Strong Female Characters: Emma Swan

For those of you that don’t know, Emma Swan is the main character of ABC’s hit show, Once Upon a Time. The show revolves around a series of fairy tale characters are affected when a curse transports them into the human world with no idea about who they once were. Emma – the prophesised saviour, dragon-slayer and sexy-pirate-kisser – is the only one who can restore their memories and get them back home. The series has been very successful – and this has nothing to do with Disney’s involvement in ABC, God you guys, stop asking – receiving rave reviews for its fresh spin on familiar fairy-tale characters. Emma herself has been widely presented as a ‘Strong Female Character’: a departure from the traditional weak-willed princesses we’ve come to expect from fairy tales.

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?

To a certain extent, Emma’s destiny is mapped out from before she’s even born. When her mother, Snow White, is pregnant with her, she is told that if she sends her child to another realm to escape an oncoming curse, Emma will come back and break the curse on her twenty-eighth birthday. From that moment on, Emma is marked out as ‘the Saviour’: she’s destined to break the curse on her fairy-tale friends and send them home, and this pretty much dictates her role in the story. To a certain extent, it even affects her personality, as in a later episode, Snow White and Prince Charming decide to magically remove all the ‘evil’ from their unborn child because apparently that’s how that works.

This means that it’s often difficult to take Emma’s control over her own destiny at face value. She’s been marked out for a higher calling, and it’s well established that other characters have been trying to shape her for their own ends since before she was even born. She often gets moved through the plot like a pawn across a chessboard: we see her being clearly manipulated by many other characters and for most of the story, she’s carrying out plans that she didn’t make and don’t always benefit her. Much like Clara, she’s a character that’s sold to us as ‘feisty’ but actually ends up doing what she’s told most of the time.

Part of this can be chalked up to the tropes surrounding the traditional ‘Chosen One’ storylines. I touched on this in my Buffy post, but basically the idea that you can be marked out as a super-special saviour often comes with all sorts of limitations on free will and raises questions about the inevitability of fate. However, where Buffy managed to still have some control over other aspects of her life – such as going to college – Emma doesn’t really have a lot of control. A lot of the opportunities she takes are handed to her by other characters – such as her job at the Sheriff’s office, which was initially given to her by Abs Dornan –

Seen here rehearsing for his role in Fifty Shades of Grey. (image: giphy.com)
Seen here rehearsing for his role in Fifty Shades of Grey. (image: giphy.com)

– and when you really analyse her actions, most of the time she’s not the one pulling the strings.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

As far as hobbies go, Emma doesn’t really have many to speak of. We see her try her hand at many different things in the show, but these are usually one-off activities that are very much dependent on the plot of whatever episode they happen to appear in. We don’t really see Emma engaging in any recurring pastimes aside from spending time with family and friends, which doesn’t really count.

Her beliefs and goals are a little more clearly defined. Emma feels very strongly about families getting separated – a direct result of her childhood in foster care. Her goals are pretty clear, too – she wants to get the fairy-tale characters back to their world, defeat the various baddies, and build a proper relationship with the son she gave up for adoption. Some of these aren’t always goals she came up with on her own – her quest to get the characters back to their own world is something I touched on in the previous question – but some of them are, particularly the desire to have a strong relationship with her son. It’s a pretty patchy spread, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Emma’s personality is largely consistent. She’s always first into the fray, determined to take care of herself, and can be quite aggressive at times. She does have a softer side – particularly when she’s interacting with her son – but it isn’t shown very often, and is usually displayed in small, subtle ways.

Her skills, however, are completely different. Emma is seen mastering pretty much anything she tries her hand at within the first few attempts. She uses a gun very easily, which I can buy, considering America’s attitude to gun control and the fact that we hardly ever see her use anything heavier than a hand gun. But she uses a sword very easily too, despite the fact that sword-fighting is much more difficult than it looks and she hasn’t had any training.

Yes, thank you, Jon. (image: tumblr.com)
Yes, thank you, Jon. (image: tumblr.com)

It’s the same thing with her use of magic. We don’t see her actively using her magic powers until about halfway through the series. Before then, she has no control over them – often seeming to activate without any input from her, usually when she’s in danger. When she finally decides to start to learn how to use them, it takes her all of thirty seconds to master her abilities, and she’s pretty much a pro from there on out. Part of this can be chalked up to her ‘Chosen One’ destiny, but I think it’s much more likely to be the fault of lazy writing. I’ll be generous and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

A determined, independent young woman destined to break a curse and restore fairy tale characters to their true home.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Most of Emma’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life. Throughout the story as a larger whole, the one thing that motivates her the most is her desire to build a relationship with her estranged son and reconnect with her long lost parents. She has several relationships with various different characters, and some of them do have a real impact on her actions, but never to the extent where they eclipse her other goals.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Emma’s development over the course of the story is a bit patchy. Over the course of the first season, she eventually comes to accept her role in the ‘fairy tale’ and starts working towards becoming a more responsible parent, building relationships with her family and friends and eventually coming to terms with her role as ‘the Saviour’.

This would be all fine in terms of character development if she didn’t keep doing it. Throughout the various seasons, Emma’s story goes through an extremely similar arc: instead of taking her character in a new direction, she almost always ends up learning the same thing over and over again. She’s constantly re-affirming her role as ‘the Saviour’ and always coming to terms with her abilities even when they aren’t changing. I can believe that becoming a responsible parent is something that she would continually want to work on because parenting is difficult and as your child grows older you’re going to have to deal with a bunch of new issues, most of which are caused by all the endless hormones. But I have real trouble buying into her character development in the other areas of her character. Sailor Moon had the same problem: if she’s learning the same lesson over and over again, it doesn’t really feel like she’s learnt that lesson at all.

I've been told I make this face a lot. (image: tumblr.com)
I’ve been told I make this face a lot. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Emma does actually have some pretty well-established weaknesses. She often rushes into things blindly without thinking through the consequences, which winds up putting her in dangerous situations pretty often. She also has real trouble letting people get close to her – a direct result of her troubled past, where many different people ended up letting her down in many different ways. Again, this brings up problems for her in the narrative, as it makes it very difficult for her to form a happy, healthy relationship. These are both well-written weaknesses that have a consistent impact on how she travels through the story, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Emma is another one of those characters who can effectively stand still and allow the plot to generate itself around her. Because she’s the prophesised ‘Saviour’, even if she decided to stay in bed and eat pizza and ice cream for the entire series, other characters would still be seeking her out and getting her involved in the story.

I don't know who this woman is, but I thoroughly approve of her actions. (image: reasonswhyimstillsingle.wordpress.com)
I don’t know who this woman is, but I thoroughly approve of her actions. (image: reasonswhyimstillsingle.wordpress.com)

Although the aforementioned pizza/ice cream extravaganza is an excellent way to spend a television series, this isn’t what Emma does. In most of the episodes, she’s at the forefront of the action, and in her role as Sheriff she’s always the first on the scene for the many crimes she ends up investigating. However, just because she’s first into the fray doesn’t mean she’s actively influencing the plot. The fact that she is the Sheriff means she has to be the first one on the scene – and it isn’t even a role she really wanted in the first place. She may be the first one rushing into danger, but it’s always a danger she’s reacting to. The situations she finds herself in are usually engineered by the show’s villains, who are by far the most proactive characters on the show. More often than not, Emma spends most of the story being placed into situations that she didn’t create and that she has absolutely no control over.

The one area of her life where this isn’t the case is her relationships with her family. Emma actively tries to build relationships with her son and her parents, and when they are in danger, she will take drastic steps to protect them. Most notably is the moment in the series four finale, when to stop evil magic consuming everyone she cares about, she voluntarily absorbs it. She becomes ‘the Dark One’ – Once Upon A Time’s personification of evil – even though it goes against everything she believes in to do so. This is partially undermined by the incredibly simplistic way the show handles good and evil – come on guys, you can’t just syringe all the evil out of someone’s personality – but it is still nevertheless a huge impact on the plot that will hopefully allow her a little more agency. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Emma is a character designed to deconstruct a lot of preconceived ideas about gender. Whereas the traditional fairy-tale heroines were meek, good, innocent and passive, Emma is loud, brash, aggressive, has a criminal past and fights her way out of trouble on more than one occasion. She insists that she doesn’t need anyone else to save her – despite how many times she ends up almost dying – and the marketing makes a point of showing how she’s not like all those other princesses.

There’s a few areas where this doesn’t really hold water. The first I’ve already touched on: Emma may be a strong presence in the story, but she isn’t an active participant in her own story. Most of the time she’s reacting to other characters’ actions, rather than acting for herself. The second is that this characterisation is actually incredibly typical for women in media: as a way of ‘proving’ that their female characters are strong, writers will often give them exactly these kinds of traits. Emma Swan is a pretty generic Action Girl – just like the rest of them, she’s brave, a capable fighter, and rarely engages in feminine pastimes. This would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that if you describe Emma’s story leaving out the specific details, you could be describing pretty much any female character from the past thirty years. This has become a new cliché in the way that women are written, and it often comes at the cost of proper character development in exactly the same way as the old ones do.

"Would you like some more cliches with your casserole, honey?" (image: blog4yourlife.com)
“Would you like some more cliches with your casserole, honey?” (image: blog4yourlife.com)

The other area that gender stereotypes affect Emma’s character is her attitude to family. Emma gives birth to a son, Henry, and decides to give him up for adoption – mainly because she has him while she’s in jail. Ten years later, when he comes to visit her, she decides that she wants to build a relationship with him. This is all pretty understandable: it gets tricky when you look at the way the show compares her with her son’s adoptive mother, Regina.

Emma is consistently portrayed as the better parent – even though she showed absolutely no interest in her son until he turned up on her doorstep. Even when she’s living out of a car, hasn’t seen her son in ten years and lies to him about his father, the show is always keen to stress that she is a better parent than Regina. Henry thinks so too – he runs away to try and find her, and continually rebuffs all the attempts that Regina makes to take care of him. Regina, on the other hand, has raised Henry since he was a baby, buys him books and toys to keep him entertained, is continually checking in with his doctors and teachers. Regina’s relationship with her son is far from perfect – in the first series, in order to keep the curse a secret she tries to convince everyone that Henry is mentally ill. But even though some of her methods are frankly disturbing, Regina is always shown making a lot more effort in her relationship with Henry than Emma does.

The show consistently portrays the relationship between Henry and his birth family as more important than Henry and his adopted family, despite the fact that we see Regina acting a lot more like a responsible parent than Emma does. The idea of a mother’s love is a constant theme on the show, but in this particular instant it has a nasty twist. Frequently, Emma is seen as the mother and Regina is seen as an interloper, and all that she has done for her adopted son is completely set aside. In casting Emma as the better parent and actively ignoring Regina’s efforts, the show is sweeping adoptive relationships under the rug and implying that the bond between birth mothers and their children will always be stronger. This just isn’t the case. It takes a lot more than having the right biological equipment to actually be a mother. It implies that just seeing a child can make long-buried maternal instincts re-surface in just about anyone with a uterus, and more importantly, it does a real disservice to people who do choose to adopt children in order to give them a happier, more stable environment.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Emma has a lot of really interesting relationships with a range of different female characters. She becomes friends with Snow White, and then later finds out that she’s actually her long-lost mother. She becomes friends with Red Riding Hood – who it turns out, is a werewolf – and must help her control her condition. She takes an instant dislike to Regina, the Evil Queen, which eventually evolves into an uneasy respect and ultimately friendship. What’s really great about all these relationships is that they’re given the time to develop, so she passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Emma is a bit of a tricky character. She’s presented to the audience as a ‘Strong Female Character’: as someone who can take care of herself, doesn’t need someone else to come and rescue her, and isn’t completely dependent on her boyfriend.

Eeeeeexactly. (image: memecrunch.com)
Eeeeeexactly. (image: memecrunch.com)

This is all true, but it isn’t enough to make her a truly strong character. While she may have a range of relationships with other female characters, have some very well-developed weaknesses, and is never defined by her romantic relationships, she doesn’t change much over the course of the story and when you really examine it, she doesn’t have much of an impact on the plot. She’s consistently sold as a ‘Strong Female Character’ – just look at the marketing – but when you get right down to it, she’s nowhere near as strong as the posters make her out to be.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a more recent work – Jurassic World. Claire, 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: Sarah Williams

For those of you that don’t know, Sarah Williams is the main character of the 1986 cult classic, Labyrinth. The film follows Sarah’s attempts to get her baby step-brother back from the evil Goblin King – played by David Bowie in a whirl of glitter-mullets and eyeliner – by solving his labyrinth, which is entirely populated by muppets. While the film wasn’t an initial success, over the years it has become a cult classic, largely thanks to the glitter-mullet and several pairs of extremely tight trousers. Sarah herself has become a fan favourite – an iconic character that shaped the childhoods of millions.

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?

It’s very easy to look at Sarah as a very passive character. She spends most of the film running through the Goblin King’s labyrinth, careening from trap to trap – these don’t look like the actions of somebody who’s in control of their own destiny. Most of her time in the labyrinth is spent reacting to the various obstacles that are put in her path, and acquiring various adorable muppet-friends.

But to assume this is to do her a disservice. Sarah does shape the plot of the film in a very significant way: she wishes her baby brother away, and then tries to get him back from the Goblin King. On a larger scale, she is very much in control of her own destiny, regardless of the obstacles that are placed in her path. Throughout the film, she actively tries to change the world around her to make her own life better, even if she is reacting to a situation she has no control over. I’ll be generous and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Sarah’s hobbies are very well established. She likes reading fantasy novels, acting, and hasn’t quite grown out of her childhood toys. From what I can tell, she’s also into something that looks a bit like solo-LARPing.

It's the quintessential teenage pastime. (image: blogspot.com)
It’s the quintessential teenage pastime. (image: blogspot.com)

Her goals and beliefs are less clearly defined, however. We don’t know much about her beliefs at all, but her goals are another matter. It’s established that she wants to get her brother back from the Goblin King very early on in the film, but this isn’t something she wanted before the story starts: it comes about as a result of the Goblin King granting her request when she wishes her brother away. In short, her goals come about as the direct result of another character’s actions, which kind of undercuts her motivations as a character. It’s not enough to fail her completely, but it’s not enough for a total pass, either.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Much like Dorothy, Sarah functions as a kind of ‘Everyman’. As a character who’s thrust into a strange and magical world, a lot of the time she’s defined by her interactions with the other characters and the world around her, rather than her own personality traits. At times, Sarah’s personality tends towards the generic: she’s brave, kind and a little naïve, and doesn’t express many opinions or quirks that are uniquely hers. However, she does have some defining characteristics that stop her from being a blank slate – she’s petulant, immature, resourceful and can be pretty rash. As far as her skills go, they’re largely consistent: although she makes remarkable progress through the labyrinth, at the beginning of the film it’s established that she’s familiar with the story, and the puzzles she faces aren’t necessarily things that a teenage girl couldn’t think her way out of. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

An immature young girl wishes her baby brother away, and must use every resource she has to get him back.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Sarah’s love life has been the subject of endless fanfiction, but none of this has much of a basis in the film. While a significant portion of the fandom would dearly love to see her get together with the King of the Cheekbones, this isn’t actually something that’s supported by the movie. While Jareth puts the moves on her in a vaguely trippy dream sequence, displaying a clear interest in the teenage Sarah –

Have a seat. (image: adamcarolla.com)
Have a seat. (image: adamcarolla.com)

– it’s pretty one-sided. She doesn’t show any affection towards him apart from when she’s hallucinating, and we all know that doesn’t count. In fact, she outright rejects his offer to be her supernatural boyfriend in the climax of the film, ultimately placing familial love over David Bowie’s cheekbones.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

On the surface, Sarah appears to develop over the course of the film. She starts off hating her step-family and acting very immature, behaving petulantly and valuing childish toys over more important things. By the end of the film, she has rescued her step-brother and goes through a token coming-of-age rejection of childhood when she’s trapped in a symbolic junkyard.

However, I don’t think that this journey holds much weight. Sarah goes to great lengths to rescue her brother from the beginning of the film, realising what she’s done the second she wishes him away. She doesn’t exactly learn to appreciate or value her brother as the film goes along, because if she didn’t already love him she wouldn’t have gone to rescue him in the first place. Similarly, when she’s in the scrapheap of symbolism and rejects her childhood toys, it’s implied that she’s also closing herself off from the Labyrinth and all the friends she’s made. This is completely undercut when she returns to the real world and decides that she does need her magical friends after all.

In short, a lot of Sarah’s development is only surface-level. We don’t see her work on stuff, or struggle with her own flaws, or try to build a relationship with her step-family. If the film were a little longer this might be addressed, as we would be able to see how her time in the Labyrinth has affected her behaviour – but it isn’t. By the end of the film, the most Sarah has learned is that ‘life isn’t fair’, but she essentially remains unchanged by her experiences.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sarah does have some very well-established weaknesses. She’s self-centred, rash, petulant, makes no effort to understand other people and is fully capable of pushing other characters around to get what she wants. They’re all believable weaknesses that affect her journey through the story, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Sarah does get captured a few times over the course of the movie – usually when she ends up walking into one of David Bowie’s traps. But this isn’t the only thing she does that affects the film’s plot: she rescues other characters, she makes new friends, she solves the Labyrinth’s puzzles – and, as I already mentioned, it’s her decisions that put her in the Labyrinth in the first place.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Sarah relates to gender stereotypes in a pretty interesting way. When you’re describing her character, it doesn’t sound like the kind of personality traits that are usually associated with teenage girls: she’s resourceful, kind, determined, brave, and doesn’t let the possibility of romance distract her from her original goals. However, this all changes when you start to look at her flaws. She’s petulant, self-centred, immature, doesn’t think through the consequences of her actions and doesn’t try to understand what other people are going through. These are all flaws commonly ascribed to teenage girls – much more so than any other social demographic.

The sexism! It's everywhere! (image: tumblr.com)
The sexism! It’s everywhere! (image: tumblr.com)

This is loaded with unfortunate implications: all the good sides to her personality are gender-neutral traits, but all her flaws are the kind of things that are much more commonly associated with the behaviour of stereotypical teenage girls. The audience is very much aware of this: when Sarah acts like a stereotypical Valley girl the most is when she’s at her most annoying and unlikeable. This effectively acts as a tacit condemnation of teenage behaviour. When she acts like a stereotypical teenage girl, it’s universally presented as a bad thing: it’s something she must leave behind in order to achieve her goals. This can, of course, be interpreted as a fairly standard coming-of-age trope, but given the gendered associations that come with it, I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

There aren’t many other female characters in Labyrinth. The only one we see Sarah interacting with is her stepmother, who has about three lines. Their relationship is tense at the start of the film, but unfortunately, as we don’t get to see it develop it doesn’t really feel fleshed-out.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Sarah is a pretty consistent character who’s in control of her own destiny and has a real impact on the plot, but she hasn’t passed my test. Her weaknesses are almost exclusively ascribed to teenage girls, she doesn’t really develop over the course of the film and she has miniscule interaction with other female characters.

But does this mean that she isn’t a worthwhile character? I don’t think so. She’s always presented as a very capable teenage girl, and ultimately chooses to place family and responsibility over the chance to have a sparkly supernatural boyfriend.

NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)
NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

She might not have passed my test, but she’s by no means an utterly irredeemable character. She’s had a real impact on people’s childhoods, as Labyrinth is seen as a classic by people all over the world, and ultimately the message she conveys is a healthy one that isn’t always seen in media aimed at teenage girls. And, for what it’s worth, I still really enjoy the film.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Once Upon a Time. Emma Swan, 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: Leslie Knope

For those of you that don’t know, Leslie Knope is the main character of the phenomenally successful American sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Set in the fictional town of Pawnee – the fourth most obese town in America – the plot follows Leslie’s role within local government and the Parks and Recreation Department. The show was a huge success, running for seven seasons, earning the cast several awards and becoming a favourite of fans and critics alike. Widely praised for its portrayal of positive female characters, the show – specifically its portrayal of Leslie Knope – has come to be seen as a truly ‘feminist’ sitcom. As for Leslie herself, she has been hailed as an extremely well-written, positive character and a role model for women 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?

From the very first episode, Leslie strives to be in control of what she does. She doesn’t always succeed – mainly because she has to contend with a lot of other characters trying to do the same thing – but she always tries every single time. She tries to get an empty lot of land made into a park, she tries to get herself elected to the city council, she tries to make her hometown a better place. Most of the time, she’s successful, but even when she isn’t, she doesn’t let it 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?

Leslie is a character with one very clear goal that drives her through all seven series: she wants to become President of the United States. This is a dream she’s had since she was a little girl, and she pursues it to the best of her ability all through the show.

Her hobbies and beliefs are very well-established too. Leslie is a die-hard feminist who believes in equality for people of all genders and sexual orientations, and we see her actively working to make this a reality during the show. Likewise, we also see her love of arts and crafts in many different episodes: she loves making things for her friends and family, such as quilts, throw pillows, and mosaic portraits of her best friends made from the crushed glass of their favourite soda bottles.

You shouldn't have... (image: hercampus.com)
You shouldn’t have… (image: hercampus.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Leslie is a pretty consistent character. She’s very energetic, very idealistic, throws herself into every activity she can and never forgets her goals. Her skills stay at a constant level too: she displays an aptitude for bureaucracy, multi-tasking and roller-skating. Her talent for arts and crafts is particularly well-established: not only do we see her making things during the course of the show, but we also find out that this is something she has done since she was a child (although her projects were not quite so ambitious then).

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 determined, energetic government official who works tirelessly to get ahead in politics and improve her hometown.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Leslie’s love life generates a substantial amount of the show’s more emotional moments, and often provides some of the more heavy-hitting drama. While it’s definitely not the show’s main focus, it is nevertheless a crucial part of her storyline. The most significant relationship she has is with city manager, Ben Wyatt – the man who eventually becomes her husband – and because they have to work together, they needed to keep their relationship a secret or one of them could lose their jobs. When Leslie realises that this could jeopardise everything she has worked for, they break up, in a scene that is so heart-breaking that every time I watch it I have to pretend someone’s been cutting onions.

YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND GUYS HE MADE HER A BADGE (image: hellogiggles.com)
YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND GUYS HE MADE HER A BADGE (image: hellogiggles.com)

They eventually decide to get back together and damn the consequences, but it’s with the understanding that Leslie isn’t going to compromise her beliefs or forget about what she’s been aiming for, and it’s this that marks out their relationship as something really special. Leslie’s love life certainly does factor into her decisions, but it doesn’t overwhelm her original goals. Most of her decisions are influenced by her desire to get ahead in her career and do a good job at work, and she never loses sight of her ultimate goal.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Leslie develops very subtly over the course of the TV series. She doesn’t necessarily work to overcome her flaws in the way that other characters do, but she matures, accepts that sometimes her plans are going to fail, learns to put her own concerns aside for the greater good, and stops being petrified of breaking the rules a little. It’s a very slow, gradual change that’s heavily tied into the events that affect her as a character, but it’s a very clear progression that allows the core elements of her personality to shine.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Leslie can be deeply, deeply cringeworthy.

I’m just kidding. A lot of Leslie’s weaknesses are often linked to her strengths. She has a clear vision of what she wants to do, firmly believes that she knows what’s best for other people, and has a phenomenal amount of drive that helps her succeed. This often translates into her steamrolling over other people’s opinions, a certain amount of meddling in her friends’ lives, and a tendency to dismiss people when they try and get her to confront things she doesn’t like. She can also be quite selfish, has absolutely no idea how to relax and occasionally struggles with her self-esteem, as she always feels the need for approval. These are all very realistic weaknesses that tie into the other parts of her personality, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

No-one gets captured or killed in Parks and Recreation – Pawnee’s raccoon problem isn’t quite that bad – but nevertheless, Leslie is still a real force in terms of the plot. She’s constantly driving the story forward, whether it’s with her plans to build a park, get herself onto the city council, or to make the step up into federal government. Her decisions have a huge impact in pretty much every episode, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways, Leslie is a very traditional woman. She meddles in her friends’ romantic lives, enjoys traditionally feminine pastimes such as sewing and arts and crafts, and eventually settles down with a husband and three children. At times, her romantic life suffers because of the demands of her career – something which comes up much more frequently in female characters’ storylines.

But that’s pretty much it. Leslie is a government official who works her way up to a position of power, proving that she can handle the responsibilities that come with local and federal government. She’s proactive, determined to succeed, can’t stand the thought of being idle and wants to be the best in absolutely everything she does. She has a set of very clear goals that she’s followed for most of her life, and chooses to carve out a career in politics – not a career women are traditionally associated with. She fights for equality wherever she can, whether she’s creating a programme that encourages young girls to be more self-sufficient or upholding a gay marriage for a couple of penguins.

What’s more, Leslie is the first character I’ve looked at that is a self-confessed feminist. She faces a hell of a lot of prejudice in the workplace, particularly from the male council members, and actively has to work against the stereotypes they try to associate her with. She also desperately wants to win Pawnee’s ‘Woman of the Year’ Award, and goes to great lengths to show how much she values her female friends and colleagues.

This is exactly the kind of character that I would like to see more often. Leslie’s character shows that traditionally feminine pastimes and goals don’t necessarily mean that a character is weak. She’s just as capable of sewing together a unity quilt as she is of running a country. She doesn’t have to deny the feminine aspects of her personality in order to convey her strength, and she doesn’t express her strength by throwing other female characters under the metaphorical bus.

In short, I want her to teach me everything she knows.

She could be my mentor and we could train on a mountain somewhere. (image: giphy.com)
She could be my mentor and we could train on a mountain somewhere. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Leslie has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. Most of the female characters we meet on the show are Leslie’s friends, and as I mentioned earlier, she goes out of her way to make sure they all feel appreciated. She creates an annual holiday to spend time with them that she calls ‘Galentine’s Day’, and seeing as it seems to involve exchanging presents, eating waffles and getting pleasantly drunk, I think this should be made legally binding.

But this isn’t all the development that her relationships with her friends get. She idolises her best friend, Ann, even when she’s disagreeing with her. She tries to mentor her intern and eventual subordinate, April, even when she finds it difficult to relate to her because of the age gap. Her relationship with her co-worker, Donna, starts off a little tense and eventually matures into friendship. Leslie’s other relationships are just as interesting: she is constantly trying to prove herself to her mother, looks up to – and eventually meets – several famous female political figures, and eventually develops something akin to a blood feud with her colleague’s ex-wife, Tammy. It’s a range of relationships with a range of different characters, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Another perfect score! Leslie is a character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, a consistent personality and level of skill, and has an impact on the plot in every single episode. She matures over the course of the story, has some very well-established beliefs, goals and hobbies, and isn’t completely defined by gender stereotypes. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite cheesy films – Labyrinth. Sarah Williams, 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: Beca Mitchell

For those of you that don’t know, Beca Mitchell is the main character of the Pitch Perfect films. The plot revolves around Beca’s involvement with a university a cappella group, and their all-consuming quest for glory. While on the surface the films can seem relatively formulaic, they have been extremely well received by critics and audiences alike, and have been praised for their realistic depiction of female characters and the cut-throat world of collegiate a cappella (okay, maybe not that last one). The first film was a huge hit, pulling in crowds of people, millions of dollars, and a handful of awards, and the second film looks set to follow in its footsteps. Anna Kendrick’s performance as Beca was universally praised, and the character herself has been praised as an extremely realistic representative of adolescence and young adulthood.

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 much of the first film, Beca is a very passive player. She goes to college, but she doesn’t want to be there: her father is forcing her to go. She joins her a cappella group, the Barden Bellas, but she doesn’t do so on her own initiative: her dad makes her do it. She actually spends a significant part of the movie sitting in her room and ignoring other people’s attempts to make friends with her. Quite frankly, she starts off the film like an ‘alternative’ version of Bella Swan.

Tell me you don't see the resemblance. (images: pinterest.com + blogspot.com)
Tell me you don’t see the resemblance. (images: pinterest.com + blogspot.com)

However, this doesn’t last long. As she becomes more involved in her life at university, she starts to take charge: she joins a radio station, starts suggesting changes to her a cappella group’s routine, and actively tries to make amends when she drives her friends away. We even see her try to rebuild her strained relationship with her father as she becomes more invested in her life at university. This continues into the second film, where she’s become the leader of the Barden Bellas and is actively trying to restore their reputation. This is actually a very realistic portrayal of the ways that people get involved in their own lives – it’s much easier to take control when you’re doing something that you’re actively invested in.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

One of Beca’s main goals throughout both films is her drive to become a music producer. This ties into one of her most prominent hobbies, as well – she enjoys making mashups of various songs in her spare time. This is a real passion that drives her through both films, something that she’s always working towards, and something that we clearly see is very important to her, outside of her role in the Barden Bellas. Her beliefs are a little harder to pin down. One of the main points of conflict in the first movie is her belief that she is wasting her time in university, and that she would be much better off if she could just move to L.A. and start her career as a music producer. She eventually comes around to her father’s way of thinking and stays at university, but it’s more because of how much she’s enjoying her time with the Bellas than because she now sees the value of education. Regardless, I’m giving 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, Beca’s character is pretty consistent. Throughout the films, she’s portrayed as a creative, slightly confrontational young woman who finds it a lot easier to keep things close to her chest. Even as her character progresses, these elements of her personality don’t disappear. Her skills are even more consistent – throughout both movies, she’s shown to be very good at arranging and performing music in a variety of different ways.

And she does all inexplicably dressed as an air stewardess. (image: giphy.com)
And she does it all inexplicably dressed as an air stewardess. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A creative young woman joins a university a cappella group and learns to open up to her group of friends.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Beca’s love life doesn’t really play much of a part in the movies. At the end of the first film she gets together with rival a cappella singer, Jesse, and they continue to date all through the second film. The romance takes a back seat to the Barden Bellas’ quest for musical glory, and doesn’t really influence very many of her decisions. The one time it really influences her decisions is in the first film, where Beca realises that she has been unfair in pushing Jesse away, and attempts to make amends. She both apologises and uses the Bellas’ final performance as a means to declare her affection for Jesse, but even though this is a pretty big gesture it never distracts her from achieving her other goals. Her previous motivations remain just as important to her whether she’s single or in a relationship, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Over the course of the first film, Beca matures into a much more active and interesting character. When we are first introduced to her, she’s a very passive character who rarely puts any effort into anything, rolls her eyes through pretty much every single social interaction and quits the second things start getting difficult. She also seems to hate pretty much everything, including movies, sunshine, and smiling. I’m exaggerating a little, but it doesn’t change the fact that when she’s introduced she’s pretty much the quintessential hipster.

She's so alternative that it's physically painful. (image: giphy.com)
She’s so alternative that it’s physically painful. (image: giphy.com)

Thank GOD she doesn’t stay like that. Over the course of the film she starts making more effort with her studies and with her friends, she starts trying to make things work even when it’s difficult, and she actively tries to build up better relationships with her family and friends. This continues into the second film, where we see her learn to be more open and honest with her friends and to stop forcing everyone else to do what she wants to do. She doesn’t quite get rid of some of her vaguely pretentious behaviour (unfortunately), but perhaps that’s something for the third film to work on.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Beca has plenty of weaknesses, especially in the first film. She can be very passive, often finding it much easier to just give up when something gets difficult – whether that’s winning a competition or building a relationship with her family and friends. She’s also utterly convinced of her own rightness, to the extent that she refuses to listen to people who disagree with her and almost ruins an a cappella routine on stage. She pushes people away when they try and help her, creating lots of tension in all her relationships, be they friendly, romantic or familial. These are all weaknesses which actively hold her back in both movies, creating tension in her relationships and sometimes preventing her from easily achieving her goals. They’re all very realistic and believable flaws, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Beca doesn’t get captured or killed in the Pitch Perfect films; the world of a cappella isn’t quite that brutal. It does, however, take a while for her to truly start exercising influence in the films. For much of the first film, she’s being made to do things by other characters, whether it’s her father forcing her to go to university or the other singers making her join an a cappella group. As the film goes on she starts making more of her own decisions, and this continues into the sequel.

However, a lot of the film’s plot is very heavily influenced by outside influences. This takes many forms, including rival a cappella groups, the decisions of governing committees, and a number of competitions with rules the characters must abide by. The characters’ actions don’t always move the plot along – sometimes it’s just stuff that generates a lot of the action. What this means for the movies as a whole is that the characters – Beca included – don’t get a lot of opportunity to exercise much agency at all. Regardless of Beca’s personal development, her scope to make her own decisions is limited because they are plot-driven films, so I don’t feel like I can award her full points here. However, she does still get an opportunity to influence the plot, regardless of how limited it is, so I’ll give her half a point.

If only she could get points for sarcasm... (image: giphy.com)
If only she could get points for sarcasm… (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Beca is very clearly presented as a character who resists all things ‘traditional’, and this includes gender stereotypes. She’s unfriendly, prefers her own company, quits things when they get difficult, is incredibly focused on her career goals and can be quite aggressive. She has little patience for convention and seems to find the traditionally feminine look adopted by the Barden Bellas either silly or embarrassing and actively works to change it. Beca’s own views on gender stereotypes aren’t explicitly discussed, but given her tendency to reject the traditional and the fact that several aspects of her personality are about as far from stereotypically feminine as you can get, she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Beca has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She becomes very good friends with Fat Amy (née Fat Patricia). In the second film, Beca develops a rivalry with the female leader of the German a cappella group, Das Sound Machine, which is complicated by Beca’s heavily suppressed attraction to her. In the first film, she develops a more straight-laced rivalry with group leader Aubrey which later turns into friendship, and this relationship is mirrored in the sequel, where Aubrey’s friend Chloe steps into this role. Beca’s relationship with Chloe is a little weak – as they didn’t really show any enmity between the two in the first film, it feels a little bit like Chloe is essentially Aubrey 2.0 – but the quantity of other relationships with female characters more than makes up for that.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

 

Beca is a well-written character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, a consistent personality and level of skill, and clear goals, beliefs and hobbies. Her love life doesn’t completely overshadow the rest of decisions and she has a range of different relationships with other female characters. She may not always be in control of her own story, but she’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at Parks and Recreation. Leslie Knope, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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