Strong Female Characters: Scout Finch

For those of you that don’t know, Scout Finch (real name Jean Louise) is the main character of Harper Lee’s two novels: To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman. To Kill A Mockingbird – one of the most well-received, beautiful, perfect books ever written EVER – deals with Scout’s childhood in 1930s Alabama, and its sequel, Go Set A Watchman, deals with Scout’s experiences as a young woman in the 1950s (some of which involve personally crushing my dreams). For decades, To Kill A Mockingbird was the only book Harper Lee had ever written, but just last week the long-lost sequel to/first draft of Mockingbird was published. The sequel has been the subject of considerable controversy – most of it surrounding Harper Lee’s age and the apparent U-turn she made with regards to her decision to publish again – and Scout herself has been thrown back into the public eye as a beloved childhood favourite all grown up.

Now it’s my turn to wade in on the debate. Strap in and prepare yourselves for my feelings – and watch out for spoilers!

 

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

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout is a very young girl. She begins the book at six years old and ends it at eight. Much of the novel’s charm comes from the fact that Scout is simply too young to understand what’s going on around her, and this also helps to soften some of its darker moments. The fact that she is so young seriously hampers her agency as a character, as she won’t be fully in control of her life for at least another ten years. However, much like Matilda before her, she doesn’t really let this stop her from participating in the story: she still sneaks into places she shouldn’t, makes friends with people she’s told to stay away from, and gets into trouble of her own accord.

In Go Set A Watchman, Scout’s a grown woman, so much of what I said in the previous paragraph doesn’t apply here. She’s still a very active character, but there are a different set of restrictions placed upon her: the expectation that she’ll behave like a proper Southern lady. Happily, Scout doesn’t let these restrictions hold her back – it’s established that she actually moved to New York before the novel started because she found Alabama society so restrictive – and while she faces a lot of pressure, ultimately she doesn’t let herself get swept up by it.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

It’s established in both books that Scout is an unconventional person. As a child, she enjoyed fighting, shooting and climbing trees; as an adult, she takes a certain amount of pleasure in shocking her Alabama neighbours. She believes very strongly in racial equality – a belief partially installed by her father, Atticus Finch – but she takes it much further than him, as she believes in total desegregation whereas in Go Set A Watchman, we find out that Atticus has joined a ‘Citizen’s Council’ designed to stop this from happening.

My reaction. (image: giphy.com)
My reaction. (image: giphy.com)

In terms of her goals, there’s nothing explicitly stated in the text – she doesn’t have a burning passion to carve out an obscure career – but it’s implied through the way that Scout reacts to her surroundings that what she really wants is to live in a less restrictive environment. It’s made pretty clear that she finds this suffocating in both books, and she actively pursues this: she moves halfway across the country in order to make this a reality.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Scout’s character is remarkably consistent over both books – which is impressive, considering that there’s a span of twenty years between both versions of her character and that one book was only ever intended to be the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. She’s consistently stubborn, fiery, unconventional, compassionate, carefree and at times aggressive, although these traits take on different forms as a child and as an adult.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

An unconventional, stubborn young woman must confront the realities of her racially intolerant society in order to grow and mature as a person.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Scout’s decisions are very rarely influenced by her love life. In To Kill A Mockingbird, she has a childhood crush on her neighbour, Dill, but this rarely affects her actions apart from occasionally pushing him into the dirt now and then. In Go Set A Watchman, she’s romantically involved with her father’s business partner, Henry Clinton – he actually proposes to her, although she turns him down repeatedly – but this barely affects her decisions at all. Scout may be involved with him, but when she finds out he’s joined the same Citizen’s Council as Atticus she refuses to speak to him, and is so disgusted that it makes her physically sick. She’s not prepared to put aside her beliefs in the name of love, so she passes this round.

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Scout’s character development is actually pretty similar in both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman. In both stories she grows up a little, becomes a bit more comfortable with her surroundings, and comes to see her father – and herself – in a new light. Where they differ is in the things she learns. In Mockingbird, her short temper is curbed a little, she becomes a bit more at ease with her own gender (but not with the restrictions imposed because of it) and comes to develop a more nuanced view of her father. In Watchman, she starts trying to look at things from different people’s perspectives and actually begins to pull away from Atticus and develop a moral code of her own. That’s realistic development both when she’s a child and when she’s a young adult, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Scout can be stubborn, uncompromising, and aggressive, but one of Scout’s biggest weaknesses is her tendency to lash out at people. When she’s a child, she does this physically; when she’s an adult, she just gets really, really vicious with her insults. This frequently gets her into trouble, especially when she’s younger, but what’s interesting is that by the time she’s grown up people have come to see it as ‘just Scout’s way’. Her behaviour still lands her in trouble, especially with her family, but it’s excused a lot more often than when she was a child. Regardless, it’s a believable weakness that affects her journey through the story, so I’ll give her the point.

There's no reason this is here, I just love how she's walking around dressed as a ham (image: giphy.com)
There’s no reason this is here, I just love how she’s walking around dressed as a ham (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Even though Scout is a very active character, when you really analyse her actions she doesn’t actually have all that much of an effect on the plot. In both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, Scout doesn’t do an awful lot to set the story in motion: it’s the actions of other characters – such as Atticus, the Ewells, and her fiancé – that actually generate the events of the story, and Scout just happens to stumble onto them.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Strap in and prepare yourselves for a gender essay, kids!

You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)
You too, Gran. (image: tumblr.com)

Gender stereotypes play a huge role in Scout’s life, and this is directly acknowledged in the novels. They take on a particularly Southern flair, but in both books it’s well established that Scout knows full well that she’s expected to be a delicate, demure, retiring, proper young lady who devotes herself to her family – and later, to her husband.

Scout is, of course, none of these things. She swears, she smokes, she picks fights, she goes skinny dipping and most importantly at all, she mixes outside of her social class. Scout comes from a very old Southern family who are as much a part of her hometown as the county courthouse, and this has a really interesting effect on the way Scout relates to gender stereotypes. Because she comes from such a wealthy and well-established family, much of her non-conformist behaviour is tacitly approved of, because “it’s just her way”. She comes from a family that’s well-established enough for her stranger behaviour to be seen as ‘eccentric’: in this respect, she gets away with a lot more than some of the other female characters in the story ever could.

However, this doesn’t mean that she’s free of what these stereotypes will eventually mean for her. In To Kill A Mockingbird, her Aunt Alexandra actively forces her to behave more like a lady: she takes away Scout’s overalls and stuffs her into a pink dress, and makes her sit in on a meeting of the Missionary Society – which is essentially how Maycomb’s ladies socialise with each other. Scout finds the experience stifling and confusing, but ultimately knows that she can’t get away from it. In Go Set A Watchman, there’s a very similar scene where Aunt Alexandra organises a get-together for Scout and some of her old school friends when she comes back from New York. Scout, who has very different goals to her happily married classmates, gets extremely restless and feels a strong sense of judgement coming from her former friends when they hear about her lifestyle.

She rejects these stereotypes, but all throughout both novels there’s a sense that eventually, she will give in to them. In Go Set A Watchman, Scout finally confronts her father about his joining a Citizens’ Council. She screams at him, swears at him, and accuses him of being a complete hypocrite as when she was a child he instilled a strong belief in racial equality in her, and – as seen in To Kill A Mockingbird – he defends a black man accused of raping a white girl in court. Atticus calmly rebuffs all her arguments and explains his position. He is presented as the reasonable, rational party in their confrontation – even though he’s defending a system that was one of the last legal remnants of the slave trade.

Scout never explicitly says that Atticus has talked her round to his way of thinking, but after their debate she reconciles with both him and her fiancé, when before their position on racial equality literally made her physically sick. What this means in terms of stereotypes is loaded with unfortunate implications: Scout’s views are effectively trivialised as irrational and emotional by the aftermath of this exchange, and she herself is dismissed along with them. Her beliefs are not given the same credence as those of the men she encounters and this, in turn, trivialises her efforts to make her own way of life away from the South. In reconciling with her fiancé – who she doesn’t really love – and coming to understand some of Atticus’s outright racist views, it seemed to me that the novel was implying that all of Scout’s wildness, all of her ferocity and all of her independence were tacitly being dismissed as a phase in her life that she would eventually outgrow. I finished reading Go Set A Watchman with the overwhelming sense that Scout would eventually end up as one of those delicate Southern ladies she felt so alienated from, and that thought made me deeply, deeply sad.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Scout’s relationships with other female characters are varied and interesting. Having never known her mother, she was essentially raised by the family maid, Calpurnia – a black woman with a very ‘tough love’ approach to child care, who she becomes estranged from in Go Set A Watchman due to the tensions surrounding the racial climate in Maycomb. Her Aunt Alexandra frequently tries to force her to be more feminine, and this rarely works – but even though they frequently wind each other up, they still love each other. As a child, Scout looks up to her neighbour, Miss Maudie Atkinson – an unconventional, unaffected woman who enjoys gardening – looks down on her other neighbour, Miss Stephanie Crawford – an extremely nosy, gossipy woman – and is straight-up scared of her crotchety old neighbour, Mrs DuBose, who’s half-senile by the time Scout meets her. That’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of characters, so she gets the point.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Scout is a fiery, stubborn, unconventional young woman who is in control of her own life. She has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of different female characters, her personality and skills are consistent throughout both books, and she has a weakness that seriously affects her journey through the story.

Much of Scout’s issues as a character – such as the fact that she’s not always the one moving the plot along, or the problematic way she relates to gender stereotypes – are much more prevalent in Go Set A Watchman than in To Kill A Mockingbird, and I think that a lot of that stems from the fact that Watchman shouldn’t really be read as a sequel: it’s just the first draft of the original story. If Watchman hadn’t been published, Scout may well have got a perfect score on my test – but it would be at the expense of learning more about her character.

Next week, I’ll be revisiting my nightmares and trying not to cry. Coraline, 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: Mina Harker

For those of you that don’t know, Mina Harker is the leading lady of Bram Stoker’s phenomenally successful novel, Dracula. The story revolves around the titular centuries-old vampire’s attempts to turn humanity into his legions of mindless followers, and the humans who attempt to stop him. In the original story, Mina is one of those humans – she gets caught up in their attempts to bring down his plan after he tries to turn her and her friend into vampires.

The story has been a massive success, catapulting an obscure creature of Eastern European folklore into the popular consciousness. It’s almost impossible to even think about vampires without being influenced by the Dracula legacy, let alone write about them. The story has been a feature of the fictional landscape since its publication, with a new adaptation (or ‘re-imagining’) coming out pretty much every year. There’s been stage plays, radio dramatisations, TV shows, big-budget movies, comic books, Saturday morning kids’ shows, Japanese anime series and even an opera – and that’s saying nothing of the countless other books, films and characters that the original story inspired.

With that in mind, when I set about writing this blog post, it occurred to me that these adaptations have so many different versions of Mina Harker that it could become quite difficult to talk about her character with any real certainty. Dracula as a whole has been adapted so many times that all of these versions of the story tend to merge into one in the popular consciousness. The same thing can be said of Mina’s character: while the original book is still the definitive article, there are so many different versions of Mina that it becomes very difficult to talk about her character as a larger part of popular culture without talking about the adaptations individually.

And that’s pretty much what I’m going to do. I’m going to choose a handful of different Dracula adaptations – including the original story – and see how each version of Mina stands up to my Strong Female Character test.

Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!

 

dracula-book-cover-e1436985907366 edited

In the original novel, Mina is never a key player. She’s very much a secondary character, and the bulk of the action revolves around the men: they’re off fighting Dracula and his vampire armies while she stays home for tea and crumpets. This is very much a reflection of the time in which the novel was written, and considering this was before women could even vote it’s not exactly going to do wonders for her feminist credentials.

Mina isn’t in control of her destiny as a larger whole. Dracula is – but as I discussed in my posts about Claire Dearing and Ellie Sattler, when your story is about trying to defeat/get away from a terrible monster, the monster’s the one calling the shots. We don’t hear much about her hobbies, aside from the fact that she took up shorthand to help her husband’s career, and she doesn’t have any clear goals beyond helping the men defeat Dracula – although she was a schoolteacher before she met Jonathan Harker. She’s consistently loyal, intelligent, passive and traditional – and her skills with shorthand actually help with their quests, as she collates all of their accounts of Dracula in order to put together the knowledge to defeat him.

She literally defeats him with the power of administration. (image: theguardian.com)
She literally defeats him with the power of administration. (image: theguardian.com)

You can describe her personality without resorting to her love life, appearance or the words ‘strong female character’, but not her role within the story: she’s only involved – and later, targeted by Dracula himself – because she’s Jonathan’s fiancée/wife. Speaking of, aside from her desire to stop Dracula her love life is really what motivates her – even though she doesn’t really get an opportunity to make many decisions of her own. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have any real weaknesses, and her influence on the plot is severely limited – she is able to work out some of Dracula’s next moves, but ultimately her role in the plot is dependent on the fact that Dracula chooses to target her.

In terms of gender stereotypes, Mina pretty much hits them all. Her role is fundamentally supporting the men through the story. She’s submissive, pure, maternal in a way that doesn’t even hint that she will have any sexual contact, and her role in the story is utterly defined by the men in her life. She is close with her friend Lucy Westenra, who is a little unconventional (and may or may not be punished for it) but seeing as Lucy is the only other female character Mina interacts with she can’t get full points. All in all, Mina is a fairly typical fictional Victorian woman: she does little, is mainly in a supportive/secondary role, and while she does get a personality she isn’t given nearly enough development or agency for her to pass my test.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

dracula-2

Based on the stage play that Stoker himself endorsed, this 1931 adaptation of the story is one of the most famous. It stars Bela Lugosi as everybody’s favourite Count (screw you, Sesame Street) and is reasonably faithful to the original book. Once again, the plot revolves around the guys fighting Dracula and Mina staying home for yet more tea and crumpets.

OPPRESSIVE crumpets. (image: nzwomansweekly.co.nz)
OPPRESSIVE crumpets. (image: nzwomansweekly.co.nz)

Seeing as the film does follow a lot of the original plot pretty closely – aside from changing Mina’s surname – a lot of what I said in the previous section still applies here. It’s Dracula who drives the plot forward, not Mina. Mina’s role in the story is completely defined by the relationships she has with the men in her life, whether they’re trying to stop Dracula or turn her into a vampire. The only significant relationship she has is with her friend Lucy, who gets killed. Her character very clearly draws on contemporary gender stereotypes: she’s passive, pure, and always needs a man to come and save her. These are all elements of the original novel – they’re certainly not unique to the 1931 film.

The changes that the film does make, however, actually take away from her character even more. Her personality is completely different – all of her intelligence and practicality from the novel has been completely removed: she’s a generically good, kind, young woman who is consistently loyal to her friends and family. In this version she isn’t a schoolteacher with practical skills that can help the group; she’s just a pretty young woman who doesn’t really do much of anything. She doesn’t get an opportunity to help the group at all – her role in the story is entirely reduced to that of damsel in distress. She doesn’t get an opportunity to influence the plot on her own terms at all – the only time she does is when she’s hypnotised by Dracula into attacking her friends. All in all, Mina’s agency and individuality as a character has been pretty much hamstrung by this adaptation.

FINAL SCORE: 1.5/10

 

Dracula-1958-1024x614

There’s no way I could write a post about Dracula without talking about a Hammer Horror adaptation. For the uninitiated, Hammer Horror films pretty much dominated the scary movie market in the 1960s and 70s, largely thanks to the talents of Peter Cushing and Sir Christopher Lee. This adaptation follows the events of the novel reasonably closely, aside from making Mina Arthur Holmwood’s wife and making Jonathan Harker a vengeful vampire hunter/librarian (which is, of course, my profession of choice). It was the first in a string of Dracula-related adaptations that eventually became known for their copious amounts of fake blood and as much cleavage as the 1970s could reasonably get away with.

Once again, seeing as the plot of the film is reasonably close to the novel, a lot of what I said in the previous two sections still applies here. Dracula’s still calling the shots, Mina’s role in the story is very much dependent on the men she interacts with, she doesn’t develop or have any weaknesses and she’s still stuck at home eating the crumpets of oppression.

Alan Rickman has had ENOUGH OF YOUR GENDER-NORMATIVE CRUMPETS (image: giphy.com)
Alan Rickman has had ENOUGH OF YOUR GENDER-NORMATIVE CRUMPETS (image: giphy.com)

Where the film really differs is in Mina’s relationships. She’s a much more motherly figure in this film, displaying none of the intelligent and studious nature she had in the book. In this version, Mina is still good friends with Lucy – but here, she’s her much younger sister-in-law, and there are distinctly maternal overtones to their relationship. She also has a mother/child relationship with Lucy’s niece, Tania – although the film is never clear about whether this is actually Mina’s daughter – and frequently converses with her maid, Gerda. Her relationship with Dracula is also a very interesting one. It’s never romantic, but once she’s under his control it’s implied she’s becoming more ‘evil’ – and how this manifests itself is her having more of an influence on the plot and generally acting all secretive and sexy after she’s been bitten. This is hugely problematic as it links together active and sexually liberated women with evil, which is something that is almost never done for male characters. Regardless of the implications this has for her character, because of the range of relationships she has with other female characters, she still does better than the 1930s Mina.

FINAL SCORE: 2.5/10

 

dracula03

This is probably one of the most well-known and well-received modern adaptations of the Dracula story. The film – starring Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins and a floundering Keanu Reeves – sticks reasonably closely to the plot of the original novel, but turns up the sex appeal to eleven and makes Mina the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife. The film was actually quite successful, and is regarded by some critics as one of the best Dracula adaptations out there.

The film follows the plot of the novel reasonably closely, but spends a considerable amount of time on Mina’s character, which really helps the relationship between her and Dracula seem much more believable. She’s still not in control of her own destiny – particularly while Dracula’s hovering around – and her goals, hobbies and beliefs aren’t very well-defined (although just like the original novel she was a schoolteacher before she married Jonathan). Her personality is reasonably consistent – she’s intelligent, sassy, quite naïve and doesn’t really know how to deal with her burgeoning interest in sex. However, her role in the story is very much limited by her love life – which also affects most of her decisions – and she doesn’t really have many weaknesses to speak of.

She's so perfect that hitting this guy conts as seduction. (image: giphy.com)
She’s so perfect that hitting this guy counts as seduction. (image: giphy.com)

Over the course of the story, she matures and eventually comes to know herself better – and also comes to terms with her interest in sex. Her ability to influence the plot is limited by the fact that she’s the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife – as I’ve already discussed, influencing the plot just be existing doesn’t count as agency. She does, however, get an opportunity to help track him down, and is also the one to kill Dracula in the end. How she relates to gender stereotypes is a little more problematic: she’s capable, intelligent, and explores her sexuality without getting punished for it, but she’s also completely blindsided by her love life, which pretty much dictates everything she does. Just like in the novel, she’s best friends with Lucy, although she doesn’t always approve of her choices, but she’s also tempted into giving into Dracula’s power when she meets his three brides, which is a really interesting development. All in all, this adaptation does a lot for Mina’s character in terms of growth, agency and stereotypes, but I would have appreciated a bit more of it.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Mina-Harker-Movie-Screencaps-the-league-of-extraordinary-gentlemen-35072362-1280-545

I’m going to go a little off-piste with this one. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – loosely based on a series of comic books of the same name – is a film that picks up Mina’s story where Dracula left off. After divorcing her husband, Jonathan, Mina starts working for the British government as part of what is basically the Victorian Avengers. Her encounter with Dracula left her with vampiric abilities, which she and her steampunk superhero friends must use in order to track down a megalomaniac intent on starting a word war.

Mina gets a lot more agency in this one. She’s not always in total control of her destiny – much like Black Widow, she often gets sent on missions rather than choosing where she goes – but it was her choice to work for the government and later on, it’s her choice to go against them. She has a clear interest in science, a total disregard for the morals of Victorian society and a strained relationship with her own vampiric powers, but the rest of her beliefs, hobbies and goals aren’t clearly defined. She’s consistently intelligent, reserved and spiky, and is always capable of solving scientific problems and using her vampire superpowers to kick people’s teeth in. You can describe her role in the story without resorting to the men in her life, too: she’s an intelligent, reserved scientist with vampire superpowers who gets called upon to save the world.

Sorry, got my references mixed up there for a second. (image: giphy.com)
Sorry, got my references mixed up there for a second. (image: giphy.com)

She doesn’t have much of a love life to speak of, but when it is mentioned she doesn’t really seem to care much about it at all. She doesn’t really develop over the course of the story but she does have a weakness; she pushes people away, and this actively stops her from forming relationships with the other characters. She’s a driving force on the plot – whether she’s working stuff out or kicking some butt – and while she doesn’t have relationships with any other female characters, she’s very progressive in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s a scientifically-minded, independent, sexually liberated ass-kicking vampire who cares absolutely nothing about what other people think about her, which frankly, is COMPLETELY AWESOME. It’s a far cry from the original story, but in terms of development and agency she’s come on leaps and bounds.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Dracula NBC

This is one of the most recent ‘re-imaginings’ of the Dracula story, and one that was pretty much panned by critics. In this ten-episode TV series, Count Dracula is actually the good guy – he’s posing as an American businessman in an effort to financially ruin the members of a centuries-old order that originally turned him into a vampire in a convoluted revenge plot. In this version Mina is the reincarnation of his dead wife – who was also murdered by the thinly-veiled Illuminati reference – who happens to get tangled up in his plans. It’s crammed with so many historical inaccuracies that I was physically unable to watch it without maintaining this expression:

Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)
Oh Ben, you beautiful tropical fish. (image: giphy,com)

That said, Mina does get a lot more agency in this one. True, Dracula is still ultimately the one who moves the plot forward, but she’s trying to take control of her own life long before he comes along. She’s training to be a doctor – a long-established goal of hers – despite the challenges this presents for a woman in the nineteenth century. Her beliefs are pretty liberal in this regard – as well as believing in pursuing a career, she also indulges in pre-marital sex, and wants to continue working after she’s married (something that was practically unheard of for Victorian women). She’s consistently portrayed as an intelligent, kind-hearted, liberal young woman who’s determined to follow her own path.

Because she’s the reincarnation of Dracula’s dead wife, you can describe her personality but it’s kind of impossible to describe her journey through the story without referencing her love life. However, this isn’t what influences the bulk of her decisions in the story – what motivates her more is her passion for learning, her desire to have a career, and her own curiosity, although her love life does factor into it. She doesn’t have much of a weakness to speak of, and while her character doesn’t really develop through the story, her relationships certainly do.

She’s another one of those characters who can influence the plot simply by being in the story, but this isn’t the only impact she has: she does make some decisions that impact both her storyline and the storylines of other characters. The way she relates to gender stereotypes is also pretty interesting: when you look at her independence, her intelligence and her disregard for social norms it becomes clear that she’s been set up to be a ‘strong female character’, but the plot as a whole still casts her in the role of ‘love interest’, which kind of hampers her agency and impact as a character. She also has some really interesting relationships with other female characters, most notably her friend Lucy – in this version, Lucy is harbouring secret romantic feelings for her, and eventually gets rejected in a truly heart-breaking scene. All in all, this version certainly had its faults, but despite all that, it really managed to develop Mina’s character well.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

So that’s my breakdown of the many faces of Mina Harker. There’s been many different incarnations of her character in countless adaptations, and I’m sure there’ll be many more. Regardless of how the different adaptations treated her character – and regardless of what you all think of my analyses – I still really enjoyed looking at all the different versions of Mina’s story, and seeing how different eras treated her character.

Next week, I’ll be returning to the old format and looking at one of my favourite books ever. Scout Finch, 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: Dr Ellie Sattler

For those of you that don’t know, Ellie Sattler is the leading lady of the 1993 classic, Jurassic Park. The film deals with an eccentric billionaire’s attempts to create an island filled with killer dinosaurs, poisonous plants and easily-climbable electric fences – you know, for kids! Dr Sattler comes into the story when she and her boyfriend are asked to review and endorse the park for insurance purposes, and consequently spend the rest of the film being chased around by dinosaurs. The film was an instant classic, spawning legions of sequels, merchandise and parodies – and Dr Sattler herself has been hailed as one of the unsung heroines of 90s movies.

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?

Much like her counterpart in the previous post, Ellie’s character falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as Claire’s does in Jurassic World. I went into it in quite some detail in my previous post, so here I’ll boil it down to its most basic principles: when the plot of your movie revolves around running away from a big scary monster, ultimately, it’s the monster that’s calling the shots.

However, Ellie’s character gets a few more opportunities for agency than Claire’s did. She volunteers herself for multiple tasks – whether that’s trying to cure a sick triceratops, rescuing Jeff Goldblum –

Paging Dr Sexy. (image: slate.com)
Paging Dr Sexy. (image: slate.com)

– or running through a forest full of raptors in order to switch the power back on. These differences are in part due to the way the films are structured: Claire has one overarching goal over the movie (to get her nephews safely off the island) whereas Ellie has several, which largely depend on her situation. I’ll give her half a point in the name of equality.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Ellie’s goals are very well established even before the main plot of the film starts up. She wants to secure funding for her dig, she eventually wants to have children – and once she starts being chased by raptors, she wants to not get eaten. As far as her hobbies and beliefs go, we don’t really see very much of them, apart from the fact that she believes she can eventually talk her boyfriend around to the idea of having children. Once again, she’s getting half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Ellie’s character is very well established. She’s an intelligent, active young woman who’s not afraid to strike out on her own, utterly absorbed by her profession and certainly isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty.

Literally. (image: lifepostdoc.wordpress.com)
Literally. (image: lifepostdoc.wordpress.com)

Her skills are pretty consistent too. She’s an expert in her field – which why she’s summoned to the park in the first place – and we actively see her demonstrating these skills in the film, when she examines the local plant life and works out that it’s poisoning the dinosaurs. She doesn’t miraculously pick up any new skills as the plot demands, either – when she goes to switch on the power manually, the other characters have to talk her through it via walkie-talkie. That’s all very believable, so I’ll give her the point.

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 driven, intelligent young woman who’s an expert in her field must fight to ensure her own survival.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

It’s established early on in the film that Ellie is in a relationship with Dr Alan Grant, even though the two don’t exactly see eye to eye. The only time that this relationship really affects her decisions is when we see her encouraging him to spend time with eccentric billionaire John Hammond’s grandchildren, in the hopes that this will bring him around to the idea of having children of his own. For the rest of the film, what motivates her is the need to ensure the survival of herself and her companions.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Ellie doesn’t really develop at all over the course of Jurassic Park. We don’t really see her learning anything new, or her beliefs being challenged, or her working to overcome a flaw. She doesn’t really go anywhere – and that’s partially because she isn’t the main focus of the film – so she doesn’t pass this round.

I'm in trouble. (image: tumblr.com)
I’m in trouble. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

The overall impression I got of Ellie’s character is that her main weakness is impatience, which manifests itself in a tendency to push people. Instead of accepting Dr Grant’s decision not to have children, she manoeuvres him into situations where he’s forced to spend time with kids in the hope that he’ll change his mind. However, this weakness doesn’t really affect her journey through the story – particularly in the survival situations, where Ellie’s tendency to run blindly into things actually ends up serving her very well when she’s running away from the raptors. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel like I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

As I’ve already discussed, Ellie’s ability to impact the plot is seriously undercut by the fact that it’s always going to be dictated by the actions of the dinosaurs. That said, she is nevertheless an active player in the story. She sets Dr Grant off on his story arc by making him go with the children, she sets her own story arc in motion when she chooses to stay with the triceratops, and she volunteers herself for several important missions in order to help get everyone off the island. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In terms of gender stereotypes, Ellie’s character is actually pretty progressive. The one thing that really defines her character is her intelligence and her passion for her field. She’s driven, doesn’t seem to care about her appearance and isn’t afraid to get herself dirty once in a while. What’s more, she’s become an expert at a very young age in a relatively science-based area – which isn’t something you see every day. She also actively calls out sexism during the film, in a scene which I, for one, really appreciated.

YOU TELL 'EM ELLIE (image: tumblr.com)
YOU TELL ‘EM ELLIE (image: tumblr.com)

What’s great about Ellie is that her desire to have children doesn’t undercut these other aspects to her character. She’s never once presented as a ‘baby-crazy’ woman for eventually wanting children – in fact, she’s actually presented as the reasonable one in her relationship with Dr Grant, as he’s the one who reacts in a really over-the-top way to having children around him. Her maternal instincts are treated as a very natural part of her character, and not as something that completely overshadows the rest of her personality.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Ellie doesn’t really relate to any other female characters. The most we see are a few incredibly brief scenes of her interacting with Lex, John Hammond’s grand-daughter, but this isn’t given any real depth or substance.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Ellie is an intelligent, dedicated character with clear goals, a consistent personality and relates to gender stereotypes in a very mature way – but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have any significant relationships with any other female characters, and both her agency and her weaknesses are questionable.

I find it really interesting that given all that’s been said about Claire Dearing, the two characters ended up getting incredibly similar scores, yet Ellie is almost universally seen as the ‘better’ character. I suppose that when you get right down to it, a lot of Ellie’s flaws as a character are due to her lack of screen time and writing constraints, whereas a lot of Claire’s flaws as a character are more clearly classified as the result of stereotypes.

Comparison shots FTW. (image: clothesonfilm.com)
Comparison shots FTW. (image: clothesonfilm.com)

That said, I still think Ellie is a really enjoyable character. She may not have passed my test, but that doesn’t mean I don’t really enjoy her scenes in Jurassic Park – it’s very entertaining to watch a character who’s so utterly absorbed in their field.

Next week, I’ll be trying something a little different. I’ll be looking at one of my favourite novels, Dracula, and its many adaptations. I’ll look at a few of the most famous adaptations of the story and see just how they’ve portrayed one of my very favourite characters – and whether these portrayals stand up to my test. Mina Harker, 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: Claire Dearing

For those of you that don’t know, Claire Dearing is the leading lady of Jurassic World, the most recent instalment of everyone’s favourite series about enormous killer reptiles eating their way through humanity. Set in what’s basically the world’s greatest petting zoo, the film deals with what happens when an enormous killer dinosaur genetically modified to be the ultimate predator gets out of its cage and starts being the ultimate predator. It’s up to Claire, her nephews, an assortment of employees and an Indiana Jones lookalike to stop the GM dinosaur from eating everybody. Even though it’s only been out for a month, the film has already smashed box office records and revitalised the Jurassic Park franchise. Claire herself has been met with mixed reviews, with some saying she’s a feminist icon and some saying that she’s the equivalent of a shrieking 1950s housewife.

Let’s see which one she is – 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, Claire is fundamentally reacting to the situation she’s in. She gets sent on errands by her boss, gets forced into childcare by her sister, and also gets bossed around by Chris Pratt when he’s playing the resident dino-expert. She spends most of the film trying to keep up with the clone-a-saurus, whether it’s working out where it went or trying to stop it from eating people, so for much of the film she’s on the back foot.

High-heeled foot, to be precise. Apparently it's the ultimate running shoe. (image: comicbookmovie.com)
High-heeled foot, to be precise. Apparently it’s the ultimate running shoe. (image: comicbookmovie.com)

However, this says much more about the premise of the film than it does about her character. In films like Jurassic World – and many of the other famous monster movies – the characters are often placed into very similar situations. When your story revolves around an enormous monster chomping its way through the cast, it stands to reason that most of the characters are going to be reacting to the inevitable rampage. That said, the script does make allowances for this. Despite the natural disadvantages, the script does allow Claire to actually control her situation from time to time – most notably, when she instigates the giant awesome dinosaur fight and gets everyone out of trouble at the very end of the movie. She certainly has her moments – but in my opinion, there aren’t nearly enough of them.

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 see much in the way of Claire’s hobbies or beliefs – her hobbies aren’t mentioned at all, and the most we hear about her beliefs is that she doesn’t want children. Her goals aren’t very well established either. It’s made very clear that Claire is a career-driven woman who enjoys managing a busy theme park and overseeing the development and sponsorship of her attractions, but that’s all the development that her goals really get. We don’t really know if she wants to keep climbing the corporate ladder or if she’s simply making the best of the situation she’s in.

Her goals get a lot clearer when the dinosaur gets loose: from that point onwards, she’s really fighting to keep her nephews safe, take down the massive killer GM dinosaur and evacuate the park. She’s not exactly alone in this – those goals are all pretty reasonable when you’re faced with an enormous lizard who wants to snack on your intestines – but it does nevertheless give her character some concrete motivation, which she didn’t really have before. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

For the most part, Claire’s personality is largely consistent. She’s established as a capable woman who can cope with a lot of different situations, isn’t really interested in having children, and someone who organises her life because she likes to be in control. This doesn’t really change over the course of the movie: although she falters when she finds out her nephews are in danger and comes to depend on Chris Pratt, this isn’t necessarily out of character. It’s pretty reasonable to freak out if you discover your nephews are lost in the path of a massive killer lizard, and as it’s very well established that Chris Pratt’s character has way more practical experience with dinosaurs than she does, I don’t think that her asking for his help is that unreasonable.

Who wouldn't be terrified of these killer beasties? (image: giphy.com)
Who wouldn’t be terrified of these killer beasties? (image: giphy.com)

Her skills are a little patchier. She’s established as a bit of a priss – someone who likes to be neat, clean and organised, doesn’t venture outside her office much and doesn’t seem to care for more laid-back, outdoorsy kind of activities. So when she grabs a gun and uses it to shoot a pterodactyl of Chris Pratt’s face – which would require some serious precision shooting on a moving target and in an environment filled with distractions – I didn’t really buy it. It was much more believable when she used her knowledge of the park to pit the two dinosaurs against each other; using guns just isn’t quite as easy as movies seem to think it is. I’ll give her half a point.

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’?

A successful, career-driven businesswoman must stop dinosaurs rampaging through a theme park and keep her family together in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Very few of Claire’s decisions are influenced by her love life. It’s well established that when she isn’t being chased around by mutant cuttlefish-dinosaur hybrids, she’s a very career-driven person. Even when she is being chased around by mutant cuttlefish-dinosaur hybrids, her love life isn’t what motivates her. Her motivations are love for her nephews and altruism towards everyone else in the park – she’s not going to let overgrown lizards feast on anyone’s giblets.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Claire’s development over the course of the story is where her character starts to get a little bit tricky. It can be broken up into two parts: building a relationship with her nephews, and building a relationship with Starlord Chris Pratt. I’ll go into the way she relates to her nephews in more detail in question nine, but to summarise, she forms a proper bond with them and eventually becomes someone they love and respect.

Where it gets tricky is how she relates to Chris Pratt’s character, Owen Grady. Owen is a typical rugged outdoorsman according to Hollywood: he fixes things, owns guns, rides a motorbike, rolls his sleeves up and is perpetually covered in a thin layer of grime and socially-acceptable amounts of body hair. Claire doesn’t have a lot in common with him, but is attracted to him nevertheless. They’re thrown together when the mutant-a-saurus escapes, and from the second it claws its way out of its pen it’s very clear that Owen is the one in control in their relationship. Over the course of the film, Claire takes orders from him, comes under a barrage of criticism for not having the time to go around the park and not knowing how old her nephews are, and is made to stay behind while he goes off on his super-important mission with his motorcycle-raptor-bros.

The realism in this film is astounding. (image: funnyhub.com)
The realism in this film is astounding. (image: funnyhub.com)

At the beginning of the film, she’s portrayed as a woman who has things under control. She may have her flaws but she’s presented as smart, assertive, and hard-working. By the time the film ends, she’s not doing much more than breathlessly gazing into Chris Pratt’s eyes as they walk off into the sunset. All her former drive and responsibilities seem to be forgotten, as she’s doing nothing to try and help the other guests, or secure the area against the rest of the dinosaurs wandering around, or even work out if she’s still got a job left. Everything that she cared about at the beginning of the film has been lost, and she doesn’t really seem to care because now she’s got a boyfriend. There are some mitigating circumstances to all this, but when you look at her journey as a whole, in my opinion she doesn’t retain her independence or her assertiveness. She does develop, but quite frankly, it’s a development I’d rather not see.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Claire doesn’t really have much of a weakness. Most of the decisions she makes are well-intentioned, she doesn’t really give in to any of her more negative impulses, and her actions don’t really hold back her progression through the plot. She’s supposed to be pretty fussy and we’re led to believe she might be one of those people who just hates getting dirty, but when push comes to shove she doesn’t care what she looks like when her nephews are at risk. The one thing the script paints as a weakness is the distant relationship she has with her nephews. She doesn’t know how old they are and she doesn’t personally chaperone them around the park, getting an assistant to do it instead. However, this is actually pretty reasonable, seeing as it’s made very clear that she’s incredibly busy managing a theme park with twenty thousand daily visitors and an island full of killer dinosaurs. This is also kind of undercut by the fact that Claire clearly loves her nephews, or else she wouldn’t have worked so hard to find them. Her weaknesses just don’t feel genuine, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Claire never gets captured or killed in Jurassic World, so this question might not really apply to her. Regardless, she is an influence on the plot: it’s her decision to try and build a GM dinosaur in the first place, it’s her decision to get Chris Pratt and his motorcycle-raptor-bros involved, and it’s her decision to instigate the awesome dinosaur smackdown at the end of the film.

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Oooooookay.

How Claire relates to gender stereotypes has already been the subject of countless articles. On the one hand, some people see her as everything that’s wrong with the movie – on the other, some people see the way the other characters treat her as everything that’s wrong with the movie. Claire has already proven to be an incredibly divisive character, and now I’m going to wade into the fray.

In some ways, Claire is a really progressive character in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s an assertive, shrewd businesswoman who’s determined to make sure herself and her company come out on top. She’s in a high-level management position in an enormously successful company – not something we see many women doing in fiction or in the real world. When she’s taken out of her comfort zone, she doesn’t flounder: she’s resourceful, uses her knowledge of the park well and isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty. What’s more, she does it all without sacrificing her femininity: much has been made of Claire spending the entire film in stiletto heels, but personally I don’t mind it. For once, it’s nice to see a character whose visual representation of femininity doesn’t hold her back.

Chris Pratt wanted to do his scenes in heels too, but they wouldn't let him. (image: eonline.com)
Chris Pratt wanted to do his scenes in heels too, but they wouldn’t let him. (image: eonline.com)

What’s stopping me from letting her completely ace this test is the way that the other characters – and, to a certain extent, the script as a larger whole – treat her. As I’ve already mentioned, Claire’s journey through the story isn’t exactly empowering: she goes from a strong, confident woman to someone who just ends up mooning after Chris Pratt. He isn’t even all that nice to her: his character actually spends a significant amount of their scenes together being incredibly judgemental about her lifestyle, her appearance and her choices, and makes no effort to understand them. Much is made of the fact that she isn’t close with her nephews, largely due to the demands of her job, but the other characters – particularly her sister and Chris Pratt – seem to see this as unreasonable behaviour on her part, rather than a regrettable consequence of doing what she loves. Of course, she eventually does build a relationship with her nephews, but in doing so she seems to forget about everything she was working towards before. When you boil this particular aspect of her journey through the story down to its most basic principles, this is what you get: a career-driven woman comes to terms with her maternal side and ‘settles down’. This is one of the oldest clichés in the book, particularly where women are concerned – it reinforces the idea that all women really want is children, and any dreams or goals they may have had before that simply don’t matter.

The other characters brush off Claire’s efforts to get ahead in her career constantly, with none of them seeming to realise what it means to her. The upshot of all this is that it starts meaning very little to the audience, too, and Claire’s decisions – which are very reasonable – come to be seen in an increasingly negative light. She comes under constant criticism and never really stands up to it – despite how assertive she’s supposed to be – and it’s pretty clear that as an audience, we’re supposed to approve of this criticism. I certainly don’t – I think it drags her character down and the film really suffers for it. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

We only really see Claire relate to one other female character: her sister, Karen, and they don’t have many scenes together. It’s established that they have very different views – particularly about childcare – but that they still fundamentally love each other. Their relationship isn’t given a lot more depth than that, although it’s implied they don’t see each other very often. The rest of Claire’s relationships with female characters – and no, I’m not counting the dinosaurs – are very much boss/employee relationships, with not much more to them than that, so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Claire is a direct influence on the plot, isn’t completely controlled by her love life, and has some well-established personality traits, but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. While she may have some weaknesses and relationships with female characters, and while there are mitigating circumstances surrounding her ability to impact the plot, these aspects to her character aren’t fleshed out enough for her to pass my test. My general impression of Claire as a character is of someone who has been sketched out rather than fleshed out – which is part of the reason why her character can so easily be categorised as a stereotype.

But all of this has got me thinking. Many people have been commenting on how Jurassic World shapes up in comparison to the original film, Jurassic Park. Next week, I’m going to be doing exactly that. Ellie Sattler, I’m coming for you.

 

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