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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.

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5 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Marion Ravenwood”

  1. Hey. I guess, first, I’d like to say Marion Ravenwood is one of my favorite characters ever, female or otherwise. This was definitely a pretty in depth analysis of her character. But I feel like there may have been some oversights. The reason I feel this way is because you can’t compare a single character, apart from all the other characters in a film, to a prototype constructed to be the epitome of a strong female lead/support. The same valuation process must be performed for every character then compared across the board to determine the strength of each character within the film. Remember, this is science fiction/fantasy/action/adventure/history. There isn’t an accurate portrayal of any human being within the film. Since she is generally seen as a pretty strong character, and she scored a meager 4.5/10 in the analysis, I can’t help but wonder if she was set up to fail here just for the sake of making a contrary point. So I’ll just hit some points that I didn’t totally agree with.

    1. She is incredibly independent and she “controls her own destiny” about as much as anyone else in the film, including Indy. For example: She’s a 27 year old American girl who owns her own business in freaking Nepal……….. in 1930!!!!!!!!!!! She may not have been thrilled with her life. But she was living it on her own. And just because she isn’t the one with the plan, that doesn’t make her a doormat.
    She’s not the archeologist. Indy is. She doesn’t know the next step. But neither does Indy, you see. From the moment Indy walks into her bar, she reacts to him. But Indy didn’t plan on Nazis being there. So for quite literally the rest of the film, Indy is reactive and not proactive. So the hero doesn’t control his own destiny either. Sure, he makes the decisions. But he couldn’t do it without Marion because she wouldn’t take no for an answer. So she holds at least some power over his decisions.

    5. Does she make decisions based on things other than her love life? I don’t know. You’re quick to admonish her character for falling back in love so quickly. But you’re not looking from both points of view. Indy did too. At one point Indy literally threatened to blow up the Ark with a rocket if the Nazis didn’t let her go. And you know what, he failed. The fact that Indy was reactionary and had to rescue her proves that his actions were influenced as much by her as the other way around.

    8. Being the one in need of saving doesn’t make a character weak. It makes them a role player. In a very general way, each work of fiction needs some conflict. In a “hero” story, the protagonist needs an antagonist. So there are generally only two characters driving the plot back and forth. Everyone else plays a role. Marion actually plays a decent role considering the basics of the narrative. Is she the most creatively written character? No. Could she have done more to drive the plot? Probably. But I distinctly remember her making lemonade by blowing a bunch of stuff up when she got locked in the cockpit of the plane. Indy took out one guy. She took out a truckload. Come to think of it, she took the big guy out too. So it’s not as though she was some helpless lass who couldn’t walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. And you have to keep things in perspective. Indy lives a life of adventure and danger. She’s not in her element hunting for treasure and avoiding Nazis.

    9. Gender stereotypes.
    You say she conformed to Indy. And she did. But again. When you only analyze one character you get a skewed perception of that character within the story. I’m pretty sure Indy turned to a ball of mush for Marion. Of all the films, Raiders is the only one in which Indy shows any real vulnerability in front of a woman. They modeled him after James Bond, loosely. He had one love, lost it, then turned to stone. Sound familiar? But this chunk about conformity can be asserted to every other secondary character as well. Salah obviously loves Indy. But he does some unbelievable things for him. Salah pretty much does whatever Indy asks him to. So all the characters conform in one way or another. Marion’s role as the love interest dictates that, at some point in this two hour film, she fall for Indy again and “conform”. And a character who encompasses no stereotypes is a lost, unrelateable character. As much as our culture wants to deny stereotypes of all kinds, the simple fact is they became stereotypes for a reason. There is at least something “true” or relateable to a stereotype. That’s why they’re effective for character building. And an absolute necessity for a secondary character in a two hour film.

    Raiders is as clear an example of a hero film as there is. Indy is the hero. A hero needs to be heroic. It isn’t that the other characters are weak. It’s that someway, somehow, the hero beats insurmountable odds and emerges victorious. I really feel like people tend to blur that line and take the inverse as true. A 50 story building looks short next a 110 story building. That doesn’t make the 50 story building short. Despite how much I wrote here, there was a good deal I agreed with. I think the biggest mistake they made was trying to make Indy too much like James Bond. We didn’t need a different girl in every movie. We just needed more Marion. I think that’s how she should have been developed further. Throughout the entire series. I enjoyed reading through this, though. It was a very nice counterpoint to a character who has always pretty much been taken at face value. And it’s always fun to read what someone else thinks about one of your favorite movies.

    1. Wow, I’m glad my post gave you so much food for thought!

      I still stand by my analysis, but you made a lot of really good points. I wanted to look at Marion in isolation because that way, I can examine her character with much more depth/detail, without just looking at her as Indy’s girlfriend. I do tend to be on the harsh side with these posts – particularly when I’m talking about characters I love, because I know I’m already biased in their favour.

      I definitely agree with you that she should have been in the other Indiana Jones films – we would have seen so much more of her character that way!

  2. I’ve read a couple of these now and like the others I think your analysis of Marion is pretty spot on. By modern standards she certainly has a few short-comings but as you imply she had some progressive traits for her time.

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