Strong Female Characters: Bridget Jones

For those of you that don’t know, Bridget is the main character of Helen Fielding’s series, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Originally starting as a newspaper column and finally ending up as a series of rom-coms, the story centres around Bridget and her slightly desperate attempts to get her life together. Both the books and the films were praised for being an accurate portrayal of the challenges of modern womanhood, as well as being incredibly funny. As for Bridget herself, she has become the patron saint of single women everywhere, and a staple of every girls’ night in.

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?

Most of Bridget’s story centres around her own attempts to get her life into some semblance of order. The plot revolves around her trying to make a better life for herself, whether that’s by giving up smoking, trying to drink less and losing weight or by finding herself a suitable boyfriend. She doesn’t always succeed, but she keeps trying no matter how many setbacks she stumbles into. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t see a lot of Bridget’s hobbies apart from long, boozy dinners with her friends. Her goals, however, are much clearer – they’re literally written out at the start of the book as New Year’s Resolutions. Bridget wants to lose weight, drink less, stop smoking, and find a nice boyfriend. Several other goals pop up along the way – such as finding a better job and, bizarrely, getting out of Thai prison – but as a general rule, she’s always got something that she’s working towards.

Her beliefs are also pretty well-defined too. She’s quite left-wing, which causes a few disagreements between her and her boyfriend, and she really believes in the power of self-help books. 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?

For the most part, Bridget is a very consistent character. She’s well-meaning, slightly incompetent, funny, easy-going and relaxed, but she can be very determined when she wants to be and she’s very prone to temptation.

Usually in the form of this guy. (image: telegraph.co.uk)
Usually in the form of this guy. (image: telegraph.co.uk)

As far as her skills go, we don’t really see a lot of what she’s good at. Instead, we see a lot of what she’s bad at, such as cooking, skiing, public speaking and blending in at a fancy party. Personally, I think this works just as well in terms of Bridget’s character building. Establishing a lack of skills can be just as effective as showing a character with a natural talent, as it adds another layer to their personality and often makes them much more relatable.

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 bumbling, incompetent but well-meaning woman tries to turn her life around.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Bridget’s love life is a significant part of both the books and the films, but it isn’t all there is to her. Her story doesn’t just centre around her attempts to get a boyfriend; it also covers her efforts to become a better, healthier person. In both storylines we see Bridget trying to give up bad habits and working towards establishing a career that she finds more fulfilling.

That said, most of Bridget’s storyline does revolve around which charming British actor she wants to kiss. This manifests itself in lots of awkward stuttering, embarrassing moments, makeout sessions and two of the funniest, sweariest fight scenes in cinematic history:

While Bridget’s attempts to find a boyfriend aren’t the only elements to her story, they are pretty central to it. Even though Bridget is trying to fix other areas of her life, it’s made pretty clear that getting herself a boyfriend is the most important one. Bridget – and most of the other characters she comes across – views this as the thing which will fix all the rest of her problems, and even though Bridget doesn’t focus all her attention on this, it’s pretty clear that this is what she’s really worried about. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Bridget does actually develop over the course of the story. She learns to walk away from things – whether that’s a bad relationship or a job she doesn’t like any more – and actually ends up raising her own self-esteem in the process. She doesn’t achieve all the goals she set out to – she still drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney – but in trying to achieve them she has nevertheless grown as a character. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Bridget has plenty of weaknesses. She’s insecure, she’s very quick to judge, she wildly over-estimates her own skills, she doesn’t communicate very clearly and she doesn’t always think things through, leading her to make several very bad decisions.

These weaknesses do actually hold her back through the course of the story, too. Her lack of communication skills creates problems in all her relationships, her quick judgement means she’s completely taken in by charming weasel Daniel Cleaver, and her inability to think things through actually lands her in a Thai prison, when she unknowingly attempts to smuggle drugs through an airport.

But who hasn't? (image: giphy.com)
But who hasn’t? (image: giphy.com)

These are all very well-established weaknesses that don’t just magically disappear when her life is back on track – they’re things she continually has to work to overcome. Full marks here.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Bridget is a real influence on the plot. Her decisions create most of the storyline, whether it’s beginning a disastrous relationship with Daniel Cleaver, finding herself a better job, taking new opportunities to travel or actively trying to repair her mistakes. She does spend a fair amount of time reacting to other people’s decisions too, but that’s not to say she doesn’t make decisions of her own. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

It’s very easy to look at Bridget Jones and see a lot of negative gender stereotypes there. Even though the story is about more than her love life, much of the plot revolves around the belief that a single woman in her thirties has somehow failed at life. It isn’t the fact that Bridget has managed to reach her thirties without learning how to feed herself, resorts to drowning her sorrows in vodka on a monthly basis, and stumbles from one bad decision to the next that marks her out as a failure – it’s the fact that she hasn’t gotten married yet.

Much like Rose Dawson, what makes Bridget Jones such an interesting character is that gender stereotypes are very plainly on show. In Bridget’s case, these take the form of other people’s expectations that she will settle down, get married and start having children. This is a constant feature of Bridget’s story – the question “how’s your love life?” pops up so often it may as well be a part of the drinking game.

Which I feel like Bridget would approve of. (image: popsugar.com)
Which I feel like Bridget would approve of. (image: popsugar.com)

The interesting thing is that whereas Rose was stifled by expectations like this, Bridget doesn’t really seem to mind them. She jokes along with them, but doesn’t really question them, and isn’t really moved by them in any real capacity. This is actually kind of refreshing. We so rarely see a female character who wants fairly traditional things from her life, yet isn’t really bothered by the pressure placed on women that can surround these goals. Bridget knows she wants a fulfilling relationship for her own sake, rather than to meet somebody else’s expectations.

There’s no getting away from the fact Bridget’s singledom is treated like a sign of failure on her part, but personally, I don’t think she’s that bad in terms of gender stereotypes. Yes, she wants fairly traditional things, but she wants them on her own terms. She doesn’t just want any old boyfriend, she wants a man who can live up to – if not surpass – her expectations. She doesn’t just want a boyfriend for the sake of having one, she wants a boyfriend because she knows that a stable, loving relationship will make her happy. What’s more, her relationship never eclipses the other important things in her life, like her family, her friends and her career – it’s all part of a wide range of things that make her happy. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help feeling I’m being a little harsh.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Bridget has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She has a wide circle of friends who she gets drunk with on a regular basis. She has a number of snooty colleagues she has to deal with – one of which, Perpetua, she actually manages to impress, and the two gain a little more respect for each other. She’s incredibly insecure when confronted with all the intelligent, gorgeous women her number among her love rivals, but she’s never catty about them – they just send her into a panic. One of them, as it turns out, actually fancies Bridget and not her boyfriend, which leads to a certain amount of flattered embarrassment on Bridget’s part.

But Bridget’s most interesting relationship is with her mother, Pamela. Bridget is exasperated by her mother’s constant attempts to match-make her with almost every ‘nice young man’ she sees, but can’t recognise the fact that her mother is unhappy in her own marriage. When she leaves her father it’s a total shock, and she genuinely can’t understand how it could’ve happened. Eventually, Bridget’s parents reunite, but only after Pamela confesses that sometimes she feels pushed out by how close Bridget is with her father, as she is often the butt of their jokes. This is a surprisingly detailed parent-child relationship for what’s billed as a fairly standard rom-com, and really adds a layer to Bridget’s character. I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Bridget is a character who’s in control of her own life, has a range of hobbies, goals and beliefs, works against weaknesses that hold her back and develops over the course of her story. Yes, her love life is pretty central to her story, and some of it falls in line with some pretty unfortunate gender stereotypes, but that’s not all there is to her. She’s a developed character with a range of interests outside her relationship, and I’m proud to say she’s passed my test.

That brings the Month of Love to a close, and it’s time to tot up what I’ve learned. Unlike Villain Month, where every character passed my test, it’s been much more of a mixed bag. All the characters I’ve looked at this month have had very different storylines in a range of different settings, much like their evil counterparts, but the pass rate hasn’t been anywhere near as high.

I think this is because whereas villainesses go against the grain and defy what we traditionally expect of women, romantic heroines tend not to. As a general rule female characters are much more likely to be classed as someone’s love interest than to be classed as the villain. My current theory is that it’s harder for villainesses to fall back on traditional gender stereotypes, so they tend to get more development and more of an explanation for why they are the way they are. Romantic heroines, on the other hand, often follow along a much more traditional storyline, and are much more prone to stereotypes dictating their personalities.

Such as this one. (image: giphy.com)
Such as this one. (image: giphy.com)

This is really what let down the two characters who failed my test this month. They didn’t have enough going on that wasn’t related to their love lives. Their stories begun and ended with the fact that they fell in love, but there wasn’t all that much more to them than that. Contrast that with the two who passed, who had clearly been developed as characters without their love lives coming into their development, and it becomes clear which are the more well-written characters.

It’s very easy for a female character’s storyline, development and personality to fall back on stereotypes when she’s cast as the romantic lead. It’s easier for a writer to let the role of ‘The Love Interest’ take over when developing a female character becomes difficult, but the reality is that this really sells love short. If a character’s love life completely eclipses their personality, it’s often incredibly difficult to see what made their partner fall in love with them in the first place. Every relationship is different in its own particular way, and authors falling back on tired old tropes in place of exploring something in more depth does love an injustice.

To my mind, this is the real danger that romance stories present. It is not that falling in love is a step back for female characters – this is simply not true. It’s that romance stories often tend to naturally follow some very old-fashioned gender stereotypes, and it’s very easy for an author to rely on those stereotypes rather than crafting a heroine with a well-developed personality. This is a subject that the romance community at large is trying to address. Many people who know the genre much better than I do have written intelligently and eloquently on the subject, and I strongly advise you to check them out.

Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)
Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)

But it’s actually very easy for a heroine to be the lead in a romantic novel and still have a well-developed personality with strengths, weaknesses and growth. A little while ago, I was an intern at Mills & Boon – for those of you that don’t know, it’s the UK imprint connected to Harlequin, which often publishes very traditional romances that aren’t always seen as particularly good. I went into my internship expecting to be working with a certain kind of book, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer range of characters I ended up coming across. They were all leads in fairly traditional romances, but they were also widows, single mothers, doctors, socialites, rape survivors, abuse victims, control freaks, scientists stuck in an Antarctic research station – the list goes on. Their love lives were central to their stories, but it was by no means the only things the characters had going on – before they even met their gorgeous billionaire boyfriends, they were already working towards a goal of their own.

This is the kind of character I’d like to see more of in romance stories. Characters who already lead distinct and interesting lives before they meet the hero – characters with goals, characters with beliefs that drive them through everything they do, characters who have to struggle to work past their own weaknesses and still find love at the end of it all. That’s the kind of romantic lead I can get behind.

Next week, I’ll be looking at His Dark Materials. Lyra, I’m coming for you.

 

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

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Strong Female Characters: Rose Dawson

For those of you that don’t know, Rose is the main character of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, Titanic. The film revolves around a rich girl and a poor boy who meet and fall in love on the famous ship – and then are catapulted into one of the worst shipping disasters of all time, so as you can imagine that puts a bit of a damper on all the snogging. The film was a smash success, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, launching the careers of its two leads, and cementing into popular culture just as firmly as the famous disaster. Rose herself has become equally well-known, delivering some of the most well-known lines in Hollywood and launching thousands of debates about whether two people could fit on a floating piece of wood.

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?

It’s pretty easy to make the case that Rose isn’t really in control. After all, the movie is about an enormous ship crashing into an iceberg – as Rose wasn’t the one driving the boat, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the most life-changing event she goes through was completely out of her control. Even before the iceberg hits, a substantial amount of the film is about the pressure Rose is under – as a result of social class, poor finances and the expectations placed on women – and Rose’s own sense that she is drifting through life with no real control is very firmly established.

But what’s really interesting about Titanic is that in many ways, it is about a young woman trying to take control of her own life. Rose starts the movie as Rose DeWitt Bukater, an aristocratic young woman who must marry a man she doesn’t love to regain the family fortunes. Rose finds the pressures of upper-class life stifling to the extent that she tries to kill herself to escape them – but then she meets Jack Dawson, and Leo’s adorable little face convinces her that she has something left to live for.

giphy leo
I just want to pinch his little cheeks (image: giphy.com)

As their relationship progresses, she starts to steer her life in a direction she’s more comfortable with – slowing leaving her society ways behind, becoming more sexually forward, and ultimately throwing off convention for the sake of love. When this is taken away from her, she doesn’t give up and decides to turn her back on her former life, walking away from everything she’s ever known. She starts her story as someone who’s forced into a life she does not want, but by the end of it, she turns her back on all the restrictions that were placed on her and makes a life of her own choosing. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Rose’s hobbies are actually pretty well-established. She’s very unconventional for a woman in 1912, eschewing most of the popular pastimes for young ladies (such as dancing, singing and swooning on chaises longues) in favour of collecting art and reading Freudian theory. She appears to have formed her interests and tastes on her own, too. She prefers Monet and Picasso to more conventional painters – a preference that her fiancé and family frequently dismiss.

Her goals and beliefs are also very well-established. Obviously, once the iceberg hits Rose’s biggest goal is not to drown, but even before that we see that she’s started working towards taking control of her own life in whatever way she can. She’s also established as a young woman who believes the social conventions forced upon her are unfair, and who values her independence more than physical comfort, family disapproval and – in extreme cases – her own life. She’s firing on all cylinders here, 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?

We don’t see a lot of Rose’s skills, but for the most part, her character is largely consistent. She’s intelligent, brave, passionate, fiercely determined and very independent. Her outlook on life changes wildly throughout the movie – she goes from wanting to kill herself to wanting to run away with her lover and start a new life together in a very short space of time – but as her reasons for this are pretty well-established, I’ll overlook it just this once.

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 fiercely independent young woman finds new meaning in life when a tragic disaster allows her to shake off social convention and begin her life again.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

A substantial amount of Rose’s decisions are influenced by her love life. So much of what she does can be traced back to the fact that she fancies Leo rotten: she sneaks off down to third class with him, decides to leave her horrible fiancé for him, and ultimately decides to turn her back on her social class because of what he taught her.

However, this all takes on a slightly different light when you consider exactly what Jack meant to her. Jack wasn’t just a boyfriend – to Rose, he was also a way out. It’s made very clear at the beginning of the film that Rose hates her upper-class life: she hates the restrictions placed upon her, she hates the lack of control she has, but most of all she hates her horrible fiancé.

d66b7c0357865c30802a0f945a8e2c8d
He’s the literal WORST. (image: pinterest.com)

She hated her life to the extent that she was prepared to kill herself to escape it – and then she met Jack, who offered her another kind of escape. She sees that his life is free of the restrictions and pressures she so despises, and after some dithering on her part, she realises that by leaving the ship with him, she can leave all of that behind. When the iceberg hits, Jack dies but Rose is saved, but instead of revealing herself to her family and fiancé she takes Jack’s last name and sets out to make a new life for herself.

For me, this is really where her motivations get a little tangled. It’s easy to say that she did all she did for love, and she chose to move on with her life because that is what Jack would’ve wanted her to do. But equally, it’s easy to say that perhaps Rose loved Jack because he represented the possibility of freedom. We mustn’t forget that everything she did for love also ended up being in her own interest, as it allowed her to finally escape from all the pressures she was under.

Ultimately, I think it’s up to interpretation. It could really go either way – but personally, I think Rose’s love for Jack and her desire for independence are so closely linked it’d be impossible to separate the two. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Rose does develop over the course of the story. She starts out depressed, apathetic and constantly looking for small ways to lash out at people, but as the film goes on she finds joy in life, becomes more adventurous and goes out of her way to become more independent. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Rose doesn’t really have much of a weakness. It’s true she can be a little catty, but more often than not this is used to portray either her unhappiness or just who ‘feisty’ she can be. She does some pretty daft things – like voluntarily going back onto the sinking ship to look for Jack – but this only makes her more sympathetic, as it’s used to portray the depth of her feelings for him. What really holds Rose back are external pressures more than anything else – all the decisions she make that hamper her progress through the story can be directly traced back to the stifling social conventions placed upon her. Even her suicide attempt is chalked up to this, rather than any mental health issues that she might have to address. I’m withholding the point.

giphy romeo
Oh for God’s sake Leo, pull yourself together (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Rose has to get saved a bunch of times – once from her own suicide attempt, and the rest from various dangerous situations on the sinking ship. However, this is not the limit of her influence on the plot. It’s her actions that instigate her first meeting with Jack and propel him into her social circle, she is the one who takes the lead when their relationship becomes more sexual, she chooses to go back for Jack and sets him free, and ultimately, she chooses to go on with her life without him. I’ll be generous and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Rose is actually a really interesting character to look at in terms of gender stereotypes. Unlike many other fictional characters, gender stereotypes are directly shown to have a negative influence on Rose within the movie. The audience is left under no illusions that expectations of female behaviour are what’s keeping her quiet, what’s forcing her into an unhappy marriage and what ultimately drives her to attempt suicide. When Rose finally throws off these stereotypes she’s much happier for it, and it’s all portrayed as a very positive development – even the gross stuff like gobbing over the side of the ship is played as a fun, silly little moment.

giphy spit
It wasn’t like this in the movie… (image: giphy.com)

That said, it’s still pretty easy to interpret the movie as a woman who finds new meaning in life because she meets a man. This does tie into some really dated gender stereotypes – but I have to say, I don’t think they really apply to Titanic. What really sets the film apart from more traditional stories is that it’s made very clear that Rose’s life goes on after Jack’s death. Unlike other famous love stories, where women kill themselves because they cannot bear living without their lovers, Rose goes on to live a full and happy life without Jack. After his death she travels the world, becomes an actress, takes up exciting and dangerous hobbies, and eventually settles down, marries someone else and has a few kids. Her love for Jack isn’t undermined – even at the age of one hundred, she still remembers him fondly – but she still finds meaning in life without him.

Personally, I think this is kind of revolutionary. So many love stories never show the characters in old age, or if they end in tragedy, they take great pains to show one character mourning the other for the rest of their lives. But Rose’s story shows in no uncertain terms that a woman doesn’t need a man to be her reason for living, and that she’s capable of finding a different kind of happiness when the love story has ended. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Rose doesn’t really relate to that many other female characters. She’s often shown surrounded by them but this is more often used to illustrate Rose’s isolation, as she very rarely does anything more than sit there silently and look distraught. She’s shown to remember a few female characters fondly – such as the unconventional Molly Brown – but we don’t actually see them interact much.

Rose’s most interesting relationship by far is the one she shares with her mother. Rose’s mother is a very cold woman, concerned mainly with the state of her family’s finances. She is the source of much of the social pressure Rose ends up rebelling against. She won’t let Rose smoke, socialise with people she disapproves of, or attend university. She arranges the match with Billy Zane, Terrible Fiancé. She forces the standards of an upper-class Edwardian lady onto Rose, without caring how it will affect her, and seems genuinely shocked that Rose might resent her for this. As far as Rose’s mother is concerned, keeping up appearances is the most important thing, and this is the source of all the antagonism between them, which has clearly been building up for quite some time. Ultimately, it’s what drives Rose to turn her back on her mother completely, allowing her mother to believe that she died on the Titanic – and that her own actions drove Rose to reject her chance at salvation. Do not make an enemy of Kate Winslet.

Official_jeanine
She does NOT mess about. (image: divergent.wikia.com)

However, Rose’s relationship with her mother is really the only significant relationship with another woman we actually see. True, Rose interacts with her maid a fair bit – she comforts Rose after Terrible Fiancé starts threatening her – but like most of the other female characters the relationship isn’t explored in much detail and she doesn’t go much beyond a part of the background. I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Rose is a consistent, determined young woman who takes control of her own life, directly influences the plot, develops through the story and subverts gender stereotypes. She may not be perfect – in fact, part of her problem is that she pretty much is perfect – but she’s certainly passed my test!

A significant part of this is due to the fact that even though Titanic is a love story, Rose’s love life is not all that makes up her character. She’s given goals, beliefs and hobbies outside of making out with Leonardo Di Caprio, her status as a love interest doesn’t stop her from growing as a character or influencing the plot, and her story doesn’t stop when her relationship is over. In short, Rose seems much more like a real person than many of the token love interests that Hollywood smacks into a lot of blockbuster films. She’s not perfect, but I’d certainly like to see more characters like her.

Next week, I’ll be rounding up the Month of Love with one of my favourite characters. Bridget Jones, 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: Sandy

For those of you that don’t know, Sandy is the leading lady of the hit Seventies musical, Grease. Set in a 1950s high school, Grease follows the trials and tribulations of a couple who fall in love but can’t be together because she’s a nerd and he wears a leather jacket. The musical was a smash hit, becoming one of the longest-running shows on Broadway, being made into a major film (which spawned one of the worst sequels ever) and, most recently, a live TV performance. Sandy herself has become an iconic character, and arguably has produced one of the most instantly recognisable Halloween costumes ever.

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

 

NOTE: I’ll be basing most of my analysis off the film version of Grease with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as unfortunately, I am too broke for theatre tickets.

 

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

For most of the story, Sandy isn’t really in control of her own destiny. She joins a new school because her parents moved to a new area, not because she chose to. She’s humiliated by Danny and rejects him, and he spends some time trying to win her over again. She’s asked to the dance by him and then thrown over by him again at the dance contest – and she rejects him and he spends some time trying to win her over again. She eventually decides to re-invent herself with a more ‘bad girl’ image, but this is the result of trying to impress Danny and a substantial amount of peer pressure from her friends.

In short, Sandy’s not really in the driver’s seat here. She’s a very passive character and much of her storyline involves reacting to the actions of other people. She is invited to things, and asked to go to various events, and allows herself to be made over – but she very rarely actually sets out to do any of these things under her own steam. Added to that is the undercurrent of peer pressure Sandy has to put up with – all her friends spend the entire story remarking on how strange it is that she doesn’t enjoy the same things as they do, and she eventually caves into this. The result of all of this is that things just tend to kind of happen to Sandy, and she doesn’t always have a lot to do with it.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Sandy doesn’t really have a specific goal that drives her through the story – if she did, she’d probably be a much more active character. She does, however, have some pretty well-defined beliefs and hobbies. We know she enjoys cheerleading as she joins the team, and she seems to really buy into a lot of ‘school spirit’ sporting events. As far as her beliefs go, it’s made extremely clear that she’s a very conservative young woman who doesn’t drink, swear, or believe in premarital sex – and of course, it’s all done through song.

Given the era in which this is set, it’s not unreasonable to assume that these beliefs are a direct result of her upbringing, as all sorts of standards were imposed on young women in the 1950s. These don’t last all the way through the film (more on that later) but for now, 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?

For most of the story, Sandy is a largely consistent character. We don’t see a lot of her skills, but she’s innocent, conservative, naïve, a little too trusting, but she’s kind, sweet and generally tries to do right by everyone. However, this only lasts until the last portion of the movie, where she decides that she wants to be much more daring and sexually aggressive in order to get a boyfriend. Many productions use little touches to make it clear to the audience that she’s putting on an act – such as in the movie, where Frenchie shows her how to sexily stub out a cigarette – but this is still a pretty massive change which isn’t really explored. I’ll go into this in more detail later on, but for now I’ll give her half a point.

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’?

Actually, it’s impossible to describe Sandy without mentioning her love life. Much like Juliet, Sandy’s quest to get a boyfriend is utterly central to her story – there’s literally nothing else she wants. You could describe her personality, but you certainly couldn’t describe her role within the story. I’m withholding the point.

tumblr_inline_n0by7x0cB31r89b7v
Cheer up love, it’s only question four. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

As I discussed earlier, Sandy doesn’t really make a lot of decisions – but those she does make are pretty much all about her love life. She decides to reject Danny and go after someone else to make him jealous, then decides to take him back when he’s nice to her again, then decides to push him away when he tries to take things too far, then decides to re-invent herself when she’s afraid they’re too different to be together. There’s nothing else that drives her – her love life is her entire focus. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Sandy does actually develop during Grease, but this isn’t really explored in a lot of detail. Towards the end she decides she wants to radically re-invent herself in every sense of the word – she takes up smoking and becomes much more sexually aggressive as well as teasing her hair and putting on her sex pants.

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You tell me that isn’t what she calls those bad boys. (image: quotesgram.com)

She does all this to secure her relationship with Danny, and because she says she feels unhappy with the way she is – but the thing is, we don’t get any clue of her unhappiness before her makeover. It’s not completely inconceivable that a young woman could feel stifled by the rigorous social standards of the 1950s, but for most of the musical Sandy doesn’t seem to have any sort of problem with them at all. She seems perfectly happy to join the cheerleading team, forswear drinking, cigarettes and sex and dress like Maria von Trapp. What’s more, when her boundaries are pushed and people do try and get her to act like the cool kids – like when she’s offered wine and cigarettes, or when Danny tries to get physical with her at the movies – she comes across as incredibly uncomfortable. In short, I wonder whether she really was unhappy before her makeover.

There are two ways to interpret Sandy’s development in Grease. You can either view her change as a young woman throwing off social conventions and coming to terms with her own sexuality, or you can view it as a young woman bowing to peer pressure and being coerced into doing something she doesn’t really want to do. This could have been very easily avoided with a few scenes that establish Sandy’s alleged unhappiness before her makeover, or her burgeoning desire for rebellion, or a blossoming interest in more ‘adult’ things. However, none of this is included, and what could have been an empowering story about a young woman choosing to live life on her own terms becomes a little bit skeevy instead. I’ll give her half a point, because she does change, but I don’t think it’s handled very well.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sandy has plenty of weaknesses that hold her back during Grease, but none of them are things traditionally viewed as negative traits. She’s innocent, she’s naïve, she’s too trusting, she doesn’t know how the world works. These things do hold her back, but more often than not they’re seen as part of her charm rather than flaws that she has to overcome. I’ll give her half a point, but to be perfectly frank I’m not sure they’d count as weaknesses at all.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Sandy does influence the plot, but it’s not in a particularly active way. As I’ve already discussed, she reacts to stuff far more often than she acts of her own accord, but she also exerts a particularly passive kind of influence. She falls in love, she chooses her dates, she brushes people off and she makes herself more visually appealing – all actions that wouldn’t necessarily advance the plot in themselves, but rely on other people’s reactions to her decisions to move the plot along. She doesn’t directly influence the plot, she influences other people who influence the plot on her behalf. I’ll give her half a point for this.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Sandy is pretty much a walking gender stereotype. She starts the musical as a stereotypical ‘good girl’ – she’s innocent, kind, dresses and behaves conservatively and absolutely will not engage in premarital sex, drinking or cigarettes. By the end of the show she does a complete about-turn and becomes a stereotypical ‘bad girl’ – she smokes, she dresses in tight black clothes and wears red lipstick, and has sex appeal coming out of her ears. Neither of these stereotypes are explored in any detail, and so neither of them are raised beyond the level of the cliché in its most basic form.

But that’s not all. She makes this change to impress her boyfriend and to get him to stay with her – who, incidentally, has been the basis of all her decisions for the entire movie. This reinforces the belief that women should do anything to get (and keep) their man, because that is the most important thing in their lives. You’d rather not completely change your entire personality and outlook on life just for a chance at a snog? Go and buy yourself a house full of cats, you bitter old spinster!

However, this actually gets even more problematic when we look at Sandy’s change in more detail. Sandy doesn’t just decide to change her clothes – she decides to completely change her outlook on sex because she so desperately wants to stay with Danny. If we’d seen that Sandy was kind of curious about sex and wanted to take the next step in her relationship, this would be fine – but this isn’t what we see at all. Sandy is consistently shown to be really, really uncomfortable with sex, to the extent that when Danny makes a move on her, she screams at him, physically pushes him off and slams the door on…er…little Danny.

This scene establishes that Sandy really isn’t comfortable with the prospect of sex, and this makes her transformation all the more troubling. She changes herself to keep him interested, but crucially, this change involves going through with something that – the first time Danny tried to put the moves on her – made her angry, upset, and a little scared.

All this is brought into a sharper focus when we look at the way that Danny changes for Sandy. He feels the same kind of pressure that she does, and worries that two people from such different social backgrounds won’t stay together. While Sandy makes herself into a ‘bad girl’, Danny makes himself into a ‘good boy’, joining a sports team and earning one of those fancy letter jackets in an effort to impress Sandy. If you examine the sacrifices they make for each other in the context of 1950s America, it becomes pretty clear that Sandy’s getting a raw deal. Danny’s given himself some kind of sporting accomplishment just before he leaves school, which could actually lift up his school records and have some kind of permanent, long-term benefits. By contrast, Sandy is risking a hell of a lot – not only her own personal comfort, but social condemnation, damage to her reputation (which would’ve still been very important) as well as all the other risks that come alongside teenage sex. Danny doesn’t have to learn to respect Sandy’s boundaries and treat her with more care – Sandy just has to forget those boundaries ever existed.

All of this casts Danny as the one who sets the tone for their relationship. It’s a tone Sandy isn’t comfortable with for most of the show, but she ends up giving into what he wants anyway. When coupled with the fact that he’s definitely the one who pursues her, their relationship ends up settling into some pretty tired old gender roles. He’s the Man, and he is In Charge, and Sandy just has to put up with it. She actually ends up putting up with a hell of a lot from him – apart from at the very beginning of the show, he isn’t actually all that nice to her.

giphy sandy
I mean, she sang a song about it and everything! (image: giphy.com)

The long and short of all this is that all throughout the show, Sandy comes second to Danny. Ultimately, he ends up getting everything he wants, while Sandy ends up having to make a compromise, drastically change herself and make herself sexually available to a guy who spends most of the show pushing her boundaries. She does push back a little and demand that he change too, but it’s nowhere near on the same scale as hers. If her character were explored in a little more depth, and her feelings about her transformation made clearer, this might not be the case. As it is, I’m going to fail her this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sandy actually has a bunch of relationships with other female characters. She becomes friends with the cheerleader, Patty, who she eventually throws over for the Pink Ladies. She’s friends with the Pink Ladies, too – she doesn’t really relate much to Marty and Jan, but spends time with them anyway, even though they make fun of her. She becomes very good friends with Frenchie almost immediately, and of all the Pink Ladies Frenchie is the most sympathetic to her – she looks after her when she throws up after her first cigarette, gives her her life-changing makeover and confides in her pretty often.

Her most interesting relationship is with Rizzo. The two start out as polar opposites – Rizzo is the ‘bad girl’, and Sandy is the ‘good girl’ – and don’t really get along. Sandy seems kind of intimidated by Rizzo, and Rizzo seems pretty disdainful of Sandy. Rizzo starts out as the ringleader of all the Pink Ladies’ teasing and occasionally goes a bit too far, but eventually the two become friends. When Rizzo thinks she might be pregnant, Sandy is kind to her and doesn’t judge her for it, and after that the two are pretty close. That’s a lot of development, and it’s not the only relationship Sandy has with other female characters, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 4/10

 

Sandy has a range of female friendships, some pretty solid beliefs and hobbies, influences the plot and changes over the course of the story, but ultimately, her character rests too much on stereotypes for her to pass my test. She isn’t really fleshed out with all that much detail – she is simply ‘the good girl’ or ‘the bad girl’ as the plot demands. This is a real pity, as just a few short scenes that gave her a bit more depth would have really brought her character up the scale.

But does this mean I don’t enjoy Grease? Absolutely not. I recognise that when you get right down to it, the show endorses stereotypes so old they’re gathering dust, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. I’ll still happily yell my way through “You’re the One that I Want” any day of the week, but just because you enjoy something that doesn’t mean you have to live by it. For me, Grease is a lot like that – frothy, mindless fun, but not something I’m ever going to take to heart.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Titanic. Rose, 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: Juliet Capulet

For those of you that don’t know, Juliet is the leading lady of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Set in 16th-century Verona, the story centres around two young lovers whose families hate each other, and as you can imagine, it really doesn’t end well. Drawing on countless tales of young lovers cruelly torn apart by fate (which actually date all the way back to antiquity), the play was so successful that it was printed twice before the famous Folio of Shakespeare’s plays was drawn up – which would have been a huge deal considering the scarcity of paper and the primitive printing press. The play has been made into an opera, a musical, several films, a ballet, as well as providing the inspiration for many more books, films, songs, TV shows and pieces of art. It’s arguably one of Shakespeare’s most successful plays – and Juliet herself is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular female characters.

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?

Juliet is a young woman born into a noble family – as such, she’s not really allowed to do a lot. She has to rely on other people to deliver her messages, her family would have chosen who she could and couldn’t see, and her parents are ultimately the ones who arrange a marriage for her. You’d think that this would mean she doesn’t get a lot of say in where her life ends up going.

However, despite all of this Juliet is actually a very active character. She’s the one who first confesses her love for Romeo (even though he wasn’t supposed to overhear it). She gets her nurse to smuggle messages to him, persuades Friar Laurence to marry them, and ends up getting both of them to cover for her when her parents start getting suspicious. When this doesn’t work, she finds a way around them – lying to her nurse when she tries to get her to marry Paris instead, and convincing both her parents that she intends to go along with their matchmaking plans. She’s also the one who comes up with the plan to fake her own death and run away with Romeo – although admittedly, she does get quite a lot of help from Friar Laurence on this front – and at the very end of the play, she chooses to kill herself instead of returning to her family.

But it’s also worth considering the role of Fate within the play. In the prologue, we’re told that the fate of both Romeo and Juliet has already been decided: they’re going to die tragically. Throughout the play there are constant references to the idea of Fate as an unseen force controlling the characters’ destinies, whether these take the form of characters discussing fortune-telling or Juliet seeing an omen of Romeo’s death.

This is nothing new for a Shakespearean play. At the time of writing, a belief in Fate as a larger outside force was very common. Belief in the supernatural wasn’t seen as silly, as modern society might deem it – it was a fact of life. After all, this was a time when people were still being tried for witchcraft, and kings and queens appointed court astrologers to help them plan everything from their coronation date to their military campaigns.

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“Well you’re a Pisces, so you really shouldn’t invade France until next summer.” (image: wikimedia.org)

But where does this leave Juliet? Ultimately, it comes down to opinion. Personally, I’d be inclined to say Juliet is in control of her own destiny. While there are a number of massive coincidences that end up putting her on her path – such as a random servant inviting Romeo to the posh Capulet do, and the plague which stops him from receiving Juliet’s message about her plan – we constantly see her making conscious decisions to act the way she does. We see her reasoning through her decisions, discussing her thoughts and feelings before she acts, and actively putting her plans together. Ultimately, she isn’t acting to prevent her fate – it is her actions which directly bring her to it. I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t see anything of Juliet’s hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. Throughout the play she’s motivated by a desire to be with Romeo. She clearly doesn’t subscribe to the belief in the traditional family feud, otherwise she wouldn’t have stuck by Romeo after finding out he was a Montague. She also has very strong Christian beliefs, as she makes frequent references to religion, insists that she and Romeo get married before they have an adult sleepover, and objects to her family’s attempts to marry her off to Paris incredibly strongly (as this would have counted as either adultery or bigamy, if not both). Two out of three ain’t bad.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

We don’t see all that much of Juliet’s skills – but like any other Shakespearean character, she can deliver a mean sonnet. Her personality is much more clearly defined. She’s determined, loyal, witty, straightforward, sincere, knows what she wants and sticks to it, but she’s also perfectly capable of going to any lengths necessary. I’ll give 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’?

Unfortunately, you really can’t describe Juliet without mentioning her love life. You could certainly describe her personality without mentioning it, but she just doesn’t have any other goals that take her through the narrative. Her story arc and development as a character are so fundamentally tied up with her love life that you just can’t separate the two.

giphy romeo
Oh for God’s sake Leo, pull yourself together (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

As I discussed in the previous question, Juliet’s love life is the cornerstone of her story. As such, it underpins every decision she makes. She doesn’t really have anything that motivates her at all before she falls in love with Romeo. The classic example of this is when, at the beginning of the play, her mother tells her they’re thinking of marrying her off to Paris – she has absolutely no reaction to this, with no strong feelings either way. This is before she’s met Romeo – after she’s fallen for him, and her parents bring up the subject again, she violently rejects Paris, saying that she would quite literally rather die. As she doesn’t have any secondary goals, Juliet’s love life is really what drives her through the play, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Juliet actually goes through a lot of development in the play, even though it only takes place over five days. She starts off as a young girl with little interest in marriage and no real understanding of love, demonstrating a childish kind of naiveté when she discusses the prospect of marrying Paris. As the play goes on, she experiences the full force of first love and matures as a result of this, coming to understand her own feelings about love and marriage as well as drastically changing her viewpoint on the traditional family feud.

giphy jets
Occasionally expressed through dance-offs. (image: giphy.com)

She also goes from being a relatively childish, sexless character to being much more sexually active – eagerly anticipating her wedding night with Romeo and begging him to stay a little longer when dawn eventually comes. She takes more risks, she becomes more proactive, and actually displays a remarkable level of strength and resolve. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Juliet does have a weakness that eventually leads to her downfall – she’s reckless, single-minded and can be incredibly immature. Much like Romeo, she rushes headfirst into a love she knows is dangerous without a thought of the consequences. Although she matures over the course of the play, she never really considers her options in a thoughtful and adult kind of way. In Juliet’s mind, these are her choices:

  1. Run away with Romeo and be together forever and ever
  2. Die.

She never once entertains the idea that marrying Romeo and then making the knowledge public might stop the feud between their families, or appealing to a higher authority (such as the Prince, who both families must obey), or even a plan that’s slightly less dramatic than faking her own death. She never even considers slowing down a bit after she meets Romeo. After their first date, they get married the next day, and at her suggestion – most other couples just go for milkshakes.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Juliet is actually a real influence on the plot. She confesses her love to Romeo – and then tells him if he likes it, he better put a ring on it.

She sneaks messages to him, gets people to smuggle him into her bedroom so they can consummate their marriage, and ultimately comes up with the plan that leads to their downfall. Juliet is a girl who makes things happen, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways, Juliet can be seen as quite progressive. Although she’s younger than Romeo, she’s definitely the more mature one in their relationship, she’s sexually forward without being judged for it, and she’s very headstrong, going out of her way to defy her family and fully prepared to turn her back on literally everything she knows.

But that’s no getting away from the fact that Juliet is the embodiment of one of the oldest stereotypes in the book – Life Begins at Man. This trope implies that a woman’s life only becomes truly significant when she meets a man and settles down – everything that happened before that doesn’t really matter.

Juliet fits this trope down to a T. Before she meets Romeo, she has literally nothing to motivate her – no goals, no interests, no particularly strong beliefs – and to be quite frank, before he comes on the scene she’s not a particularly interesting character. After she meets Romeo, she’s motivated, she develops her own beliefs, and she becomes much more appealing to the audience now that she’s got something to fight for. We don’t get much of a sense of her personality before she falls in love, but afterwards, she’s given some of the most memorable speeches in the play, using some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful language. Love literally breathes life into her.

giphy love
Exactly like this. (image: giphy.com)

But this works both ways – when Romeo dies, Juliet (at the tender age of thirteen, I might add) decides she has nothing left to live for and kills herself. It doesn’t matter that she has her whole life ahead of her and a loving family – the fact that she doesn’t have a boyfriend any more trumps everything else. This is actually reinforcing an incredibly dangerous belief – that life without love is not worth living, and that suicide can be the ultimate expression of romance. Of course, it goes without saying that this is not the case, yet Juliet’s last act is held up as proof of the depth of her love, rather than the desperate action of a vulnerable young woman who has had all her means of support systematically removed. Her parents and nurse rejected her and threatened to disown her in a previous scene, her boyfriend (and means of escape) is dead, and if she is discovered she will face the wrath of both the Montague and the Capulet family, as well as a certain amount of social condemnation for getting married without her family’s knowledge or consent. This isn’t an expression of love, it’s an expression of how utterly helpless, friendless and alone Juliet feels, and it should be treated as such.

What makes this particularly galling in Romeo and Juliet is that we don’t actually see what makes them fall in love. Unlike some of Shakespeare’s other heroines, Juliet falls in love the moment she claps eyes on Leonardo Di Caprio Romeo. In Othello, we learn that the heroine, Desdemona, fell in love with Othello because of all his stories about his wonderful travels – but we get no such explanation for why Juliet likes Romeo.

This, of course, may well be a deliberate choice on Shakespeare’s part. There’s a few ways to interpret the love story that drives the play forward: one is that it was the truest, purest love that ever did love, and the other is that it was just two reckless teenagers who jumped headlong into a dangerous relationship without thinking of the consequences. But this associates Juliet with another stereotype about women – that of the teenage girl completely blindsided by her first relationship. This cliché is particularly damaging to Juliet’s character, as it effectively negates all the emotional maturity she has developed by the end of the play.

All in all, whether you believe Romeo and Juliet were destined for each other or not is really up to the audience, and there have been adaptations that have played it both ways. Whichever way you look at it though, it doesn’t exactly help Juliet with regards to gender stereotypes. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

In Romeo and Juliet, we only see Juliet interact with two other female characters: her nurse and her mother. Neither of these characters are given real names, but in spite of that their relationships are actually quite well-developed. Both of them are quite overprotective towards Juliet, but Juliet’s mother has a much more formal relationship with her (as was common in the sixteenth century) and is fully prepared to put the good of the family over her daughter’s concerns – even if this involves disowning her. Juliet’s nurse, on the other hand, has a much more loving, caring relationship with her, allows her to break the rules once or twice, and makes jokes at Juliet’s expense – something her mother never does. Ultimately, though, her nurse is still a paid employee, and must bow to Lady Capulet’s wishes, even though she does try and soften the blow.

Despite their very different attitudes towards her, they do both genuinely grieve for Juliet – even though Juliet herself doesn’t really give either of them much thought. The two different relationships, while still sketched out in some pretty broad strokes, also allow Shakespeare to portray a certain amount of class difference as well as making up a significant part of the play. I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Juliet is a well-written, determined young woman who’s in control of her own destiny, develops through her own story and has weaknesses that hold her back, but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. This is because when you get right down to it her love life is her entire reason for being, and this not only undermines her character but also comes with a side order of unfortunate gender stereotypes.

giphy slomo
But I only wanted CHIPS WITH THAT (image: giphy.com)

I expect that a substantial part of this may well be because of the time in which Romeo and Juliet was written – while it wasn’t quite as bad as you might suppose, Shakespearean England was literally structured around a series of beliefs that said women were inferior to men. While Shakespeare was certainly ahead of his time, he wasn’t outside of it – there’s no getting away from the influence of the society in which he lived.

However, much like with other historical characters I’ve looked at, I’m not going to give Juliet a free pass because of this. Romeo and Juliet is a story that’s constantly being retold – as such, it remains relevant to modern fiction (and that’s saying nothing of its impact). Juliet’s a character we see everywhere – from a world populated by CGI garden gnomes to the post-zombie apocalypse – and she bears re-examining to modern standards. Consigning her to the past is trivialising her character and, frankly, doing Shakespeare a real disservice.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Grease. Sandy, I’m coming for you.

 

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