Strong Female Characters: Cinderella

For those of you that don’t know, Cinderella is the story of a beleaguered young girl forced into servitude by her stepfamily. Good, kind, sweet Cinderella would be doomed to a life of eternal scrubbing if it were not for her fairy godmother, who whisks her away to a royal ball. There, she meets and falls in love with a prince who clearly has a thing for feet, as when she leaves at the stroke of midnight and leaves behind a shoe, he decides to keep it. The prince declares he will marry the girl whose foot fits the shoe, finds Cinderella again, and they get married and live happily ever after.

This story is a staple of literature all around the world. What’s really interesting about Cinderella as a story is that almost every single civilisation has had a variation on the tale. The earliest version can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, where a courtesan winds up marrying a king when he finds her shoe. There’s a version in Chinese folklore where Ye Xian – our Cinderella character – prays to the bones of a dead fish instead of waiting for her fairy godmother. There’s a version in Native American Algonquin folklore where the heroine’s face is burned by her two stepsisters, and her Prince Charming is a supernatural chieftain who restores her beauty. There’s a version from Zimbabwe where the Prince Charming character – in this case, the King of Zimbabwe – can turn into a magical talking snake, and this is how he and the heroine meet.

Indy understands me. (image: tumblr.com)
Indy understands me. (image: tumblr.com)

The version that is most commonly known these days is a variation on Charles Perrault’s tale, but the story has been adapted so many times that even this may not give a truly accurate representation of her character. Like Mina Harker, Cinderella has been portrayed in so many books, movies, TV shows, operas, musicals and Saturday morning cartoon shows that all the variations of the character tend to blur into one. Cinderella in the popular consciousness isn’t necessarily the Cinderella belonging to any one version of the story – she’s an amalgamation of thousands of different tales.

But I’m not going to look at all of them. I’ve chosen six variations on the Cinderella story and I’ll be seeing how each measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.

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

 

image: liveinternet.ru

This version of the story – rather than the more gruesome tale by the Brothers Grimm, where people chop off bits of their own feet – is the basis for most of the modern Cinderella adaptations. Cinderella is a central character, but she’s very passive; even though the story revolves around her she does very little. She does what she’s told all the time, even when it isn’t in her own best interests, and has no goals, beliefs or hobbies mentioned in the original text.

She’s consistently portrayed as a kind, sweet, good-hearted and obedient girl, and this remains the case through most of the story. However, there’s not much to her as a character apart from this – her love life is so integral to her trajectory through the story that it’s impossible to describe her role in the story properly without referencing it. She makes no decisions of her own – all the important parts of the plot are the results of other characters’ actions – she doesn’t develop as a character and doesn’t have any weaknesses that hold her back, as her refusal to stand up to her stepfamily was – at the time – seen as a sign of her inherent goodness.

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

This is largely due to the time in which this version was written. Cinderella is the archetypal good Christian girl: she’s kind, sweet, obedient, loving, forgiving and is eventually rewarded for her forbearance with a rich husband. She’s not so much a character as a collection of clichés intended to teach girls the importance of patience and obedience. She does have relationships with other female characters (namely, her stepmother, stepsisters and fairy godmother) but these are very simplistic, and have no real variation other than whether the character is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. All in all, Cinderella is very much a product of her time, but she still has about as much agency, personality and character development as her pumpkin.

FINAL SCORE: 2.5/10

 

image: youtube.com

This version follows the Perrault fairy tale reasonably closely, so much of what I said in the previous section still applies. Cinderella still has no real control over her own destiny, although she does take some small steps to make it more bearable, such as befriending all the castle vermin. She doesn’t have a clear goal but it’s well-established she believes in the power of dreams and whishes, and she’s clearly interested in singing and making tiny mouse clothes (whatever floats your boat). She’s consistently portrayed as kind, good and sweet, and is also shown to be an accomplished singer.

Her beauty is a huge part of her character in this version (especially when compared to the Ugly Stepsisters), and as above her love life is so integral to her progression through the story that you can’t describe her without mentioning it. This is really what motivates her, unless she’s palling around with some rats or whatever. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have any weaknesses, and she’s such a fundamentally passive character that in the climax of the film she literally has to rely on rodents to save her.

Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)
Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)

Cinderella’s relationships with other female characters are cast in a similar vein – there are a fair few of them, but they’re inherently simplistic, just like in the original fairy tale. And the influence doesn’t stop there. Much of the traditional gender stereotypes I discussed above still apply to this version of Cinderella, too, but they become more politically loaded when you consider the context. Released just after the Second World War – when women who had been drafted into the workplace in their thousands were kicked back out again as the GIs came home – the film serves to reinforce traditional gender roles that many were beginning to question with the earliest beginnings of Second Wave feminism. Long story short, there’s not really all that much difference between the Walt Disney cartoon and the Perrault fairy tale, aside from the fact that a little more time and attention is paid to Cinderella’s character.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

image: blackheartmagazine.com

This adaptation of the classic Cinderella story was written almost fifty years after Walt Disney’s take on the story. It’s a part of the enormous wave of revisionist approaches to fairy tales initially spearheaded by Angela Carter in the 1980s, and I’ll be focusing on this rather than the movie adaptation. The story covers the life of Ella, the unconventional daughter of a nobleman who was cursed to be obedient by an extremely misguided fairy. Realising how many opportunities for abuse this presents, Ella sets out to remove the curse.

This frames the question of Ella’s destiny in an entirely different light. She’s cursed to do every single thing she’s told – even if she doesn’t want to – but she still doesn’t let this stop her, actively seeking out the fairy who cursed her despite this considerable handicap. This is also one of her main goals throughout the story, and ends up influencing a lot of her beliefs too – she comes to really value independence, freedom and the ability to refuse stuff just for the hell of it. Her hobbies are also well-developed: she enjoys pranking people, reading, and sliding down banisters. She’s consistently shown to be a creative, brave, kind girl with a wicked sense of humour, and her skills at languages – and her lack of skills with all things feminine – are a constant feature of the book.

When applying eyeliner, she always uses the Cage technique. (image: tumblr.com)
When applying eyeliner, she always uses the Cage technique. (image: tumblr.com)

You can describe her without mentioning her love life or appearance: “a brave, inventive young woman is trying to break her curse of obedience”. In fact, her love life doesn’t really factor into her decision-making all that much; her primary goal is still to break the curse. She actually ends up going to great lengths to make sure that she doesn’t get too close to Prince Charming while she’s still cursed, as she’s afraid that it could be used to hurt him.

Over the course of the story she grows up, fights to retain her independence and ends up breaking the curse. She has flaws, too: she’s stubborn, and can be extremely impetuous when she feels like it. She’s a driving force on the plot, actively running away in an effort to force the fairy to remove her curse, and ends up breaking said curse herself, through the force of her own willpower. In terms of gender stereotypes this brings the character forward leaps and bounds – while she does fall into the standard ‘spunky heroine’ tropes quite nicely, she’s still a resourceful young woman who’s fully prepared to make her own destiny, and to pull away from the people she loves in order to keep them safe. The relationships she has with other female characters are much more well-developed too. She hates, then pities, the fairy who cursed her; she loves and misses her unconventional dead mother; she’s had some serious tough love from the cook who raised her, Mindy; she hates her cruel stepsister, Hattie, but ends up pitying her needy, neglected stepsister, Olive. Ella is a brilliant character on several counts, and a really excellent example of how to bring the classic Cinderella story up to date without losing touch with the original source material.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

 

image: swotti.com

This adaptation of Cinderella was written by the guy who wrote Wicked, and it’s pretty clear that in writing this version, he was following a similar formula. This version is set in 16th century Holland and told through the eyes of one of the ugly stepsisters, who arrive in Haarlem to start a new life away from persecution. The book was reasonably well-received, and was completely eviscerated by a 2002 movie adaptation which I might make snide references to.

Clara – our Cinderella character – is a very different beast in this version of the classic. As a child she was held to ransom and when her parents found her, they refused to let her out of the house. As such, she’s not really in control of her own destiny, but with very good reason. This also affects her beliefs, goals and hobbies; while she doesn’t have many hobbies, as a result of her kidnapping she comes to believe that she is a changeling child. Her goals are shaped around this too, although they are mainly reactive: she wants to go outside because her mother won’t let her, and later in the book, she wants to get away from her stepfamily because she hates her stepmother.

GOD MOM GET OUT OF MY ROOM (image: giphy.com)
GOD MOM GET OUT OF MY ROOM (image: giphy.com)

Clara is a very passive child who’s curious, intelligent, haughty, petulant and extremely self-centred, and she remains this way throughout the book. However, it’s impossible to describe her character or her journey through the story mentioning her beauty: it’s both the reason she is shut away and how she eventually finds her way out. She doesn’t have much of a love life, apart from right at the end of the book: in the larger part of the novel her decisions are mostly influenced by her desire to get away from her stepfamily. Her development comes along in leaps and bounds, as she stops believing she’s a changeling, eventually becomes a tiny bit nicer to her stepfamily, and realises that people want to possess her for her beauty. She has plenty of flaws – she’s haughty, self-centred, spoilt and behaves like a brat – but most of the time this doesn’t always translate into influence on the plot due to her inherently passive nature. In this respect she falls into two main gender stereotypes: the spoilt rich girl and the passive beauty (although these are subverted to a certain extent). She has a range of relationships with a range of different female characters that are dictated by more than just their moral alignment, so she scores on that front. Ultimately, she’s an interesting twist on the classic character, but she just doesn’t do enough to pass my test.

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 

image: fanart.tv

Ah, the early 2000s. Home of questionable hairstyles, whiny teen rock bands and instant messaging – and this latest adaptation has all three. Set in Los Angeles, the story follows the life of Sam, a young girl oppressed by her stepfamily who meets her Prince Charming in a Princeton chatroom. The movie was panned by critics, but achieved enough commercial success to warrant two sequels and a flurry of terrible IM screen names – not that that was difficult in the early 2000s.

Exhibit A. (image: buzzfeed.com)
Exhibit A. (image: buzzfeed.com)

However, it still falls into many of the same traps as the traditional Cinderella adaptations. For most of the movie, Sam isn’t in control of her own destiny, only really taking charge when she stands up to her stepmother in the final third. She has clear goals, beliefs and hobbies – she wants to get into Princeton, she believes in ‘being true to herself’ and enjoys either baseball or softball (I can’t tell the difference). She’s a consistently kind, sweet, intelligent character who stays good at sports and school throughout all the movie, and thanks to her goals, it is possible to describe her personality and her character arc without referencing her love life or appearance. Her love life does motivate her in part, but so does pursuing her education, and over the course of the story she learns to stand up for herself.

Her character falls down in all the other places that Cinderella characters traditionally fall down: flaws, gender stereotypes and agency. Her inability to stand up to her stepmother isn’t really portrayed as a flaw, more as something she chooses not to do in order to preserve her financial stability and home life – she’s perfectly capable of standing up to other characters, and does so frequently. For most of the film she doesn’t do an awful lot on her own because she’s ordered around by other characters so often. And in terms of gender stereotypes – OH BOY. Sam falls into the classic trap of being ‘not like other girls’: she likes sports, cheeseburgers, is totally chill about her appearance but not chilled enough for her to actually look ugly. Just like Hazel Lancaster, Sam’s interests and personality are constantly portrayed in contrast to other girls – namely to make her character look good by comparison. This also undercuts her relationships with other girls: the girls who enjoy ‘girly’ hobbies are always the ones who bully her, and the ones who don’t are the ones who help her. Ultimately, she was an interesting character when I was an impressionable wee lass, but ten years on she doesn’t quite hold water.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

image: noteburner.com

This latest adaptation of Cinderella sticks to the original storyline pretty closely. An amalgamation of the 1950 Disney film and the Brothers Grimm version of the story – albeit with considerably less maiming – the film returns to the classic Cinderella formula rather than trying anything really different. It was a smash hit at the box office and very well-received by critics, particularly on the strength of the actors’ performances.

In terms of storyline, however, Ella is one of the most passive characters I have ever come across. She gets pushed along through the plot like she’s on coasters, with all the major events in the film being generated by the actions of other characters (whether it’s her stepmother locking her away, or her fairy godmother setting her free). All her decisions are made for her apart from on two occasions – when she goes for a horseback ride and bumps into Prince Charming and when she stands up to her stepmother, even though it means sacrificing her chance to be with the Prince. She’s so fundamentally passive that in the final scene she doesn’t even open her own window – the mice have to do it for her so the prince can hear her angelic voice, realise she’s been there all along and rescue her from her evil stepmother. RODENTS HAVE MORE AGENCY THAN THIS WOMAN.

This lack of agency also severely hampers her character. She doesn’t have any goals, or any hobbies – she believes in being kind and brave, but only really succeeds in the former. She’s consistently portrayed as a kind, sweet, good character, so she gets points in that regard, but her lack of any other interests means that her romantic life becomes the sole focus of her character – you simply can’t describe her without referencing it. This is what influences the bulk of her decisions: the desire to be with total babe Richard Madden.

Not that I have a problem with that... (image: tumblr.com)
Not that I have a problem with that… (image: tumblr.com)

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – like in many other adaptations, her inability to stand up for herself is portrayed as an expression of just how kind and good she is, rather than something that in reality, holds her back and makes her miserable. Her relationships with other women are all largely generic, apart from the one with her stepmother, which is given depth when Lady Tremaine confesses her jealousy, and when it comes to gender stereotypes DON’T EVEN START. She’s the archetypal good, sweet, patient beauty who puts up with everything that’s thrown at her and is eventually rewarded with a smoking hot husband – you can’t get any more cliché than that. A lot of these flaws aren’t necessarily to do with this adaptation – rather, they stem from the original story – but regardless of that, Ella definitely hasn’t passed my test.

FINAL SCORE: 3/10

 

So that’s my analysis of Cinderella. Long story short, a lot of these adaptations’ problems stem from themes central to the original story. The persecuted heroine is a stock character in stories from all across the globe, and Cinderella is no exception; much like all of these other tales, one of the central themes of her story is that simply by virtue of her own, well, virtue, she will eventually be rewarded. However, the idea that good, kind characters will be rewarded for their actions doesn’t always translate into well-developed characters, particularly if they don’t have to work for their happy ending. To my mind, active characters who really have to struggle to get the things they want will always have more interesting and meaningful stories than those who are simply rewarded.

Next week, I’ll be returning to the old format, but with a twist. I’ve decided to do a themed month: to celebrate all things spooky, I’ll be looking exclusively at villainesses for the whole of October, and kicking it off with one of the originals. Lady Macbeth, 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: Liesel Meminger

For those of you that don’t know, Liesel Meminger is the protagonist of Markus Zusak’s brilliant 2005 novel, The Book Thief. Set in Nazi Germany, the story follows the early adolescence of Liesel, a young girl sent to live with foster parents who end up hiding a Jewish man in their basement at the height of the Second World War. Narrated by Death itself (which is pretty damn metal), the book covers Liesel’s adjustment to her new life, the trials and tribulations of poverty and young love, and of course, Liesel’s fight against the casual evil perpetrated by the Nazis. The book was positively littered with awards – even though it stomps all over my feelings – and was made into a film in 2013, which cannot really use the word ‘litter’ in such a positive sense. Regardless, the book remains a classic of YA literature. Liesel herself has been praised as a truly memorable character – one that displays far more depth than most of her YA contemporaries – and as an incredibly realistic portrayal of a teenage girl in the midst of war.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

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

For the most part, Liesel isn’t really in control of her own destiny, especially in a larger sense. She’s a young girl living under a totalitarian regime: this is fairly normal, and is something we’ve seen in both child characters and characters living under oppressive governments. When we first meet Liesel, we see her being forcibly taken away from her Communist mother and sent to live with a foster family. Later in the novel, she has to join organisations such as the League of German Girls (or BDM, in German), simply because not doing so would arouse suspicion from the Nazi authorities. She is also forced into helping to hide the Jewish man in her basement: her foster parents offered him shelter, and if she doesn’t want them to be taken away she has no choice but to help them. Throughout most of the novel Liesel’s hand is forced by things that are much bigger than her, whether that’s an oppressive state or an Allied bombing raid.

No-one makes inappropriate jokes like Dr Strangelove. (image: giphy.com)
No-one makes inappropriate jokes like Dr Strangelove. (image: giphy.com)

However, on a smaller scale she has much more control. She asserts her position with the neighbourhood children by beating them up. When she’s hungry, she decides to go and steal food with some friends. She steals an unburnt book from the ashes of a Nazi bonfire, and goes on to steal more – earning her title in every sense of the word. Some aspects of her story are beyond her control, but some are not – so in this respect, I’m giving her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Liesel’s hobbies are actually very well established. At the beginning of the novel she enjoys football and fighting, but as the book progresses she learns to read, and this – along with writing a book of her own – becomes one of her favourite pastimes. In fact, her love of books fuels her right through the story, also supplying one of her principal goals: to steal books.

As far as the rest of her goals and beliefs go, most of these are things that develop as a result of her circumstances. She also works to keep the Jewish man in her basement – Max Vandenburg – hidden from the authorities, but this is more the result of her desire to keep her foster family safe, too. She is firmly against the Nazi Party’s beliefs, but must keep this a secret for most of the book. This, too, is the result of her friendship with Max, but also because of the fact that Liesel was taken away from her Communist mother by the Nazi authorities. These are all well-developed aspects of her character, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Liesel is a very consistent character. She’s sharp, shrewd, quick to fight, has a strong sense of justice, is very resourceful and hates to be laughed at. She’s also kind, suffers from regular nightmares and always takes a while to really open up to people. In terms of her skills, the reader is always made very aware of Liesel’s reputation as something of a scrapper, and this is reflected in what we see. She’s always good at football and is always better at fighting. However, her love of reading and writing is something that develops over the course of the book.

I MUST HAVE THEM (image: buzzfeed.com)
I MUST HAVE THEM (image: buzzfeed.com)

When we first meet Liesel she can’t read at all. It’s established that she comes from a very poor family, and that, combined with her parents’ background as political dissidents, means that it’s unlikely that she ever went to school. When she is put into school after being placed with her foster family, she’s immediately confronted with the fact that all the children her own age are years ahead of her in terms of education. Liesel has to catch up, and this is a process we see her struggling with for at least half the book. Liesel’s love of words is hard-won and something that she continually works at, so I’m giving her the point.

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’?

A shrewd, cautious young girl attempts to survive under Nazi rule by shielding herself with words.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Liesel’s love life isn’t a huge feature of the story. For most of the book, the reader is incredibly aware of her young neighbour – Rudy Steiner – who has the most enormous crush on Liesel ever committed to the page. They become best friends – mainly through kicking and swearing at each other – but Liesel doesn’t reciprocate Rudy’s feelings for most of the book. She has far too much going on: getting over the death of her six-year-old brother, adjusting to life with her new foster family, coming to terms with the fact that she will never see her biological mother again, and making sure that Max doesn’t die in her basement. For the most part, Rudy is fine with this. He’s content to be her friend, and after a while he stops bugging her to kiss him. Liesel’s feelings for him creep up on her much later in the book – and by that point, unfortunately, it is too late.

I have so many feels gifs and I regret none of them. (image: giphy.com)
I have so many feels gifs and I regret none of them. (image: giphy.com)

So Liesel’s love life isn’t really a factor. It’s in the background of her story, and only comes to the fore when tragedy strikes in the form of an Allied bombing raid. What really motivates Liesel through the bulk of the book is her desire to learn to read, to steal books, not to go hungry, to keep Max – and her adopted parents – safe. This last one is what really drives her; having been separated from one parent once before, she doesn’t want to go through it again. For much of the book romantic love isn’t her main motivator: familial love is. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Liesel does develop over the course of the story. She learns to read – not without difficulty – and comes to appreciate the power of words, and the freedom they give her. She comes to love her new foster family, especially her adopted father, Hans Hubermann. She comes to understand the difficulties of living under a totalitarian regime without hope of escape, and devises her own ways of rebelling against that, no matter how small they might be. That’s some solid development on all counts, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

One of Liesel’s main weaknesses is a tendency to lash out at people – whether that’s verbally or physically. She lets her temper get away with her and ends up regretting it, and this is something that has real consequences for her all throughout the story. She’s also a raging kleptomaniac – perhaps unsurprisingly, for the protagonist of a novel called The Book Thief – and frequently uses this as a way of making herself feel better. She very rarely thinks these thefts through – when she fishes a book out of a Nazi bonfire she stuffs it down her shirt, literally singeing her skin – and this gets her into trouble, too. Not with me, though – she’s passed this round.

But only because she'd hit me otherwise. (image: giphy.com)
But only because she’d hit me otherwise. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Because much of The Book Thief is set in the Second World War, a substantial amount of the novel’s more significant events are the results of things that Liesel cannot control – but I’ve already discussed this in an earlier question. Liesel’s smaller-scale influence on the plot is much more tangible, but ultimately, it falls into the same traps I discussed in question one. Her impulsive thievery and desire to stick it to the man in her own quiet way does influence the plot, but only to a certain extent. I’ll do what I did for question one and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Liesel doesn’t really fit with many established gender stereotypes. She’s a bruiser, a thief, she’s often dirty, she has regular nightmares about the trauma of her past, she wets the bed at an age that most children have grown out of it and she expresses her affection by swearing at people. At the same time, she also displays a considerable maturity and intellectual capacity that isn’t always seen in the traditional stereotypes surrounding young girls, and her story is far more political than the plotlines given to most young girls as well. The fact that she is a young girl doesn’t substitute for her personality, so she passes this round with flying colours.

What better way to celebrate than with Chris Pratt and confetti? (image: giphy.com)
What better way to celebrate than with Chris Pratt and confetti? (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Liesel doesn’t have a huge amount of relationships with other women – most of her relationships are with men. That said, she still manages to have some very interesting and varied relationships with a diverse range of female characters. She’s exasperated by her adopted mother – they frequently butt heads and don’t get along at first, but they come to really love each other. She misses her biological mother, and at first wonders why she gave her up, but eventually realises that this was beyond her mother’s control, and that she will never see her again. She steers clear of her neighbour Frau Holtzapfel, whom her mother hates, but eventually ends up reading to her when she loses her sons to war in two very different ways. Her relationship with the mayor’s wife is the most interesting – it fluctuates between nervousness, contempt and a genuine friendship over the course of the book – but ultimately, Liesel forms a strong bond with her. This is a really good example of how a novel with mostly male characters can still allow interesting and varied relationships between female characters to develop, so I’m giving it the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Liesel is a well-developed character with solid goals, beliefs and hobbies, a range of strengths and weaknesses who remains consistent throughout her story. She has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, doesn’t uphold old gender stereotypes, and has to work for the things she wants. She may not always be in control of her own destiny, but she’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be returning to my comparison format to look at one of the oldest characters in literature. Cinderella, 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: Lucy Pevensie

For those of you that don’t know, Lucy Pevensie is one of the main characters in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. First published just after the Second World War, the books cover the adventures of Lucy and her friends in a magical land called (unsurprisingly) Narnia. Lucy is a feature of almost every book – mostly helping her friends and family to defeat whichever baddie is menacing Narnia this week and encouraging them to put their trust in a giant magical lion rather than stuff like maps and logic. The books have become a classic of children’s literature, with more adaptations than you can shake a stick at, and Lucy herself has become one of the most beloved child characters in modern fiction.

But does she measure up to the hype? 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?

The way that Lucy relates to her own destiny is really interesting. She’s the first of the Pevensie siblings to discover Narnia – she finds it at the back of an old wardrobe, rather than all the old shoes I seem to get. She leads her siblings into Narnia of her own accord – mainly as a result of curiosity and as a desire to prove herself to her siblings, who didn’t believe her story. However, through most of the rest of the story this isn’t really the case. Once the Pevensies get to Narnia they’re swept up in the fight against the White Witch thanks to an old prophecy, which means they have to defeat her whether they like it or not. After that, when they return to Narnia, they never go back of their own accord: they’re always called back by Aslan.

A whole other dimension is added to this when we consider the beliefs of their author, C. S. Lewis. Lewis was widely known to be a devout Christian by the time he began writing the Chronicles of Narnia, and some of his letters directly state that the character of Aslan is intended to be read as a representation of Jesus Christ. Most literary academics accept that the books as a larger whole can be read as some degree of Christian allegory. This raises all sorts of questions about free will, particularly in regard to Lucy’s character: is she truly in control of her own actions, or is she fundamentally responding to a higher calling? How do the books relate to beliefs such as predestination, and how does this affect the actions of the characters? These are questions that academics are still trying to answer after over sixty years – so I’m just going to steer clear of the debate and give her half a point.

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 never hear a lot about Lucy’s hobbies, but it’s established in the books that she’s considered a tomboy and has ridden into battle more than once, so we’re given a vague idea of the sort of things she would be likely to enjoy. Her goals are much more clearly established – they vary from book to book, but largely centre around keeping her family together, finding a way back to Narnia and defeating whichever baddie is menacing Aslan and his mates.

Apparently it's wildebeest today. (image: catersnews.com)
Apparently it’s wildebeest today. (image: catersnews.com)

Her beliefs, however, are one of her defining characteristics. Lucy is established as the character who believes in Aslan the most out of the entire cast of the series. She is consistently shown to be the most faithful out of all her friends and family – not only is she always the one that Aslan appears to first, she is also fully prepared to drag her friends and family after him when they don’t believe she has seen him. The strength of her belief is central to her character, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

For the most part, Lucy’s character is largely consistent. She’s a good, kind little girl with an enormous capacity for faith and a strong attachment to her friends and family. There’s only one instance where she really wavers – in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where she displays a vanity she’s never exhibited before and considers casting a spell to make herself more beautiful – but as this is a two-page incident in a seven-book series, I’ll overlook it. Her skills are largely consistent too – she’s established as being competent in battle with a strong capacity for healing, which never really wavers. I’ll give her the point this round.

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 innocent, forgiving, kind little girl stumbles into a magical land and must fight to keep it safe.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Lucy doesn’t really have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply. It’s stated in the series that when she grew up to be one of the Kings and Queens of Narnia, she had many suitors, but we can safely assume she wasn’t interested in them as she never married. Ordinarily this might not warrant any further discussion, but given how this plays out for her sister, Susan, I’ll be bringing this up again later. I’ll talk more about what this means for her character in the gender stereotypes section, but for now I’ll give her the point.

Just you wait. JUST YOU WAIT. (image: giphy.com)
Just you wait. JUST YOU WAIT. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Lucy starts the series as an eight-year-old and ends it as a seventeen-year-old, and she also grows into an adult and reverts back to a child over the course of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. However, her character doesn’t actually develop much at all. Her faith in Aslan never wavers, she never finds it harder to forgive people as time progresses, and even when we see her as an adult she’s so similar to her younger self that it’s only the physical descriptions of her character that really set the two apart. This isn’t realistic character development – especially for a character that appears in five out of the seven books – so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Lucy doesn’t really have a weakness at all. She’s presented as an overwhelmingly kind, good, innocent character, so much so that she doesn’t really have any negative qualities. She’s the first to forgive her brother Edmund for betraying them all to the White Witch, she doesn’t succumb to her siblings’ peer pressure when they doubt that Aslan is trying to lead them in Prince Caspian, and she doesn’t even lash out at her incredibly annoying cousin Eustace. The most deplorable action she ever commits in all seven books is a moment of vanity, where she considers casting a spell to make herself beautiful. This lasts all of twenty seconds – she backs off almost immediately, and never displays any similar kind of vanity before or after the incident, so I can’t really count it as a flaw.

However, this is a trait which is pretty common in the child characters of classic literature. Many child characters of classic literature were not treated with the same complexity as adult characters – Dorothy Gale is a perfect example of this – and this is largely to do with the way that children were viewed by society as a whole. In middle-class Western society children were largely seen as innocent little darlings who magically developed a personality on their eighteenth birthday – it was really only with the development of the ‘teenager’ in the 1950s and 1960s that more attention began to be given to children’s personalities in literature. Regardless, Lucy doesn’t pass this round.

Oh God she's got her game face on. (image: tumblr.com)
Oh God she’s got her game face on. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Lucy is a very active player in all her appearances in the Chronicles of Narnia. She’s the first one of the Pevensie siblings to discover Narnia itself, she’s the one who leads them through the wardrobe and persuades them to help Aslan, and she’s the one who leads them to Aslan time and time again. She exerts a real force on the plot in all her appearances, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Oooooohhhhhhhh boy. Brace yourselves, kids.

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

Lucy does have some redeeming qualities on the gender stereotypes front. We’ve established earlier in the post that she’s a tomboy, and that she’s led armies into battle in the past – hardly the behaviour you’d expect to see from a young girl. But we don’t actually see much of this behaviour, as most of it happens off the page – the readers are simply told that it happened, rather than getting a chance to witness it happening. The result of all this is that Lucy’s reputation as a tomboy doesn’t hold as much weight as it should – it’s undercut by the type of behaviour we see her exhibiting on the page.

Lucy Pevensie hits pretty much all the stereotypes surrounding the ways that little girls ought to behave. She’s good, she’s kind, she’s innocent, she’s devout, she’s forgiving, she’s trusting. One of the special gifts she receives from Father Christmas is a healing cordial – a profession traditionally associated with women both in the real world and fantasy fiction – and it’s this that we see her using most often, rather than the dagger she’s also given. This is in direct contrast to her brothers, who go around chopping off heads all the time: Lucy’s dagger is explicitly reserved for self-defence.

There’s another layer added to this when we consider Lucy as an adult, and how she relates to her sister, Susan. We’re told that Lucy grows up into a beautiful woman, but she remains fundamentally pure. Even though she has many suitors, she never expresses an interest in them, preferring to devote her life to a greater good, whether that’s ruling as a Queen of Narnia or serving Aslan. Contrast this to her sister, Susan, and yet another layer is added to the gender stereotype cake. Susan also grows up into a beautiful woman, but unlike her sister, she actually changes as she does so, becoming more interested in her human life than the goings-on of Narnia. Susan’s interest in dating and her appearance is actively disparaged in the final book. The characters state that:

“…she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”

It’s implied that Susan has been tempted away from Narnia by her own vanity, and this puts the comparison between her and Lucy in an entirely different light, especially when the religious dimension of the books is factored in. Susan becomes a cautionary tale for young girls – a warning that if they get too distracted by material things, they’ll lose their chance to get into Narnia/Heaven. Lucy, by contrast, becomes an example for young girls to follow, clearly showing the sort of behaviour that young women ‘ought’ to be engaging in – that is, remaining, chaste, pure and devout. It’s a message we’ve all heard before.

Long story short? She doesn’t pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

We see Lucy interacting with a number of different female characters in the Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, there’s her sister, Susan, her cousin’s friend, Jill Pole, the Professor’s housekeeper, Mrs Macready, the White Witch, and a number of talking lady animals.

However, she reacts to these characters in all the same ways, depending on whether they could be counted as her enemy or her friend. If they’re her friend she’ll be welcoming, warm and kind towards them; if they’re her enemy she’ll be guarded, vigilant, and won’t be taken in by anything they say. It’s a wide range of relationships, but they’re not ones with any real complexity, so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Lucy Pevensie is a character with a real influence on the plot with a range of hobbies, goals and beliefs who remains largely consistent throughout the story, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have a weakness, and the way she relates to other female characters, her wider destiny, and gender stereotypes raises way too many questions for her to pass my test. Part of this is due to the way in which child characters were written in the past, but a much larger part of this is due to the role the story assigns her.

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of the best-received books in YA literature: The Book Thief. Liesel, 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: Tiffany Aching

For those of you that don’t know, Tiffany Aching is another one of the main characters in Sir Terry Pratchett’s phenomenally successful Discworld series. Aimed at slightly younger readers (although I still elbowed my way through a train station to get a copy of The Shepherd’s Crown), Tiffany’s novels chart her journey to becoming a very powerful witch. She’s pitted against some incredibly vicious elves, an amorphous mass of minds that wants to possess people, the Lord of Winter and what is essentially an undead zombie witch-hunter – all while negotiating her way through puberty. Much like the rest of the Discworld books, Tiffany Aching’s five novels have sold incredibly well and received high praise from the critics, particularly for her very original portrayal. The last book in the series – released six months after Sir Terry Pratchett’s death – concludes her story.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: This post will contain serious spoilers for the last Discworld novel, The Shepherd’s Crown and copious amounts of my feelings. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

  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 five books she appears in, Tiffany is a young girl: she starts the series at nine years old and spends most of the books as a child or a teenage girl. As I’ve already discussed, you might think that because she’s a child character this would seriously undercut her agency. However, this is definitely not the case.

Tiffany has a lot more freedom than most other child characters in fiction. She grows up on a farm in a very rural part of the Disc, and it’s established from the very beginning of the series that she’s always been expected to help run that farm. Whereas other child characters are often subjected to restrictions about where they can go and what they can do, Tiffany has very little of these, and this is mainly a result of her poor, rural upbringing.

This lack of restrictions is also apparent in her witchcraft training. Even though she spends a substantial amount of her fictional appearances training to be a witch – and hence, being told what to do by another, more senior witch – she still has plenty of opportunities to think and act for herself. Independent behaviour is actively encouraged by other witches – very few of them want an apprentice that can’t get on with things on her own – even though this gets her into trouble more than once. As the novels progress she becomes more independent and actively uses her powers to protect the people she cares about, so I’m giving 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?

Tiffany is always portrayed as a very busy character – whether she’s helping her family on their farm or trying to be a village witch for two places at once. As such, we don’t see a whole lot of her hobbies – but we do know that she’s very proud of her cheese-making abilities.

OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)
OMG YES. (image: phillymag.com)

Her goals are another matter. Tiffany’s goals vary from book to book, and they usually relate to whatever supernatural nasty she is squaring off with. However, she has a few long-term goals that remain constant: to become a good witch and to use her powers to protect her family, her home and pretty much everyone she comes across. Her beliefs tie into this – she believes very strongly in standing up for people, giving people what they need rather than what they want, and protecting the innocent – or in the case of the Nac Mac Feegles, the definitely-guilty-of-something.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Tiffany is consistently shown to be brave, clever, sensible, kind, a little on the stern side and with a strong sense of duty. Already magically powerful even before she begins her training, as the series progresses her powers increase – however, this is something we see her working at continually, and although she may have an easier time of it than many other trainee witches she still has to work hard to perfect her skills.

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 brave, intelligent and blisteringly sensible young witch determined to protect her family, her home, her neighbours, her friends, her teachers…and anyone else she’s missed off that list.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Tiffany’s love life isn’t really a feature of the books. She has a fledgling relationship with the local Baron’s son, Roland, and a more serious one with a young doctor, Preston, and also manages to catch the eye of the Lord of Winter. But as a general rule, these aren’t the central focus of the Discworld novels – with the exception of Wintersmith (whose crush on her is definitively one-sided), these relationships are never really the central focus of the Discworld novels.

Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)
Perfectly illustrated by Sailor Moon here (image: giphy.com)

What really drives Tiffany through the plot are her goals, which I listed above. She wants to help and protect people, to become a great witch and to defeat whichever ungodly entity she’s up against this week. Interestingly, she says outright in The Shepherd’s Crown that although she loves Preston, she would never give up her work for him – she knows that she would be abandoning a village worth of people in doing so, and that’s a possibility she simply can’t entertain.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Tiffany’s story effectively spans about a decade of her life, so if she didn’t develop that’d be cause for real concern. Over the course of the books she grows up – she comes to terms with the fact that witchcraft is essentially an endless, thankless job, starts regarding her relationships with considerably more maturity, stops acting rashly, learns to take orders from some people (and to ignore others) and comes into her own in terms of her magical abilities. That’s a range of development on a range of different fronts, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Many of Tiffany’s weaknesses stem from the way she regards herself. She’s much cleverer than the majority of the people she meets, and she knows it – so she can be quite arrogant and dismissive. She has a tendency to blunder into things because she thinks she knows best, like many other Discworld witches, and this gets her into trouble more than once. When she’s younger, she also has a tendency to act rashly (particularly when confronted with the heady call of teenage rebellion) and when she’s older, she really overstretches herself in an effort to prove that she’s just as good, if not better, than the more senior witches. These are all very realistic flaws for someone in her position and they actively hold her back, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

In every book, Tiffany’s actions and decisions drive the plot forward. Whether she’s flirting with the personification of Winter and accidentally Elsa-ing her hometown, or whether she’s rescuing her baby brother from some incredibly bloodthirsty elves –

GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU'RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)
GODDAMMIT LEGOLAS YOU’RE TRYING TOO HARD (image: giphy.com)

– she is a constant force on the plot. What’s interesting is that even though she comes up against a lot of supernatural nasties, thereby making her vulnerable to my Universal Monster Law, she’s often the one who ends up drawing the creature to her in the first place. Whether she’s accidentally summoned something or provoked it into chasing her, this means that she still has a distinct influence on the plot, so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Much like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching tramples over gender stereotypes in her incredibly sensible boots.

In some ways she can been seen as a very traditionally feminine character: she goes out of her way to help people, she does everything she’s asked and more without complaining, and she’s also a skilled healer and a witch – both professions that were traditionally associated with women for centuries. However, she’s also brave, intelligent, unflinchingly practical and positively laden with common sense – not traits that are commonly associated with young women and girls. She’s also a very young girl who comes into a position of serious responsibility, who has serious power at her disposal. She handles this well, taking everything she encounters in her stride whether it’s delivering a baby or destroying a demon in a field of fire.

What’s notable about all of this is that she does it all without compromising her femininity. In order for her to hold her position of power, she doesn’t have to reject some of the more ‘girly’ parts of her personality. She’s still allowed to get a little silly over her crushes, we still see her being attracted to other characters, and we still see her take pride in her appearance every now and then. She doesn’t have to reject these traits in order to prove that she’s strong – she knows she’s strong no matter how she looks or acts. Tiffany might occasionally still get silly little crushes on the boys she likes, but that doesn’t stop her from grinding her enemies into paste.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tiffany has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She initially despises the Queen of the Elves as a child; when she meets her again as an adult – when the Queen has been removed from her position of power and forced into the human world – she comes to pity her and eventually regards her as a kind of friend. She’s close with her mother and sisters, and makes a number of friends during her witchcraft training, some of which she becomes very close with. She also has a number of witchcraft instructors – including Nanny Ogg, who she is faintly embarrassed by, Miss Treason, who she is slightly creeped out by, and Miss Tick, who started Tiffany on the path to witchcraft. However, her most important relationship by far is with Granny Weatherwax.

Granny Weatherwax initially oversees Tiffany’s training – although she doesn’t actually do a lot of the training part herself. She keeps an eye on Tiffany from afar and at first, the two are a little hostile towards one another. Gradually, as Tiffany grows up, demonstrates an aptitude for witchcraft and a deeply sensible attitude, they become friends. Tiffany ends up giving Granny a kitten she comes to treasure – although of course, she doesn’t let the kitten know that, only referring to it as ‘You’. Granny comes to trust in Tiffany’s abilities so much that when she dies in The Shepherd’s Crown

I've just got something in my eye... (image: giphy.com)
I’ve just got something in my eye… (image: giphy.com)

– she ends up leaving everything to Tiffany, including her cottage and her position as not-the-head-witch. Tiffany is devastated by this loss, and spends the rest of this novel trying to fill Granny’s shoes and eventually coming to terms with her legacy. Tiffany’s relationships with other female characters are rich and varied, depending entirely on the personality of the character she’s interacting with, so she passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Like Granny Weatherwax before her, Tiffany Aching has completely aced my test. She’s a well-developed character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, her love life doesn’t completely eclipse her other decisions and goals, she’s firmly in control of her own destiny and she has a real impact on the plot. What’s more, she does it all while trampling over gender stereotypes in incredibly sensible shoes and while forming meaningful relationships with a range of other female characters.

Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)
Get ready to wade through my feelings (image: giphy.com)

This is a real testament to Sir Terry Pratchett’s writing. As a genre, fantasy isn’t often kind to its female characters. A typical fantasy novel will not give its female characters anywhere near the amount of depth that Pratchett bestows upon the likes of Tiffany Aching and Granny Weatherwax. Often, women are relegated to the sidelines of the plot – acting as fair princesses needing to be rescued, sultry temptresses ready to seduce the hero, or quiet healers, ready to see the men off to war. Modern fantasy doesn’t rely on these tropes anywhere near as much – even though most fantasy novels tend to be aimed at a more male audience – but they’re still very much present in the staples of fantasy canon. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, only has three named female characters that play a significant role in the plot. They certainly have their moments, but these are only ever moments. Entire chapters can go past without Tolkien even mentioning a female character, let alone giving her a line; for most of his work there simply isn’t a consistent female presence.

This is not the case with Discworld. All Pratchett’s novels have a range of different female characters who display unique personalities. The force of their combined personalities radiates off the page like heat, blistering the ink it leaves behind. Pratchett’s female characters are flawed, they’re funny, they’re distinct, they’re memorable, they’re engaging. What’s more, the stories they participate in are never lessened simply because of their gender. They decide the fates of nations, they take the forces of nature in their stride, they fend off twisted abominations bent on crushing humanity beneath its scaly claws. Whereas many other female characters in fiction are confined to a domestic scene, Pratchett’s heroines deal with conflicts on a cross-dimensional scale.

The upshot of all this is that when I first discovered Pratchett’s work as a spotty teenager, I found something welcoming. I’d always been interested in fantasy, but as I came into my teens I came to realise that the classics of the genre weren’t really aimed at girls like me. I began to find classic fantasy books quite alienating, because the only characters given interesting character development were men, whereas the women tended to glide through the story like mannequins on wheels. Pratchett’s novels were decidedly different because I could see myself in his characters – not just because they were female, but because they were such well-rounded characters that they almost seemed like real people. It was also one of the first fantasy series I had read that acknowledged that women could play more than one role in the story. Pratchett’s heroines can go from clipping an old man’s toenails to mooning over a boy to defeating supernatural entities all in the space of a chapter. To this day, this isn’t something you often see in fantasy fiction – and it’s also something that I always try and include in my own writing.

I learned so much from Sir Terry Pratchett’s works. His characterisation, his style of language, his incredible capacity to construct believable emotional drama alongside really good jokes are all things that have taught me more about writing as a craft than any class I’ve taken. And I didn’t just learn about writing. His stories – set in a fantasy world but so firmly grounded in real, human emotion – taught me empathy as a self-absorbed teenager, bravery as a former victim of bullying, and resilience as someone who has had to deal with loss when I was not ready to face it.

The Shepherd’s Crown was Sir Terry Pratchett’s final book, and I was not ready to face that, either. He died just after completing it, and it was released six months after his death. He was a giant of fantasy fiction, and if I ever reach the dizzying heights of authorhood, it will be because I am standing on his shoulders.

 

Next week, I’ll be going back to the classics and looking at the Chronicles of Narnia. Lucy Pevensie, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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