Strong Female Characters: Princess Tiana

For those of you that don’t know, Tiana is the main character of Disney’s 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog. Loosely based on the original fairy tale, the plot follows the adventures of Tiana, a hard-working waitress in 1920s New Orleans who kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog – only to catch amphibian-itis and turn into a frog herself. While not the smash hit that Disney was hoping for, the film was still well-received by critics and did very well at the box office – and most importantly of all, introduced Disney’s first African-American princess. Tiana herself was certainly the main draw of the film, and has been hailed by critics and audiences alike as a role model for young girls everywhere.

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?

Tiana begins and ends the movie actively trying to take control of her own destiny, which is unusual among Disney Princesses.

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But they’ve been working on that. (image: frozen.disney.co.uk)

Instead of waiting around for something to happen to her, it’s made very clear that she’s been trying to change her circumstances from the second we meet her. When she’s turned into a frog, she immediately sets about trying to turn herself human again, but even before that she’s working two jobs to save up the money for her restaurant. There’s a lot stacked against her – not least of which is the racism that Disney only vaguely alludes to – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living the life she wants to lead.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Tiana’s goals are very clear and consistent: she wants to be a world-class chef and open up her own restaurant (and to also not be a frog any more, ta very much). Her beliefs and hobbies all revolve around this goal: she believes in the value of hard work and is sceptical that ‘wishing’ will get her what she wants, and she loves to cook. They all inform each other as well: her goal to open a restaurant came from her love of cooking, her belief in hard work came from her desire to open a restaurant, and her love of cooking is what gives her the motivation to keep working towards her goal. The three are all very closely interlinked, but I’m not going to let that stop me from giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Tiana is a very consistent character. As well as the fairly stereotypical Disney Princess traits of being good, kind and sweet, she’s also hard-working, realistic, ambitious and incredibly focused, with a very strong sense of right and wrong. As far as skills go, she’s a great cook, a very good waitress, and seems to have the capacity to make the best of every situation and get something out of nothing.

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 hard-working young waitress wants to open up a restaurant, but gets turned into a frog in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Tiana’s love life is a pretty big part of her story, but it isn’t the only part. At the beginning of the film all her decisions are influenced by her desire to get her restaurant and get turned back into a human – it’s only as the film progresses and she falls in love with Prince Naveen that it actually starts to influence her.

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Look at his shiny teeth. (image: teen.com)

But even then, it isn’t the only factor in her decision-making. When she’s convinced that Naveen doesn’t love her and has chosen to marry Charlotte, it’s not just her love life that motivates her to run away but the realisation that she’ll be stuck as a frog forever. When she defeats Dr Facilier, the top-hat-wearing voodoo villain, it isn’t just thoughts of Naveen that motivate her but also respect for her father and a realisation about what she really values in life. When she stops Naveen from kissing Charlotte, it’s not just because she loves him, but because she knows he won’t be happy if he marries her.

Tiana’s love life is simply one motivation out of many when it comes to her decision-making. Yes, a love story is central to her development, but it’s not the only thing. Crucially, Tiana’s love life doesn’t make her forget everything she wanted before she met Naveen – the only difference is that now, she wants to share those things with him. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Tiana does develop over the course of the story, largely thanks to the influence of Naveen. She learns to loosen up and enjoy herself, and that there are more important things in life than just work. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Tiana’s biggest weakness is the fact that she’s a terrible workaholic and can be pretty uptight. While this does affect her during the course of the film – she’s always tired, she turns down invitations from friends, she doesn’t know how to relax and she is so tightly focused on her goals that she can’t see what else is important – it isn’t really portrayed as a bad part of her personality.

Tiana is a workaholic, but by and large the film shows this as a positive thing. We never see Tiana regret the fact that she doesn’t have as much free time as others, because the film makes it clear that she’s very happy to pursue her goal at every opportunity. Her ability to work hard is shown as a good thing, especially when compared to Naveen, who starts the film as a reckless and irresponsible prince. Tiana’s workaholic nature is, more often than not, used as evidence of how much she values her dream rather than evidence of the fact that she’s probably crazy stressed 24/7.

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In real life she’d be like this ALL THE TIME. (image: giphy.com)

Long story short, the film is kind of on the fence about whether Tiana’s hard-working nature is a weakness or a strength, and does its best to show both sides of the argument. I’ll do the same and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Tiana is a real influence on the plot. Her plans and decisions propel the story forward at every turn, whether she’s finding her way through the bayou or taking down an evil voodoo witch doctor with an excellent song.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Tiana is a very interesting character when it comes to gender stereotypes. When discussing how gender stereotypes affect her character, you also have to look into how racial stereotypes affect her character too, as the two are often quite closely linked. The film is unusual in that these stereotypes are directly referenced in the plot, albeit in a pretty oblique way.

On the whole, I think Tiana is a pretty progressive character. She’s a hard-working young woman whose lifelong dream is to start and manage her own business. She works multiple jobs to achieve her goal, and even when she gets knocked back she doesn’t let that stop her. This goes against the commonly held belief that women in general aren’t motivated by their careers, but also goes against a lot of racial stereotypes about black people having a poor work ethic. Portraying Tiana as a hard-working, intelligent young black woman who wants to break into a male-dominated profession (because almost all professional chefs were dudes in the 1920s) is a double whammy, hitting back against gender and racial stereotypes. Ten points for Disney.

However, Tiana isn’t completely off the hook. The film’s central message is about getting what you want vs. getting what you need, and in Tiana’s case, what she wants is her restaurant, but what she really needs is shown to be settling down with a man. The film goes a long way to portraying their relationship as one between equals – they both help each other change as people and are prepared to make sacrifices for each other before they fall in love – but this central theme kind of undermines this. Tiana’s big character growth is deciding to give up on her dream and live as a frog in a swamp with her boyfriend – turning back into a human and getting her restaurant is treated like an optional extra. This actually plays into a really common gender stereotype that a woman’s ultimate goal is to settle down and start having babies. It isn’t really a huge setback for her character, as once she marries her prince and turns back into a human she goes after her restaurant again, but the change in her priorities has important implications that shouldn’t be ignored.

This sums up a lot of the problems with The Princess and the Frog – a lot of effort has been put into updating the story, but it’s still squashed into some fairly conventional Disney Princess boxes. Tiana is a hard-working young black woman motivated by her career, but ultimately she still settles down with a handsome prince. She gets the restaurant she’s always wanted, but she’s made it clear she’d put her relationship before that if push came to shove. Tiana and Naveen change each other into better people through their love, but ultimately it’s still his money and status that ends up giving her what she wants. The film is trying to tell two stories at once – one very traditional, one much more modern – and smushing them together throws up some really unfortunate implications (and that’s saying nothing of the fact that Disney’s first black princess spends most of the film as a frog).

giphy frog
I couldn’t find a more appropriate gif if I tried. (image: giphy.com)

I’ll give her half a point. I get where the film is coming from, and it has a lot of really positive things going for it, but trying to squeeze it into the traditional Disney Princess formula really takes the shine off.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tiana has a few interesting relationships with other female characters. She’s very close to her mother, but they have their differences: Tiana wants to build her restaurant, but her mother thinks she works too hard and would rather she met a nice boy and started producing grandkids. She’s best friends with the spoiled society darling Charlotte, but despite their different personalities the two get along well and Charlotte gives up on her plan to marry Naveen for Tiana. She’s respectfully wary of Mama Odie, and takes a little while to understand her advice, but gets there in the end. I’m not counting Evangeline, because she’s, you know, a star.

She doesn’t have many other relationships with other female characters that are explored in much detail, and personally, I think that’s a real shame. All the relationships we see her engage in are overwhelmingly positive, and I would’ve liked to have seen how she dealt with a little more conflict and tension with another female character. I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Tiana is a well-rounded and consistent character with a range of goals, beliefs and hobbies. She takes control of her own destiny, doesn’t let her love life rule every decision she makes and grows throughout the story. Her weaknesses are a little patchy, her relationships all run along fairly similar lines and she throws up both positive and negative gender stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped her from passing my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a new favourite of mine. Kimmy Schmidt, 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: Toph Beifong

For those of you that don’t know, Toph Beifong is one of the main female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Introduced halfway through the series, Toph is a young earthbender who joins Aang and his friends on their quest to help the evil Fire Lord Osai from taking over the world. The show has been hailed as some of the best children’s TV in recent years, and Toph herself is definitely one of the most popular characters on the show.

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?

Toph is actually very much in control of her own destiny, despite other people’s efforts to prevent this. Toph was born completely blind into a very wealthy family, who treated her like a delicate little doll because of her disability, keeping her existence a secret from the rest of the world and stopping her from learning earthbending and meeting other people. But that doesn’t stop Toph – she learns to sense the vibrations in the earth, giving herself a different kind of sight, teaches herself how to become an earthbending master and sneaks off to compete in what are basically pro-wrestling matches which include chucking rocks at people. And that’s all before she joins up with Avatar Aang and his friends.

Toph is a fiercely independent character who’s determined to take control of her own life. She runs away from home, teaches Aang how to earthbend, has a small sideline as a successful con artist, develops a completely new form of bending and helps to take down an evil overlord. She decides where she goes and what she does more than once, and if she doesn’t like the plans the rest of the team come up with she’s perfectly prepared to just leave them in the dust. By the time she appears as an old woman in The Legend of Korra, we find out that she’s also established and run the Republic City police department, had a couple of kids, and retired to a swamp just because she can. She’s firmly in control of her own destiny all the way through the story.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Toph is very much a tomboy – she enjoys getting dirty, playing rough and picking her toes. Her beliefs are tied into this – she’s very reluctant to embrace girly things because of her upbringing, where her parents tried to make her into a proper little lady. This has also given her a real love of independence and a slight suspicion of people trying to help her, as she can’t stand the thought of people treating her differently because she’s blind. Her goals are similarly linked to this, too – she wants to prove herself by becoming the best earthbender in the world, to live life on her own terms, as well as stopping the evil Fire Lord.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Toph is a very consistent character. She’s tough, abrasive, independent, a little bit disgusting, confrontational and stubborn, and she remains this way throughout both The Last Airbender and the Legend of Korra. She’s brutally honest, has trouble expresses her emotions openly, and never backs down from a fight.

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Even if it’s against a metal box. (image: tumblr.com)

Her skills are similarly consistent. Toph, though blind, can ‘see’ people by sensing the vibrations in the earth, but this is not without its limits. She can use this ability to sense activity deep underground, to predict her opponent’s next move and to tell if people are lying by sensing an increase in their heart rate or breathing, but this is all dependent on her having direct contact with a stable surface. She finds it much more difficult to use her ability on loose terrain, such as sand, has a very difficult time fighting someone who doesn’t need to touch the ground very often, and is completely blind when placed in water or in the air. What’s more, she has to be barefoot in order for this to work, and if the soles of her feet are injured, she can’t use her ability at all.

We also see Toph actively work on her skills. It’s made clear that her ability to ‘see’ through earthbending was something that took years to master, but we also see her practising sandbending – which she initially finds difficult, but comes to master – and metalbending, which she invents after detecting impurities from the earth in metal. She passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A tough, belligerent young girl who’s determined to assert her independence, become the world’s greatest earthbender and overthrow an evil dictator in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Toph’s love life isn’t really a feature of either series. In The Last Airbender, it’s hinted that she might have a little crush on Sokka, but this is mainly played for laughs and doesn’t really affect her decisions. In The Legend of Korra, it’s revealed that she has two daughters, both with different fathers. She doesn’t seem to have strong feelings for either one of the girls’ fathers and made the decision to raise them both alone as she didn’t want to be tied down. That’s really as far as her love life goes – the rest of her decisions are influenced by her desire for independence, a need to prove herself and her involvement in the battles against various baddies.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Toph does develop over the course of the story. In The Last Airbender, she learns to recognise the fact that not every offer of help from her friends is confirmation that they see her as weak due to her blindness. She comes to see that it’s all right for her to accept help if she wants to, and it doesn’t always come from a place of condescension. She also tries to rebuild her relationship with her parents, learns to compromise a little, and develops strong bonds with people she initially found difficult to get along with.

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Friendship is just so beautiful…NO YOU’RE CRYING (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Toph has plenty of weaknesses. She’s stubborn, tactless, confrontational, refuses to admit defeat, often acts out when she feels vulnerable and uses her tough, confrontational exterior to mask her insecurities about her disability and appearance. She also finds it difficult to accept help, a trait that she manages to partially overcome, and is constantly afraid that she will be treated like an outcast due to her blindness. These are all traits that she actively has to overcome and create tension within the story, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Toph is a huge influence on the plot. Whether she’s beating up the bad guys, teaching Aang earthbending or helping them sneak into a fancy party, she’s a very active player in the story. Her actions always have direct consequences on the plot no matter what they may be, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Toph pretty much throws all gender stereotypes right out the window.

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Heheheh LITERALLY. (image: deviantart.com)

She’s a tomboy, she enjoys rough and messy activities, she picks fights and she’s difficult to get along with – but this isn’t the end of it. When she’s older, we see that she’s had two children with different men and raised them both as a single mother, with very few restrictions on their behaviour. The story never once passes judgement on this – Toph’s parenting decisions and lack of a long-term relationship are presented as valid choices and ones that fit her character. This is actually really unusual, particularly as the overwhelming trend in modern media is to present single parents as somehow ‘lacking’.

But what’s really interesting about Toph and her relationship to gender stereotypes are the fact that she directly acknowledges their affect on her, and how they interact with her disability. Due to their social standing, Toph’s parents probably would’ve raised her to be a demure young lady even if she wasn’t born blind, but on discovering her disability they shut her away from the rest of the world, believing her to be pretty much helpless. In her parents’ eyes, Toph is a defenceless little girl who needs someone to take care of her at all times, and this is actually a perception that many disabled women have to deal with as part of their everyday lives.

Toph hates this – both the restrictions of the traditionally feminine behaviour she’s expected to display, and the added dimension that her blindness adds to this. She resents the idea that she’s a helpless little darling so much it’s palpable and goes out of her way to prove it’s not true. This affects her for the rest of her life, as she chooses to raise her children with barely any restrictions on their behaviour because she hated her cosseted childhood so much. It’s very rare that this is acknowledged so openly on a kids’ show, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Toph relates to quite a few different female characters. She’s distant with her two daughters, but ultimately reconnects with them in a characteristically gruff way. She’s abrasively encouraging to Avatar Korra when she comes to her for help, but ultimately wants to help her despite her confrontational attitude. She gets along well with Suki, the Kyoshi Warrior, is fooled by Princess Azula, and has a strained relationship with her mother.

However, her most interesting relationship by far is with Katara. Initially, the two girls don’t get along well – she finds Katara fussy and girly, and Katara finds her confrontational and unhelpful. Eventually, they find common ground, come to understand each other better and become firm friends. They fight quite often, as neither one of them completely agrees with the other on everything, but the viewer is never left in any doubt that it’s all based on a solid foundation of friendship.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations! Toph is a fiercely independent character with well-defined goals, beliefs and hobbies. Her skills and personality are consistent, she isn’t defined by her love life, she has a range of strengths, weaknesses and interactions with other female characters, and we see her develop over the course of the story. Most of all, she relates to gender stereotypes in several really interesting ways, particularly where her blindness is concerned, and actively acknowledges them within the context of the story. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at another Disney Princess. Tiana, 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: Catherine Earnshaw

For those of you that don’t know, Catherine Earnshaw is the most significant female character in Emily Bronte’s famous novel, Wuthering Heights. Set on the Yorkshire moors, the plot follows the mysterious and tortured Heathcliff’s quest for revenge, which all centres around his lost love, Catherine (also known as Cathy). The novel scandalised Victorian society (but then again, so did women’s ankles) and has gone on to become one of the most famous love stories ever told. Since its publication, people have been fascinated by the tempestuous love affair between Cathy and Heathcliff, which has spawned more period dramas than you could shake a stick at. As for Cathy herself, she’s become one of the most divisive and interesting characters in recent history, depending on how you look at her.

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

 

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

The question of how much Cathy is really in control of her own destiny is a very interesting one. On the one hand, Cathy is a notoriously independent character who frequently rebels against authority – she doesn’t behave in the way she’s expected to, she goes out of her way to make sure she gets what she wants, and her decisions regularly have a huge impact on the plot. On the other hand, like any other woman in the late eighteenth century, she’s subjected to massive social pressures that she eventually ends up bowing to. Despite the fact that she wants to run around on the moors all day with Heathcliff, she knows that due to class- and gender-based restrictions, she’ll never be free to marry him.

All this sets up the ultimately contradictory nature of Cathy’s character. She’s a fiercely independent young woman trapped by social pressures to act like a proper lady, to marry within her social class, and to rein in her passionate, tempestuous nature. Sometimes, she caves to the pressure, and sometimes she doesn’t. It’s worth noting that she’s much more in control of where she goes and what she does when she’s a young girl – the second she starts entering into an engagement we see her holding herself back and being forced into the mould of the proper young lady. The adult Cathy still has her moments of independence, but she still spends much of her time cooped up inside with her husband, where she doesn’t really want to be. This has all sorts of interesting implications in terms of freedom and marriage which I’ll be discussing later on, but for now I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Cathy’s hobbies aren’t talked about in a huge amount of detail, but we do know she enjoys wandering around on the moors and a lot of outdoor activity, as opposed to the more traditional, ladylike ‘accomplishments’.

Who's an accomplished little kitty? (image: giphy.com)
Who’s an accomplished little kitty? (image: giphy.com)

Her goals aren’t particularly clear. When she’s a child, her goal is really just to spend as much time with Heathcliff as possible, and when she becomes a teenager, she decides she wants to expand on this by raising Heathcliff’s social status. She thinks she can achieve this by marrying Edgar Linton, but this backfires after Heathcliff runs off, only showing up three years later with a pile of mysteriously acquired cash and a desire for revenge. After that, she doesn’t really have much of a goal apart from getting her own way – and for much of the novel it’s not really clear exactly what she wants in the first place.

Her beliefs are much more clearly defined. She values passion over politeness, loves her freedom and independence and regrets losing it, and – unusually for an eighteenth-century woman – believes that she won’t go to Heaven, and doesn’t seem to want to go, either. As far as her beliefs on the afterlife go, the only thing she really wants is to be wherever Heathcliff is, whether that’s Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

For the most part, Cathy is a pretty consistent character. She’s reckless, impulsive, wild, manipulative, domineering, passionate and has a very quick temper, which can often devolve into spite and violence. Her outward appearance changes quite dramatically after her brief stay with the Lintons – where she goes from a wild child to a proper little lady – but that’s more of a surface level thing. While she does behave a bit more politely and expresses more of an interest in social rank, that fades pretty quickly, and the core elements of her personality are still there.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Actually, it’s pretty difficult to describe Cathy’s story without referencing her love life. You can certainly describe her personality, but her trajectory through the novel depends entirely on her infatuation with Heathcliff, her marriage to Edgar and as the object of Heathcliff’s desire/bizarre revenge fantasies. I’ll give her half a point for personality, but I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Most of the decisions Cathy makes are influenced by her love life, but as with many other complex characters, it’s not immediately clear that what she feels could really be called love. On the surface, it certainly looks that way – she decides to spend as much time with Heathcliff as possible and declares her feelings for him, then she decides to marry Edgar, and then she decides to try and win Heathcliff back over when he seduces and marries Isabella Linton. These are all decisions which directly relate to her love life, and she doesn’t make many other decisions that don’t fall into this category.

To be fair, he is played by Tom Hardy. (image: pinterest.com)
To be fair, he is played by Tom Hardy. (image: pinterest.com)

That said, if you look more closely at Cathy’s behaviour it becomes clear that mixed up with all of these romantic entanglements is a clear desire to control. The decisions she makes about who to pursue are undercut by a clear motivation to serve her own interests. She decides to spend time with Heathcliff because she loves him, but also because Heathcliff lets her do whatever she wants – whether that’s running around on the moors or spying on the Lintons – and he takes most of the punishment for it. She decides to marry Edgar because she loves Heathcliff (great logic there, Cathy) but also because of what marrying a man of higher social standing can give her – and because marrying someone like Heathcliff isn’t really an option for someone of her social class. She decides to win Heathcliff back when he returns because she still loves him, but also because he’s turning his attentions to someone else, now, and Cathy can’t stand that.

This all points to a clear desire to dominate and manipulate her friends and family. It’s made very clear to the reader that Cathy hates being pushed aside and will go to extreme lengths to get her own way, including violence and making herself ill, but as an eighteenth-century woman, she has very few weapons in her arsenal. She can’t go out and make her fortune, or join a profession, or live the life she wants to lead, as there were enormous restrictions placed on women doing all of these things without a man being involved in the project (or at least, enormous piles of cash). Realistically, the only way Cathy can get want she wants in a society which encourages women to be very passive players is to manipulate the men around her. This is exactly what she does – she uses her charm and good looks to bend Edgar and Heathcliff to her will because she doesn’t really have many other options.

This makes the question of her love life a little bit difficult to untangle. Cathy’s love life is not just how she feels about other people – it’s also the best way she has for getting what she wants, the foundation of her future financial and social security, and a direct influence on her life and the lives of her friends and family. You have to factor this in to her decisions when you look at the choices she makes. There may well be some genuine romantic feelings mixed in there, but there’s a good deal more than emotions that are influencing her decisions. I’ll give her half a point because frankly, it’s quite difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Cathy doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. As I mentioned earlier, when she goes to Thrushcross Grange and marries Edgar, she becomes a little more refined and ladylike, but this is a surface-level change. We only see her act like a proper lady when she’s around Edgar and his sister, and that starts to fade once she marries Edgar and Heathcliff comes back in the picture. Personally, I think this is much more of a façade than a deeper-level personality change, as she goes right back to her wild and reckless ways the second Heathcliff steps through the door. To be honest, she isn’t really given much opportunity for change, as she ends up dying halfway through the novel when she’s still in her late teens, but I’m still withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Cathy has plenty of weaknesses. She’s violent, cruel, manipulative and self-destructive, and this does actually hold her back over the course of the story. Her cruelty and manipulative behaviour drive a wedge between her and her sister-in-law, Isabella Linton, and eggs on Heathcliff to greater heights of nastiness. It doesn’t really affect her relationships all that much – for Edgar and Heathcliff, her charm seems to outweigh her mildly psychotic tendencies – but her self-destructive behaviour has much more of an impact. She makes herself ill on more than one occasion, wanders around on the moors in a storm while heavily pregnant, and this ends up taking a drastic toll on her health and eventually killing her. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Cathy does have an influence on the plot, but it definitely has its limits. As I mentioned earlier, most of her influence comes in the form of manipulating other people. She doesn’t always go out and do exactly what she wants, but gets other people to do things that end up giving her what she wants. Equally, her second biggest impact on the plot is deciding who she wants to marry. In this respect, she’s limited – as an eighteenth-century woman, she can’t propose herself – she has to wait for someone else to ask her (dropping hints like bricks as she does so) before she can actually make a decision. Regardless, her decision to marry Edgar instead of Heathcliff generates a huge amount of tension for the plot and the story simply wouldn’t be the same without it.

However, her biggest influence on the plot isn’t a decision at all – it’s her death. Cathy dies young, just after giving birth to a daughter, and this sends Heathcliff into a destructive spiral of complicated, marriage-based revenge plots against the Lintons. Her death is the force that propels him through the story, motivates nearly all of his decisions and generates the entire second half of the book. Obviously, this has its problems. Cathy is a huge impact on the plot, but not by actually doing anything – she just exists, makes the decisions that are put before her and dies. It’s not really her actions that create the tension between the characters – it’s the way the other characters perceive her and react to her. I’ll give her half a point for her manipulation, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

When you look at how Cathy relates to gender stereotypes, you basically come back with a ready-made gender studies essay. Cathy is a bit of a mixed bag, relating to gender stereotypes in both positive and negative ways, and whether you see her was progressive or traditional really depends on your own viewpoint.

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

We’ll start with the positives. In some ways, Cathy can be seen as a character ahead of her time. She’s a wild, reckless, passionate young woman in a time period where that kind of behaviour was discouraged. She starts off a tomboy who cares little for appearances and laughs at the kind of expectations placed on other women. She has limited amounts of power, but she does what she can with what she’s got. When she marries Edgar Linton and becomes a lady, she’s clearly unhappy, regrets her decision and ultimately starves herself to death. It’s pretty easy to interpret this as a condemnation of the expectations placed on eighteenth-century women. She marries Edgar in pursuit of class and social standing and withers away, as all the things she loved are no longer available to her. Being forced into the role of perfect wife and mother literally kills her – which is a hugely subversive idea for Victorian society.

On the other hand, she doesn’t have a lot of influence on the story, is frequently depicted as a shallow, flighty girl and spends at least half the book dead. From the very beginning she is presented to us as the archetypal ‘Lost Love’ – a beautiful young woman whose tragic death exists to motivate other people on their journey through the story. This makes her less of a character in her own right and more of a motivation for other characters. She spends most of the story as an abstract concept, tormenting Heathcliff and spurring on his desire for revenge without actually doing anything (what with her being dead and all). She is the object of other people’s desires, the focus of other people’s memories, and the centre of the tragedy that engulfs them all for far longer than she is an active character in her own right.

And that brings us on to her relationship with Heathcliff. It is, of course, very complex. The book depicts it as a grand, all-consuming passion, but unusually, the destructive nature of that kind of love is not shied away from. In some of my other reviews, I’ve talked about how all-consuming passions are often portrayed as positive experiences by the media, but in Wuthering Heights this is not the case. Cathy and Heathcliff don’t just love each other – they want to possess each other, destroy each other, and become each other. In one of her most famous lines from the novel, Cathy declares “I am Heathcliff”, implying that the sheer force of their passion for each other has eaten away at her own identity. Their love is not a positive force – it drags everyone around them into despair, ruins people’s lives and results in the deaths of more than one person. It’s a very powerful and dangerous force – which is complicated by the fact that for part of their childhood, Cathy and Heathcliff were raised as brother and sister.

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

Interestingly, some modern adaptations completely gloss over this, portraying their feelings for each other as a sweeping, epic romance rather than as something which consumes and destroys the lives of multiple people. Heathcliff is often portrayed as a brooding, Byronic hero rather than the abusive, violent, puppy-killing sociopath he really is. The book, however, keeps this romanticism to a minimum, and the reader is left in no doubt of just how nasty Heathcliff really is.

This has some interesting implications for Cathy’s character, too. In adaptations where Heathcliff’s nastiness is downplayed, Cathy’s character tends to get dialled down a notch, too. Her manipulative and domineering behaviour are cast aside in favour of romantic swooning. In the original novel, the destructive element of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship adds another layer to her character too – a kind of fascinating darkness that we don’t always see in female leads whose main focus is a love story.

Long story short? Cathy presents both sides of the argument in one crazy package. There are both positive and negative elements to her character where gender stereotypes are concerned, and the same incidents can sometimes be used to justify either side. I’m going to give her half a point, but the fact that she can generate this much debate is, in itself, something to celebrate.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Cathy doesn’t really relate to many other female characters. She dies giving birth to her daughter, so we never see them interact. She’s polite to her brother Hindley’s wife, Frances, but she dies pretty quickly too, so we don’t see a lot of that. Most of her interactions are with Isabella Linton and Nelly Dean, the narrator.

Isabella is clearly set up to be Cathy’s foil. The two are very different – Cathy is wild, passionate and manipulative; Isabella is meek, gentle and delicate. They start off as something like friends, but Cathy’s cruel and domineering nature drives Isabella away. There’s also an element of jealousy there, as Isabella ends up marrying Heathcliff, but once it’s made clear that he still really fancies Cathy that largely disappears.

Nelly is another matter. She is the only character in the story able to see through Cathy’s manipulation and recognise her destructive behaviour for what it is. She’s Cathy’s confidant, but also her servant, and gets treated with a mixture of friendliness and disdain depending on exactly what role she’s fulfilling. She’s the only one prepared to confront Cathy, too – even though this rarely works. Despite all of this, Nelly’s impact on the story is pretty minimal – she is more of a lens through which the reader can view the action, rather than an active player herself.

There’s a certain distance between Cathy and the rest of the female characters she relates to – the general sense is that she doesn’t quite connect with any of them, perhaps due to her intense relationship with Heathcliff. That said, her relationships are certainly interesting and carry a certain amount of complexity and variety, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Cathy is a consistent character with a range of strengths and weaknesses and varying relationships with different female characters, but ultimately, she hasn’t passed my test. Her influence on the plot is somewhat limited, we don’t really see her grow, her story arc really does revolve around her love life and she presents a few problems with regards to gender stereotypes.

Does this mean she’s a character not worth talking about? I don’t think so. For all her flaws, she’s a very complex character whose actions and decisions raise a lot of interesting questions. She may not have passed my test, but for what it’s worth, I still find her story really compelling and engaging.

Next week, I’ll be going back to one of my favourite shows for the fourth time, because I just can’t say no. Toph Beifong, 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: Liz Lemon

For those of you that don’t know, Liz Lemon is the main character of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Set in New York City, the show follows the various misadventures of Liz Lemon, a fortysomething writer for a comedy sketch show who is stuck in a continuous mid-life crisis. Despite being nominated for over a hundred awards, the show was not quite the mass hit it was hoped to be, although it received high praise from the critics. 30 Rock has gone on to become one of Tina Fey’s most successful shows, and Liz Lemon – who she plays – is one of her most well-known characters (as well as the source of an endless stream of quotes).

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 the time, Liz is reacting to the actions of other characters. The problems she has to solve usually aren’t of her own making – when she’s faced with a dilemma, more often than not it’s the result of her boss’s meddling, her staff’s laziness or the ridiculous demands of her actors. She comes up with the solutions on her own, but the problems are usually not her fault.

tumblr_lqahmlkTxJ1qk0j55o13_r1_400
Usually. (image: tumblr.com)

That said, while Liz definitely isn’t in control of the problems she has to face on an episodic basis, she is definitely in control of her story arc as a larger whole. She may come up against a lot of petty problems that aren’t of her own making, but ultimately she’s exactly where she wants to be. She actively sets out to achieve her goals, whether that’s pursuing her lifelong dream of maintaining a career as a TV writer, getting a nicer apartment, finding a good relationship and adopting children. When something in her life isn’t going as well as she wants it to, she tries her best to change it. 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?

A huge part of Liz’s storyline is that she doesn’t really have enough time to have a social life – most of her time is taken up with work. That said, we know that she loves Star Wars, junk food, and watching as much TV as possible. Her goals are much more clearly defined. She wants to adopt children, to find a nice boyfriend, to have a nice apartment, and – a childhood dream of hers – to write for a network comedy show. Her beliefs are also pretty clear – she doesn’t really believe in the idea of marriage, is a committed feminist, is politically liberal, and doesn’t really set much store by typically feminine behaviours.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Liz is a very consistent character. She’s awkward, intelligent, hard-working, determined, can be very defensive and insensitive to people’s feelings, and is also something of a stress eater. As far as her skills go, we know that she speaks pretty good German, is a talented writer and has become pretty good at ‘managing’ all the difficult actors she has to work with. Equally, her lack of skills are just as consistent – she’s shown to have poor social skills and has severe trouble expressing her feelings.

d747fc19e27fe6ba0b53c472c53ddfda
Case in point. (image: pinterest.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A hard-working, socially awkward TV writer decides to take control of her personal life.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Liz’s love life is a pretty substantial part of the series, but it definitely isn’t the main focus. Of course, Liz does make some decisions about who she’s going to date, but ultimately the bulk of her motivations and decisions are to do with her career. The audience is left in no doubt that pursuing her dream is what really makes Liz happy – which is actually really unusual for a female character.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Liz does develop over the course of 30 Rock. Aside from generally getting her life together – by which I mean sorting out a nice apartment, trying to be more responsible and starting a family – one of her most significant character developments is her learning to express her emotions and talk about sex and relationships. She goes from being quite an awkward and somewhat emotionally stunted character to one who learns to express her feelings sincerely and honestly – although that requires a bit of prompting. We also see her develop sexually: she discovers how she likes to have sex and becomes a bit more adventurous – although the less said about that, the better.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Liz has plenty of weaknesses. She’s judgemental, she’s socially awkward, she has trouble expressing her feelings, she doesn’t know how to relax, she tries to control everything, she often puts her foot in her mouth (particularly when trying to talk about racial issues), she can be incredibly insensitive and often has trouble recognising other people’s boundaries. These are all weaknesses that actively hold her back throughout the show – some of which she works on, some of which she doesn’t – so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Liz drives the plot forward at every turn. While she might not always cause the problems she has to solve – although she does sometimes have to step up and fix her own mistakes – her efforts to try and keep her show on the air form the bedrock of the series. She’s at the very centre of almost every episode and her decisions and actions have a real impact on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Liz actually relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way, and most of the time this is played for laughs. On the one hand, she ticks a few fairly traditional boxes: despite her successful career, the fact that she hasn’t started a family is treated as a mark of failure, and she starts getting broody very quickly when one of her co-workers brings their baby to work. On the other hand, she’s also quite unconventional: she’s emotionally stunted, is something of a geek, values her career over anything else, and doesn’t really care about her appearance – all traits that are more traditionally associated with men.

What’s so great about Liz as a character is that she’s allowed to meet these conflicting demands on her own terms, which is part of why this mix of conventional and unconventional works so well. She wants to start a family, but she doesn’t care about getting married or carrying the baby herself, and is perfectly prepared to adopt as a single parent. She gets broody, and while she does go a little bit crazy it doesn’t completely overwhelm her character. She wants to settle down and find a nice relationship, but this is more about companionship and support than bowing to societal pressure. This is reflected in her relationship with her boss, Jack Donaghy – everyone expected them to end up falling for each other, but despite accidentally getting married, the two have a strictly platonic relationship.

jack-liz-bed-w352
No seriously, it’s completely platonic! (image: glamour.com)

Long story short, Liz is a character who manages to mix stereotypically feminine and masculine things and deal with both of them on her own terms – which is something that fictional characters should really do more often.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Liz has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She’s best friends with her actress, Jenna Maroney, and the two have a very complicated relationship involving jealousy on both sides, difficulty communicating with each other, and a certain amount of catering to Jenna’s drama queen demands. She’s constantly trying to become friends with Angie, the wife of one of her actors, but she fails at this quite regularly because she’s often racially insensitive when she tries to do this. She has a number of female co-workers who she works with, a number of women she looks up to, and a complicated relationship with her mother, who tries to support her but doesn’t agree with everything she does. That’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of different women, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Tina Fey! Liz is a well-rounded character with a range of goals, beliefs and interests, contends against various weaknesses and develops over the course of her own story. She’s a driving force on the plot, relates to gender stereotypes in her own unique way, and doesn’t put her love life at the centre of every decision she makes. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of the classics. Catherine Earnshaw, 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: Ginny Weasley

For those of you that don’t know, Ginny is one of the leading female characters in JK Rowling’s phenomenally successful Harry Potter series. Set at a secret magical boarding school, the plot revolves around a group of plucky kids coming together to defeat Wizard Hitler – and Ginny happens to be one of those kids. As everyone and their mother probably knows by now, the books were a massive success, spawning a star-studded movie series, legions of fans (all producing fan art, fanfiction and fan theories) and some of the best audiobooks known to man. Ginny herself was a reasonably central figure in all of this – although her role was considerably cut down for the movies – and has turned out to be a surprisingly controversial character among some of the fans.

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

 

NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I will be basing my analysis on the book version of Ginny, because the film version is a bit rubbish.

 

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

Most of the time, Ginny is a character that has a reasonable amount of control over her own destiny. In the earlier books, she’s a little constrained, because being so much younger she still has to rely on other people to take care of her most of the time. However, as the series progresses, she becomes much more independent. She gets much more control over what she does, who she sees and where she goes as she gets older, despite the fact that most of the restrictions placed upon her are still in place. Whether she’s defying her parents to go and fight against Voldemort, or sneaking around school trying to annoy Professor Umbridge, she’s still taking matters into her own hands and trying to improve her own life. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Ginny’s hobbies are pretty well-established – she enjoys Quidditch, pulling a few pranks and spending time with animals. Her beliefs are pretty strong too: she believes people should stand up for their friends, has a rather lax attitude to parental restrictions, and seems to have a particular dislike for people acting like hypocrites. Her goals are also well-defined – most of the time she just wants to help Harry, Ron and Hermione on their various quests, but she also wants to pursue a career in Quidditch and bring down Voldemort. She’s firing on all three cylinders, so she passes this round with flying colours.

giphy ginny
HAHA GET IT IT’S BECAUSE SHE’S ON A BROOMSTICK (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

For the most part, her personality is pretty consistent. She’s independent, forceful, stubborn, determined, sporty, tough, brave, funny, kind and has a little bit of a temper – although at the start of the series she’s a lot more shy around Harry. Her skills are pretty consistent, too – over the course of the series we see her become an accomplished dueller and Quidditch player, once she has a little time to find her feet.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A brave, determined, stubborn young witch must help her friends to bring down the most evil wizard of all time.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

 

Ginny’s love life is a pretty constant feature of the series. When she first meets Harry, she gets a HUGE crush on him, and this is played as a running joke in the background of the first few books. As the series goes on, she starts dating other people – but again, this is mostly in the background until the sixth and seventh books, when she finally starts dating Harry.

tumblr_m3kmts41tS1rvvszeo1_500
Pack that in, you two. (image: tumblr.com)

This has led to a few fan complaints that Ginny was only included in the books to be Harry’s love interest. While that may be true, there’s no denying the fact that ‘love interest’ is not her only function in the story. She makes plenty of decisions that aren’t affected by her love life at all – whether that’s trying out for the Quidditch team, joining (and later re-starting) Dumbledore’s Army, trying to steal and smuggle out the Sword of Gryffindor to Harry, Ron and Hermione or fighting alongside her friends and family in the Battle of Hogwarts. Her love life is a pretty large part of her character, but it’s not the only part, and she’s shown more than once that she’s capable of prioritising other things over her romantic entanglements. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Ginny actually undergoes quite a bit of character development in the Harry Potter series. She starts off as a very shy little girl who’s a little bit afraid of stepping out of line, but as she gets older she learns to relax when she’s nervous, becomes more confident and learns when (and how) to break the rules and get away with it.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Ginny doesn’t really have that much of a weakness. She’s got a bit of a temper, which often leads her to hex people who annoy her, but this doesn’t actually have many consequences for her. Her sporadically cursing people isn’t treated as something she should stop doing, but rather as a sign of her ‘feisty’ nature, and more often than not people are charmed by her actions rather than frightened. Even her teachers rarely punish her – and the ones who do are often portrayed as ‘evil’ characters in their own right.

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

This has led some to criticise Ginny for being a Mary Sue – a character who is so perfect that they never have to work for anything, never have any flaws, and everyone loves them. I’ve talked about Sues before, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much, but if you’re interested in the term I strongly encourage you to do some research of your own. However, I’m not really sure if this criticism can be applied to Ginny. True, she doesn’t have many flaws, and a lot of guys fancy her, but she isn’t given an easy ride the way most Sues are and does get a chance to grow and develop. I don’t think she’s a Sue, but I am going to withhold the point this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

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

Ginny is a real influence on the plot. She fights alongside our Golden Trio, she works against the villains in her own way, and she helps the good guys on their quest to defeat Voldemort. It’s true that she does a lot more in later books than she does at the beginning of the series, but even then she’s still a figure that advances the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Gender stereotypes certainly influence Ginny’s character, but they don’t dictate it. It’s easy to see where stereotypes have influenced her development – she’s a redhead with a hot temper, she’s a girl who was so painfully shy she made a fool of herself whenever she was around her crush, she’s a ‘tomboy’ character who picked up her interests because she grew up with six brothers. These are all traits which are pretty common stereotypes, but they don’t dominate her personality.

The same can be said of her role as Harry’s love interest. It’s easy to make the argument that she was introduced so early on in the series as Harry’s future wife, as we hear such a lot about her when it’s not strictly relevant to the plot. People have already made the argument that JK Rowling only introduced her character to give Harry a happy ending, and while that may well be true – I don’t know, I haven’t asked JKR – that doesn’t necessarily mean that is the extent of her character. If you took Ginny out of the Harry Potter series, the plot wouldn’t be the same without her, and the same cannot be said of most typical love interests.

MatrixTrinity
Naming no names. (image: en.wikipedia.org)

Long story short, the stereotypes are certainly there, but I don’t think they completely ruin her character in the process. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Ginny has loads of different relationships with other female characters. She’s a little exasperated by, but ultimately loves, her mother. She stands up for and becomes friends with Luna Lovegood. She’s best friends with Hermione Granger, who she confides in, sticks up for, and asks for advice, even though the two girls are actually very different people. She doesn’t like Fleur Delacour at first, but eventually warms up to her when she realises she isn’t as shallow as she thought. She’s a little jealous of Cho Chang, she hates Professor Umbridge, she respects Professor McGonagall, and she actively works to bring down Bellatrix Lestrange. That’s a range of relationships which develop in their own ways, all with a range of different characters, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Ginny is a well-rounded character who takes control of her own life throughout the series, has her own hobbies, goals and beliefs, isn’t completely ruled by her love life and has a range of different relationships with a range of different female characters. She doesn’t have any weaknesses and she’s mildly influenced by gender stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped her from passing my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at a new favourite of mine. Liz Lemon, I’m coming for you.

 

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