’s inexplicably good with kids. You might think that someone who’d been trained to kill from a very young age, had seen and done some horrible things and had been trained to respond with violence at a split second’s notice would be pretty nervous around children. Prior to Age of Ultron, we get no indication that Black Widow likes children or is even comfortable with them, but when we meet Hawkeye’s secret family there’s no sign of any awkwardness on her part. It’s a minor detail, but it’s loaded with the implication that women – despite everything else they may have gone through – are natural-born mothers.
  1. And now we come to her romance with the Hulk, which is loaded with so many unfortunate implications that I’m tempted to write another list – but I’ll cut it down to two main points because this post is getting long. First of all: she’s into someone who could literally rip her apart when he gets angry. In Age of Ultron, she’s learned a weirdly touchy-feely technique to calm him down and help him turn back to his normal self, but the amount of tender eye contact and hand-holding means that it’s clearly supposed to be interpreted as a romantic moment. Also, it’s shown as something that only she can do: no other character in the film attempts it, and so it’s implied that it only works because of their special connection. Take out the superpowers and you’ve got a woman who feels it’s her responsibility to calm down her boyfriend when he’s in a homicidal rage. This is loaded with unfortunate implications, the most serious one being the belief that women are responsible for their partner’s temper – something that’s often used to justify abusive relationships. Secondly, the second she and the Hulk confirm their feelings for each other, Black Widow decides she wants to pack in being an Avenger and run off with him. All her previous motivations pretty much evaporate; the second she falls in love, there’s no more mention of her wanting to redeem herself for her dark past. Not only does this skip what could be a really interesting moment of conflict for Black Widow’s character, it also implies that all women really want from life is a good relationship, and that once they’ve got one, everything else they were working towards is completely forgotten.
  1. And now we come to the real kicker. In Age of Ultron, Black Widow tells the Hulk that when she was training to be a spy/assassin, she was sterilised. She says that knowing she couldn’t have children made it easier for her to go out and kill people, and that she considers herself a monster. I’d like to make it clear that I am by no means suggesting that being forcibly made infertile is a walk in the park; sterility is a real problem that many people struggle with, and I can only imagine just how awful it would be to have that forced upon you. But there’s a few problems with this I have to raise.
    • It’s a very narrow definition of motherhood. Having a family doesn’t always mean that you have to have the physical capability to have children – and conversely, being able to physically carry a child doesn’t always make you a suitable mother.
    • It reduces women down to their most basic biological functions. When Black Widow describes herself as a monster seconds after admitting she’s sterile, she’s effectively saying that she doesn’t consider herself human. Losing the ability to have children can be devastating, but it doesn’t stop you from being a woman – or a human being, for that matter.
    • It reinforces the ‘baby-crazy’ stereotype. Black Widow’s ability to have children was taken away from her, and it was this – more than any other aspect of her years and years of brutal brainwashing and assassin-training – that let her go out and murder people with no qualms. This ties into another stereotype: that all women want children, and will go nuts if they can’t get them. This is exactly what happens to Black Widow – she can’t create life, so it’s immediately easier for her to take it away from other people. We’ve all seen eye-gougingly terrible rom-coms with psycho girls who are determined to go to any lengths to have a baby – how is this any different from Black Widow using her sterility to justify murder?
    • It makes her backstory all about her biological gender. In The Avengers, Black Widow’s dark past is hinted at when the villain, Loki, lists some of the atrocities she committed. It’s made pretty clear that Black Widow has killed a LOT of people, and because only a few little details were given it really piqued the audience’s interest. But then, in Age of Ultron, it’s revealed that the one part of her past that makes her cry, the one thing that she regrets the most, and the one thing that she thinks made her into a monster is the fact that she can’t have children. She’s done terrible things – burning down a hospital, for example – and yet according to Black Widow, those aren’t the things that made her a monster. The script is effectively saying that all those things she did pale in comparison to her sterility; her actions don’t matter compared to her biological capacity as a woman. This ties into another stereotype that influences the way women are treated – some people simply cannot see women as human beings with achievements, abilities and accomplishments: they will only ever see them as ‘women’.

This is actually a problem with a lot of Joss Whedon’s works, and something that I brought up in my post about Buffy. He makes a point of having his female characters triumph over the more obvious kinds of sexism – often personified in a really arrogant male character – but doesn’t always allow his female characters to confront the more insidious sexism that a lot of women have to put up with on a daily basis.

That was exhausting. Basically, she doesn’t pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

For the most part, Black Widow just doesn’t relate to female characters. She rarely speaks to a female character on screen; most of her significant relationships are with male characters. We do see her interact with a few female characters – namely, Pepper Potts, Maria Hill and Hawkeye’s wife – but these conversations are often pretty forgettable and get brushed aside pretty quickly. We don’t see her develop a significant relationship with any other female character, simply because there aren’t many of them to begin with.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Black Widow is a consistent character with some interesting weaknesses and a pretty solid development arc, but she hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t make a lot of her own decisions, doesn’t have significant relationships with any other female character, and relates to gender stereotypes in a way that frankly makes me uncomfortable.

But does this mean that she isn’t a worthwhile character? I don’t think so. She might have failed my test, but that doesn’t erase the fact that she’s still the first capable female superhero that we’ve seen in a long time. She’s clearly a role model for millions of young girls out there, and while her character definitely has flaws that doesn’t mean that her contribution to her story isn’t valuable.

Next week, I’ll be going back to the classics. Jane Eyre, 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: Regina George

How do I even begin to explain Regina George?

For those of you that don’t know, Regina George is the main antagonist of the 2004 movie, Mean Girls. The plot revolves around a home-schooled student, Cady Heron, who joins a normal high school and starts trying to take down the resident beauty queen, Regina George. The film became an instant classic, winning several awards and catapulting its actresses to stardom. It’s been praised for both its humour and its portrayal of the way girls chip away at each other, and has been quoted pretty much constantly for over a decade. As for Regina herself, she’s seen as the definitive bitchy high schooler, and has been immortalised in thousands upon thousands of memes.

But is she in line with the rules of feminism? 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?

For the most part, Regina isn’t just in control of her own destiny, she also controls everyone else’s. She manipulates the people around her into giving her exactly what she wants – whether she’s persuading her parents to give her a bigger bedroom or breaking up other couples with a well-placed phone call. For most of the film, she’s pulling all the strings in a way that would give Littlefinger a run for his money. This control doesn’t last for the whole film – it’s all tied up in her social status, and once that starts slipping away her power does too. However, while she may lose her control over other people’s lives, she still keeps control of her own – even after she gets hit by a bus.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Regina’s hobbies are fairly typical of a teenage girl: she likes shopping, makeovers, parties and gossiping about other people. We don’t know if she came up with these on her own or not, but they’re still very well-established. Her goals and beliefs are much more interesting. She’s ruthlessly determined to make sure that she stays at the very top of the social ladder and will use anything she has at her disposal to stay there. As far as her beliefs go, the only thing she really seems to believe in is herself; she has an unshakeable confidence and seems utterly ignorant of the possibility that she’s even capable of doing wrong. It’s implied that both her beliefs and goals are the product of her spoiled upbringing, but I think they’re also influenced by Regina’s ruthless ambition, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Regina’s personality is pretty consistent, but she does change over the course of the film. At the beginning of the film she’s a cunning, cold-hearted manipulator who thrives on her own social status, but as the film goes on we start to see  more of her charisma and underlying aggression. By the time the film’s over, the aggression is still there, but Regina’s found a healthy outlet for it.

This is healthy?? (image: tumblr.com)
This is healthy?? (image: tumblr.com)

Her skills take a bit of a back seat. Most of Regina’s talents lie in her charisma and ability to manipulate people, and these start to slip away as her social status slowly diminishes. However, they are nevertheless still present – she’s got her parents wrapped around her little finger right up until the end of the film – so she can pass this round.

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 ruthlessly ambitious high school girl, who will use anything and everything she can in order to stay popular.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Regina does have a love life, but it doesn’t really seem to matter to her that much. During the film she dates two people – Aaron Samuels and Shane Oman – but she never expresses any real affection for them. She only starts dating Aaron because Cady told her she liked him, and cheats on him with Shane for the entirety of their relationship. Other characters refer to Regina’s boyfriends as ‘man-candy’ and that’s all they seem to be; someone she can be seen with, rather than someone she actually cares about.

The upshot of all this is that while Regina does have a very active love life, it doesn’t really factor into her decisions all that much. Her love life is a means to an end: it’s a way of demonstrating to everyone else that she’s still popular and reinforcing her own superiority. What’s really motivating her is her desire to stay at the top of the social ladder, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

As the movie progresses, Regina’s character does develop, but we don’t actually see the most significant development take place. As she begins losing her social status, we see her lashing out at her friends and family much more frequently, and she loses her cool in ways she hadn’t done earlier in the film. By the time the film ends, she’s renounced her bitchy ways for good, has found a healthy outlet for her aggression in the form of competitive sport, and has forgiven Cady for her role in bringing her down. This last part of her character development is definitely the most significant, but we don’t actually see any of it taking place, although it is discussed in a believable way. This does take the shine off her development a little, but as we do see some of the other changes she goes through I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

One of the real strengths of Regina’s character is just how much people love to hate her. In some ways, she’s all weaknesses, depending on how you look at her. She’s got a lot of negative character traits, but put them together and they make her strong, rather than making her weak.

That said, there are some aspects of her personality that directly contribute to her downfall. She’s either incapable or unwilling to form meaningful relationships with people, takes out all her frustrations on her family and friends, and is so deluded that she thinks everyone loves her.

Case in point. (image: tumblr.com)
Case in point. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Regina never gets captured or killed in the movie, and remains a direct influence on the plot all the way through. She’s another one of those characters who can generate the plot simply by being who she is – as a spiteful yet inexplicably popular queen bee, the plot could proceed without her intervention as the other characters try to take her down – but this isn’t what happens. Regina doesn’t give up without a fight; she spends most of the movie trying to stop those who would bring her down and pretty much succeeds. The only thing that stops her from influencing the plot is getting hit by a bus, but having your spine broken would do that to most people, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Regina George is the typical teenage girl. She’s superficial, she’s shallow, she gossips about her friends, she’s obsessed with looking good and being popular. This comes with a lot of negative connotations: her friendships don’t have any real depth to them and are easily swept aside, she’s unfaithful to her boyfriend (who she doesn’t really care about) and she takes her frustrations out on her family over unimportant things. She’s the archetypal teenage bitch, and the film doesn’t do a lot to dispel that image.

The only thing that prevents Regina from being a complete stereotype is just how far she’s willing to go to achieve her goals. She’s cold, calculating, and more than willing to create utter chaos if she thinks it’s going to benefit her. She has absolutely no empathy for other people and isn’t afraid to be ruthless. She can think on her feet and plan her next move even when she’s so angry she can’t stop screaming. None of these are traits traditionally associated with teenage girls, who are often encouraged to value empathy and other people’s feelings above their own. Regina may have conventional goals for a teenage girl, but she uses unconventional methods to get them. For that, I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Regina has a lot of relationships with a range of different female characters, but these all tend to take the same tone. Her mother and younger sister look up to her, as do her two best friends, Karen and Gretchen. She’s dismissive and manipulative towards everyone in her life, to the extent that in some scenes you could swap the characters she interacts with and barely notice the difference. The most interesting relationship she has is with Cady, who eventually usurps her position as ‘queen bee’. They start as friends, then Cady realises how manipulative Regina is, and they develop into rivals – but all the while Cady is becoming more like Regina and starts craving her approval. However, this relationship is pretty one-sided, as all of the intricacy and depth comes from Cady rather than Regina. I’ll give her half a point for quantity, but the quality is lacking.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Regina is a ruthlessly ambitious character who’s firmly in control of her own life, has plenty of weaknesses and drives the plot forward at every turn. She has relationships with a wide range of other female characters, has her own goals, beliefs and hobbies and develops into a much more mature character by the time the film’s over. She may be a stereotypical teenage girl in many respects, but who says that teenage girls can’t be strong?

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Marvel universe and examining the character who first gave me the idea for this blog. Black Widow, 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: Marion Ravenwood

For those of you that don’t know, Marion Ravenwood is the female lead from the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Set in the 1930s, the film follows the hottest archaeologist/professor/Nazi-puncher EVER and his attempts to prevent those dastardly Nazis from using the Ark of the Covenant to win their wars. Marion is a central character in the film, who gets swept up in all the Nazi-punching and ends up working alongside Indy for most of the movie. Widely acknowledged as the best Indiana Jones female lead – we all know Willy and Elsa just can’t compare – Marion is an iconic character who pretty much defined the term ‘feisty heroine’ for generations to come.

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?

For most of the film, Marion is not in control of her destiny. Her late father left her the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, a valuable artefact that both Indy and the Nazis need in order to find the Ark of the Covenant. What this means is that she’s going to get caught up in the action whether she likes it or not, because possessing the headpiece inevitably means that she’s going to be at the centre of a lot of the film’s potential conflict. However, the film doesn’t revolve around the headpiece itself, and this is where Marion’s autonomy gets a little fuzzy. Indy offers to buy the headpiece from her, but after a massive bar fight with some Nazis Marion decides that she’d be better off staying close to Indy. She declares herself his partner, but she doesn’t really get much of a say in where they go or what they do because Indy has already planned it out. At the end of the day, she goes wherever he goes – the alternative is sitting around and waiting for the Nazis to come and get her.

That said, Marion does attempt to change her situation. As I’ve already mentioned, she declares herself to be Indy’s partner (but she’s not on an equal footing with him and doesn’t have much of an alternative). When she gets captured, she takes every opportunity to try and escape, but she never succeeds. She’ll use every weapon available to her in order to make her life better – whether it’s her sexual attractiveness, a gun or just a handy saucepan. However, the key thing to note here is that all her attempts fail – the only thing she really succeeds in is getting her money back from Indy. I’ll give her half a point for her attempts, but I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

We don’t really know an awful lot about Marion’s goals, beliefs and hobbies. She consistently drinks other characters under the table – to the point where she looks a little bit like an alcoholic – but we don’t know a lot about her other pastimes. She clearly enjoys spending time with other people, as we see her interact easily with both her Nepalese patrons and Salah’s Egyptian family, but this is never really explored in any real depth. As far as her goals go, we know that she wants to go back to the United States “in style”, but this isn’t fleshed out – we don’t know what she wants to do when she gets back to America, what kind of life she wants to lead or even what she considers “going back in style” to be. Her beliefs are barely mentioned at all, and so for this round I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

By and large Marion is a pretty consistent character. She’s a ruthless opportunist, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, can be very aggressive and has a serious soft spot for our Dr Jones.

Can't imagine why... (image: pinterest.com)
Can’t imagine why… (image: pinterest.com)

This remains consistent throughout the film. The same can be said of her skills – her strong tolerance for alcohol and her incredibly creative thinking in fight scenes are a constant feature of the movie, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

An opportunistic and aggressive young woman who must use everything available to her in order to escape the Nazis.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

This is a tricky question to answer where Marion’s concerned. When we first meet Marion it seems as though she’s motivated by financial gain, but it’s pretty clear that she’s been carrying a torch for Indy for a while. When you consider how quickly she falls back in love with him, it does call her original motivations into question.

However, Indiana Jones isn’t the only influence on her decisions. This becomes particularly apparent in the scenes when she’s not directly interacting with his character. When she’s kidnapped by the Nazis, she tries to escape multiple times and through various means. It’s pretty clear that what’s influencing her here is her self-preservation instincts, so I’ll give her half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Marion doesn’t develop over the course of the first Indiana Jones movie. I don’t want to go into her later appearances in too much detail because I hate Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

GODDAMMIT LUCAS! (image: giphy.com)
GODDAMMIT LUCAS! (image: giphy.com)

– but even when she re-appears twenty years later her character comes across as pretty much static. She doesn’t appear to have learned anything or even to have changed or grown as a person, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Marion has plenty of weaknesses, and this is part of what makes her such an entertaining character. She’s inconsiderate, aggressive, can hold a grudge for a very long time, and often reacts instinctively without thinking things through. These weaknesses get her into trouble on a regular basis and seriously hinder her progress through the movie, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

As I mentioned earlier, Marion is one of those characters that has the potential to influence the plot simply by being in it. She’s got the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, a very powerful artefact that almost every major player in the film needs, so she could just stand still and let the plot unfold around her. As I’ve already discussed, this doesn’t count as agency.

But Marion doesn’t just sit still; she decides to go with Indy. However, this doesn’t mean that she’s still an active influence on the plot. Over the course of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion needs Indy to come and rescue her a total of six times. She gets captured twice, and the rest of the time manages to get herself into a dangerous situation which she can only escape with outside help. The film’s just under two hours long, and if we ignore the parts where she isn’t on screen (about 45 minutes) this means she has to be rescued six times in 75 minutes of screen time. That’s roughly one rescue attempt every ten minutes.

Well done there, Marion. (image: giphy.com)
Well done there, Marion. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Marion relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way. On the one hand, she’s a very unconventional young woman. She’s a heavy drinker, she’s aggressive, she’s inconsiderate and can fight her way out of a corner – none of which are traits you would associate with a typical young woman.

However, where she conforms to gender stereotypes in a much more typical way is when you examine her relationship with Indy. It’s established early in the film that Marion and Indy had a relationship about ten years before the film starts that ended very badly. Canon has confirmed that Indy was twenty-seven and Marion was seventeen years old when this relationship began, although original drafts of the script put her anywhere between eleven and fourteen at the start of their relationship (EW EW EW EW EEEWWWWWWWWW). When they meet ten years later, at first Marion wants nothing more to do with him, but she soon relents and ends up falling back in love with him. What’s more, as you watch their relationship progress it becomes pretty clear that even though she’s still acting pretty feisty, the time when she really demonstrates her strength is when she’s not with Indy. When she’s on screen with him, she’s always on the back foot.

If you look at this closely it’s tied up with some pretty tired old clichés about love and gender. This particular part of Marion’s character reinforces the ideas about first love being the most important love, and more importantly, that when it comes to love all women will eventually crumble. This gets worse when you look at Indy and Marion’s relationship in more detail. It began in a position of clear inequality, with Indy being much older and Marion considering herself “a child”. It ended badly – badly enough to drive a wedge between Indy and Marion’s father, which is never a good sign – and after the events of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it ended badly again, when Indy left Marion a week before their wedding because he thought it wouldn’t work out. This isn’t a relationship to aspire to – Indy hurt Marion and left her to raise a child on her own without saying why he disappeared – and yet this relationship is treated as true love, particularly when you take the events of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull into account. This reinforces the belief that women will accept pretty much any sort of behaviour from a romantic partner, regardless of how strong or independent they claim to be. I don’t want to define Marion by her romantic relationships, particularly given how subversive she can be with many other aspects of her behaviour, but I don’t feel like I can let her ace this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Marion is the only significant female character in Raiders of the Lost Ark. We see her interact with Salah’s wife and some of her female Nepalese customers in her bar, but these interactions are never given any amount of depth or screen time. The same is true in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – her interactions with the villain, Irina Spalko, are not given any real substance, and the two barely share more than a few lines of dialogue. She can’t pass this round in any sense.

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10

 

Marion is an entertaining character that really holds the audience’s attention when she’s on screen, but when you examine her in more detail, it becomes pretty clear that she just hasn’t been developed to the same extent as many of her counterparts. While she’s consistent, has a lot of well-developed weaknesses and relates to both gender stereotypes and the question of agency in a lot of really interesting ways, she simply hasn’t been fleshed out. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have any hobbies, goals or beliefs that add depth to her character, she’s not really in control of her life and she has to get rescued once every ten minutes. Furthermore, because she’s the only significant woman on screen in her most famous appearance, she’s much more of a representation of women than an actual woman.

Does this mean that she isn’t a worthwhile character? I don’t think so. Even though she hasn’t passed my test, I still think she’s been a valuable influence on fiction. Before Marion, there weren’t many heroines who were so resolutely un-ladylike and confrontational; now there are a lot more of them. Although a lot of her characterisation can probably be credited to Karen Allen’s stellar performance, she’s still one of my favourite characters, and probably always will be.

Next week, it’s the twentieth blog post on Strong Female Characters! How time flies. To celebrate, I’m going to be looking at a character you all know and love, but I’m going to be keeping it a secret. Don’t worry, it’s going to be so fetch.

 

 

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