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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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20 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Clary Fray”

  1. I never bothered to read this one, mostly because Cassandra Clare was already infamous for her plagiarism during her fanfiction days – and I never understood why her stories were that popular in the first place, I never managed to read further than the first chapter or so. I always felt that her writing style was okay, but not as good as some made it out to be (until the fact that she lifted passages from other books one-to-one was noticed by one avid reader. Kind of surprising that it didn’t blew up in her face earlier).

    1. You really aren’t missing out! I only found out about the fan fiction stuff after I’d read her first book but it doesn’t surprise me – so much of the Mortal Instruments is lifted from other sources

  2. Great (and hilarious) post, Jo. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head about a lot of issues concerning Clary/TMI. I found Clary’s characterisation too stereotypically “feisty red-head”, and it bothers me that she never really changes or develops. I was also really confused about why no one ever bothered to train Clary in combat when they found out her heritage. It means she’s always stuck being the Load for the others to protect/save.
    I have to admit, I did find Jace kind of hot. Guilty as charged.
    I’m amazed you managed to get through all 6 books of this. I read the first trilogy and kind of enjoyed them even though they had no plot but couldn’t be bothered with the rest. I just really like the sarcy one liners.

    1. Thanks, glad you enjoyed it! The first time round I didn’t even make it past the ‘incest’ reveal – was such an effort to come back to this awful series!

      And I make no promises about Juliet 😛

  3. I’m looking forward to your takes on romance. Tomorrow they’re airing a live TV production of Grease, so I wonder what you think about Sandy. The ending is a bit controversial with the whole part about “whoring up to get the man,” but perhaps it was just done to spoof what happened at fifties hhigh school movies.

    1. Glad you decided to take on Sandy Dumbrowski (or Olsen or Young, depending on the production). There are plenty of female characters in musicals you might want to consider, such as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Roxie Hart in Chicago, Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, Elphaba in Wicked, and perhaps some characters popularized in musicals, such as Allison in Fun Home or Jenna in Waitress.

            1. I’ve looked into this and it seems more like Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were inspired by real people, rather than being characters in a fictionalised account of a real person’s life, so I still haven’t completely ruled them out for a future post. They probably wouldn’t be at the top of my list, though.

              My prohibition on looking at fictional representations of real people is really intended to apply to stories that explicitly set out to tell an episode from a real person’s life. For example, this means I’d never look at Joan Clarke, Queen Victoria, or Queen Elizabeth I, despite the fact that they’ve been the subject of a few popular stories. I’m not here to make judgements on real people.

              In the case of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, I think that they are both sufficiently different from their real-life inspirations for me to consider putting them through the test. I’ve read about the cases that inspired Chicago and while they are very similar, I think there’s enough of a difference there. That isn’t the case with Mama Rose. Gypsy is pretty explicitly a biopic (or bio-musical?) – it’s not a story inspired by the events of her life, it IS her life. Definitely won’t be looking at her.

  4. I never thought about what you said about Isabelle simply being there to make Clary seem special. Interesting analysis.

  5. Personally, one of the worst female characters and Mary Sues I’ve ever read about was in a popular book series called the Tiger’s Curse Saga. Have you read it? The female protagonist could probably give you enough material for a very long article.

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