Strong Female Characters: Ursula

For those of you that don’t know, Ursula is the main antagonist of the 1989 film, The Little Mermaid. Based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, the film centres around the efforts of its watery protagonist to become human. She’s helped and hindered by the film’s villain: the sea witch, Ursula. The film has become an animated classic, widely credited with kicking off the Disney Renaissance, and Ursula herself has become an iconic and instantly recognisable character.

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

NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I will be looking at The Little Mermaid’s interpretation of this character only – I’ll be sticking to the Disney animated canon.

 

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

Ursula isn’t completely in control of her own destiny, but that’s not from lack of trying. In the film it’s made clear that King Triton (Ariel’s father) banished her from the palace some time before the film started, but like any good villain Ursula doesn’t let this get her down. Although someone else put her in her current situation, she’s not planning to stay there. For however many years, Ursula has been building up her powers and accumulating weird squiggly merfolk souls –

Seriously what are these things?? (image: imgur.com)
Seriously what are these things?? (image: imgur.com)

– in order to try and take back the throne. She’s been plotting to take Triton down for quite some time, and when she sees an opportunity she takes it. When Ariel looks as though she might manage to hold up her end of the bargain (and thereby ruin Ursula’s plans) Ursula casts a spell on Prince Eric to make sure that this won’t happen. She succeeds (but only for the last twenty minutes of the film) and ultimately, this is what leads to her downfall. She might not be completely in control of her own destiny all throughout the film, but she certainly has her moments and she’s continually working to take charge of her life. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t see an awful lot of Ursula’s hobbies, but we do see her taking a lot of care over her physical appearance. We also see her eating live seafood – something which merfolk apparently don’t do on a regular basis – so clearly, she has some tastes and preferences that mark her out from the rest of the characters.

Her goals and beliefs are much more well-established, even though like many other characters they’re pretty closely linked. She wants to overthrow King Triton and rule the seas, just as she used to before the movie started, and she believes that it’s pretty much her birthright. She also sees herself as blameless in all the deals she made – she makes a point of telling Ariel that she always upheld her end of the bargain – and has absolutely no qualms about extracting her payment.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

For the most part, Ursula’s character is very consistent. She’s shown to be a power-hungry, ambitious, manipulative witch with a tendency to excuse her own behaviour, but she’s also very flamboyant, is clearly comfortable in her own skin, and has a very sassy sense of humour. She’s also consistently shown to be an extremely skilled manipulator, a fantastic liar and a very powerful witch – and also an incredible singer.

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 sassy, power-hungry sea witch uses manipulation and magic in order to get what she wants – the throne.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Ursula doesn’t really have a love life. She casts a spell on Prince Eric to make him fall in love with herself in human form, but this isn’t really because she feels anything for him. The only reason she does this is because she wants to keep him away from Ariel – if Ariel can’t fulfil her end of the bargain, she’ll be able to use her to get to King Triton. This is what’s really motivating Ursula: her desire to bring down Triton and become supreme ruler of the ocean.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Not really. Throughout the movie Ursula remains a relatively static character. She doesn’t learn anything, she doesn’t indulge a fatal flaw, and she doesn’t really change.

The lip sync is so perfect here I just can't be mad. (image: giphy.com)
The lip sync is so perfect here I just can’t be mad. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Ursula doesn’t have many weaknesses. By and large, most of her personality traits help her through the story – her fluid approach to contracts, for example, actually helps her pursue her goals, rather than holding her back. The closest she comes to having a flaw is her terrible temper. This often causes her to make mistakes and impairs her judgement, but this is usually played as more of a reaction than an inherent character trait. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Ursula drives the plot forward at every turn. She uses every opportunity to pursue her own ends – she doesn’t just sit there passively when Ariel makes her deal with her; she goes to great lengths to make sure that she won’t be able to hold up her end of the bargain. She’s a real force on the plot all throughout the film, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Ursula is a really interesting character in terms of gender stereotypes. The character was inspired by traditional depictions of witches in European folklore and the famous drag queen, Divine – quite a mix of influences.

Much like traditional European witches, Ursula lives alone in a cave with only her familiars for company. She’s drawn with a kind of vampy ugliness that you see in the likes of Cruella De Vil and the Queen of Hearts – her features are exaggerated to the point of being grotesque. This is all in line with traditional beliefs about witches, who were said to be both hideously ugly and beautiful seductresses (and often by the same people – those monks could never make up their minds). But what’s remarkable about Ursula is that all throughout the film she’s consistently shown to be someone who’s very feminine, comfortable in her own skin, and willing to engage in the kind of sexuality that the Disney princesses would never even dream of. The viewer may well see Ursula as ugly, but it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t see herself that way.

In da club. (image: giphy.com)
In da club. (image: giphy.com)

Ursula is powerful, feminine, funny, angry, dangerous and ruthless – and this combination isn’t usually a personality we see for standard female villains. She’s comfortable in her own skin and clearly feels beautiful while attempting to take over the world – and really, what more could any woman ask for?

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

We don’t actually see Ursula relate to any other female character apart from Ariel, although we know she’s had dealings with other mermaids in the past. However, her relationship with Ariel is pretty complex. She feels nothing but contempt for her, mocking her dreams behind her back, yet when she comes to her for help she’s all smiles. She underestimates her – or rather, her ability to make out with Prince Eric – and so Ursula is forced to revise her plan in order to bring her down. What’s really interesting about their relationship was that in the original concept for the story (and in the Broadway musical), Ursula was Ariel’s aunt – now that’s a family reunion I’d want to avoid. However, for all its complexities this is only one relationship, so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Ursula is scheming, manipulative, always working towards her goals and a real force on the plot. She’s consistent, she relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way and her role in the story isn’t completely dependent on her love life. She may not develop over the course of the film – or have many complex relationships with other female characters – but she’s certainly passed my test!

So what have I learned from Villain Month? Well, what’s unique about all the villains that I’ve looked at so far is that every single one of them has passed my test. All the villainesses I’ve looked at this month have been very different characters – some of them manipulative, some of them ruthless, most of them homicidal maniacs – but they all stand up to detailed analysis. What’s more, they all had very complex character arcs, some really weighty character development and conveyed a range of different personality types and interests.

This is really where I think villainesses come into their own. Traditionally, heroines have always been likeable characters first and foremost. They’re often shown to be kind, gentle, understanding characters who are there to support the hero. This becomes more apparent when you look at older stories, when traditionally ‘good’ women were also seen to be fundamentally passive characters.

I know, Meryl. (image: giphy.com)
I know, Meryl. (image: giphy.com)

Villainesses have none of that. They’re not made to be likeable, so writers don’t have to worry about their actions being palatable to their audience. If traditional heroines are passive, traditional villainesses are active – they go after the things they want and engage with the rest of the characters in a much more direct and emphatic way. Villainesses are the characters that allow writers to take risks, to try new things, and to portray some truly ground-breaking characters.

Of course, as the stories we tell each other have become more sophisticated, this doesn’t always apply to every story. Now that we’ve moved away from the dichotomy of passive heroine/active villainess, there are far more complex and morally ambiguous heroines, too. But villainesses still occupy their own little piece of ground-breaking territory. Often, they are the characters writers use to test their capabilities, and every time they’re on the page, on the stage, or on the screen they seize their audience’s attention with an almost magnetic force. After all, who’s really the more memorable character: whiny little Ariel pining after a guy she’s never even spoken to, or Ursula, with her thick, coiling tentacles and incredible quiff?

Next week, I’ll be going back to the heroines and looking at a movie that revolutionised the early 2000s. Trinity, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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

Advertisements

Strong Female Characters: Princess Azula

For those of you that don’t know, Azula is one of the main antagonists on the phenomenally successful children’s show, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Daughter of the evil Fire Lord, she spends most of the show hunting down the Avatar – the one person in all the world who has the power to control all four elements and restore balance to the universe. It’s Azula’s mission to stop him, uphold her father’s regime and plans for world domination, and eventually become ruler of the Fire Nation – so she’s aiming pretty high. As I’ve already discussed, the show has been a huge success, with Azula being widely hailed as one of its most complex characters – largely due to her tendencies to maim and manipulate everyone she comes across while still remaining at least a little bit sympathetic.

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?

Azula isn’t completely in control of her own destiny due to her position. As she’s born into the royal family, a substantial part of her life has been shaped by the fact that she’s in line to inherit the throne – and this covers everything from her training, her goals and her upbringing.

However, this does not mean she is a passive character. Despite her natural position of power – she is second in line to the Fire Nation throne – she doesn’t use this as an excuse to rest on her laurels. Even though she does get sent on missions by her father, she takes every opportunity to prove herself a worthy heir, whether that’s by endlessly perfecting her firebending skills or by constantly undermining her older brother. What’s more, the fact that she gets sent on missions by someone else doesn’t undermine her agency as a character – even though she’s fulfilling someone else’s goals, she does so using her own intuition, intelligence and tactical skills. Ultimately, she is the one who decides where she goes and what she does, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Azula doesn’t really have much in the way of hobbies, although we do see her playing a game of volleyball with her friends and expressing a dislike of playing with dolls. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and are often interlinked. One of Azula’s main goals is to capture the Avatar, and while her father was the one who originally asked her to do this, she has her own motivations too – as her father also tasked her brother Zuko with capturing the Avatar, part of what drives her through this quest is her desire to prove that she is better than her brother.

Their sibling rivalry is a bit like this, but with more fire, betrayal and attempted murder. (image: giphy.com)
Their sibling rivalry is a bit like this, but with more fire, betrayal and attempted murder. (image: giphy.com)

This is where her goals and beliefs get a little muddled. Azula firmly believes that she would be better suited to ruling the Fire Nation than Zuko would be – therefore she goes out of her way to prove it, determined to be both the perfect princess and a ruthless strategist. She’s deeply jealous of Zuko’s position within the royal family – therefore she goes out of her way to usurp it by winning her father’s affection. In this respect the two are interlinked, and both come from the same source: her strained upbringing within the royal family. Nevertheless, her goals and beliefs are very well fleshed out and really drive her through the story, so I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Azula is consistently shown to be a relentless perfectionist, a ruthless military commander, a brutal fighter, a callous ruler and a brilliant firebender. She’s cold, calculating and will not stop until she has everything she wants, and this often affects the way she relates to other people – i.e., she can’t. What’s really interesting about the question of consistency is that it is these elements of her character that drive her both to success and to mental instability. Her inability to relate to other people allows her to be an utterly ruthless military commander, but it also leads to her underestimating her own allies. Her brilliance and her perfectionism mean that she trains to be one of the best fighters on the show, but they also mean that she cannot tolerate it when her plans go awry. Her calculating, suspicious nature allows her to pick up the slightest trace of the Avatar, but it also eventually devolves into paranoia. Elements of Azula’s character remain consistent right up until her final appearance – despite the drastic changes she goes through – so she passes this round with flying colours.

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 ruthless, calculating princess with a fierce eye for military strategy who’s determined to track down her enemies and ascend to the throne.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Azula doesn’t really have a love life, but this isn’t for lack of trying.

It’s made pretty clear that she is jealous of her friends’ abilities to attract potential boyfriends and in one episode, we see her try and get one for herself. It’s not clear if this is because she doesn’t want to be seen as lacking in something or if she really does want a relationship, but as this is only for one episode, I’m not going to go into more detail. What motivates Azula through the show is her desire for power and her need to surpass her brother – she’s much more driven by her military plans than her desire to get a boyfriend.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Azula does develop over the course of the story, although not really until the very end. In a series of flashbacks we see Azula as a child, in which she’s just as nasty but not quite so manipulative – clearly, this is a skill she learned while growing up. For most of the story she’s a relatively static character until her mental breakdown in the last few episodes. To the casual viewer it seems as though this comes out of nowhere: after being named ruler of the Fire Nation and her father leaving to conquer the rest of the world, Azula snaps right before her coronation when her closest friends betray her.

Oh Ben, you adorable miniature horse. (image: giphy.com)
Oh Ben, you adorable miniature horse. (image: giphy.com)

As I discussed earlier, this is foreshadowed in earlier episodes. We see her inability to relate to other people when she burns down the house of some teenagers who kick her out of their party. We see her relentless perfection when she flips out when a single hair falls out of place during training; ‘almost perfect’ just isn’t good enough. We see Azula demonstrating her paranoia when she allows her father to think that Zuko killed the Avatar – she suspected that there was a chance he might have survived, so even though she dealt the ‘killing’ blow, she let Zuko take the credit for it rather than entertain the possibility that she might have failed. Azula’s mental breakdown might seem sudden, but in reality, all the elements were there long before it ever happened.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Azula has several weaknesses that really hold her back. She can’t relate to other people to the extent that she can’t understand their emotions – she relies on fear to gain supporters, rather than actually bonding with them. She’s paranoid, suspicious and cannot deal when things don’t go her way. She spends most of the series in a state of functional mental instability – I’m no psychiatrist, but she seems like a total psychopath – and eventually, this catches up to her.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Azula drives the plot forward at every turn. She’s always hunting down the Avatar and his friends, or plotting to kidnap one of their allies, or secretly working to overthrow a kingdom the Avatar needs to save. While her position could allow her to do nothing and let the plot generate around her, she’s such an active character that this is never the case – she’s constantly moving the action forward.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Azula is actually a really interesting character in terms of gender stereotypes. She’s a ruthless military commander, a total psychopath, has absolutely no empathy whatsoever, is a strategic genius and a brilliant fighter – and she’s also a teenage princess. This is a far cry from the kind of princesses we’re used to – you certainly wouldn’t see Azula singing to adorable little woodland creatures.

This is what happens when she tries. (image: giphy.com)
This is what happens when she tries. (image: giphy.com)

And yet, it’s made clear that despite all of this, Azula is still a teenage girl. We see her worrying about boys, and taking pride in her appearance, and hanging about with her two closest girlfriends. She still has insecurities – she’s convinced that her mother never loved her and is desperate to win her father’s affection to compensate for it, and sadly, this is something that some teenage girls can really relate to.

What’s really refreshing about the way Azula relates to gender stereotypes is the way that the two sides to her personality – the merciless commander and the attention-seeking teenager – fit together so seemly. Azula doesn’t flip from one to the other like flicking a switch; it’s a very natural part of her character. Each side of her personality informs the other: when she’s commanding an army, you don’t forget that she’s a teenage girl, and when she’s awkwardly trying to make friends, you don’t forget that she’s a manipulative psychopath. This is a very natural blend of two seemingly irreconcilable elements, but something that fits very well with her character, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Azula has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters. She has two elderly female servants (Li and Lo) who she treats with disdain, but who accompany her almost everywhere. She refers to any woman not born into the aristocracy as ‘peasants’ – but if they’re formidable fighters like Katara, Toph and Suki, she has the sense to view them as a worthy adversary. She has two best friends – Ty Lee and Mai – who go almost everywhere with her, but she manipulates them into joining her quest and goes out of her way to make them unhappy on more than one occasion. Her most interesting relationship is by far with her mother, who we only ever see in flashbacks and hallucinations. Azula is convinced that her mother never loved her and thought she was a monster – the audience, however, see Azula’s mother as trying to correct dangerous and manipulative behaviour in her child, rather than her acting out of spite. These are all really interesting relationships that make for some cracking telly, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Azula is a ruthless, cunning military leader, a brilliant fighter and an accomplished political leader. She’s firmly in control of her own destiny, follows her own goals throughout the series and is a real force on the plot. She has a weakness that holds her back, her character development is well-established and draws on existing aspects of her personality, she has a range of relationships with other female characters and her character isn’t just based on gender stereotypes. She hasn’t just passed my test, she’s destroyed it.

Next week, I’ll be finishing off Villain Month by looking at one of the classic Disney villains. Ursula, 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: Amy Elliott Dunne

For those of you that don’t know, Amy Elliott Dunne is one of the main characters in Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel, Gone Girl. The book begins when Amy disappears, and her husband becomes suspected of her murder. But as the novel progresses, the reader finds out that Amy was the architect of her own disappearance – she framed her husband for murder to punish him for his infidelity. The book was a phenomenal success, selling millions of copies and being made into a film just two years after it was published. Amy herself has been hailed as both a brilliant criminal mastermind and as a bastion of modern feminism – but despite what some MRAs would have you believe, the two aren’t related.

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?

Amy is very much in control of her own destiny, and a few other people’s, too. When she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful to her, she wants vengeance. Leaving him isn’t enough, because she thinks she won’t be respected by her friends and family if they found out she’d been cheated on. Of course, the only solution is to put together an elaborate plot over the course of several years, building up a mountain of fabricated evidence in order to expose her husband as a terrible person and eventually frame him for murder.

...that seems reasonable. (image: giphy.com)
…that seems reasonable. (image: giphy.com)

Later, when she decides she wants to get away from her possessive ex and get back with her husband, Nick, she sets up another long con. She puts together an elaborate scenario that essentially allows her to murder her ex and get both her and Nick completely off the hook. And when she’s finally back with Nick, she effectively holds him to ransom for the rest of his life because she knows he can’t prove anything. There are certain aspects of her life that she can’t change (such as losing her job) but ultimately, she doesn’t let that stop her from living the life she wants – no matter who gets in her way.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t really see much of Amy’s hobbies, although we know she used to be a writer. However, we see plenty of her goals and beliefs. One of Amy’s main motivations is the desire to be seen as successful. She wants everyone to think well of her, give her everything she wants and do exactly as she says – and if anyone prevents her from fulfilling this goal, she will destroy them. She also firmly believes in her own superiority. She’s utterly convinced that no-one will ever be able to get the better of her and tends to view other people as less intelligent than she is. These goals and beliefs factor into almost everything she does in the novel, so I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

The question of consistency is very interesting when discussing Amy’s character. The first half of the novel is narrated by Nick, interspersed with entries from her old diary. Nick says that she’s very manipulative, aggressive and calculating, but her diary entries reveal someone who’s much more vulnerable, quiet and self-deprecating. By the end of the first part, the reader isn’t left with a clear sense of Amy’s character.

That’s all cleared up in the second half, which is narrated by present-day Amy. She reveals that she fabricated her entire journal over the course of several years in order to implicate Nick when she faked her own death. Suddenly all her past interactions are thrown into a completely different light, and she is revealed to be an incredibly self-centred, manipulative, cold-hearted woman who possesses absolutely no sympathy for the feelings of others. What’s really masterful about how this is done is that it makes all the discrepancies between different characters’ accounts of her become instantly clear – this reveal answers more questions than it raises, and the reader realises that Amy has duped us too, just as she did for everyone else. It’s brilliantly done.

Pictured: Amy as a child, ruthlessly plotting the murder of her teddy bear. (image: giphy.com)
Pictured: Amy as a child, ruthlessly plotting the murder of her teddy bear. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

It’s actually pretty hard to describe Amy’s trajectory through the story without referencing her marriage. Her status as a ‘wronged wife’ is really what drives her character through both the book and the film. Ultimately, her role in the story revolves around her husband, albeit not in the traditional manner. You can certainly describe her personality, but it’s impossible to describe her goals, her motivation or her overall progression through the story without mentioning how much she wants to murder her husband. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Amy’s love life is a really interesting aspect of her character. She’s a psychopath and doesn’t really seem capable of feeling real love – everything she does is fundamentally self-serving. But her love life is really what motivates her through the story: she starts off determined to punish Nick for pushing her aside, and then changes her mind and decides she wants him back. This creates an interesting quandary because although her love life is what motivates her, it’s made quite clear that what she feels isn’t real love.

Amy is certainly attached to Nick, but her feelings for him are much more complex than just love. She wants to possess him, to punish him, to make him her puppet. She uses him as a way of projecting an image of herself – that of the perfect wife in an enviably happy marriage. She does all this without considering Nick’s feelings in the slightest, and acts purely out of selfishness. This desire to get the things she wants and be well-respected by everyone is what really drives her towards Nick in the first place, not love. This is also what drives her to frame him for her murder, and eventually, to get him back.

Yeeeaaaahhhhh... (image: giphy.com)
Yeeeaaaahhhhh… (image: giphy.com)

All of this actually makes it a difficult question to answer for Amy’s character. On the one hand, her disintegrating marriage is what drives her through the plot – and there’s no other way of looking at it apart from as a part of her love life. However, it’s also pretty easy to make the case that it isn’t love that’s driving her at all, but rather a deep-seated desire to be socially respected and a more sociopathic desire to have ‘the perfect life’ at any cost. The line between the two is so blurred that it’s actually very difficult to say for certain which one is the case, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

We don’t actually see Amy develop much over the course of the story. It’s implied through Nick’s interactions with people from her past (such as her former friend and ex-boyfriends) that she’s always been stone cold nasty, and has a history of manipulating people to look like they’ve abused her. It’s therefore not too much of a shock to watch her escalate this behaviour, as it fits with what we’ve already seen.

The most development we see from her character is after she’s come back home to Nick and is pregnant with their child. At this point in the novel she’s blackmailing Nick into being the perfect husband by holding their unborn child over his head – if he puts a toe out of line, she’ll punish him through their baby. Nick goes along with this, even though he knows Amy is a psychopath, as he knows he has no choice. All this good behaviour actually lulls Amy into thinking that he really does love her, and she starts to soften to the point where Nick can dispose of some of her back-up evidence that could be used to frame him again. This is some character development, but not a lot, so she’ll only get a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

One of Amy’s major weaknesses is her tendency to underestimate people. She is so self-involved that she never really imagines anyone who can successfully put one over on her, so a lot of her plans backfire when the people she’s manipulating don’t act in the way she expects them to act. This really sets her back – when she finds out that Nick has been cheating on her, when she’s robbed at the trailer park she’s hiding in, and when she gets Desi to ‘rescue’ her without realising the consequences of calling him in. That’s a believable weakness which seriously hinders her progress, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Amy pretty much is the plot, whether she’s on-screen or not. In the first half of the book – when she’s ‘disappeared’ – Nick is still following on behind her, picking up the pieces of the trail she left behind. In the second half of the book, it’s made very clear that the entire story has been of her own making. She’s a real force on the plot in every sense of the word.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Amy relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way. On the surface, she’s a kind, sweet, loving young wife who also happens to be really attractive, but underneath, she’s a complete psychopath with an utter lack of empathy for anyone who isn’t Amy. This gives a really interesting duality to her character that Amy herself is very much aware of: like Black Widow, she uses other people’s view of gender stereotypes in order to suit her own ends.

That casserole's probably poisoned. (image: twimg.com)
That casserole’s probably poisoned. (image: twimg.com)

Throughout the novel, Amy plays a series of different ‘characters’ in her interactions with other people. She’s the devoted daughter around her parents, even though their expectations of her drive her mad. She’s the abused princess for her ex, Desi, constructing an elaborate fiction that entices him to come and ‘rescue’ her. And for Nick, she becomes the ‘Cool Girl’ – the ultimate male fantasy. In this way, she’s directly acknowledging all the varied expectations that women have to meet in their daily lives and subverting them.

However, in some ways she’s a much more traditional character. Amy fits neatly into the ‘crazy girlfriend’ box – she obsesses over her relationship and goes to extreme lengths whether she’s preserving it or punishing him. In some ways her character exemplifies all the beliefs that women will go to insane lengths in their relationships, which in turn is tied up with centuries-old beliefs about women being much more ‘emotional’ beings. This is turned up to eleven when we consider her role as the ‘woman scorned’ – another centuries-old trope.

This isn’t necessarily new, but the utterly cold-hearted, clinical way she goes about it softens the blow. Amy doesn’t seem like a stereotypical ‘crazy girlfriend’ because she’s so methodical about everything – she plans her revenge for years in advance and nobody suspects a thing. She both subverts and conforms to gender stereotypes in a way that both raises and addresses different questions. This is a hallmark of a complex character, and her sheer impact on the literary landscape can be seen in the articles that still pop up years after the book was first published. I’ll be addressing both sides of the question and giving her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Amy relates to a good number of female characters, and her relationships with them vary depending on what she wants from them. She put on a front depending on who she’s talking to, but underneath, she thrives on making other women jealous of her, and out-doing them in every aspect of their lives. She will go out of her way to make friends with women in order to further her own ends, and uses them in order to spread the fabricated story of Nick’s abuse. She befriends a pregnant woman in order to steal her urine and fake a pregnancy, all the while concealing her utter contempt for her. She’s never truly close with any other female character, but she adapts her relationships with other women depending on who she needs to be to get what she wants from them. And then, of course, there’s her relationship with her mother, who wrote a series of successful children’s books about a character based on Amy. This set such high standards for Amy that it became almost suffocating – even though her parents were relatively normal – and to some extent, gives her a relationship with her fictional self: she’s constantly comparing herself to her parents’ idealised version of the perfect daughter. That’s a level of depth that’s not always seen in female characters, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Amy is a complete and utter psychopath. But she’s also firmly in control of her own destiny, has flaws that hold her back, and remains consistent throughout most of the book. Her relationships with other women – and her romantic relationships – raise some interesting questions about stereotypes and manipulation, and while she hasn’t completely aced my test, she’s certainly passed!

Now please don't stab me. (image: media.bookhub.com)
Now please don’t stab me. (image: media.bookhub.com)

 

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourites and looking at Avatar: the Last Airbender. Azula, 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: Dolores Umbridge

For those of you that don’t know, Dolores Umbridge is one of the secondary antagonists in the fifth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The book – set in Harry’s fifth year of Hogwarts – follows the Ministry of Magic’s attempts to bring Hogwarts further under its control, mainly through the efforts of Umbridge, who is forcibly instated as the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. While her role in the series is small – she only appears during the fifth book and a brief chapter in the seventh – she left a huge impression on fans of the series. The character is universally renowned for her nastiness, so much so that Stephen King himself described her as “the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter”.

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?

Umbridge is an employee of the Ministry of Magic who’s a stickler for official policy. Thus, it’s pretty easy to argue that when it comes to her destiny as a larger whole, she might not be completely in control. It’s made very clear that she’s taking orders from the Ministry of Magic throughout most of the fifth book, although the full extent of these orders is never really made clear.

However, it’s also made pretty clear that part of the reason Umbridge has come to be in this position is that she is both power-hungry and sadistic. She has to persuade the Minister for Magic to pass the Educational Decrees that allow her to interfere at Hogwarts, we see her planning to keep things secret from the Minister, and in the seventh book we see her working for Voldemort’s ministry and lying about her family heritage in order to climb the ladder. These aren’t really the actions of someone who was ‘just following orders’, so I’ll give her the full point.

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 well established that Umbridge has a deep and abiding love for all things saccharine. We see in the fifth book that she collects ornamental plates decorated with disgustingly cute kittens – they line the walls of her office.

This is her one redeeming feature. (image: giphy.com)
This is her one redeeming feature. (image: giphy.com)

Her goals and beliefs are pretty well-established too. We know from the very outset that her main purpose in the novels is to uphold the repressive policies of the Ministry, and it’s made pretty clear as the books progress that this is a direct result of her deep-seated prejudices against pretty much everyone who isn’t Umbridge. That’s some believable and consistent character traits, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Umbridge is a vindictive, spiteful, petty, sadistic woman who uses a cloak of girlish femininity in order to disguise her deep-rooted nastiness, and she remains this way throughout the whole series. Her skills don’t dramatically increase or decrease in order to push the plot along, and she consistently demonstrates an aptitude for dark magic in all her appearances. Once again, she passes this round.

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 sadistic, spiteful government official who’s determined to uphold the principles of the repressive governments she works for – regardless of who might get in her way.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Umbridge doesn’t have a love life.

And nor does anyone else, when she's around. (image: giphy.com)
And nor does anyone else, when she’s around. (image: giphy.com)

What really influences her decisions are her strongly-held beliefs in the governments she works for and her own personal prejudices. Umbridge is never really a character who’s seen in a romantic or sexual light in the Harry Potter series – and given the ‘Baroness’ trope that often surrounds female villains, this is very refreshing.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Umbridge doesn’t really develop over the course of her appearances in the Harry Potter novels. Although she seems to get nastier as the series goes on, it’s pretty clear that she was already nasty to begin with and simply chose to keep it secret – you only have to look at the cruel and unusual punishment she comes up with for Harry to prove this. The only other way her character progresses is the fear of centaurs she develops at the end of the fifth book, but as this doesn’t last, I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

For Villain Month, I’m defining weaknesses as something that holds these characters back, rather than as traditionally negative character traits. What really holds Umbridge back in the Harry Potter books is just how small-minded she is. She’s far too quick to believe she’s succeeded, often underestimates her opponents and is given to gloating.

The classic villain flaw. (image: giphy.com)
The classic villain flaw. (image: giphy.com)

This actually leads to some real set-backs. It’s this that allows Hermione to trick her into leading her into the Forbidden Forest, it’s this that allows Harry, Ron and Hermione to track down their first Horcrux – this is what helps her opponents to get the edge on her. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

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

Umbridge is a real influence on the plot. Her quest to rigidly enforce Ministry law at Hogwarts dominates the fifth book. However, she’s not such a force in the seventh book – and, as I pointed out in question one, she does spend a lot of time following orders – sometimes I wonder if all this influence can really be ascribed to her. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Umbridge defies a whole host of traditional gender stereotypes. She appears to be a very soft, feminine woman, with a clear preference for a traditionally girly aesthetic. However, she’s also a complete sadist with deep-rooted prejudices, seems utterly incapable of empathy and is ruthlessly ambitious – hardly traits you would expect to see in someone who looks like this:

But she's got a cup of tea, how could she be nasty? (image: photobucket.com)
But she’s got a cup of tea, how could she be nasty? (image: photobucket.com)

There’s only one incident where she falters – and that is at the end of the fifth book. For the uninitiated, at the end of the fifth book Umbridge is lured into the Forbidden Forest and carried off by centaurs. When we see her next, she’s in a hospital bed, seemingly unharmed, but reacts with terror to the sound of horses’ hooves. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have any bearing on traditional gender stereotypes – apart from the fact that in Greek mythology (which Rowling has publicly stated as being a huge source of inspiration for the series), centaurs were known for carrying off and raping human women.

This throws the way Umbridge relates to gender stereotypes into a completely different light. The incident with the centaurs is portrayed as Umbridge’s comeuppance – it’s supposed to be seen as the direct result of all her nasty behaviour. This carries all sorts of unfortunate implications. Traditionally, rape has been used as a way of punishing women, and is often linked to enforcing gender roles when committed in this context. In light of these implications, the reader has to consider whether Umbridge is being punished for her misdeeds, or punished for being an unconventional woman.

As we don’t actually know what happened in the Forbidden Forest it’s difficult to say what this means for Umbridge in terms of gender stereotypes. JK Rowling has not given an official statement about the incident, so until she does we can only speculate. Personally, I think it’s unlikely. Given that the series is aimed at children, and that Rowling herself has advocated for women’s rights for some time, I have difficulty believing the theory that Umbridge was raped by centaurs. However, it does throw up some important questions and considerations which I don’t think can be ignored, so I’ll award half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Umbridge has a wide range of relationships with a wide range of female characters, and these relationships mainly depend on what she wants from the other woman. On the whole she’s condescending towards her female students, unless she’s trying to get them to tell her something. If they’re members of her Inquisitorial Squad she’s very indulgent with them, clearly having favourites amongst her students. When we see her relate to adults, it’s a different story – she’s outright antagonistic to Professor McGonagall, gloats over Professor Trelawney’s sacking and lords it over her colleagues at the Ministry. Her relationships are defined by status and her own goals rather than gender, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Dolores Umbridge is an unforgivably nasty character who displays a consistent level of skill, drives the plot forward and has some very well-established goals, hobbies and beliefs. She has weaknesses that hold her back, isn’t defined by her love life and has a range of relationships with different female characters. She might not develop much over the course of the story, and some parts of her story raise a few eyebrows when it comes to gender stereotypes, but she’s still passed my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Gone Girl. Amy, 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: Lady Macbeth

For those of you that don’t know, Lady Macbeth is the leading lady of William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. The story follows an ambitious Scottish lord (and his equally ambitious wife) who is prophesied to become king, and who sets about murdering everybody in order to make this happen. The play is widely considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most frightening works, dealing with betrayal, murder and the supernatural, and despite its 400-year lifespan it continues to be a feature of modern storytelling. As for Lady Macbeth, she is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s most complex female characters, has been played by a range of fantastic actresses (including Dame Judi Dench) and is the subject of countless GCSE English essays every year. What better way to kick off Villain Month?

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

 

NOTE: Just so we’re clear,  I’ll be basing my analysis off the original Shakespearean play, rather than any of the modern adaptations. I simply don’t have time to look at them all, but as they’re all working from the same source material, I’m sure it’ll be all right.

 

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

Lady Macbeth is very much in control of her own destiny, although it isn’t always by her own hands. When she first hears that Macbeth has been foretold to become king of Scotland, instead of simply waiting for this to happen she persuades her husband to murder the current king and take his place. She doesn’t actually kill the king herself, but she still causes his death nonetheless. She makes herself queen without really having to lift a finger, and does her best to keep her position stable by smoothing over Macbeth’s visions with his lords.

What’s really interesting about her character is that ultimately, she also ends up orchestrating her own downfall. Despite goading Macbeth into killing his king at the start of the play – and helping him to cover it up afterwards – she becomes racked with guilt over her part in his death. Eventually this becomes too much for her, and she kills herself near the end of the play. She is the architect of her own madness right up until the curtain falls.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t hear anything about Lady Macbeth’s hobbies; she’s far too busy plotting a massacre to have time for something like knitting.

Unless she's making something like this. (image: pinterest.com)
Unless she’s making something like this. (image: pinterest.com)

However, her goals are very clearly defined: she wants to be Queen of Scotland as soon as possible, and will go to any lengths in order to make this happen. Her beliefs are a little harder to pin down, but it’s made very clear that she believes that in order to be strong, she must reject the feminine parts of her personality. Lady Macbeth constantly values the masculine above the feminine, as exemplified in her famous speech in Act One, Scene Five, where she begs all the powers of darkness to strip her of her femininity in order to make her strong enough to go through with the murder she’s planned. I’ll go into this in more detail in Question Nine, but for now she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Lady Macbeth starts the play as a ruthless, ambitious, manipulative woman who’s determined to see her husband succeed. However, by the end of the play she’s racked with guilt and has been gradually pushed to the edges of her husband’s power. This isn’t something that has happened suddenly. We see Macbeth pushing her out of the decision-making process when he orders the murder of Banquo and Macduff. Her crushing guilt is also foreshadowed right from her earliest appearance, when she tells the audience that she would have killed the king herself if he had not resembled her father as he slept. This all adds up to a much slower, more gradual decline into madness, with certain elements of her former personality remaining constant – which means that in terms of consistency, she’s certainly passed my test.

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 ruthlessly ambitious Scottish lady is determined to become Queen of Scotland by any means necessary – but is not prepared for the toll it will take on her psyche.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Most of Lady Macbeth’s decisions are motivated by her ambition to become queen. While she is really only in the play because she’s Macbeth’s wife, we actually see very little of her decisions influenced by her love life. Some adaptations suggest that she actually uses her sexual hold over her husband in order to persuade him to go along with her plans, but ultimately she pushes her husband to murder his way to the top for her benefit rather than his own. She gets her power through Macbeth, but her concerns are more for his power than for him.

LOOK AT HIS TINY EVIL SWIVEL CHAIR (image: giphy.com)
LOOK AT HIS TINY EVIL SWIVEL CHAIR (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Over the course of the play, Lady Macbeth goes mad. She also slowly loses influence with her husband, becomes racked with guilt and loses all interest in her previous goal of becoming – and remaining – royalty. It’s this descent into madness which makes her one of Shakespeare’s most interesting characters, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

This question gets a little tricky when talking about villains. Negative character traits are usually precisely what make villains so memorable, and are often the very things that propel them through their story. With that in mind, I’m going to be classifying ‘villain weaknesses’ as character traits that hold them back – which may well be seen as a more positive trait in less morally dubious characters – rather than just looking at negative  characteristics.

Loki approves. (image: giphy.com)
Loki approves. (image: giphy.com)

Lady Macbeth’s fatal flaw from a villainous point of view is ultimately her inability to live up to her own ambition. She can’t kill the king herself because he reminds her of her father, nor can she reconcile her own ambition with the enormity of what her husband has done. Just like her husband, her ambition over-reaches itself; she can never truly achieve the goals she has set.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Throughout the play Lady Macbeth exhibits extra-ordinary amounts of ‘soft power’. Rather than forcing people to do what she wants, she persuades them, cajoles them, and manipulates them. In this respect she has a fantastic amount of influence over her husband, whose actions drive the plot. She has a lot of indirect control over the larger events of the play, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

OH BOY.

I KNOW RIGHT?? (image: giphy.com)
I KNOW RIGHT?? (image: giphy.com)

Lady Macbeth is a really interesting character in terms of how she relates to feminine and masculine gender roles. When she’s in control, she firmly rejects all the traditional trappings of femininity – such as kindness, compassion, obedience etc. – and does so in a particularly brutal manner. When she’s psyching herself up for murder in Act One, Scene Five she does so using images of infanticide, mother’s milk turning to poison, and literally asked to be ‘unsexed’. What’s more, she says all of this while calling on spirits and the ‘smoke of hell’, invoking all sorts of demonic nasties that would have shocked Jacobean audiences.

This implies two things. The first is that Lady Macbeth – and, by extension, much of Jacobean culture – associated strength, ruthlessness and ambition with men. Women were supposed to be kind, gentle, loving creatures because they were capable of bearing children. In order for Lady Macbeth to go through with her own plans, she must literally divorce herself from her biological gender. The second is that by giving this speech while invoking hellish spirits, Shakespeare is effectively associating this rejection of the feminine with the demonic. When Lady Macbeth is literally asking demons to make her incapable of having children, Shakespeare is effectively saying that this behaviour is unnatural. Lady Macbeth’s rejection of the feminine is also a rejection of God. In a highly Christian society such as Jacobean England, it’s likely that this would have legally counted as witchcraft – a crime punishable by death.

Given the time in which the play was written, it comes as no surprise that Lady Macbeth is eventually punished for her crimes. She’s driven mad by her own guilt, but the way in which this is handles strips her of all her power. In the sleepwalking scene, where the audience finally sees Lady Macbeth’s guilt laid out before them, she’s a very vulnerable character who is no longer a factor in her husband’s plans. In effect, she has become a much more traditionally feminine character – she’s reduced to a very passive player, her emotions eventually become her downfall, and her influence on the plot has been rapidly reduced in favour of her husband’s. Even her speech is affected – in AC Bradley’s famous analysis of the play, he notes that in this scene Lady Macbeth speaks in short, disjointed prose. In all her other appearances she speaks in very controlled verse, and unlike the other major characters in Shakespearean tragedies, she doesn’t get to speak in verse for her final appearance – a method of speaking that was traditionally used to demonstrate dignity and nobility.

The upshot of all this is that Lady Macbeth’s power comes from an outright rejection of her femininity. This behaviour would have been seen by audiences as deeply unnatural – hence the demonic imagery – and she is ultimately punished for it. In her final scene we see Lady Macbeth at her most vulnerable: she’s been stripped of both her power and her dignity and has been forced back into a more traditionally feminine stance because of this. She’s not just punished for her role in planning the king’s murder; she’s also punished for stepping outside the boundaries of traditional Jacobean gender norms. Long story short? She doesn’t pass.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Lady Macbeth just doesn’t relate to other female characters. She’s only onstage with another woman once in the entire play – a nameless gentlewoman – but this is during the sleepwalking scene, and Lady Macbeth has no idea that this woman is even there.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Lady Macbeth is a ruthlessly ambitious woman who remains in control of her own destiny, has some clear goals, changes over the course of the story and has weaknesses that actively hold her back. She may not relate to other female characters, and she may be extremely problematic in terms of gender stereotypes, but she’s still passed my test. It’s a real testament to the complexity of Shakespeare’s characters that they still stand up to analysis four hundred years after they were first imagined!

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite series of all time: Harry Potter. Dolores Umbridge, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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