Strong Female Characters: Clary Fray

For those of you that don’t know, Clary Fray is the main character of Cassandra Clare’s six-part series, The Mortal Instruments. The plot revolves around Clary stumbling into a secret magical world, learning that she has incredible and unusual powers, discovering that she’s the only person across multiple dimensions who can truly bring down the baddies and being at the centre of not one, but two love triangles. Despite having reached peak YA, the series actually became pretty successful – spawning two different spin-off series, one really terrible movie and a TV series. Clary herself has been at the centre of all of this, but she’s received a mixed reception, with some readers describing her as a heroine on the same level as Katniss Everdeen, and others describing her as a heroine on the same level as Bella Swan.

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?

At the beginning of the series, Clary stumbles into a secret magical world that is kept hidden from ordinary mortals’ eyes.

hogwarts-school
No, not that one. (image: techtimes.com)

She initially wants nothing to do with this world but soon find she has no choice, as her mother is kidnapped and various creepy demons start coming after her too. This continues throughout pretty much the entire series, as Clary finds out that she is the daughter of one of the series’ villains and the sister of another – both of whom want her to join them so they can use the special secret powers which she also happens to have.

What this really means in terms of her wider destiny is that Clary effectively has no choice over what happens to her. Because of the creepy, weird family she was born into, she’s going to end up on the run from demons no matter what she does. This is only exacerbated by the fact that she was brought up as an ordinary human – when she’s thrust into this world of demons, vampires and werewolves (oh my), she’s always on the back foot. She has to be led by other characters, who tell her where to go, what to do and who to trust, because if she doesn’t she’ll end up dead.

You’d think that this would fade as the series goes on – it stands to reason that the more Clary learns about the world of the Shadowhunters, the less she would need to rely on other people. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Unlike other heroines thrust into a magical world, Clary doesn’t make much of an effort to learn about the Shadowhunter realm unless somebody tells her that’s what she needs to do, and with such a passive interest in the world around her, she always ends up relying on other people to make her own decisions. Clary’s larger destiny isn’t really in her own hands – she’s either reacting to the actions of the villains, or trying to keep up with her cool new Shadowhunter friends. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Clary’s hobbies are actually really well fleshed out – we actively see her enjoying drawing, reading manga and making fun of bad movies ­– which can be pretty unusual, as a character’s hobbies aren’t always mentioned when there’s a world that needs saving. Her goals are also pretty well defined, although they are all essentially reactions to the situations she’s in: she wants to save her mother, save her friends, save the world, and make out with her boyfriend as much as possible. Her beliefs are pretty well fleshed out too – she believes in equality and can’t understand the judgemental beliefs that some of her Shadowhunter friends have about other supernatural creatures. I really can’t fault her here, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Clary’s personality is largely consistent – she’s kind, brave, reckless, given to long bouts of angst and moping but generally quite determined. This stays the case throughout most of the series – the only time it really falters is when she’s mooning after her boyfriend, Jace, but I’ll discuss that in more detail later on.

Her skills, however, are another matter. For much of the series we’re told that Clary is a decent fighter, and we do see her train for this, but that doesn’t stop her from passing out and needing to be rescued every five minutes. Her fighting skills fluctuate depending on the plot – if she needs to prove herself to someone, they’re great, but if Cassandra Clare wants to write about her and Jace making out some more, she swoons halfway through the battle and wakes up in his arms, her brow being tenderly mopped, and the pair of them immediately launch into the ‘I thought I’d lost you’ conversation.

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

But that isn’t even the worst of it. We find out that Clary’s evil father experimented on her before she was born, making her technically part angel. What this means is that she’s supposed to have some kind of angelic powers, and for Clary these take the form of her ability to create new runes. Runes are where Shadowhunters get their power from – they’re drawn on their skin and give them temporary magical abilities – and at the start of the series, all the runes that have ever existed are written in a special book. Clary, however, can create new ones, which just appear in her head whenever it’s relevant to the plot.

This isn’t really something that she has to work at. She’s the only person in the Shadowhunter world who has the power to do this and her abilities fluctuate according to the demands of the plot. Before she even knows she has this ability she makes up a rune to get her out of trouble – but when the drama needs to be stretched out a little further, she suddenly finds coming up with new runes incredibly difficult. There’s a half-hearted attempt to explain this – apparently the runes that came easily to her were literally visions from an angel – but this just isn’t consistent. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of pattern to this, especially as the angel dies halfway through the series, yet sometimes she will literally just magically know what she’s doing. I’ll give her half a point for personality.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

A brave, artistic young woman finds herself thrust into a dangerous magical world.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Brace yourselves.

giddy marysue
Get ready. (image: themarysue.com)

Clary does make a few decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life, but for the bulk of the series her romantic entanglements are completely inescapable. A lot of this is because literally everyone she meets fancies her – including her own estranged, evil brother. Over the course of six books she’s involved in two different love triangles, both of which are filled with needless angst and clearly have only one possible outcome. Even though she’s supposed to be saving the world on a regular basis, Clary is much more preoccupied with choosing who she’s going to make out with next.

But when you get right down to it, she doesn’t actually make many decisions on her own. What happens more often than not is that she’ll express some sort of desire, and somebody else will tell her what to do in order to fulfil it.

That somebody else is almost always her on-again off-again boyfriend, Jace.

Jace is very clearly set up to be the ideal Brooding YA Hero. He’s a million clichés rolled into one – he’s a bad boy with a heart of gold, a dark, secret past and a gratuitous amount of abs. He’s mentioned in almost every scene – whether he’s brooding mysteriously over Clary or whether she’s moping over his perfect hair/face/body part of choice while he’s off punching demons or whatever. When he’s not around, Clary occasionally gets stuff done, if she can stop angsting for long enough. When he is around, Clary’s judgement completely goes to pieces.

Take, for example, their first meeting. Shadowhunters have the ability to stop normal people from seeing them, along with the supernatural creatures they fight. Because she’s got super-special angel powers, Clary can see them anyway, and when she first meets Jace she witnesses him and his mates murder a demon who looks like a teenage boy in the back of a nightclub. Later, he shows up at some poetry reading she’s at, muttering a bunch of cryptic stuff about that murder she thinks she witnessed – and she just abandons all her friends and walks right off with him.

WHAT THE HELL, CLARY??

This continues for the whole series. In any other situation Clary can be rational, thoughtful, and measured – but where Jace is concerned all her common sense flies right out the window. She’s so blindsided by his hotness that literally every single other concern she has is utterly eclipsed. She’ll follow him into situations that put literally everyone else she cares about into incredible danger. She pines after him constantly – even when he’s actively pushing her away and insulting her. She makes excuses for his behaviour all the damn time: he’s constantly rude to her friends, antagonising them just for his own gain, and while she makes a point of standing up for her friends when those comments are coming from other people she never says a word to him. In the fifth book, he gets possessed by the villain and forced to commit various atrocities. He regains control for a brief moment and tells her that he can’t stand the things he’s been made to do, and intends to give himself up to the authorities, knowing that he’d be executed. Even though she knows he accepts this decision – and even though going through with it would not only save her friends, her family and the entire world – Clary stops him, because she can’t bear to live without him. But that’s not even the worst part. In the fourth book a demon is trying to possess him through his dreams and he cuts her with a knife while they’re kissing – and she still trusts him, still stays with him, and never once thinks that maybe she might be safer without him.

All of this is essentially manufactured drama in order to keep some uncertainty in Jace and Clary’s relationship in the last half of the series. It’s pretty clear that Cassandra Clare wants to maintain the ‘forbidden romance’ angle that she set up in her first three books, where Clary and Jace mistakenly believed they were brother and sister, but continued guiltily making out anyway.

y9w6e
Shut up, Cersei. (image: memegenerator.com)

This really doesn’t work. While there are reasons for Jace’s behaviour – such as scary dreams, demonic possession, and being filled with angelic fire that could literally burn her to death if he gets too excited – it doesn’t excuse the fact that this has all the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. It’s actually incredibly difficult to watch Clary continue to justify her boyfriend’s terrible behaviour to her friends and family – but I’ll talk about that in more detail later on. For now, I’m going to focus on the fact that Clary’s love life eclipses absolutely everything she does – I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

I don’t think Clary develops much over the course of the series. She goes through a lot which should change her – she discovers a secret magical world, finds out her mother’s been lying to her for her whole life, thinks she’s attracted to her own brother for three books, saves the world about twice a week and learns how to punch a demon into non-existence.

But none of this really changes her. She picks up a few new skills, but her personality remains the same throughout all six books. This is incredibly unrealistic, especially when you consider how much change she’s gone through – it’s as if the plot has literally just bounced off her. No points for you, Fray.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Clary does have a weakness that gets her into trouble on a regular basis: she’s incredibly reckless. She goes charging off doing whatever she likes with very little consequences, and at times this makes her seem like a real brat. She’s also got a bit of a temper and can be a bit on the stubborn side.

The only caveat is that while these traits do get her into dangerous situations, they don’t really hold her back. Her temper and stubbornness are often played for comedic effect, used to showcase her witty banter, or held up as an example of how ‘feisty’ she can be. Similarly, her recklessness is often described as bravery, and is often justified by the way that it often puts her into a position where she can save her friends. They never get her into lasting trouble, if they do create tension in her personal relationships her side is almost always the one that’s defended, and she never suffers any kind of consequence that lasts longer than five minutes. I’ll give her half a point for trying, but I’m still not impressed.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

As I mentioned earlier, there are a lot of other characters in The Mortal Instruments that have much more influence than Clary. The most significant one is her secret evil father, Valentine Morgenstern, who spends the first three books trying to persuade her to join the dark side so that they can rule the galaxy as father and son.

Review_DarthVaderBespinSWS_stillA
Hang on a second… (image: jeditemplearchives.com)

So we’ve already established that it’s the villains that really push the plot along – but does Clary affect it too? Well, not really. I’ve already talked about how she doesn’t make a lot of decisions for herself, and how due to her parentage (and creepy incestuous brother) she could just sit around and finger paint while the plot generates itself. But when she does actually decide to get up and do something for a change, she doesn’t fare much better. She gets knocked out and rescued at least twice in each book, gets herself kidnapped by the sheer force of her relentless stupidity, or alternatively just has to beg other people to influence the plot on her behalf. She has a few moments where she does something for herself that helps the plot along and isn’t a kidnap attempt, but frankly, these are so few and far between that they’re a real shock. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Clary is pretty much the epitome of the ‘Strong Female Character’ I talked about in my introductory post. She’s billed as an independent “spitfire” of a character, but when you get right down to it she’s just as traditional as some of the Disney Princesses.

On the surface, she can be seen as a pretty progressive character – she’s reckless, brave, argumentative and stubborn, and is frequently the character who comes up with all the solutions when she has to save the world. If these traits were followed through to their fullest extent, she’d probably ace this round – but they just aren’t.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Clary so rarely does anything for herself. She needs to be carried off to safety by a shirtless hottie every ten minutes. When she does do something which impacts the plot, it’s usually when her boyfriend is out of the action for some reason – the second he’s back on his feet, he’s back in the saddle. A few moments of brave and reckless behaviour isn’t really enough to make her a progressive character, because the things she says don’t match up to the things she does.

And now we come to Clary’s biggest problem as a female character: her relationship. Much like Bella Swan, Clary and Jace do not have a relationship between equals – she is very much the junior partner. She puts up a few token fights, but in practice, she actually ends up deferring to everything that he wants. Their relationship is built on traditional gender roles like this. He’s the much more sexually experienced/aggressive pursuer; she’s constantly reacting to his advances. He takes himself out of the way to ‘protect’ her without telling her why; she doesn’t make an effort to find him and talk to him, moping over what he might be thinking instead. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of their relationship, insulting her friends and driving her away from her family; she never sets any of the terms herself, and when she does do something to wind him up he treats it as a massive betrayal. A few token arguments isn’t really enough to hide the fact that their relationship is massively unequal. Jace is The Man, and therefore he knows best.

giphy lemon
Is it possible to pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? (image: giphy.com)

As I discussed earlier, this is incredibly unhealthy and borderline abusive. Clary puts her relationship before anything else, giving up on pretty much everything (and seriously contemplating an incestuous relationship, when she believed they were related) – but she doesn’t do the same for things like, I don’t know, SAVING THE WORLD. This reinforces the idea that women should always put love first, regardless of what it will do to them or to other people, which is not only an outdated trope but an unhealthy one as well.

What’s more, the kind of behaviour Jace exhibits is verbally, emotionally and at some times, physically abusive, and yet they are the star couple of the series. Jace is constantly being held up as the perfect man, but when his terrible behaviour is glossed over with descriptions of how dreamy he is, his awful behaviour starts to be portrayed as a part of the ‘perfect’ package. He also spouts off a lot of meaningful speeches about how she’s made him a better man, even though his behaviour hasn’t actually changed – thereby reinforcing the horrible idea that if you put up with enough poor treatment from someone just because you love them, eventually they’ll change their ways. This draws on a lot of tropes in romance fiction about the Alpha Male, which is problematic enough in itself, but in YA this is particularly dangerous as so many young people use fiction to inform their own real-life expectations of romance.

But this is not the only problem with her character. Literally everyone fancies her and she’s completely oblivious to it – in fact, the fact that she doesn’t know other people find her sexually attractive is often described as a part of her charm. She’s always the focus of both the villains’ evil plans: her supervillain dad wants her on his team, and her supervillain brother wants to make her his evil queen. Ultimately, it all revolves around the fact that various men in the series want to possess her – not because of what she can do, but because of who she is. Both her father and brother focus on her as an extension of themselves, not as a person in her own right.

This isn’t really addressed in the books. Both of them insist that she’ll come around eventually, ignoring everything she says and refusing to harm her. They subject her to the classic villain gambit more than once, by kidnapping a friend or family member and threatening to harm them unless she does what they say. They don’t really treat her as a serious threat in her own right, often spout a lot of sexist dialogue, and try to exploit her love for her friends, family and boyfriend, which has always been a traditional way for villains to get to the heroine rather than the hero.

This is the crux of the problem with Clary as a character. Cassandra Clare clearly wanted to write a strong female lead at the centre of the action – but she also wanted to use the more traditional ‘fairy tale’ clichés which often put women on the back foot. The result of this is that Clary’s character is very confused – the readers are left with a scrappy teenager who insists that she can take care of herself right before the villain knocks her out and drags her back to his lair. She insists that she can make her own decisions even as she is being steered through the story by other people’s decisions. She holds her own in a fight, but only when it’s convenient for the plot – her fighting abilities oscillate all over the place depending on what’s going on around her.

Clary is a fundamentally passive character dressed up in ‘feisty’ clothing. A substantial part of the books’ drama is created by men wanting to possess her in some capacity, and a lot of the time this is directly tied back to how she looks. And what’s more, she’s in a relationship so unhealthy that it actually gets hard to watch. She’s far from the progressive character she was intended to be – in fact, she’s a giant setback.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

In The Mortal Instruments, Clary has plenty of relationships with other female characters. Along with several female friends, we see her interacting with her mother, various female background characters and a healthy smattering of villainesses. In terms of numbers, The Mortal Instruments as a series does very well on gender equality – the split between male and female characters is pretty much fifty/fifty.

However, none of these relationships are particularly well developed.

Take, for example, Clary’s relationship with her mother, Jocelyn. Jocelyn is overprotective of her daughter – and that’s pretty much all we see. Their relationship is pretty static, they have the same arguments all the time, and neither one of them treats each other in a different way as a result of their experiences. Jocelyn’s overprotectiveness is the only thing that characterises their relationship. It’s a mother/daughter relationship in the most basic sense of the term – it could take place in any current YA and certainly doesn’t possess anything that makes it unique to either of these characters.

The same can be said of Clary’s female friends. Isabelle is Clary’s counterpoint – she’s supposed to be the girly girl to Clary’s tomboy, and they bond after she gives her a makeover. She’s essentially there to make Clary seem ‘not like other girls’ – Isabelle is all the ‘other girls’ stereotypes rolled into one. Background characters are treated with the same broad strokes – often, the only thing that Clary will notice about them is whether they’re attractive and whether they’re staring after Jace. The same can be said for villainesses – they’re never treated with any complexity, they’re just ‘bad’.

The only possible exception to this is Maia – the only named, speaking WOC in the books, who just so happens to be a werewolf. If possible, this relationship makes Clary look even worse. She frequently lectures Maia about how she shouldn’t give in to her ‘animalistic tendencies’ and doesn’t make anywhere near as much effort as she does with Isabelle, even though she has far more in common with Maia. But what really made me feel a little bit gross was the fact that Maia was turned into a werewolf by her possessive, abusive boyfriend – who turns up a couple of books later and starts dating her again, and none of her friends so much as bat an eye. A lot of their interactions carry weird racial overtones which are missing from Clary’s other interactions and frankly, that makes me super uncomfortable.

nope_zpsbcc14df0
Come back, nope-rocket! TAKE ME WITH YOU! (image: photobucket.com)

I won’t completely fail Clary on this round because she does have a lot of relationships with other female characters, but they’re so flimsily sketched out they don’t feel like real relationships at all. They don’t grow, they don’t change, they don’t have anything that sets them apart from other relationships of this kind – so I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

Clary is a character with clear goals, beliefs and hobbies, who interacts with a range of female characters and has a reasonably consistent personality – but that’s far from enough to pass my test. She doesn’t have a proper weakness, she doesn’t grow over the course of a six-book series, her love life completely dominates everything she does, and she’s so passive that you could replace her character with a lamp and it wouldn’t make much difference.

And that isn’t even touching on half the problems that The Mortal Instruments has as a series. Liberal ‘borrowing’ from already-established books, films and fantasy franchises, needless Capitalisation of Important Things, characters that don’t really act like real people and a frankly shaky grasp of things like common sense – and that’s not even touching on all the damn incest. This isn’t Game of Thrones, people!

That said, much like Twilight, it’s a series that has a lot of potential. I can see how people get drawn into the world it describes and the situations the characters are put in – the only problem is that when you think about it in any kind of detail, the plot, the characters and the world they live in pretty much crumble into dust. Good stories shouldn’t do that. The best writers will create characters, storylines and settings that constantly offer something new when you think about them on a different level – every time you examine them, you should end up seeing the work in a whole new light. The Mortal Instruments just doesn’t do this – there’s only one way to look at the story without the whole damn thing falling apart.

Next week, I’ll be doing another themed month! A while ago one of my readers challenged me to look at more romance characters – and as it’s February coming up, what better time to do it? I’ll be kicking off the Month of Love with one of the big ones – Juliet, 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: Elizabeth Swann

For those of you that don’t know, Elizabeth Swann is the leading lady of three out of the four Pirates of the Caribbean films. The films revolve around various piratical adventures – surprisingly few of which involve normal pirate things like looking for treasure – and Elizabeth becomes a huge part of the action. Based off a pretty tame theme park ride, the films went on to become some of the highest-grossing movies of all time (no, I’m really not kidding). As for Elizabeth herself, she became a standard-bearer for ‘Strong Female Characters’ everywhere, with many hailing her as a modern-day icon.

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?

Like many of the other characters I’ve looked at on this blog, Elizabeth was born into a wealthy and politically influential family – as such, a certain part of her destiny is already laid out for her. She’s expected to be a proper lady and make a good marriage, as most upper-class women were in the eighteenth century. Elizabeth completely rejects this at the earliest possible opportunity, throwing off her corsets in exchange for a big frilly pirate shirt, and having worn a corset before I completely sympathise with this.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s really in control of where her life ends up going. In Curse of the Black Pearl, she’s kidnapped by pirates – hardly something she chose to do. In Dead Man’s Chest, she’s arrested and strong-armed into stealing Jack Sparrow’s magic compass for Mr Collins Cutler Beckett. In At World’s End, she has to save Jack Sparrow from the Land of the Dead and re-unite the nine Pirate Lords in order to stop Mr Collins Cutler Beckett from ridding the oceans of what were essentially thieves and rapists.

Capture-of-Blackbeard
Seriously, they got GRUESOME. (image: wikimedia.org)

On all these occasions she makes a choice to go and pursue her goals, running off to rescue Will Turner from whatever mess he’s got himself into this time, but her hand is always forced. She doesn’t choose to go looking for a magic compass or the Pirate Lords because she wants to – she does these things because someone else is always twisting her arm. The alternatives that she’s presented with are so abhorrent to her that she doesn’t really have much of a choice in the things she does. 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 Elizabeth’s hobbies, but we do know that as a child she was completely fascinated by pirates. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and also quite closely linked. She wants to be independent and throw off social convention as much as possible, and so she spends a substantial amount of the series trying to avoid being put into the ‘helpless female’ box. She wants to marry for love, not for rank, so when she does fall in love she moves heaven and earth to keep her marginally useless boyfriend safe. She has a very strong sense of justice and fair play and sets great store by it, so when she feels that people have been poorly treated, she’ll do anything she can to get them out of trouble. I’ll be generous and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Elizabeth’s personality is pretty consistent. She’s independent, speaks her mind, and she’s also intelligent, brave and determined. She remains this way through most of the series.

Her skills, however, are another matter. We know that she’s been raised to be a proper young lady, with a general expectation that one day, she’ll take her place in high society, where she will spend her days having politically loaded conversations in ballrooms or something. She would have been taught the arts of diplomacy and conversation, but generally shielded from any gross or sweaty pursuits. She is, after all, a lady.

And yet, she’s inexplicably great at sword fighting.

tumblr_moh06ubcUG1qd5lk3o2_250
Yes, thank you, Jon. (image: tumblr.com)

A quick history lesson: while a far cry from the enormous iron broadswords of the Middle Ages, eighteenth century swords were not exactly something that you could pick up, swing around, and instantly make cheese out of your enemies. While they weren’t quite as heavy as most people supposed, the length of them alone can make some swords extremely difficult for beginners to handle, particularly in regards to accuracy and endurance. It’s a similar situation with firearms – most eighteenth-century firearms were extremely temperamental, as if you didn’t load them properly, they were liable to literally explode in your face.

We never once see Elizabeth training to use any of these weapons. We never see someone even tell her how to use them. She simply picks up whatever weapon is to hand and proceeds to kick ass with it, regardless of the fact that there’s not a cat’s chance in hell that she was ever taught how to use a deadly weapon. This just isn’t how skills work – you can’t simply pick up a sword and expect to hold your own against a crowd of ruthless pirates on unfamiliar and unstable territory. I’ll give her half a point for personality, but she’ll never be able to ace this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

A free-spirited, brave young noblewoman gets swept up in a piratical adventure, and must fight to save the people she cares about.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Most of Elizabeth’s decisions are influenced by her love life. Not all of them, it’s true – she’s also motivated by her strong sense of fair play, and a general desire to keep her friends out of trouble – but if you look at her character over all three movies, most of what she ends up doing is trying to protect Will Turner, her perennially useless fiancé.

When she agrees to marry Commodore Norrington, she does so to save Will’s life. When she agrees to try and steal Jack Sparrow’s magical compass, she does so because she wants to go after Will (who’s also looking for it, and putting himself in considerable danger to do so). When she goes looking for the nine Pirate Lords, it’s to protect Will too, as Cutler Beckett wants to arrest and execute them both for piracy and she believes that is the only way she can stop him. And it doesn’t help that almost every man she meets wants to shiver her timbers, if you know what I mean.

The upshot of all this is that Elizabeth becomes a character whose love life kind of eclipses everything else about her. While she does have other motivations, they’re so minor that they pale in comparison to Orlando Bloom’s cheekbones. I can’t really give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Elizabeth does develop over the course of the story. She becomes much more outspoken, spontaneously learns to fight, and becomes a little more savvy about the way the world works. She starts the story as a lady, and ends it as a Pirate King. However, she doesn’t really change in the more conventional sense of the word – it’s more like certain aspects of her personality are magnified. She was already outspoken, unconventional and street-smart (or sea-smart, if you want to take things literally) at the beginning of the series. At the end of the films, she’s just more so – she hasn’t necessarily learnt anything completely new to her. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Personally, I don’t really think that Elizabeth has a weakness. You could make a case that she’s naïve – particularly in the first film – but this is entirely to be expected from a young woman who’s had a very sheltered, delicate upbringing, and it doesn’t really hold her back. She can also be a little rash, but this rarely has any negative consequences for her – more often than not it’s used to prove how brave or intelligent she is. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Elizabeth does get captured once or twice in The Pirates of the Caribbean – the first film completely revolves around the fact – but as the series goes on she becomes less helpless and gets given a chance to influence the plot in a more meaningful way. She disguises herself as a boy and sneaks off on a pirate ship, sacrifices Jack Sparrow to the Kraken, becomes Pirate King and takes them all to war. Once she takes off her corset, she gets stuff done.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Elizabeth is another one of those characters whose ending kind of undermines everything she stands for. While she is motivated by her love life, she nevertheless is quite a progressive character: she’s feisty, she’s independent, she’s brave, she’s determined, she’s a good fighter, she’s not afraid to leave her old, safe life behind, and she’s not afraid to yell at a bunch of murdering pirates.

zombie_pirates_2
Some of whom are also zombies. (image: mansplat.wordpress.com)

That’s all great, and would leave her character in a much better place if that was it. Unfortunately, we still have the last few minutes of At World’s End to deal with.

In the final film, Will takes Davy Jones’s place as captain of The Flying Dutchman. This means that he is effectively doomed to sail the seas for all eternity, with only one day ashore every ten years – unless the woman he loves remains faithful to him for all that time. So then Elizabeth goes into seclusion on some remote desert island and literally just sits around waiting for him for the next ten years – while finding some time to give birth to his child.

I think this really undermines Elizabeth’s strong, independent character. She showed herself to be a fierce, brave fighter and a determined and daring leader, who got herself elected as Pirate King and actually became quite good at it. Yet the second that her boyfriend’s in trouble again, she drops everything and goes into seclusion, waiting for her One True Love to return to her.

This is straight out of a fairy tale, and what it implies is that a good heroine will put love before anything else. Unlike the other female character who dated a captain of The Flying Dutchman, Elizabeth proves herself to be a good person by remaining chaste, pure and faithful, retreating into a hermit-like existence because her man isn’t around. She just sits and waits for ten long years and that’s supposed to be some kind of happy ending – and that’s not even mentioning the fact that it’s pretty difficult to be unfaithful to someone when you’re stuck on a desert island with no-one else there.

4006488-wilson
Unless… (image: comicvine.com)

For me, this really undermines all Elizabeth’s fire and independence. She gets pushed right back into the role of devoted wife with no acknowledgements of the amazing things she’s done – and seeing as she’s effectively marooned for the entire time she’s waiting, I can’t help but wonder if the other characters really trust her to remain faithful to Will when she’s surrounded by other people. What’s more, it implies that a good woman will wait patiently for her man with no complaints, rather than getting on with something a bit more useful while she’s got all this time on her hands.

Long story short? I’m not convinced. I’ll give her half a point for the rest of the movies, but that ending really ruined things for me.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Elizabeth doesn’t relate to any other female characters. She meets Tia Dalma – who is later revealed to be the sea goddess Calypso – but their interactions are so brief and so shallow that their meetings are really only there for Tia Dalma to give her useful information about the plot. There are other female characters who Elizabeth interacts with, but these have little more than a few seconds of screen time and are rarely even named. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Elizabeth is a feisty, determined character who influences the plot and has some clear goals and beliefs but ultimately, she’s just not fleshed-out enough to pass my test. While she completely bombs on relating to other female characters, her weaknesses and the all-consuming nature of her love life, she could still have had a much more respectable score if the rest of her character development hadn’t been so half-hearted.

Much of her frankly limp character development can be traced back to the fact that most of the time, Elizabeth is the only female character on screen. As such, her character depends much more on cliché. She’s included as ‘the love interest’, and even though her bravery, determination and resourcefulness mean that she does transcend that box, there’s no getting away from the fact that her love life was probably the main reason she was included in the script. But this goes both ways. I have to wonder if the writers didn’t make Elizabeth so brave and spunky purely so that they could avoid this kind of criticism. Giving her stereotypically un-feminine character traits could be a way of making her ‘not like other girls’ – which is, in itself, a cliché.

giphy inception
WHAAAAAAAAAT (image: giphy.com)

Of course, none of this uncertainty would apply if there were more significant female roles in the movie. There’s nothing wrong with a woman choosing to settle down and start a family, both in fiction and in real life – but when she’s the only significant woman in a blockbuster trilogy, her motivations are called into questions. To be perfectly honest with you, I’m not sure if Elizabeth settles down because she really wants to or because that is the most common way of giving a happy ending to a female character.

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Mortal Instruments. Clary Fray, 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: Eowyn

For those of you that don’t know, Eowyn is one of a handful of female characters from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The plot revolves around a bunch of hobbits who have to chuck an evil ring in a volcano or the world will essentially end, and Eowyn helps them on their quest in a roundabout sort of way. As I’m sure you all know, The Lord of the Rings was a massive, slow-burning success – I’ve discussed this before, but the books were the source of countless characters, settings and themes that have become staples of modern fantasy, eventually coming to define the genre as we know it. Eowyn herself is a huge part of this, and some scholars and critics have come to regard her as a proto-feminist character.

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?

Eowyn is another one of those characters who has a significant part of her destiny already laid out for her. She is the Lady of Rohan, directly related to the ruling family – as such, certain things are always going to be expected of her. She’s always going to be responsible for the fate of her country in some capacity, whether she likes it or not, and this would have been at the forefront of her upbringing. Some things are completely out of her control – such as when she has to stay and care for her uncle, Theoden, because she is the only one who can prevent him from falling further under Grima Wormtongue’s influence.

That said, she does a lot to try and get things back under her control. She’s an accomplished warrior and rider – clearly having trained since quite a young age – and this is how she tries to protect and serve her country and her friends, rather than staying at home and looking after Rohan. It’s not much of a choice, but she does choose to stay with her uncle and look after him when she could leave – she wants to protect him as much as she can, even though she knows it’s almost impossible. When he’s cured, she then goes on to disguise herself as a man and sneak off into battle with the rest of her friends, and when she gets there she cleans up like a boss.

giphy eowyn
GET HIM (image: giphy.com)

This is definitely not what’s proscribed for her by her noble birth – it’s made very clear that women in Middle Earth are almost universally expected to take a much more traditional role (with considerably less kickassery involved). As a noble lady she’s inevitably going to have to shoulder some political responsibility just because of the position she was born into – usually it’d be something a lot more like the role of a hostess. Eowyn may not get to choose the responsibility she’s handed, but she does get to choose how she handles it – despite what other people expect of her.

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 an awful lot about anybody’s hobbies in The Lord of the Rings – what with all the battles, they don’t often get a quiet evening to go to a dance class or something – but we can make a few educated guesses. Given Eowyn is a member of the Rohirrim (who are a very horsey lot), it’s safe to assume she enjoys horse-riding, and seeing as she’s trained as a shieldmaiden when this would be unusual for a woman in her position, we can assume she also enjoys fighting in some capacity.

But this is mostly conjecture. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and they’re also pretty closely linked. She very clearly believes that she has a real duty to her people, and this informs most of her goals. She wants to stop Grima influencing her uncle, she wants to fight alongside her friends, and she wants to stop Sauron’s armies from advancing because doing so would keep her people safe. On a more personal level, she also dreams of doing ‘great deeds’, and half-believes and half-fears that she will one day be trapped in a more traditional role, and spends most of the novels trying to escape the ‘cage’ in which other men want to place her. That’s multiple goals and beliefs on several different levels, 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?

By and large, Eowyn is a pretty consistent character. She’s brave, spirited, stern, and can be quite cold – but she’s also extremely determined and sticks to what she wants. Her skills are pretty consistent too; she remains a good rider and fighter all throughout the series.

giphy hair
Not to mention her excellent hair. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A brave, determined young noblewoman is desperate to protect her people and her friends – and to prove her own capabilities – by any means necessary.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Eowyn does have a love life, but like many other characters in The Lord of the Rings, it very rarely influences her decisions. She has a crush on Aragorn that doesn’t really go anywhere throughout most of the books, and later gets together with Faramir. She frequently begs Aragorn to let her come with him on all his various escapades, and while you could make the case that this is the result of her love for him, I’m not so convinced. I think it’s much more likely that she asks to go with him as a result of her desire to protect people, and because she doesn’t want to be left behind in her ‘cage’ – although in fairness, you could probably interpret it either way.

For me, I think it’s really Eowyn’s sense of duty that motivates her, rather than romantic love. The reason I say this is that while her uncle Theoden is still under Grima’s control, she stays with him even though she’s in a situation (and a role) that makes her feel like she’s trapped – while she probably could get away by marrying someone, she knows that if she did she’d be abandoning her people to Grima and Saruman’s control. When Grima is kicked out of Rohan and Theoden rides off to battle, she does stay behind to rule Rohan in his absence, because there’s no-one else to do it – it’s only when they try to leave her behind again that she disguises herself as a man and sneaks off to war. At this point in the books, Aragorn is the one trying to leave Eowyn behind, and her frustration with him is pretty clear; personally, I see this as the point where she starts to fall out of love with him, but I suppose you could see her following him off to war as a sign of her devotion. It really comes down to opinion, and seeing as I don’t see it that way, I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Eowyn doesn’t really change that much over the course of the novels. She’s a pretty static character – brave, determined and a little on the stern side – right up until the end of the last book, when she decides that she doesn’t want to fight anymore and becomes a healer. We don’t really see much of her reasoning for this decision, so it’s a bit out of the blue – she pretty much abandons everything that used to be important to her with very little explanation. I’m withholding the point.

giphy sword eowyn
I’m in trouble. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Eowyn doesn’t really have much of a weakness, either. She’s very stern and cold, but this is often presented as a sign of her strength or her suitability to rule. Her strong sense of duty sometimes works against her, but more often than not it’s used to illustrate just how noble and self-sacrificing she can be. I suppose you could argue that she might be a bit on the reckless side given that she runs off to battle without telling anybody, but I really don’t think this is the case, considering how well-trained she is and how well she manages to keep her true identity hidden. Aside from these – which often work in her favour and don’t really hold her back – she doesn’t really have any weaknesses. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Eowyn isn’t a huge influence on the plot, but she certainly makes her mark. Most of the time she functions as a character who holds things back rather than someone who makes them happen. She holds back the full extent of Theoden’s madness while he’s under Grima’s influence, she creates a lot of tension when she tries to convince people to let her fight, and she keeps Rohan safe while the men are away at war. She’s not always a character at the forefront of the action – more often she’s used as a character to keep things in stasis while the really exciting parts are happening elsewhere.

But of course, the biggest thing she does in terms of the plot is take down the Witch-King of Angmar like a TOTAL BADASS. Because of an ancient and very carefully-worded prophecy, she was literally the only person who could have done this, and if she hadn’t been there he would have slaughtered pretty much everyone. Never send a man to do a woman’s job.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways, Eowyn can be seen as a really progressive character. She’s a noblewoman who’s expected to be demure, passive and retiring, but instead she proves herself to be a strong ruler, an excellent rider and a ruthless warrior. She’s always presented as a strong character and she’s also something of a feminist – there are a few moments in the novels where she confronts other characters on their sexism and goes out of her way to prove that she is just as capable as a man.

But then, when the battle is over, she falls in love with Faramir, marries him, and decides to give up on fighting altogether. There are still a few more battles to be won – admittedly not as many after Sauron’s defeat, but there’s always a few loose ends. However, after spending two books desperate to do great deeds and prove herself as a warrior despite the gender prejudices she faces, she immediately hangs up her sword the second she gets a boyfriend.

giphy lemon
Is it possible to pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? (image: giphy.com)

This is a real setback for her character. It’s not that she found love that’s the problem: it’s that when she found it, she immediately gave up on everything she based her life around, everything that meant so much to her, and everything she spent her life fighting for. This draws on an age-old stereotype about women – the belief that any tomboy will immediately transform into a paragon of perfect femininity when she meets the right man and settles down. It reinforces the stereotype that women still have to put up with today – the belief that all women really want is a good man to marry and make babies with.

But where does this leave all her badassery?

Eowyn is pretty much a reincarnation of the ‘shieldmaiden’ – a character traditionally found in Old English, Norse and Scandinavian folklore. It’s a catch-all term for a female warrior that pops up in a number of different cultures – mostly in folklore and sagas – but unfortunately, nobody knows if they actually existed in real life. A regular feature of Viking mythology in particular, shieldmaidens pop up as young women, break some heads, and then either settle down with a nice Viking boy or die a grisly death.

winge_Orvar_Odd
And Vikings were GOOD at grisly. (image: painting.history.blogspot.com)

While shieldmaidens can certainly be seen as quite a progressive element because of the fact that they know how to wave a sword around, some scholars think that because of the ways their stories end, they were actually meant as a way to warn women about stepping outside the boundaries of traditional gender roles. Shieldmaidens either go back to their traditionally feminine roles when they accomplish their quests, or keep on fighting (which was still a man’s role in most Scandinavian societies) and die a horrible death as some kind of punishment.

Eowyn falls right into this trap. In The Lord of the Rings, the Witch-King of Angmar is the subject of a prophecy that says no man can kill him. Eowyn is there to fulfil that narrative purpose – she is not a man, and she kills him. Once she does this, she has done the job her character was created to do, and she fades into the background once again. Like her counterparts in the Old Norse sagas, she’s a progressive and interesting character while she is on her quest; once she’s completed it, she steps right back into the cage she was once so afraid of.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Tolkien based the mythology of Middle Earth on Old English, Scandinavian and Norse folklore – he was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. We shouldn’t be surprised that Eowyn’s character draws such clear parallels with the shieldmaidens of the Old Norse sagas, but it does throw her character into a different light. Essentially, she is only allowed to be a progressive character when the story demands it. Her foray into warfare is painted as a temporary endeavour. It’s easy to draw another parallel here between Eowyn’s role and the role of women in the Second World War, which inconveniently took place right when Tolkien was trying to write. Much like Eowyn, when the men were away women were expected to step up and take on the roles they left empty when they went off to fight; but when the men came back, women were expected to go right back to where they were.

It’s pretty clear that this is what’s influencing Eowyn’s character, and this really enforces the stereotype that the main focus of a woman’s life is settling down and having children. Anything else she might do – even if it’s stabbing the Witch-King of Angmar in his actual face – is only a temporary distraction. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Eowyn simply doesn’t relate to other female characters. We never see her have any kind of interaction with another woman that’s given any kind of substance – at most, we see her delivering a few token lines to her servants or subjects. This is very disappointing considering that there are quite a few female characters in the books with very different roles, but we just never really get to see them interact with each other.

giphy bridget
No such thing as a girls’ night in Middle Earth. (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is due to the way that female characters are written in The Lord of the Rings. There’s no woman in the fellowship, and the female characters that we do meet don’t tend to travel all that much – as a general rule, they tend to stick to their particular area of the map. The result of this is that even though there is more than one female character in The Lord of the Rings, they all effectively exist in isolation. What this means is that they don’t just function as characters in their own right – they come to exist as representations of femininity in their own particular cultures. Eowyn doesn’t act on behalf of all women in Middle Earth, but it’s very easy to see her acting on behalf of all women in Rohan. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Eowyn is a character who takes control of her own destiny, has distinct goals and beliefs that drive her through the series, is consistent in both skills and personality, isn’t ruled by her love life and pushes the plot along – but she still hasn’t passed my test. Aside from her lack of development, weaknesses and relationships with other female characters, she’s a bit too shaky when it comes to gender stereotypes to completely ace this test.

I think that part of this is due to the way that The Lord of the Rings is written, and the mythology that inspired it. As I discussed earlier, a lot of the plot is inspired by Scandinavian legends, which tend to focus on the exploits of men on the battlefield. A lot of it could also be to do with the style in which it is written. The books are written in very old-fashioned language which draws heavily on both Classical and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, which tends to be a bit too high-minded to really develop the flaws of more than its main heroes. This is a common feature of many myths and legends, which don’t usually discuss the personalities of their heroes and heroines in enormous amounts of detail. It could also be because of the conservative time in which the books were written – as I’m sure all of you know, Britain in the 1930s to 1950s was one of the most socially conservative places in the world, and this would have inevitably influenced Tolkien’s writing.

4fa8c9b26baf68234777327555c72086
Let’s not forget that only one in ten married women had a job back then. (image: pinterest.com)

Regardless of Tolkien’s influences, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tolkien’s female characters are largely background characters. They’re excluded from several stretches of the story – such as the initial journey of the fellowship and several of the main battles – and we only ever see one significant female character at a time. They aren’t treated as unique characters in the same way that their counterparts are, and nowhere is this more clearly emphasised than in the way their stories end. Tolkien’s female characters all get happy endings in the form of happy marriages – even Eowyn, who was terrified of being shut in a ‘cage’ and dreamed of glorious battle.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Pirates of the Caribbean. Elizabeth Swann, 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: Jessica Jones

Happy 2016, blog-followers! Now that I’m finished with the business of Christmas, New Year and slowly but surely getting older, let’s get back to business.

For those of you that don’t know, Jessica Jones is the lead character in Marvel’s phenomenally successful Netflix series, Jessica Jones. Set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – by which I mean that one corner of New York that all Marvel stories seem to take place in – the plot follows Jessica’s efforts to take down an incredibly creepy supervillain who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. The show has been met with almost universal praise, particularly for its complex portrayal of relationship abuse and PTSD. Jessica herself is no exception, and has been hailed by critics and fans alike as one of Marvel’s best heroines.

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

 

NOTE: I’ll be focusing on the Netflix show, rather than the Marvel comics. Due to the nature of the show, I will be discussing sexual assault, relationship abuse and extreme violence all throughout this post.

 

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

Much of Jessica’s story arc focuses around her regaining control over her life. She starts the series as a young woman who is still living in fear of her abuser, and much of her life seems to be defined by the relationship she’s still trying to escape. However, as the series goes on she moves past her fear and actively starts working to make the world a better place – mainly by trying to stop her ex, Kilgrave. She takes the lead in every way she can, whether she’s solving her PI cases, trying to protect the people she cares about, or simply punching her psycho ex-boyfriend in the face.

DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)
DO IT FOR FEMINISM (image: tumblr.com)

Much of her character arc does revolve around her terrible, awful relationship with her ex-boyfriend, however. Jessica had absolutely no control over this – literally, as Kilgrave has mind control powers that can force people to obey his every command. However, she tries not to let this define her. Jessica does focus on taking Kilgrave down, but she doesn’t just do it out of revenge for what he did to her – she’s also doing it to stop him from continuing to influence other people. The series as a whole focuses on Jessica trying to redefine herself after her relationship with Kilgrave and regaining control over her own life – whether that’s through establishing herself as a PI, starting up a new romantic relationship, or reconnecting with the people she loves. Her overall journey really centres around breaking the control that Kilgrave had over her – in more ways than one – so she definitely passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Jessica’s goals are very clearly defined. She wants to stop Kilgrave – first by bringing him to justice, and once she realised that would be impossible, by killing him – but she also wants to protect the people she loves and help the other people that he’s wronged. This goal drives her all throughout the series.

We don’t see all that much of her hobbies – although it is established that she’s a functioning alcoholic – but her beliefs are also very well-established. She believes that she’s better off alone – she doesn’t like being too close to people because she’s worried that Kilgrave will hurt them to get to her, and she makes a conscious choice to keep her friends at arm’s length. She believes she’s responsible for the death of her family and has done since childhood – no matter how irrational this may be. She has a pretty pessimistic outlook on life, and really doesn’t care about other people’s feelings, but deep down she does still want to help people. That’s a range of goals and beliefs that she sticks to all throughout the series, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Jessica is a very consistent character. She’s short-tempered, acerbic, anti-social, tough, but deep down she’s a good person struggling with a lot of guilt. When she’s first introduced it’s clear that the more negative aspects of her personality have been exacerbated by Kilgrave’s abuse, but even in flashbacks of her life before she met him, we see her personality is largely consistent.

Her skills follow along the same lines. Like Kilgrave, she too has superpowers – but hers are the powers of physical strength and a shaky grasp of flight. Physical strength comes very naturally to her – we see her picking this up very quickly after an accident she had as a teenager – although it’s clear that she still has to put in a certain amount of effort to keep her powers under control.

And even then they have their limitations. (image: giphy.com)
And even then they have their limitations. (image: giphy.com)

She’s not so good at flight, however – in the comics it’s made clear that this is an ability she always struggled with, and in the show it’s always described as ‘controlled falling’. Both her personality and skills are consistent all throughout the series, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

An aggressive, short-tempered PI struggling with an alcohol addiction and PTSD is determined to protect her friends – even if it means facing her worst fears.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Jessica does make a few decisions influenced by her love life, but only in her interactions with Luke Cage, which don’t actually take up all that much of the plot. The bulk of her decisions are influenced by her desire to stop Kilgrave. In some respects, I suppose you could argue that all Jessica’s decisions are influenced by her love life, as the bulk of her story arc revolves around the fact that she was in a really terrible relationship. However, I don’t think that this argument holds water.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Kilgrave manipulated Jessica into dating him. It’s confirmed in a flashback to the moment they met – from the second that he opened his mouth, Jessica had no choice but to obey everything he said. This isn’t love, it’s mind control. Jessica eventually realises this – not having encountered mind control before, it takes her a while to work out what’s going on – but when she does, she becomes horrified and disgusted by Kilgrave’s behaviour. There was a part of her that was aware of his control, but unfortunately, awareness alone was not enough to break his hold over her, and she spent however many months forced to obey him no matter how much she hated it.

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

The show directly states that Jessica had no choice in their relationship from the moment of its inception – everything that happened in it was the direct result of Kilgrave’s mind control. Jessica didn’t consent to any single part of it – whether it was Kilgrave telling her what to wear, what to eat or how to look at him – and thus, every single sexual interaction they had was rape.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that even though Jessica Jones is about a woman moving on from a past relationship, it is not about her love life – it’s about reclaiming her own identity after a relationship that was so abusive she barely had any idea who she was any more. Most of what motivates Jessica through the series is fear and anger, not love – fear that she will put into that situation again, and anger that she had to go through it in the first place. I can’t really describe Jessica’s relationship with Kilgrave as part of her love life given that she herself describes it as repeated rape on multiple levels – that’d be like hitting someone with a spade and calling it gardening.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Over the course of the series, Jessica confronts her fear of Kilgrave, starts making more of an effort to connect with her friends, starts working with other people rather than on her own, and finally starts expressing her emotions to the people she cares about – although mostly that’s only when they’re unconscious. That’s some solid development on more than one count, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Jessica has plenty of weaknesses. She struggles with an alcohol addiction, she pushes her friends away when all they want to do is help, she’s prone to acting rashly and lashing out. She’s aggressive, she’s short-tempered, she doesn’t know when she needs to look after herself, she can be really nasty for no apparent reason, and she just doesn’t care about other people’s feelings. She’s got plenty of flaws that really hold her back – some of which she manages to overcome, some of which she doesn’t – so she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Jessica is a driving force on the plot. She propels the story forward at every turn, whether she’s investigating a case, tracking down a lead or chasing after Kilgrave. She passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Jessica defies gender stereotypes in several ways – we’ll start with some of the more common ones. She’s aggressive, physically strong, has trouble connecting with people on an emotional level and pushes people away to keep them safe – these are all traits far more commonly seen in heroes than heroines. It’s actually extremely unusual to see a conventionally attractive young woman play the role of the grizzled, hard-boiled detective – complete with all the emotional baggage and substance abuse this particular cliché usually carries with it.

You know, like this guy. (image: ladypepperbox.wordpress.com)
You know, like this guy. (image: ladypepperbox.wordpress.com)

However, what makes Jessica such a really ground-breaking character – and what makes Jessica Jones such a compelling and interesting show – is the way that the series handles sexual assault, rape, and PTSD. Jessica is a rape survivor. Kilgrave, her ex-boyfriend and rapist, doesn’t fit into the mould of the ‘traditional’ rapist – he’s good-looking, charming, polite, and he didn’t drag her off into some alleyway on a dark night. He raped her repeatedly using manipulation and control, but was never actually physically violent towards her – as I discussed earlier, all his sexual assaults were committed using mind control. Nevertheless, the show never once undermines Jessica’s experiences by suggesting that his behaviour was somehow ‘better’ just because he wasn’t physically violent. Jessica’s experiences are still treated as traumatic, and Kilgrave is still portrayed as a near-monstrous human being, and rightfully so. This is very rarely seen in all kinds of media, as abuse and rape without a physically violent element to them are often ignored in the stories we read.

What’s more, the fact that the story focuses on Jessica’s struggle to come to terms with what happens to her while showcasing her strength is truly ground-breaking. Jessica is shown to be physically strong, tough, aggressive and doesn’t suffer fools gladly – yet she still has flashbacks that leave her shaking, still experiences fear that makes her want to drop everything and leave the country. She is shown to be vulnerable and this does not undermine her strength. Unlike many other shows, Jessica Jones says in no uncertain terms that rape survivors are not weak, and that the trauma that sexual assault can cause is not the result of some kind of flaw in their character. Her overcoming her PTSD is not the only element to the plot, whereas in many other stories, a rape survivor learning to move past their trauma is the plot.

Jessica Jones has been praised for its highly realistic portrayal of recovering from sexual assault and rape, and for showing that the trauma this can cause isn’t a sign of weakness. Jessica is an unashamedly strong character in every sense of the word, and having her deal with rape-related PTSD shows in no uncertain terms that this is a normal reaction to a highly traumatic event. Most fictional depictions of rape survivors coming to terms with their experiences aren’t nearly so nuanced, often only allowing the characters to be strong when they’re effectively ‘over’ their experiences. Jessica Jones shows that women who’ve been sexually assaulted can be strong and still be coming to terms with what happened to them – the two don’t have to cancel each other out.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Jessica has several relationships with a wide range of other female characters. She’s disdainful of her weird neighbour, Robyn. She feels incredibly angry with Kilgrave’s mother, but ultimately doesn’t hold her responsible for her son’s behaviour. She hates the fact that she has to depend on the lawyer, Jeri Hogarth, for work, and frequently treats her with both contempt and grudging respect. But by far her most interesting relationships are with Hope Shlottman and Trish Walker.

Hope Shlottman is another one of Kilgrave’s victims, who he used to get to Jessica. She’s a very young girl who has her future completely ripped away from her by his actions, and Jessica feels largely responsible. She wants to protect Hope from him while feeling incredibly guilty that she hasn’t been able to do more, and even though it doesn’t come naturally to her, she makes a point of supporting Hope, going out of her way to support her decisions, get her what she needs and provide some level of emotional support.

She's just really, REALLY bad at it. (image: tumblr.com)
She’s just really, REALLY bad at it. (image: tumblr.com)

Trish Walker is Jessica’s childhood best friend and adopted sister. They’ve fallen out of touch at the start of the series – mainly thanks to Kilgrave – and spend the rest of the series reconnecting and growing closer together. Jessica spends most of their time on-screen trying to protect Trish, while realising that she might not need quite as much protection as she used to – a leftover from Trish’s childhood with her abusive mother.

All of these are very well-written, realistic relationships that have a real impact on Jessica’s character, her decisions and the plot as a larger whole. These relationships are complex, nuanced, varied, and they change as the series goes on – who could ask for more?

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

What a way to kick off 2016! Jessica is a really brilliant character – she’s in control of her own storyline, she has a distinct and consistent personality, she has flaws that hold her back, she has a range of relationships with a wide range of other female characters and she relates to gender stereotypes in a way that is actually pretty ground-breaking.

I’ve been hard on the Marvel Cinematic Universe ladies before, but Jessica has really knocked it out of the park. She is the proof that Marvel can – when it chooses – give just the same amount of time, care and development to its female characters as it does to its heroes. It’s really encouraging to see a character like this from someone like Marvel – and I hope we see a lot more of them!

Next week, I’ll be looking at The Lord of the Rings. Eowyn, I’m coming for you.

 

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