Strong Female Characters: Rebecca de Winter

For those of you that don’t know, Rebecca is the titular character of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Rebecca. Set in the 1930s, the book centres around a nameless narrator who marries an older man – only to find that when they go back to his stately home, she’s surrounded by the slightly malevolent presence of his first wife and some extremely creepy servants. Since being published in 1938, the novel has never gone out of print, and is a constant feature of all those ‘Top Ten Books’ lists you see floating around the internet. Although she never actually appears in the novel, Rebecca herself is at the centre of the book’s appeal.

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?

What’s interesting about Rebecca is that the entire novel takes place after her death. We only ever hear descriptions of her personality and behaviour from other characters, all of whom put their own particular spin on things. You might think this means that she doesn’t really affect the plot of the novel, what with being dead and all.

This could not be further from the truth. Even though she’s been dead for almost a year by the time the novel starts, Rebecca’s presence lingers over everything. Her husband’s house, Manderley, is still run according to her exact specifications. Her room is still kept exactly as she left it on the day she died. The servants still defer to her wishes. The narrator finds herself constantly being compared to Rebecca – whether that’s in her capacity as a society beauty, a hostess or a wife – and the constant pressure of it nearly drives her to suicide.

The flashes we get of Rebecca’s life make it very clear that she was always in control – she ran her house as she pleased, threw as many parties as she liked, and took as many lovers as she fancied, and everyone else was left bobbing along in her wake. She was such a forceful personality that this remains the case after she’s been dead for a year. She even found a way to die on her own terms and screw her husband over at the same time – not bad for someone who the reader doesn’t see for themselves. 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?

Rebecca’s hobbies are made pretty clear. She was a great sportswoman, with a particular fondness for sailing and hurting, but she also had excellent taste and knew a lot about furniture, decoration, food and parties. It’s also implied that she got up to some pretty freaky things in the sack, but exactly what they were is left up to the reader’s imagination.

 

As far as her beliefs go, they’re pretty clear too – she’s frequently described as immoral, did whatever she liked on a regular basis and clearly disregarded 1930s standards of sexual purity. Her goals aren’t clearly expressed, apart from the desire to live her life in the way she wanted, and not to die a slow, lingering death – and she achieved both of these.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

We don’t actually see Rebecca’s character first-hand – all we know about her is filtered through the opinion and recollection of other characters. At first, it seems as if Rebecca is the perfect woman – charming, hospitable, well-organised, confident and with the ability to talk to anyone. She seems independent, fearless, if a little careless. Then, we learn that this was all a façade: she was actually cruel, manipulative, mocking and never had any genuine feelings for anyone.

This might sound like quite a change, but it’s actually handled very well. Little moments that illustrate the nastier sides of Rebecca’s personality are dropped into conversations before her true nature is revealed – that makes the final realisation that much more believable. All her past actions are suddenly seen in a different light, and it’s one that makes much more sense of her character.

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 cruel, manipulative woman poses as the perfect society hostess and maintains a strange influence over her household after her death.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Rebecca’s love life is a bit of a tricky one. It’s made pretty clear that she didn’t love her husband, Maxim – it’s highly likely that she married him for money and status, and he went through with it because she agreed to build up his stately home. She took multiple lovers over the course of their marriage, including her own cousin, and had all kinds of incestuous fun.

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

However, it’s not really clear if she actually felt anything for these people. Mrs Danvers – her obsessively loyal maid – says that she never felt anything for them, and that it was all just a game to her. Mrs Danvers isn’t exactly the most reliable witness, given that she shuts herself up in Rebecca’s bedroom on a regular basis, but she raises an interesting point. Is Rebecca motivated by any real feelings? Is it purely sexual? Or is it just a power trip – something she only does to show her husband that she can?

We never actually find out what motivates Rebecca but regardless of that, her love life is a pretty central part of her character. The fact that she’s a bad wife – and that this badness takes the form of multiple sexual partners – underpins a huge part of her character, but I’ll discuss that in more detail later on. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt because we don’t really know what’s going through her head, but it won’t extend that far.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

What we see of Rebecca is only revealed through flashback and memory, so it would be extremely difficult to trace her development. She seems like a pretty static character – when other characters talk about her they tend to talk about the same kind of things. There’s a vague mention of the fact that as time went on, she became less careful and more frequent with her debauchery, but I’m not sure that really counts as development. The reader’s perception of her changes quite drastically over the story, but Rebecca herself does not.

Plus there’s also the fact that she’s dead, so you can’t do much development there.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Rebecca has plenty of weaknesses. She’s cruel, she’s thoughtless, she’s manipulative, she doesn’t care what people think of her and she becomes increasingly brazen about her sexcapades as time goes on. She also likes to taunt and mock people – usually behind their backs, but she’ll do it to her husband’s face – and this is ultimately what leads to her death.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Rebecca is a huge influence on the plot. The servants still carry out her wishes, the guests compare her to Maxim’s second wife, the old grandmother believes that Rebecca is still alive and adores her. And that’s not even mentioning creepy Mrs Danvers, who ensures that Rebecca’s instructions are carried out to the letter on a daily basis.

The result of all this is that even though we never see her, Rebecca’s presence hangs over the novel like a shroud. The narrator has never met her, yet she is so crippled by her envy of Rebecca’s class, poise and confidence that she begins to feel like an outsider in her own marriage, doubts her husband’s love for her and is almost driven to suicide. It’s a strange kind of influence – one that’s kept alive by other characters – but one that works well to illustrate the force of her personality. I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Rebecca is a bit of a mixed bag where gender stereotypes are concerned. On the one hand, she’s quite subversive. Outwardly she seems like the perfect society hostess – beautiful, charming, tasteful and poised – but when you look below the surface it’s clear that she’s cruel, manipulative and abusive to her husband. This is pretty radical for the 1930s, when keeping up an appearance of respectability was still seen as important – it implies that all the charm, wealth and beauty of society ladies is somewhat hollow.

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God, this feels familiar… image: thegreatgatsby.wikia.com

On the other hand, there’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of what makes Rebecca a ‘bad’ character is the fact that she’s into some pretty freaky stuff in the sack. Maxim – her husband – seems to make this his chief complaint: she wouldn’t respect their marriage vows but he pretended everything was all right to avoid the shame of divorce. He actually ends up killing her over it, although it’s later revealed that Rebecca manipulated him into doing so.

This is a very different pill for modern audiences to swallow. While adultery isn’t exactly smiled upon, the way we view promiscuous women has changed a lot since Rebecca was published. She might not be popular because of all her lovers, but she might not be hated for them, either. In fact, several modern academics have turned this back around to Maxim, the romantic hero of the novel – a man who murders his wife in a fit of jealousy and anger. This is an act of domestic violence. Rebecca is abusive to her husband too, albeit in a slightly different way – her taunting and manipulation of him would probably be classed as emotional or psychological abuse by most experts. She is rightly condemned for this – but Maxim, who literally straight up murders her, is not.

The upshot of all this is that Rebecca is a very complex character. She is both subversive and traditional in different ways, and has been many things to many different audiences. I’m going to do what I always do in situations like these – give her half a point and let you make up your own mind.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

We see the remnants of Rebecca’s relationships with other female characters throughout the novel. Maxim’s grandmother adores her, and can’t accept that she has died. Beatrice, Maxim’s sister, regards her with suspicion, jealousy and just a little bit of hatred, because Rebecca may or may not have seduced her husband. The narrator invents a relationship with her, although the two have never met – she keeps up a constant stream of comparison between herself and Rebecca, and comes to deeply envy her. But her most interesting relationship of all is with her maid, Mrs Danvers.

In most of her other relationships with women, it’s not always clear what Rebecca was thinking. It’s much clearer with Mrs Danvers, who was her closest confidant and looked after her since she was a child. Rebecca told her everything – even about all her secret boyfriends – and Mrs Danvers adores her, to the extent that she tries to make Manderley into a living memorial to her. Some academics have suggested that Mrs Danvers and Rebecca may have actually had some kind of lesbian relationship, and it’s easy to see why – when Mrs Danvers speaks about Rebecca, the reader is left in no doubt that she absolutely worships her, even after she’s gone. These are some interesting and well-developed relationships that underpin the plot, so I’ll give her the point

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Rebecca is a well-developed character with a range of flaws, goals, hobbies and beliefs, plenty of weaknesses and a real influence over the plot. Even though she never appears in the book, she’s certainly passed my test – which is a real testament to the strength of du Maurier’s writing. If you haven’t read Rebecca (and don’t mind all of these spoilers I’ve just told you) you should definitely check it out!

Next week, I’ll be looking at a recent bestseller – The Girl on the Train. Rachel Watson, 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: Sleeping Beauty

For those of you that don’t know, Sleeping Beauty is the story of a beautiful princess who, when cursed by an evil fairy, pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls into what is basically a magical coma. She lies around snoozing for a little bit – some say for a few months, some say for a hundred years – she is woken by a kiss from a prince, who conveniently happens to be her one true love, and they live happily ever after.

Much like Snow White, the story seems to have popped up in the early Medieval period, when making out with unconscious women was less of a red flag. Rather than being based on a real person, the story seems to have come out of an old Arthurian legend – but that’s a blog post for another time. The story spread across Europe like nobody’s business, and before long multiple versions popped up in pretty much every country on the continent.

The story has gone on to become hugely influential. The most popular version of the story is the one made known by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but the story has gone on to be one of the most well-known in the world. Sleeping Beauty has been adapted into films, poems, operas, musicals, a ballet, edgy YA re-tellings, TV shows, satire, anime and computer games – and, bizarrely, for Anne Rice’s brief jaunt into erotica.

There’s thousands of versions of the Sleeping Beauty story – but I’m only going to look at six. I’ll be looking at each variation of the story and seeing how it measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.

Let’s get started – but watch out for spoilers!

 

 

image: pinterest.com

This version of the fairy tale is widely accepted as the basis for Perrault and the brothers Grimm’s child-friendly re-telling. The ‘sleeping beauty’ in this story is called Talia, and when she’s born her horoscope says she’ll die from a splinter, and because horoscopes are always completely and utterly infallible, this is exactly what happens. She falls into a deep sleep and is left in her house – only for a passing king to break in, rape her, and leave her to give birth to twins nine months later. The twins wake her up and she ends up trying to marry the king – but he already has a wife, who tries to feed Talia and her children to a BUCKET FULL OF SNAKES. Of course this doesn’t work, the wife is executed, and Talia and King Rapist live happily ever after (for want of a better term).

Talia has absolutely no control over her life in this version, doing absolutely nothing for herself. No hobbies, goals or beliefs she has are even mentioned and in fact, her personality is never discussed either – she’s a completely empty vessel. Her entire trajectory through the story depends on her beauty and her relationship to the king, and don’t even get me started on him. Talia doesn’t get to make any decisions about her love life because her ‘Prince Charming’ just flat out rapes her while she’s unconscious, and then brings her back to his castle to be his live-in side piece.

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

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t have any weaknesses – but that’s because she doesn’t have a personality to begin with. The most she manages to do to influence the blog is get a splinter and drag out the bucket-full-of-snakes incident long enough for the king to rescue her but frankly, that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. The only other female character she relates to is the king’s wife, who’s jealous of her beauty – we don’t see any other relationship with a female character, even though she has a daughter. She’s also an incredible step backwards for gender stereotypes because her entire story rests on the poisonous belief that rape was not a crime, and that it could lead to a strong and loving relationship between the rapist and their victim. She’s a woman-shaped receptacle in the story, filled with outdated stereotypes and frankly disgusting ideas, rather than a character with any kind of agency or personality.

FINAL SCORE: 0.5/10

 

 

image: wikimedia.org

The version by Charles Perrault is much more child-friendly, as it thankfully doesn’t include any rape. The story travels along broadly similar lines, although this time the young princess is cursed by a jealous fairy who wasn’t invited to her christening. Death is scaled back to a really long sleep, and when she pricks her finger, the castle is covered in thorns and everyone else falls asleep along with her. One hundred years later, along comes a handsome prince who thankfully just gives her a kiss instead of going full Game of Thrones, she wakes up and they get married. The jealous wife of the previous version is now an Ogress and a jealous mother-in-law, who tries to feed her own grandchildren to her son, but thankfully the prince puts a stop to that and everyone lives happily ever after.

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And at that point, their faces are permanently stuck like this. (image: pinterest.com)

The princess in this version still doesn’t have much agency, as everything depends on curses, princes and a jealous mother-in-law, but we do get a sense of her personality. She’s generically kind, good and innocent all through the story, but goals, hobbies and beliefs are never mentioned. You can’t talk about her without describing her physical appearance or kiss from the prince, she barely makes any decisions at all and those she does are mostly to do with her love life, and she neither develops nor exhibits a weakness.

She doesn’t really do a lot in the story at all – she’s rescued from the snake bucket by a kindly cook, and her pricking her finger is attributed to Fate rather than her own curiousity. Like Basile’s version, we only see her interact with the jealous Ogress/mother-in-law, and while this Sleeping Beauty doesn’t fall in love with her rapist she’s so passive and generic that she’s still a massive step backwards. All in all, she’s a pretty flat character.

FINAL SCORE: 1/10

 

 

image: dettoldisney.wordpress.com

The Disney version is probably the one that modern audiences are most familiar with. Drawing on the Grimm and Perrault versions but thankfully removing the part with the snake, this is pretty straightforward re-telling. The fairy Maleficent isn’t invited to the Princess Aurora’s christening and curses her to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. When the spell is softened to a sleep broken by true love’s kiss, she’s spirited away by three fairies to be raised in secret in the woods. She grows up and falls in love with the prince she’s supposed to marry, but when she’s taken back to the castle she pricks her finger anyway and falls asleep. The prince kills Maleficent, wakes up Aurora and they all live happily ever after.

Much like the original fairy tale, Aurora isn’t really in control of her own life – she’s led through the story by the curse and other characters. We don’t hear an awful lot about her goals, hobbies and beliefs, but we know she enjoys singing and wants to marry Prince Philip.

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No, not that one. (image: express.co.uk; Getty)

She’s consistently good, kind, sweet and innocent but can’t really be described without referencing her appearance or storyline with the prince. Her love life is actually the only thing she really wants for herself – she doesn’t appear to have any other goals or ambitions. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have a weakness, and she doesn’t influence the plot either. You could make a case that her falling in love with Philip is a force on the story, but it isn’t really – when she first meets him she doesn’t know she’s engaged to him, and when the fairies tell her she has to marry a prince (not realising she’s already met him) she instantly accepts that she has to marry him, even though she thinks she’ll be giving up her true love and making herself miserable.

She interacts a lot more with female characters – such as her mother, the three fairies and Maleficent – but these interactions aren’t given any detail. For example, even though they raised her, she barely differentiates between the three fairies. She doesn’t do much better in terms of gender stereotypes – she’s not much more than the stereotypical beautiful, kind and graceful princess. Long story short, she does a bit better than the original but she’s still an incredibly passive character.

FINAL SCORE: 2/10

 

 

image: harpercollins.com

Let’s fast forward to the nineties. This retelling of the traditional Sleeping Beauty story keeps a lot of the classic elements, but in a slightly different way. When Princess Sonora is cursed, she’s given other fairy blessings too – like the gift of intelligence. Already an insufferable know-it-all at six months old, she starts planning to use her curse to her advantage; she’ll only prick her finger and fall asleep when she’s good and ready for it. Unfortunately, her plan to use the curse to back out of an unwanted engagement backfires and it’s not until a hundred years later that a different prince wakes her up with a kiss.

From the very beginning Sonora is in control – she decides that since she’s been cursed, she may as well use it to her advantage, and hides away a spindle in case she needs it. She loves reading, believes that she doesn’t need sleep (what with that curse hanging over her) and her long-term goal is to get out of marrying an incredibly boring prince. She’s consistently logical, intelligent, creative and an insufferable know-it-all, and her lack of enthusiasm for her engagement means it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life.

Her love life is a pretty big feature of the story, but it isn’t the focus of all her decisions – she decides to plan ahead for her own future, to learn as much as she can and to avoid sleeping. She doesn’t really develop over the course of the story but she does have a weakness – her endless fount of knowledge makes her absolutely insufferable, she isn’t always respectful of other people and she can be very dispassionate, all of which stop her from making friends.

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#SmartGirlProblems. (image: gif sec.com)

She comes up with a plan to subvert the curse and avoid marriage on her own, completely disregards the traditional passivity associated with the Sleeping Beauty story and proves herself to be a clever and manipulative young woman – not exactly typical Disney Princess behaviour. She also has a wide range of relationships with different female characters including her mother, the fairies and people in the palace, although most of these take the same slightly condescending tone. All in all, this is a very refreshing look at Sleeping Beauty that manages to keep a lot of the traditional elements – it’s definitely worth a read!

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

 

image: fanpop.com

This recent adaptation of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t focus on the princess, but the wicked witch at the centre of it all – the titular Maleficent. A retelling of the Disney animated film, this version makes Maleficent the central character, spending a significant amount of time on the relationship she had with the princess’s father. After he steals Maleficent’s wings, she curses his daughter in revenge, prompting him to send her out into the forest for her own safety. Maleficent, however, soon finds herself bonding with the child, and ends up trying to lift the curse. When true love’s kiss doesn’t work, Maleficent kisses the princess herself, all the maternal love she has breaks the spell, and the two go on to overthrow the princess’s father and rule in peace.

Aurora isn’t the central character in this film and spends a substantial amount of it as a very young child, but as she grows older she gets a lot more agency, going back to the castle of her own accord and giving Maleficent back her wings. Later in the story she wants to find out about the curse and help Maleficent, we don’t see a lot of her hobbies but she seems fascinated by fairyland, and she believes a lot of generic stuff about kindness, goodness etc. so I’ll allow her the point. She’s consistently cheerful, sweet, kind and good, and it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life or appearance as both are played down to an absolute minimum.  Throughout the film, her decisions are motivated more by the desire to find out about herself and her environment rather than Prince One Direction Knockoff.

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Tell me you don’t see it. (image: pinterest.com)

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – she’s naïve, but anyone would be if they’d been raised out in the woods by three idiots who don’t know that it takes a while to get babies onto solid food. She only really starts to influence the plot in the last half hour or so – before that she does very little. As far as gender stereotypes go she’s in the middle – she’s generically kind, sweet and good but rejecting familial bonds and siding with Maleficent (not to mention saying that maternal trumps romantic love) is very subversive. When it comes to other female characters, she has a few different relationships – namely with Maleficent and the three fairies – but these don’t really change, even after she finds out that Maleficent cursed her. All in all it’s a pretty solid effort, but I think if they’d spent less time on Maleficent’s backstory and more on her relationship with Aurora, this version of Sleeping Beauty would have been a much stronger character.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

 

image: youtube.com

This is a very different retelling of Sleeping Beauty – but it’s Neil Gaiman, so what did you expect? This version follows a grown up (and non-vampiric) Snow White investigate a mysterious sleeping sickness on the borders of her kingdom and find a castle covered in thorns with a sleeping princess in the tallest tower. She kisses her awake, only to find that the sleeper is the creature who cast the curse, and the mysterious old woman hobbling around the castle is the real princess with all her youth and beauty stolen from her.

This version of Sleeping Beauty is a different kettle of fish. She’s very much in control, as it’s implied that she cast the spell on the princess to steal her youth, beauty and social standing. We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies, goals or beliefs either – apart from that she’s a creature that wants to stay young and in power – which is pretty similar to Gaiman’s other retelling of Snow White (Snow, Glass, Apples). She’s consistently portrayed as intelligent, ruthless and cruel with strong magical powers, but you can’t describe her without talking about her appearance as the desire to look young and beautiful is what motivates her.

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Young, beautiful and chilling on a bed full of skulls, that is. (image: goodreads.com)

She doesn’t appear to have any genuine feelings for anyone, so her love life isn’t really an issue. She doesn’t develop over the story but she does have a weakness – she’s over-confident, which does set her back. She’s the driving force behind the whole story and relates to other female characters in different ways, manipulating and taunting the real princess while trying to seduce Snow White. As far as gender stereotypes go, she’s on the fence – progressive in that she’s ruthless, cruel and manipulative (traits not always seen in female characters) but less so in that her main goal in love is to stay young and pretty forever. All in all I really enjoyed this retelling, but I felt that this particular version of Sleeping Beauty could have been fleshed out a little more.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

And there you have it – that’s my analysis of Sleeping Beauty! Long story short, most of these adaptations’ problems stem from the fact that the main character’s most significant contribution to the plot is her falling asleep – I can tell you from experience that it’s difficult to subvert the patriarchy when you’re unconscious. The traditional versions of the tale didn’t expand her role beyond token pretty lady, and while some modern adaptations have gone to great lengths to change this, it doesn’t always work.

Next week, I’ll be back with my original ten question test and looking at one of my all-time favourite books. Rebecca, 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: Padme Amidala

For those of you that don’t know, Padme is the leading lady in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels trilogy. Released in the late nineties and early 2000s, the prequels document Anakin Skywalker’s transition from hopeful young Jedi to evil asthmatic badass, Darth Vader. Padme is a huge part of this – as her role is the only significant female character in the prequels trilogy – and remains an integral part of all three films. While the films were a huge success (because who doesn’t love Star Wars), they were critically panned, to the extent that most fans would just prefer not to think about them. Padme received a similarly mixed reception, with some fans seeing her as a feminist icon and some as a massive let-down.

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 not be looking at Extended Universe material in this post – unfortunately I just don’t have the time to go through it all.

 

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

In the first two films, Padme is pretty much in control of her own destiny. When her home planet is invaded, she escapes, attempts to appeal to the Galactic Senate to lift the invasion, and when that fails, she brokers a peace treaty between the Naboo and the Gungans and leads an army to get rid of the invaders herself. When she’s almost assassinated and sent back to Naboo for her own safety, she decides there are more important things at stake – like rescuing Anakin’s mother, Shmi, or helping out Obi-Wan Kenobi. She isn’t always in control of absolutely everything, but she doesn’t need to be – no matter what happens around her, she still tries to do what’s best for her friends and her people.

That all changes in the third film. In Revenge of the Sith, Padme becomes pregnant with Anakin’s children, and spends the entire film moping. She doesn’t lead rebellions, she bows out of political life and she has absolutely no interest in all the intrigue and betrayal going on around her – she’s got a baby to think about. If handled properly, this could have been actually very understandable. Anakin and Padme married in secret, and a pregnancy could reveal their relationship to everyone and destroy both their careers – you can see why it would be a sensible idea for Padme to duck out of the public eye once she started showing.

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Because tent dresses can only do so much. (image: photobucket.com)

However, it isn’t handled well at all – and that’s mainly because of how Padme reacts. In the previous two films, it’s made pretty clear that the thought of bowing out of public life for a while is not something she wants to do. It’s established that she feels she has a duty to her people, and pretty much nothing is going to stop her from fulfilling it. In the third film, she seems to have forgotten about that side of her personality completely, and is very happy talking about her plans to raise her children. What’s crucial here is that we don’t see Padme’s transition from passionate political player to a contented expecting mother – we don’t even see a moment of realisation from her where it dawns on her that her future children are more important to her than her political career.

Instead, it’s like a switch has been flipped. She begins the third film as a completely different character – one who is content to sit back and let other people dictate the important events in her life. She goes from a very active character to one who does nothing of significance in the film apart from get pregnant and die. That’s one hell of a step down. I’ll give her half a point for the first two films, but rest assured I’ll be talking about this again.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

We don’t see a lot of Padme’s hobbies, but she mentions swimming a lot when she was younger so I’ll allow it. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. She strongly believes in a fair and representative democracy and has very well-informed political opinions. This also ties in with her belief that she has a duty to her people, and tries to do her best for them at every turn. Her goals are closely aligned with this. Whether she’s trying to stop an invasion or rescue her friend, they’re made very clear. 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?

Some elements of Padme’s character are consistent. As far as her skills go, she’s shown to be politically astute, have a decent grasp of speech-making and negotiations, and is a dab hand with a blaster. Her personality is much patchier. She’s always shown to be kind, fair-minded and optimistic, even in Revenge of the Sith when all she does is sit around and be pregnant.

However, Revenge of the Sith is only one film – and in the other two, she’s a very different character. She’s active, hard-working, a little stubborn, ambitious, very determined, easily adaptable to a range of different situations and incredibly brave. These traits are made clear in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but have almost completely disappeared by the third film. The second she gets pregnant, she becomes a completely different person.

Now, I understand that pregnancy changes people. Aside from all the hormones and body stuff you have to go through, the fact that a woman is bringing a child into the world – a tiny little human who she is now COMPLETELY responsible for – is obviously going to lead to some pretty serious soul-searching and re-arranging of priorities. However, the key thing is that we never actually see Padme do any of this. You’d think that a character who was such an active political player might have some trouble adjusting to a much more secluded existence – but Padme never even mentions any of this. She and Anakin don’t talk about it, we don’t see her discuss it with anyone else – her absence from political life isn’t mentioned by any other character AT ALL. She just disappears, sporting a pretty sizeable pregnancy belly, and we don’t even see another character ask where she’s gone.

giphy shrug
“Eh, I guess she’s just in the bathroom or something” (image: giphy.com)

This is why I think Revenge of the Sith made Padme into such an inconsistent character. We don’t see her adjusting to her new role. We don’t see her talk about her changing circumstances with anyone – she and Anakin don’t even talk about how they’re going to keep their relationship (and babies) secret after the children are actually born. We don’t see anyone else ask about where she’s gone. We don’t see anyone asking for her help. The first two films painted her as a politically significant woman heavily involved in the Senate – the third film wipes this away completely. Everyone forgets about the role she used to play, and everyone treats her like a completely different character. Which, in fact, she is.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

A determined young Senator with a passionate belief in democracy tries to stand up for her beliefs.

(I’m ignoring Revenge of the Sith here, obviously.)

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

In the first film, Padme’s love life isn’t mentioned at all. She’s a political player trying to do what’s best for her people, and doesn’t have time for romance in the middle of an invasion. Her love life only starts being relevant in the second film, when she meets Anakin Skywalker again – except this time, he’s all grown up. Then, as I’ve already discussed, she gets pregnant in the third film and her personality (and motivations) do a complete 180.

Her love life is a pretty central part of her storyline in Attack of the Clones. After he’s assigned to be her bodyguard, she starts developing feelings for him. She resists it at first, because Jedi aren’t allowed to have personal relationships with anyone, but after a few near-death experiences she realises that she can’t ignore her feelings and the two marry, but keep their relationship a secret. But despite the fact that this is a pretty big part of Padme’s character arc, it doesn’t really feel like she’s completely ruled by her love life. She makes a lot of decisions in this film that don’t have anything to do with her love life – like going into hiding, taking Anakin to Tatooine and rescuing Obi-Wan Kenobi. She’s motivated here by her desire to do what’s best for other people, rather than her feelings for Anakin.

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And also by the desire not to be eaten by this thing. (image: jeditemplearchives.com)

This is how the third film should have been handled, but of course, that didn’t happen. In Attack of the Clones, Padme’s decisions to help people clearly mean a lot to Anakin, and that’s what ends up bringing them closer together. In Revenge of the Sith, Padme’s decisions revolve around her relationship with Anakin and their unborn children. This is understandable, but it makes the relationship between them seem kind of static. Most of this stagnation can be directly traced back to Padme – Anakin is undergoing huge changes, but she just reacts to them.

In short, the extent that Padme’s love life influences her decision depends on what film she’s in. In Attack of the Clones it’s handled well, and her love life is allowed to blossom while she’s an active player in the story and makes decisions that affect the plot that don’t involve her boyfriend. In Revenge of the Sith, it isn’t handled well – all her decisions and actions revolve around her relationship, making her seem like less of a developed character and more of a token love interest – and this is only multiplied by the fact that she’s the only significant female character in the movies. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Padme does change over the course of the prequel trilogy, but I’m not really sure if I’d call it character development. She starts the story as a determined, ambitious politician determined to do her best for her people, and ends it as a young woman starting a family with someone who increasingly starts to scare her.

However, we don’t really see this character change for ourselves. Padme ends a film as one version of herself and, when the next film starts up, begins it as another – we don’t see what made her personality change so much in a short amount of time, and we don’t really know how she feels about it, either. She seems like a different character altogether, rather than a slightly different version of the same character who’s changed as a result of her experiences.

This isn’t proper character development. It’s fine for a character to undergo a dramatic change, but to make it believable we actually need to see that happen. We never see Padme talk about how having children has made her reconsider her priorities, or how her changing circumstances have affected her emotionally, or how she reacts when confronted with something from her old life. We never see her make a decision to step down from public life, and we never get to see whether this decision was actually difficult for her to make. We don’t even see her panic – which would be perfectly understandable in her position. Long story short, we don’t actually see her react to the drastic change in her own circumstances.

"Eh, I guess she's just pregnant now, no biggie" (image: giphy.com)
“Eh, I guess she’s just pregnant now, no biggie” (image: giphy.com)

This is a huge problem. It’s not the same as proper growth because we don’t actually see how she dealt with the change. It’s a complete change in her personality – going from someone who actively said that she didn’t want to step down from public life to someone who is more than happy to back down from the career that forms the foundation of so much of her personal beliefs and goals. This really needed to be discussed and explored properly – but it simply wasn’t.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Padme doesn’t really have all that much of a weakness. She’s stubborn, but more often than not this is taken as proof of her political convictions or the depth of feeling she has for her friends or her people. Her stubbornness does put her in harm’s way, certainly, but it’s not portrayed as a flaw – rather as an indication of how good other parts of her personality are. It certainly doesn’t throw a spanner in any of her personal relationships or wider political goals, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

For most of the prequels trilogy, Padme does influence the plot. She’s an active political figure who makes her own decisions, leading various resistance forces and rescue missions alike. True, she spends most of Revenge of the Sith sitting around, but I’ll overlook that this round – in the other two films, she’s a driving force on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, but at this point it’s kind of inevitable.

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

If Padme was only in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, she’d be an incredibly progressive character. In those two films, she’s smart, determined, brave – she’s a good leader and negotiator driven by strong political convictions. That’s actually a really positive role model for young girls to have – she’s not just a hero, she’s also a military and political leader, and a respected one to boot. That’s not something we usually see in female characters.

However, that all goes down the toilet in Revenge of the Sith. Padme doesn’t go to the Senate any more – she stays at home, refusing to see anyone, hiding her pregnancy from all her friends and sticking by her increasingly unstable man. We see Anakin go out killing people and then cut back to Padme, worrying prettily at home – a far cry from the capable leader she used to be.

This is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to be telling young girls. She gave up everything she believed in the second she got pregnant. It’s fine for her priorities to change, and it’s fine for her to want to start a family, but the fact that she just doesn’t talk about this makes it hugely problematic. Everyone – the other characters, the audience and the writer included – assumes that Padme is happy to give up her political career and start a family, but we never actually see Padme say this herself.

This is really where the crux of the problem lies. Padme just doesn’t talk about the way she feels about trading negotiations for nappies. It’s never discussed, and in the previous two films politics was practically all she talked about. If we’d actually seen her saying that she wanted to start a family, that she was looking forward to the prospect of having children, or even that she was becoming jaded by the politics of the Republic, that would have been a completely different story. It would have made Padme’s transition from politician to stay-at-home mother much more believable and added another layer to her character – but of course, that isn’t what we got. What we did get was a young woman who, on finding out she’s pregnant, forgets about everything she cared about before and spends the entire film mooning after her crazy, homicidal husband.

Oh and also he has demon eyes. What a catch. (image: nerdinfinite.com)
Oh and also he has demon eyes. What a catch. (image: nerdinfinite.com)

And that brings me nicely onto her relationship with Anakin. Padme is shown to be a pretty moral person – someone to whom values are very important and who believes in treating people as equally as possible. She ends up marrying Anakin, who massacres an entire tribe of Sand People as vengeance (including defenceless children), kills more children at the Jedi Temple and, ultimately, ends up killing her.

Padme knows that Anakin has done terrible things. He tells her so himself – confessing to the murder of the Sand People who took his mother – and doesn’t consider that he’s done anything wrong. She knows all of this, and yet she still decides to stay with him and start a family with him. Even after he told her he murdered an entire village of Sand People, she still can’t believe that he’s capable of committing more atrocities, and is shocked when she ends up becoming one of his targets. By the time she realises what’s going on and tries to leave, it’s too late. Anakin almost kills her, and though she survives his attack, she gives up on life completely, only staying alive long enough to deliver and name her two children.

This is an incredibly damaging narrative. To watch an intelligent young woman delude herself that the man she married isn’t a monster is a frankly painful experience. We never see Padme question her relationship with Anakin, or start to take steps to protect herself from him, or even resolve to fight for her unborn children. To Padme, romantic love is the most important thing in her life, to the extent that she’s prepared to stay with a man who has the blood of hundreds on his hands.

However, Padme’s love for Anakin isn’t treated as the incredibly sketchy relationship that it is. Her insisting that there is good in him, even after he tried to kill her and their children, is treated as a sign of their mutual love and devotion, rather than as someone unable to face up to what their partner has done. Anakin and Padme’s scenes together are filled with declarations of love, they race across the galaxy to throw themselves into each other’s arms – and Padme never stops to think that maybe, a man who literally committed genocide is not a good choice of husband.

This is really unhealthy, and feeds into all kinds of ideas about love being able to fix every problem, and love being the most important thing in a woman’s life, and that women should always ‘stay the course’ in their relationships and avoid breaking up with someone unless they cross some arbitrary line. Padme ‘stands by her man’ – but that man is a child-murderer, and she knew that before she married him. There’s pretty much no coming back from that.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Padme doesn’t really relate to any other female characters. We know she’s close with her decoys, but we rarely know their names – and often, they die the second their characters are introduced. She only lives long enough to name her only daughter, Leia, so they don’t have a relationship to speak of. She chats a little bit with Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother, but never with any kind of depth or feeling. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 4/10

 

Padme is a mostly-active character who influences the plot and has a clearly defined set of goals and beliefs, but she falls far short of passing my test. She doesn’t develop, she isn’t consistent, she doesn’t have much of a weakness nor any significant relationship with another female character, and she reinforces some frankly dangerous gender stereotypes.

But to be perfectly honest, she would have got a much higher score if Revenge of the Sith had been a different movie. Pretty much all of the problems with her character can be traced back to this film, and if it had been handled more thoughtfully, I’m confident she would have come close to passing. But of course, this wasn’t to be.

Next week, it’ll be the seventieth post on my blog and that’s making me feel a little old. I’ll be doing another comparison post – Sleeping Beauty, 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: Kimmy Schmidt

For those of you that don’t know, Kimmy is the main character of Tina Fey’s latest comedy series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The plot centres around Kimmy, a young woman who, as a teenager, was kidnapped by a sleazy reverend and held in a bunker for fifteen years, and now that she’s escaped she must adjust to life in the outside world. Yes, it really is a comedy. The show has been hailed as a critical success while at the same time being at the centre of some pretty controversial stuff. Regardless, the series has become one of Netflix’s new hits, and Kimmy herself is at the centre of all of this.

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?

Much of the show is about Kimmy trying to gain control of her life after having it literally snatched away from her. Obviously, while she was being kidnapped and held against her will for fifteen years she didn’t have a lot of control over where she went and what she did, but once she’s out that’s all she wants to do. She moves to New York, gets herself a job, an apartment, a Barbie-obsessed roommate and a string of various boyfriends, determined to experience everything she missed out on as soon as possible. The show also makes a point of showing how while she was in the bunker, Kimmy went out of her way to make her life bearable and stand up to the reverend – so even when she wasn’t in control of her life, she was still trying to make the best of 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?

Kimmy’s main goal is to try and experience as much of life as she possibly can, whether that’s by seeing the world, getting a job she loves or completing her high school diploma. It’s a pretty vague goal, but it manifests itself in lots of smaller goals she tries to fulfil every episode, such as getting boyfriends, new jobs or even just eating candy for dinner, so I’ll allow it.

giphy candy
Can confirm that this is how adulthood works. (image: giphy.com)

As for her hobbies, we see that she’s a pretty wholesome kind of girl – she enjoys helping people and making outdated pop culture references, but tends to have a good time no matter what she’s doing. As far as her beliefs go, she’s utterly convinced that she needs to help people, that she’s responsible for much more than she actually is, and has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Kimmy is a remarkably consistent character. She’s optimistic, determined, naïve, cheerful and often very immature, has difficulty letting go of things and often represses her negative emotions to avoid dealing with them. We don’t see a huge amount of her skills, but her lack of skills is much more prevalent – for instance, she never learned to tie her shoelaces and still struggles with more adult social skills. These gradually develop as the series goes on, so 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’?

A naïve, happy-go-lucky young woman decides to take control of her life after a traumatic experience by moving to New York City.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Kimmy’s love life is an important part of the series. Having spent at least fifteen years of her life trapped in a bunker, she’s keen to make up for what she missed out on, and a substantial part of that is going on dates and kissing boys. Kimmy has several relationships over the course of the series, ranging from casual to much more serious, and of course, they do affect her decisions.

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Mmm-hmm, yeah. Sure. (image: buzzfeed.com)

However, these aren’t the only thing that drives her. Kimmy’s love life is part of a wider motivation, which is to make up for lost time and have as normal a life as possible. It isn’t always feelings that leads her into these relationships, but a desire to experience different parts of life that she feels she’s missed out on. If you add that to the fact that Kimmy’s love life is by no means the only thing that motivates her decisions – she also wants to find a job, complete her education and travel more – then I think she’s got enough to pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Kimmy goes through quite a bit of development over the course of the series. She initially tries to hide her past as a ‘Mole Woman’ but ends up coming to terms with it. She stands up to the reverend who kidnapped her and tried to break her spirit for fifteen years. She learns that other people don’t have to act in the same way she would, and comes to terms with the fact that she can’t always get them to do what she wants. She gets better at experiencing and showing negative emotions, such as sadness and anger, and stops trying to repress them. She accepts the fact that she has emotional baggage as a result of her experiences, after trying to deny them at first, and begins therapy to try and resolve her issues. That’s a phenomenal amount of character development, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Kimmy has plenty of weaknesses too. She’s naïve to the point where she genuinely does not understand how the world works, leading to her being taken advantage of and robbed. She feels the need to protect and control the people she cares about, and cannot recognise when they don’t want her help. She’s emotionally stunted, freaks out and attacks her boyfriends when they touch her unexpectedly, and has real trouble processing negative emotions and facing up to her past. These weaknesses all hold her back through the story and are something she constantly has to work against, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Kimmy generates the plot in pretty much every episode. She’s a very active character, determined to experience as much of life as she can, so much of the individual episodes’ drama are caused by Kimmy’s decisions to get a job, help a friend or pursue a new relationship. However, a large part of her backstory revolves around her kidnapping.

09-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-cult-bunker.w750.h560.2x
Because, you know, trauma. (image: vulture.com)

Even though she was held captive in a bunker for fifteen years, this isn’t really a part of the story, as the show starts after she is freed. Her time in the bunker is treated as a background experience, rather than the plot in its entirety, and the showrunners go to some lengths to make sure that in the glimpses we see of her time in the bunker, Kimmy is never portrayed as powerless. We see her fighting back against the Reverend, trying to make her time more bearable and helping the other girls. It’s made very clear that Kimmy’s time in the bunker isn’t the only thing that ‘makes’ her as a character.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Kimmy is pretty progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes. The fact that she is experiencing a normal adult life for the first time is played for laughs, but Kimmy’s outlook on it is not – she doesn’t dread the pressures and experiences of adulthood, she actively seeks them out. This is actually pretty unusual: Kimmy is actually excited about all the things that aging will bring her.

Even though she can be a very childish character, her inner strength is always made clear to the audience. This strength manifests itself in different ways, from resisting the Reverend’s attempts to brainwash her, to protecting the other Mole Women, to moving to a different city with nothing but the clothes on her back. She isn’t stoic – we see her struggling with problems, lashing out at people and making bad decisions – but she’s keen to make sure she isn’t seen as a victim, and the audience is never allowed to forget the fact that she has a core of iron.

At the same time, she can often be quite a girly character, dressing in bright colours, having multiple relationships and occasionally coming across as quite frivolous and silly. This isn’t taken as a sign of any negative characteristics on her part, and even her lack of education is not taken as the same thing as a lack of intelligence. This combination of inner strength and an outwardly girly, childish personality is a very interesting combination, and one that puts her out of the reach of most tired gender stereotypes.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Kimmy has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She’s friendly with her landlady, Lillian, albeit a bit wary of her at first. She’s rivals with the girl she nannies, Xanthippe, who she tries (and often fails) to discipline. She’s at the beck and call of her employer, Jacqueline, but they eventually become friends.

kimmy-schmidt-12-blond-white
But that’s a topic for another, more awkward time. (image: tvguide.com)

She befriends an alcoholic therapist, Andrea, and ends up becoming her client, and tries to help her stop drinking. She’s incredibly protective of her fellow Mole Woman, Cyndee, but eventually realises that she can’t tell her how to live her life. She butts heads with her other former bunker-mate, Gretchen, who joined the cult willingly, but eventually comes round to seeing Gretchen’s point of view and helps her to move on from her experiences. That’s a wide range of relationships which all develop in their own ways, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Tina Fey! Kimmy is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths and weaknesses, is in control of her own destiny and develops over the course of her own story – not to mention the huge number of relationships she has with other female characters. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be going back to an iconic film series. Padme, I’m coming for you.

 

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