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!
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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 –
– 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
- 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
- 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.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- 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
- 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.