Strong Female Characters: Nancy

For those of you that don’t know, Nancy is one of the main female characters in Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel, Oliver Twist. The book follows the misadventures of a neglected orphan boy in Victorian London who falls in with a gang of thieves – and Nancy is one of them. A controversial character at the time, Nancy has come to be recognised as one of Dickens’ most tragic – and influential – female characters. The story has been phenomenally successful, and is credited with kick-starting the Victorian social reform movement as well as being adapted into numerous films, plays and musicals.

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?

Nancy’s wider destiny is the result of both her own actions and the circumstances into which she was born. It’s established that she was born into a very poor family, was a member of Fagin’s gang of thieves as a child, and when the story starts, she is a teenage prostitute. It’s very heavily implied that the path she takes through life was, to a certain extent, inevitable – the sheer poverty into which she was born has completely choked off all other opportunities for her. As such, it’s quite easy to read Nancy’s journey through the story as the result of much wider forces that she has no control over.

However, this isn’t the only thing that guides her through the story. Even though she is pretty much stuck in her situation, she does try and change it – mainly through trying to prevent Fagin and Bill Sikes from corrupting Oliver. This doesn’t always work, but it does have a real impact on both her character and her progress through the book, and it’s worth noting that she has a lot more control over Oliver’s life than she does over her own. I’ll 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 don’t hear a lot about Nancy’s hobbies, but this is very common for Dickens’ portrayal of poor characters – unless he’s trying to make a point about the evils of drink, he very rarely shows his poorer characters as having any interests at all. Part of this may well be a representation of what life was really like for the Victorian poor, as terrible living conditions and fourteen-hour working days weren’t exactly conducive to having a social life.

They would never have had the time to practice all this choreography. (imgur.com)
They would never have had the time to practice all this choreography. (imgur.com)

Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. She wants to get Oliver out of Fagin’s clutches, but she also doesn’t want to do so by betraying him (and her lover, Bill Sikes) to the authorities. As far as her beliefs go, she sets a lot of store by the belief in Oliver’s natural innocence despite the things he is forced to do, but also believes that she herself is completely beyond such redemption. All this shapes a really interesting worldview that has a concrete impact on 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?

Nancy’s character is actually quite complex. She makes her way through life by crime and prostitution, yet she still speaks in a relatively genteel way and lives by her own, many-layered moral code. She’s devoted to the people she loves, even when she knows they are bad people, and even when she admits that they will lead to her own downfall. She’s street-smart, jaded, brash and abrasive, but still remains hopeful and has some strong maternal instincts. She remains this way all throughout the novel, so I’ll give her the full 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 jaded teenage prostitute determined to save a little boy from falling into a life of crime.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Throughout the novel, most of Nancy’s decisions are influenced by loyalty – to Oliver, to Fagin and his gang, and to her lover, Bill Sikes. It’s worth noting that most of her good decisions are influenced by her loyalty to Oliver – most of which stem from her long-buried maternal instincts – and most of her bad decisions are influenced by her loyalty to Fagin and Sikes. I’ll give her half a point, as about half her decisions are influenced by Sikes and her inability to leave him – but more on this later.

And it's going to be awkward. (image: giphy.com)
And it’s going to be awkward. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Nancy actually develops really well over the course of the story. She starts the story as a drunken, jaded teenage prostitute who has no qualms leading other young people into a life of crime. As the novel progresses, and she realises the extent of Oliver’s innate goodness, she gradually comes to regret her involvement with Fagin and his gang, to the point where she actually helps him escape their clutches. Nancy’s gradual re-alignment of her moral compass also coincides with a growing sense of dissatisfaction with her life, which is really triggered by her meeting with Rose Maylie – but as Nancy firmly believes she cannot escape her own destiny, this dissatisfaction doesn’t really develop as much as it could.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Nancy doesn’t really have much of a weakness to speak of. Dickens portrays the bad aspects of her character – such as the life of crime, prostitution and drunkenness – as more of a result of the environment she grew up in than any flaw in her personality. I’m inclined to agree.

What does hold her back is what’s usually portrayed as the ‘good’ side of her personality – her growing sympathy for Oliver. This is actually what leads to her downfall and eventual death, but since this is portrayed as an overwhelmingly positive character trait and crucial to both her development and ‘redemption’, I can’t list this as a flaw. The most I can think of is her belief that she is trapped in her life of poverty and crime, as this actively stops her from trying to escape it. But this, in turn, could just as easily be described as a realistic portrayal of the effects of crushing poverty, as in Victorian England social mobility was almost non-existent. I’m stuck, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Nancy is a real influence on the plot – she brings Oliver back to Fagin, and eventually gets him away from him again – but this isn’t always the result of her own decisions. At least fifty per cent of the time she’s sent to influence the plot on behalf of another character, rather than acting of her own accord.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Strap in, kids!

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

In some ways, Nancy can be seen as quite a progressive character, particularly by Victorian standards. She’s a thief and a prostitute who’s portrayed as a sympathetic and complex character. In the nineteenth century this was so controversial that Dickens had to answer public complaints about why he even included her character in the novel at all. On the one hand, she can be seen as ground-breaking, as she was one of the first sympathetic depictions of a sex worker in modern fiction.

One the other hand, so much of her character is informed by stereotypes that it’s difficult to say if this still holds up. Nancy is a stereotypical ‘Tart with a Heart’ – a sex worker who, despite their general dissatisfaction with both their life and their work, remains an essentially ‘good’ character. This problematic belief stigmatises sex work as corrupting and degrading, and something from which sex workers need to be saved, rather than acknowledging the many different attitudes that the many different kinds of sex workers can have towards their trade.

Nancy also falls under the ‘maternal instincts’ branch of female stereotypes. Her sympathy for Oliver – a very young, innocent and sweet-looking child – is directly attributed to the awakening of her maternal instincts. She barely knows this child – and has already been surrounded by other, less cute children in exactly the same position that Oliver is in – and yet suddenly, she starts reconsidering her entire life simply because she starts feeling protective of him. This is pretty problematic too, as it reinforces the belief that all women want to be mothers. This is something that pops up in Dickens’ wider body of work quite frequently: he frequently uses a lack of maternal instincts as a quick way of characterising an ‘unnatural’, and therefore bad, woman.

But the most significant way in which Nancy relates to gender stereotypes is in her relationship with Bill Sikes. Bill Sikes is an amoral, violent, drunken sociopath, and Nancy just loves him to bits. She’s half-frightened of him through most of the novel, he doesn’t appreciate the efforts she makes on his behalf (when she nurses him back to health, he complains about how tired she looks), and it’s made very clear to the reader that he physically beats her. And yet, she never once entertains the idea of leaving him, or even turning him over to the authorities. This ultimately leads to her downfall, as she turns down an offer to leave the country in order to stay with him – just before he beats her to death.

I’m in two minds about this relationship. On the one hand, it’s a pretty realistic depiction of how abusive relationships work in real life. Nancy doesn’t want Bill to beat her, she knows that he doesn’t love her as much as she loves him, and she’s almost constantly afraid of him. Yet she still keeps going back to him – mainly because she’s had such a loveless life that she jumps at any scraps of affection he throws her way. This is an extremely realistic depiction of how some abusive relationships can work in real life, and the novel outright acknowledges it as unhealthy.

But on the other hand, it’s also pretty clear that this relationship is being played up for the readers’ titillation. The scene where Bill Sikes beats her to death – which may have actually been based on a real murder – is described in such gory detail that it seems almost lurid. When you compare this scene to the other death scenes in the novel it sticks out like a sore thumb. Most other death scenes in the book treat their subject with a certain amount of dignity, allow the other characters to mourn them, and the last we see of that character usually reinforces their humanity. Nancy is afforded no such gentle treatment: no-one mourns her, she dies pleading for her life, and the last we see of her is a bloody corpse on the floor.

Would you, Sir Ian? (image: giphy.com)
Would you, Sir Ian? (image: giphy.com)

It’s pretty easy to draw some extremely unfortunate conclusions here. There are numerous contemporary accounts of Dickens performing this scene at public readings and working himself into a frenzy, and despite all the Victorian condemnation, this seems to be a certain amount of sordid fascination with this scene. What’s more, there’s no getting away from the fact that Nancy is a sex worker – a profession the Victorians associated with moral degradation and sin – and in some ways, the violent manner of her death seems a little bit like a punishment. If we look at the rest of his work, it seems extremely unlikely that Dickens would have killed off a female character from any other section of society in such a violent manner.

In short, Nancy’s violent death is loaded with unfortunate implications about the social aspect of female purity and their worth as human beings. It’s easy to argue that her death is realistic for someone of her position in that era, but I think that when you compare it to Dickens’s wider body of work, it’s pretty clear that there’s something more at work here. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Nancy doesn’t really relate to many other female characters at all. We know she’s friends with her fellow prostitute, Bet, but this isn’t explored in any significant amount of detail. The most significant relationship she has is with Rose Maylie, a young society lady. This relationship is really use to illustrate Rose’s goodness and to set up a contrast between the two of them, and while Rose does offer Nancy some genuine sympathy, Nancy becomes so snivellingly deferential that the whole thing just reeks of classism. There are moments where a much more complex relationship can be glimpsed, but it’s not enough to redeem it entirely. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Nancy is a consistent character with clearly defined goals and beliefs who goes on a complex journey throughout the story, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t really have any significant relationships with other female characters, she doesn’t really have a weakness and her character is overloaded with unfortunate implications about sex, class and gender.

But I think she’s still a worthwhile character. Dickens’s female characters are often overshadowed by their male counterparts, and tend to fall into the ‘demure little angel’ bracket more often than not. Nancy is a much more complex and well-developed character than any of the other female characters in Oliver Twist, and certainly stands head and shoulders over many of Dickens’s other female characters. She may have her flaws, but she’s still a very valuable character.

The next post in this series will be the fiftieth character I’ve looked at on this blog! How time flies. I’m planning something special for you guys – which might take me a little bit longer to put together, so it might not go up next weekend. I’ll be doing an extremely detailed analysis of a character who’s shaped modern fiction as we know it. She’s generated billions of dollars, has had her face slapped on everything from perfume bottles to bedsheets, and has altered the layouts of millions of bookshops just to suit her needs.

And I’m going to hate every minute of it.

Ladies and gentlemen:

 

Bella

GODDAMN

Swan.

I feel like I'm going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)
I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

 

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: Morticia Addams

For those of you that don’t know, Morticia is the matriarch of The Addams Family, a comic strip turned TV show turned movie series about a family of supernatural creatures/borderline psychopaths who don’t sparkle. The plot of all three incarnations revolves around the various family shenanigans the Addamses get up to, and Morticia – as the wife of Gomez and the mother of Pugsley, Wednesday and Pubert – is often caught in the middle of it. A cult classic, The Addams Family has become a staple of popular culture (and an endless source of Halloween costumes) and Morticia herself has become an instantly recognisable character.

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

 

NOTE: This review will be mainly focused on the two 1990s films with Anjelica Huston, but I will be referencing its other incarnations from time to time.

 

  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, Morticia is very happy with her life as it is. She only really tries to change things after the Addams family is threatened in some way, and then she becomes a much more active player. She’s perfectly capable of confronting people who try and harm her family, and does so on more than one occasion, but often chooses not to.

As such, it’s actually pretty tricky to make a definite judgement about how Morticia has shaped her own destiny as most of the time, her life and the world around her are presented as things that are already shaped to her liking. We never really see her act unless something is taken away from her – most of the time it’s her husband and children who drive the plot forward.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Like the rest of the Addams family, everything Morticia does has a very macabre twist to it, and this is reflected in her pastimes. She enjoys gardening –

In a manner of speaking. (image: giphy.com)
In a manner of speaking. (image: giphy.com)

– music and ballroom dancing, but only if these are all done in a particularly melodramatic and kooky way. As far as her beliefs go, she seems genuinely distressed by all things wholesome and saccharine and loves all things dark and spooky – but she also puts the welfare of her family above everything else and would go to any lengths to make them happy. This also informs her goals, too – throughout the films her main aim is to protect her family and make sure her children grow up happy, if a little twisted. She’d also like to seek out the dark forces and join them on their hellish crusade – but hey, what modern woman doesn’t?

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Morticia is a very cool, collected woman with seduction (and sometimes smoke) literally coming out of her ears. She’s a very loving person who’s proud of her husband and children, even if they are all super weird, and is fiercely loyal to her family. She does all of this behind a thin patina of creepy, but overall she means well. As far as her skills go, we see that she is very good at foreign languages and music, and has an impressive pain tolerance – although this is usually just played for laughs.

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 creepy, kooky yet loving mother who only wants the best for her adorably strange family.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Most of Morticia’s decisions are influenced by her love for her family, and there’s no getting away from the fact that her husband, Gomez, is a huge part of this. In the first film, she goes to confront the villains primarily because Gomez has become depressed – in the second, she goes to confront the villains because their actions are causing Gomez pain.

Because that's her job. (image: giphy.com)
Because that’s her job. (image: giphy.com)

While she is concerned for her children and her mother, most of her on-screen interactions – and therefore, decisions – are centred around her husband. However, it’s still made pretty clear that she isn’t just acting for his sake – she does what she does for the good of the Addams family as a larger whole. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Not really. Morticia doesn’t learn anything or change in any substantial way. At the end of the films she’s pretty much the same character as she was at the beginning.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Again, Morticia doesn’t really have a weakness. Her love for her family sometimes puts her in danger, but this doesn’t really count as a weakness. Likewise, her creepy, kooky demeanour never extends much beyond a source of comedy – it doesn’t really hold her back.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

As I already mentioned, Morticia doesn’t actually influence the plot all that often – it’s usually her husband and children who provide us with most of the action. When she does step up to the plate, more often than not it’s in a supporting role or she’s cast in the role of damsel in distress – so she doesn’t pass this round either.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Morticia is actually a really interesting character in terms of gender stereotypes. Her character is very clearly informed by some existing stereotypes, and most prevalent of all of these influences is The Vamp. The Vamp is the epitome of a sexily evil lady who uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants, and at first glance, Morticia would definitely seem to fall into this category. She’s got the whole ‘evil sexy’ aesthetic sorted.

And most of it comes from her flawless eyeshadow. (image: tumblr.com)
And most of it comes from her flawless eyeshadow. (image: tumblr.com)

However, this is all completely subverted by the fact that she only looks the part. She’s a loving mother, a supportive wife and does everything she can to keep her family happy. This is really what set The Addams Family apart from other sitcoms when the TV show first aired in the 1960s. In many sitcoms about the typical American family, all the humour came from the mother’s endless nagging, and she was often the source of pointless family dramas. In The Addams Family, the humour comes from how much they all love and support each other – it’s everyone else who provides the drama.

The upshot of all this is that Morticia is a surprisingly subversive character. When the show and the movies first came out, it was unusual to see a married couple so utterly besotted with each other – and it’s still not exactly common even today. Morticia subverts the trope of the Vamp by being a fundamentally loving person, she subverts the trope of the housewife by being really, really strange, and she and Gomez subvert the trope that married life is boring by all the crazy sex stuff the movies drop hints about.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Morticia relates to a wide range of female characters, but these relationships aren’t always developed. She loves and supports her daughter, Wednesday, but this relationship isn’t really explored in any great depth. She loves her mother, welcomes Margaret into the family when she marries Cousin It, and tries to do the same with the serial killer, Debbie – although as you’d expect, this doesn’t pan out quite so well. She has plenty of relationships with other female characters, but these aren’t really explored in any great amount of detail, so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 5.5/10

 

Morticia is a consistent character with some well-developed goals, beliefs and hobbies and a refreshing take on gender stereotypes. But at the end of the day, she just isn’t quite fleshed-out enough to pass my test. Her relationships aren’t really developed enough, she doesn’t develop over the course of the story, and she doesn’t really have a weakness.

But is this going to stop me from watching her movies? Absolutely not.

Not least because of her psycho daughter. (image: tumblr.com)
Not least because of her psycho daughter. (image: tumblr.com)

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of the classic Dickens characters. Nancy, 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: Daenerys Targaryen

For those of you that don’t know, Daenerys is one of the main characters in George RR Martin’s phenomenally successful series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Set (mostly) in the fictional kingdom of Westeros, the plot of the series revolves around various unscrupulous noble families betraying each other and chopping each other’s heads off to see who gets to sit the Iron Throne and rule the kingdom. Daenerys is one of these nobles, and her arc of the story revolves around trying to get back to Westeros, punish the people who exiled and killed her and her family, and become Queen. The books are extremely popular – spawning endless fan theories, Halloween costumes and a sexed-up HBO adaptation – and Daenerys herself has been widely hailed as one of the most interesting characters in modern fiction.

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

NOTE: This recap will only cover Daenerys’s character up to the end of A Dance with Dragons and Game of Thrones season 5.

 

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

The question of whether Daenerys is truly in control of her own life is a very interesting one, mainly due to her family position. Daenerys is one of the last living descendants of the Mad King, Aerys Targaryen, who was deposed before the series begins. She had her brother fled into exile, spent several years running from the various bounty hunters looking to sell them to the new king, and trying to raise money to mount an invasion of Westeros. As such, Daenerys was brought up to believe that the Targaryen claim to the throne was the rightful one, and she was raised with the expectation that she would do everything in her power to make sure that a Targaryen bum would be sitting on the Iron Throne.

Much like this. (image: tumblr.com)
Much like this. (image: tumblr.com)

At the beginning of the series she has very little power, and this is mainly because she’s under the thumb of her bullying older brother. Once he’s killed, she becomes the last living Targaryen, and starts taking steps to raise an army and head back to conquer Westeros. You might think that this would mean she’d breeze through this question with no problems, but that’s not the case. Daenerys is very aware that she has other goals that she will never be able to pursue, thanks to her Targaryen heritage. She frequently expresses a wish to go back to the house with the red door, where she grew up, or to live as a normal woman with the men she loves.

Daenerys does want to be queen, but her desire to do so is tangled up with her status as the last living Targaryen. Given her upbringing, she feels as if pursuing the Iron Throne is the only option open to her – she owes it to her murdered family to take back what was theirs. She’s fully aware that because of this status, she’s constantly going to be the target of various assassins, and even if she tried to live a normal life it’s unlikely she would be allowed to live. She’s a very active character who does her best to shape her own destiny, but more often than not she’s stymied by forces much larger than she is – including her own heritage. I’ll 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 don’t see much of Dany’s hobbies – we hear a lot more about the pastimes she doesn’t enjoy, such as watching the gladiator contests in the fighting pits of Meereen. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. What drives Dany through the story is her conviction that she deserves to sit on the Iron Throne; as I’ve already discussed, this is a result of her upbringing and family position, although she does have quite a knack for leadership. She also believes in being a firm and just ruler, trying her best to govern her people in a morally sound way. However, her definition of being a morally sound ruler is very different to that of the people she conquers. This influences her goals again in the last book, where she attempts to rule the city of Meereen and must negotiate her way through the ensuing culture clash. Her overarching goal remains consistent, but her beliefs and smaller goals are often influenced by her circumstances.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

For the most part, Dany is largely consistent. She’s confident, driven, compassionate, can be arrogant, has the capacity to be ruthless to her enemies, and often finds herself torn between doing her duty and following her heart. She almost always ends up choosing her duty, despite the personal losses this can bring her, but tries not to dwell on this.

Daenerys also has a natural knack for leadership and command. She takes to conquering very easily and soon establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. She’s also the only person in Westeros who can hatch dragons – and the only person who can ride them. As she knows absolutely nothing about dragons when they first hatch, she has to learn very quickly and make things up on the fly – but she manages very well, despite a few bumpy patches along the way.

LOOK AT THEM (image: giphy.com)
Wouldn’t like to be on the receiving end of their teething problems… (image: giphy.com)

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 strong, driven young queen with a strong sense of justice trying to take her rightful place on the throne.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Daenerys’s love life is a bit of a tricky question, so bear with me here.

Daenerys was raised in a very patriarchal society. Growing up with her bullying older brother, the expectation was that she would not be the one to sit the Iron Throne – he would. Daenerys’s role in securing the Targaryen dynasty was initially seen as someone who could be used to make an advantageous marriage – and this is precisely what happens in the first book, when at the age of thirteen, she is married to the thirty-year-old Khal Drogo in exchange for the support of his massive army.

And Jason Momoa's massive guns. (image: pinterest.com)
And Jason Momoa’s massive guns. (image: pinterest.com)

Even though Daenerys tries to cast off these expectations, earning the respect of many who want to see her on the throne, they never truly leave her. Most people expect her to make a good political marriage in order to secure support for her claim to the throne – and Daenerys knows that this is something she will have to do in order to continue the Targaryen dynasty. Who Daenerys is going to end up with forms a substantial part of the conflict in her storyline, as she’s constantly bombarded with proposals from dudes who only want her for her dragons.

That said, Dany spends most of the books trying to avoid getting married. She knows she’ll eventually have to, and she does, but most of the decisions she makes are not focused around this. She’s much more motivated by her desire to govern her city well, to abolish slavery, to lead her people to safety, to raise her dragons well and of course, to take back the Iron Throne. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Dany goes through all kinds of development over the course of the series. In the first book, she goes from being a victimised child to a strong, confident young woman. In the second and third books, she builds up her army, leading them across Essos and cutting her teeth on her first taste of power. In the latest book, she learns about the difficulties of balancing expectations as a ruler, and comes to understand that governing a city well is much more complicated than conquering it and moving on. She gets impatient, gets arrogant, and even starts becoming a bit more bloodthirsty as she starts losing control of the city. That’s some strong development in all the books, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Dany has a few weaknesses that hold her back over the course of the series. One of her main problems as a ruler is her youth and inexperience – but this is a fairly normal weakness for a teenage girl to have, so I’m not counting that. A much more serious weakness is her insistence that she knows best. She can be very stubborn, and has a tendency to impose her moral code on other people. When she tries to rule Meereen this causes serious problems for her, as her moral code clashes with the local culture and she doesn’t always listen to the people who are trying to ease this tension.

This is what it's like trying to get her attention. (image: giphy.com)
This is what it’s like trying to get her attention. (image: giphy.com)

She also struggles with the traditional ‘Targaryen madness’. While she is sane through most of the story, she has a tendency to get quite bloodthirsty (especially when things aren’t progressing in the way she would like) and struggles with the temptation to just get on her dragon and unleash hell. This is something that runs in the family – and that she has trouble accepting was true of her own father – and may be the start of more serious mental instability in Dany. The temptation to give in and kill everyone isn’t something that we usually see in female characters, so I’ll give her the full point in case she sets her dragons on me.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

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

Much like Sansa Stark, Dany is one of those characters who can influence the plot simply by being in it – as the last living Targaryen, people are always going to be seeking her out for their own devices. However, this isn’t the case with Dany. She makes the decision to lead her people across the Red Waste, to sack Astapor and conquer Meereen, and to pursue her ultimate goal of becoming queen rather than selling all her stuff and setting up in a nice house somewhere.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

When you look at her character in total isolation, it’s very easy to see Dany as quite a progressive character. She grows from being a meek, obedient child to a strong, confident ruler. She makes difficult decisions, negotiates political settlements, and plans battle strategies – and she’s very good at all these things. She’s also sterile, but doesn’t dwell on this – she quietly gets on with her life despite what this will eventually mean for her plans to re-start the Targaryen dynasty. This is hardly something that you would normally associate with a teenage girl – and in fact, something that’s rarely depicted in fiction at all.

You tell 'em, Dany! (image: giphy.com)
You tell ’em, Dany! (image: giphy.com)

However, where things get tricky is when you start to look at her relationships. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Dany is constantly described as the most beautiful woman in the world (despite how unlikely it is that she skipped the spotty teenage phase the rest of us had to go through). She’s placed on a pedestal by many of the other characters, and certainly for some of them, her beauty is far more important than any of her other good points. As such, she’s inundated with offers of marriage on all sides – but she herself tends to prefer the bad boy types, even when she knows (and admits) that they’re no good for her.

But by far her most problematic relationship is with her first husband, Khal Drogo. First off: when they marry, she is thirteen and he is thirty, which is gross. It’s common knowledge that A Song of Ice and Fire is loosely based on Medieval Europe, which most people tend to use as an explanation for just how young all its characters are – and, in Dany’s case, her young age when she’s first married. However, this actually isn’t true: it was pretty rare for people to marry that young (most marriages took place roundabout the late teens for the aristocracy, and in the twenties for everyone else) and such an age gap wasn’t exactly common. Dany’s marriage is a political one – she’s essentially sold off to a man over twice her age.

It gets worse. In the books, Dany’s wedding night is pretty dodgy. Daenerys and Drogo do not speak the same language, and she fully expects that he will violently rape her. He doesn’t – establishing that she consents and trying to be gentle with her – but there’s no getting away from the fact that here is a grown man seducing a child. Because of their age difference, this is statutory rape. In the show, it’s even worse – even though Dany is a little older, she’s still established to be a teenage girl, and Drogo violently rapes her and she cries through the whole experience. After the wedding night he continues to rape her, and she has to essentially persuade him not to do so by seducing him, which is a frankly squicky kind of logic that I could do without.

Would you, Sir Ian? (image: giphy.com)
Would you, Ian? (image: giphy.com)

In both the show and the books, Daenerys’s marriage to Drogo is presented as a sweeping, epic romance cut short before its time. Her marriage allows her to break free of her brother’s hold over her and grow into a more confident person, and Dany outright says in the books that Drogo made a queen of her. However, this all ignores the fact that in both the books and the show, the relationship is abusive. She is a child and he is an adult – she cannot consent to anything he does, so in both versions of the story their relationship is effectly statutory rape. She starts out being afraid of him, and this gradually turns to love. In the show he repeatedly rapes her, even while she cries – when she decides to seduce him (only so he’ll stop hurting her, I might add) they fall in love, despite everything that he has done to her.

The upshot of all this is that a problematic and, at times, abusive relationship is romanticised for both the viewers and the readers. It must be said that the HBO adaptation is by far the more guilty party here – the book version of Khal Drogo never rapes his wife – but nevertheless it carries all sorts of unfortunate implications about age, abuse and love. Essentially, what their marriage really says is that the love of a good woman can ‘civilise’ even the most brutal and barbaric man – which has all sorts of unfortunate racial implications as well as gendered. Dany’s personality redeems her from completely failing this part of my test, as her marriage isn’t the defining aspect of her character, but she can’t completely pass it, either.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Dany doesn’t have that many relationships with other female characters – and those she does relate to are often all in the same mould. She spends a lot of time with her handmaidens – Irri, Jhiqui and Doreah – but doesn’t really relate to them in any meaningful way. They don’t really become anything more than her servants – apart from on one occasion when she takes one of them to bed with her. I will admit, I don’t really know what to make of this, as while it would add a whole other layer to her character if Daenerys was bisexual, both before and after she sleeps with her servant girl she expresses no interest in women. This isn’t limited to her character, either – Cersei Lannister also takes another woman to bed despite not having expressed much interest in doing so before or after she does so. In both characters’ cases, the description seems to imply that taking female lovers is all tied up with their expressions of power – which is a really interesting way of looking at it – but a much more cynical part of me can’t help but wonder if George RR Martin didn’t include those scenes because he thought it’d be sexy.

She also becomes friends with the freedwoman, Missandei. In the books, Missandei is a young girl, who serves as Daenerys’s translator and cultural attaché. In the show, Missandei is a young woman, and the two have a much more friendly relationship, discussing things outside of their political roles and on a more equal footing. However, Missandei is still Dany’s servant – in both the books and the show – and that undercurrent of deference is never really lost. Most of her relationships with other women take this tone, so I’ll give her half a point for quantity, if not quality.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Daenerys is a determined, driven young woman who’s secure in her own beliefs, has a range of strengths and weaknesses, develops over the course of the story and is consistent in both her personality and skills. She may struggle with total control over her own destiny, as well as her problematic love life, but she’s still a real influence on the plot. She may be a controversial character for some, but she’s certainly a very well-written one – she’s passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite characters – but perhaps someone who might have been better suited to last month. Morticia Addams, 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: Trinity

For those of you that don’t know, Trinity is the leading lady in the game-changing Matrix trilogy. Set in a world where machines have taken over the planet and enslaved humanity in what looks like snot-bubbles, the plot of all three movies centres around a small group of humans trying to bring them down. Trinity is one of these humans, who fights alongside The One in an attempt to free mankind from their weird gooey alien pods. The first film was a smash hit, providing a fresh and original storyline as well as some truly ground-breaking action scenes, and the second and third films just sort of staggered along in its wake. As for Trinity herself, she has become an iconic, instantly recognisable character, and the namesake of the famous trope, Trinity Syndrome.

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 Trinity relates to her wider destiny is a bit complicated. It’s very well established that in order for most people to leave the Matrix, somebody else has to pull them out. We know that this is exactly what happened to Trinity: the film clearly states that before she left the Matrix, she was a hacker whose skills brought her to Morpheus’s attention. Like everyone else on the Nebuchadnezzar, when she took the red pill Morpheus rescued her from the machines. This presents us with an interesting conundrum. Trinity only decided to escape the Matrix when Morpheus offered her the red pill – and, if Neo’s scene was anything to go by, Morpheus’s vague explanation might not have made her realise exactly what she was getting herself into.

What this means for her character is that the most drastic change that Trinity has ever been through was all kick-started by another character. We have no way of knowing exactly what Trinity’s thoughts and emotions were when she left the Matrix as this takes place long before the first film started, but it throws the rest of her decisions into a whole new light. She goes into the Matrix to recruit new people and fight off the Agents, but she does so on Morpheus’s orders. She accompanies Neo on his various missions, but she’s not the one who decides where they go or what they do.

Trinity is occasionally allowed to act out on her own, but much like Black Widow, most of the time she’s following orders. However, whereas Black Widow’s personal agenda is often crucial to her development as a character, when Trinity strikes out on her own it’s because the plot calls for it. In The Matrix, she brings Neo back to life with the power of snogging – but this is because she’s the only one who can do so because of some prophecy. In Matrix Reloaded, she sneaks back into the Matrix against Neo’s orders – all this does is put her in danger and create an interesting moral dilemma for Neo. In Matrix Revolutions, she saves Neo from Bane and takes him into the Machine City to fight the bad guys – but this is because Neo has been blinded, and could no longer go on his own. Whichever way you look at it, Trinity’s character is always following orders – whether that’s from Morpheus or just meeting the demands of the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

We don’t really see a lot of Trinity’s hobbies. We know she was originally recruited because of her hacking abilities, but it’s not clear exactly how these skills developed. They may have started as a hobby, now maintaining these skills is key to Trinity’s survival – as I’ve already discussed, this essentially means they don’t really count as a hobby any more.

However, Trinity’s goals are much more clearly defined. She wants to survive outside the Matrix and help Neo bring the machines down. She’s committed to helping humanity survive and spends most of the movies pursuing this goal. This also relates to her beliefs: she is utterly convinced that Neo is The One – the destined messiah-figure who can save mankind from its weird gooey alien pods – and holds firmly to this belief all throughout the movies. In fact, this belief motivates her so much that she becomes convinced Neo can save mankind even before he does – and ultimately, it’s her belief in him that helps him succeed. This comes with its own issues, which I will discuss in question nine, but for now I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Trinity’s skills are very patchy. In her very first scene of the trilogy, she’s introduced as a total bad-ass, kicking the crap out of Agents, back-flipping off stuff, and jumping off tall buildings and landing without a hair out of place. She’s also shown to be an excellent hacker, an agile fighter and a capable pilot. However, all these skills falter when the plot needs them to. If the script calls for Trinity to be rescued by Neo, all the force will be leeched right out of her just in time for Keanu Reeves to step in. She’s a competent and able character until the plot needs to make Neo look good – then, she will crumble like a cookie so that the men can get on with it.

And as for her personality – brace yourselves, kids.

It's analysing time. (image: photobucket.com)
It’s analysing time. (image: photobucket.com)

Trinity doesn’t really have a personality. We never find out about her likes or dislikes, her strengths or weaknesses, her sense of humour (or lack thereof) or what she does in her spare time. We never find out what her favourite food is, whether she regrets leaving the Matrix, or even if she left anyone behind. We know almost nothing about Trinity’s past, her family, or even her age. We don’t even know her real name.

Now, it’s very easy to chalk all of this up to her inherent ‘mystery’ as a character. You could argue quite easily that we aren’t meant to know about Trinity in that much detail because her journey as a character is not focused around her background, but around her goals, and keeping her past a secret only adds to her appeal. However, this argument completely neglects the fact that some of the most mysterious characters in fiction have still had distinctive and memorable personalities.

V from V for Vendetta is a total mystery – aside from knowing that he spent time as a political prisoner, we know almost nothing about him – yet we still see that he is verbose, appreciates old movies, music and films, and believes that anarchic political systems are ones worth adopting. Count Olaf from A Series of Unfortunate Events never has his backstory or motivations explained, yet we still know that he is completely mercenary, spiteful, violent and short-tempered. Melisandre from A Song of Ice and Fire appears seemingly out of nowhere, yet the reader is never left in doubt of her deeply held religious beliefs, magical abilities and ruthless determination to pursue her goals, even if this means murder. Even Carmen Sandiego was shown to be a flamboyant thief stealing for the thrills rather than for material gain, and she was part of a computer game designed to teach kids geography.

GEOGRAPHY! (image: giphy.com)
GEOGRAPHY! (image: giphy.com)

Trinity has none of this development. She is a blank slate – we never once see her express emotions or preferences. She dispenses information, helps out her friends and gets into trouble only when it is relevant to the plot. The writers move her through the script like a pawn in a game of chess. There is literally nothing that could ever be classed as ‘such a Trinity thing to say’ – or do, for that matter, because I’m not counting kicking people in the face for this round. In short, Trinity is an utterly unmemorable character with nothing to differentiate her from the rest of the cast apart from her shiny black catsuit.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

As I mentioned in the previous question, Trinity doesn’t really have much of a personality. Thus, it’s very hard to describe her character in any kind of distinctive way – she could be replaced with literally any other character in the story and it would have very little impact on the plot. However, you can’t even describe her role in the storyline, either, as it’s impossible to talk about this without referencing Neo. While perhaps in the first film you might be able to make a case for her as an independent character (if you squint), in the second and third films she functions solely as Neo’s girlfriend. I could just about accept this if she actually did anything else in the story (I certainly did for Marion Ravenwood) but the fact of the matter is, she just doesn’t. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Trinity’s love life pretty much defines her role in the story. Her love for Neo allows him to accept that he is The One, it drives her to follow him into danger, and it drives her to rescue and defend him as much as possible. It’s also very much entangled with her desire to save humanity from the machines – as, after all, she was prophesied to fall in love with the only person who could bring them down – so her motivations get a little complex here. Although she doesn’t make many decisions of her own, when she does it’s often difficult to tell if she’s acting out of her love for Neo or out of her desire to protect him in order to save mankind. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and award her half a point, but I can’t help feeling that I’m being very generous here.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

In order for Trinity to truly develop over the course of the story, she would have to have a personality in the first place.

OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)
OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)

She goes through a huge amount of stuff in all three films – dealing with the deaths of her friends, becoming Neo’s girlfriend, fulfilling a prophecy about her love life, dealing with the machines’ attempts to destroy the last pocket of humanity, getting beat up by Agent Smith a bunch, technically dying, and literally listening to her boyfriend’s eyes getting BURNT OUT OF THEIR SOCKETS. But despite all of this, she doesn’t actually change. The Trinity at the beginning of the first film is no different from the Trinity at the end of the third film.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Trinity doesn’t really have a weakness. She gets into trouble very frequently, but this is never portrayed as a consequence of her own failings. In fact, it’s rarely related to her character at all – most of the time she just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When it is related to her personal motivations, more often than not it’s due to positive character traits, such as her love for Neo and desire to save humanity. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Trinity does influence the plot in some ways – she’s the one who first makes contact with Neo, she fights her way through the team’s various obstacles, and she plays an active role on their many missions. However, she ends up needing to be rescued an awful lot and ends up dying twice – all with the purpose of motivating the male characters (mainly Neo). I’ll give her half a point for the earlier stuff but once again, I can’t help feeling that I’m being very generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Strap in, kids!

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

In some ways, Trinity can be seen as a progressive character. She’s a good fighter, a skilled hacker, is utterly dedicated to her goals and goes to extreme lengths to fulfil them. These aren’t characters we usually see in young women, and when you couple that with Trinity’s willingness to leave behind everything she ever knew just for the sake of bettering humanity, it’s easy to see why some people could regard her as a progressive character.

However, I really don’t think this is the case. While it’s true that these skills are valuable and celebrated traits when applied to female characters, they simply aren’t applied to Trinity with any real conviction. As I discussed earlier, Trinity’s skills only hold up when the plot doesn’t call for her to fail. If the storyline needs to present Neo with an interesting moral dilemma, a fresh new motivation, or simply an opportunity to look cool, the script has no problems with making Trinity weaker, making her struggle to escape captivity, or even completely killing her off. When Trinity fails, she fails for a purpose, and that purpose is Neo.

Which brings us to her love life. This is essentially her entire role in the story: Neo’s girlfriend. She’s there to support him, to love him, to follow him – and to do very little else. As I discussed earlier, this is what motivates her, what defines her character and what eventually leads to her death. It’s really her only reason to be in the story at all – in fact, the plot of all three films would work just as well if she wasn’t in them at all. She’s only there to look pretty and give Keanu Reeves someone to make out with. This is reflected in the fact that she’s not remembered for anything she says or does over the course of all three movies, but for how she looks. The most memorable thing about her is her black leather catsuit and her ridiculously impractical fighting style, which seems to rely on posing and groin-splaying than any kind of practical self-defence.

See, most people would be sensibly running away from this explosion. (image: matrix.wikia.com)
See, most people would be sensibly running away from this explosion. (image: matrix.wikia.com)

In short, Trinity may seem to embody a lot of very progressive stuff about gender, but when you examine the way the script treats her in more detail, it’s easy to see that this isn’t the case. Even though she has elements of being a much more ground-breaking character, the script often treats her like a damsel in distress. She’s only there to provide Neo with a love interest, adds nothing of any real value to the plot, and frankly, could easily be replaced by a potted plant. This, my friends, is the essence of Trinity Syndrome: a female character who never lives up to their own potential.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Trinity doesn’t really relate to other female characters. She works with a few other women – namely Switch, Niobe and the Oracle – but we don’t really see her interact with them on any meaningful level. We honestly don’t know if she likes them, if she misses them, or if she mourns them. The only woman we see her interact with in any kind of emotional fashion is Persephone. Persephone is the wife of the Merovingian – a powerful computer program – who hates her husband. She demands a kiss from Neo and Trinity gets jealous when he does so – and that’s it. That’s all the interaction they have. This is really the only relationship that stands out, but it’s so woefully clichéd that it actually works against her. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 1.5/10

 

Trinity is a classic example of a character who is strong in theory, but in practice, rarely delivers on her own potential. She’s an excellent fighter, pilot and hacker, but when you get right down to it that’s all there really is to her. She has no personality, no weaknesses, no interest in anything other than what the plot requires an interest in, no development and never really does anything for herself. She’s completely flat, and to be perfectly frank, you could replace her with a cardboard cut-out and it would have almost no effect on the plot.

This is a classic pitfall for modern female characters – and, coincidentally, one of the reasons why I started this blog in the first place. Writers are often quite keen to prove that their female characters are just as good as their male characters – which is fine. However, they often go about making their female characters strong by assigning them skills rather than personality traits. It’s very easy to make a woman in fiction look strong if you constantly see her beating up guys, but this does not make her a strong character. Unless those fighting skills are backed up by a real personality – one that includes both strengths and weaknesses – she isn’t really a character at all.

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite series: A Song of Ice and Fire. Daenerys Targaryen, I’m coming for you.

 

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