Strong Female Characters: Gracie Hart

For those of you that don’t know, Gracie Hart is the leading lady of the Miss Congeniality films. The two films cover the various exploits of Gracie Hart, a tomboy FBI agent who has to go undercover at a beauty pageant – not as a backstage person who could sneak around easily without being noticed, but as one of the very high-profile, constantly-filmed contestants. The first film was a massive success, becoming a box office hit and an established Saturday night classic very quickly – the second film was just, you know, there. Gracie herself is at the centre of both films, which are largely carried by Sandra Bullock’s charm and ability to snort while laughing.

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?

Gracie is pretty firmly in control of her own destiny through most of her films. Whereas characters who work for important government agencies – such as Black Widow – often have to follow orders pretty rigorously, Gracie pretty much chucks this out the window. She does get sent on missions and told to obey her boss’s orders, but most of the time she makes her own decisions even if that means going against authority. This makes her a pretty terrible agent, but a very active character.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

As far as hobbies go, Gracie is a typical tomboy – someone who would rather wind down by taking out her frustrations on a punching bag than having a nice bubble bath. She believes that girls should be able to stand up for themselves, that appearance isn’t everything, and of course –

 

 

 

Her goals vary depending on which film she’s in. In the first movie, she wants to find a dangerous terrorist called The Citizen, and to protect the women at the Miss United States beauty pageant. In the second, she wants to save her kidnapped friend, Cheryl, and to be a role model for young girls. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Gracie is a reasonably consistent character. She’s tough, abrasive, sarcastic, has a poor attitude towards authority but basically means well and is very protective of her friends. She wobbles a bit in the second film, when she lets fame go to her head and becomes very shallow as a result, but she snaps out of this pretty quickly. As far as her skills go, those are consistent too – she’s good in hand-to-hand combat and with a range of different weapons. I’ll allow it.

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, tomboyish FBI agent has to go undercover at a beauty pageant to catch a killer – and ends up changing as a result of her experiences.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Most of Gracie’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life at all. What motivates her is the case she’s working on, whether she’s trying to catch a terrorist or find her kidnapped friend. She does have a love life in the first film, but for a stereotypical ‘chick flick’ it’s played down to an extreme, even though she does sing about it a bit.

 

It’s made very clear that Gracie is motivated by the job more than her boyfriend, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Gracie develops quite a bit over the course of both films. In the first film, she learns that femininity is nothing to be ashamed of, and learns to balance her tomboyish tendencies with her more feminine side, gaining a new appreciation of all things girly. In the second, her development isn’t quite so meaningful – she lets fame go to her head and becomes incredibly shallow, before coming down a peg or two to become a much more normal, balanced person.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Gracie’s biggest weakness is that she can’t take orders if she’s convinced she’s right, which is a pretty serious flaw for an FBI agent. It does have consequences for her – she frequently winds up butting heads with her various bosses, who demote her accordingly – but these never really stick. What usually happens is this:

  1. Gracie disobeys her boss because of a ‘hunch’ she had about a particular case. This usually ends badly, often in public embarrassment of some kind.
  2. Boss yells at Gracie, who insists she was in the right
  3. Boss tells Gracie that unless she does things his way, she’s off the force/demoted/sent somewhere where she can’t continue working on the case
  4. Gracie pursues her suspicions anyway, finds out she was right all along, and is welcomed back with open arms.

In real life, this would be a pretty serious flaw in a secret agent – security strategies are often very carefully crafted, and with so many lives at stake it’s vital that all the agents are working to the same plan. The typical ‘maverick agent’ that Hollywood loves so much would actually be a huge liability in a real-life security situation and Gracie Hart is no exception. It’s amazing that she lasts two whole films without being completely and irrevocably fired.

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Like, this level of fired. (image: giphy.com)

Gracie definitely does have weaknesses – aside from her lack of respect for authority, she also bottles up her feelings and can be a bit of a snob – but the consequences these have for her don’t really materialise. True, she gets told off once or twice, but that’s getting off lightly compared to what would happen in real life. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Gracie is a huge influence on the plot. She’s constantly chasing up leads, trying to get close to witnesses and informers, and doing her best to kick the bad guys where it really, really hurts. Her actions and decisions have a real impact on the plot and on her relationships, so I’m definitely giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

When it comes to gender stereotypes, the Miss Congeniality films are unusual in that they address them directly. Stereotypes about mannish female agents and airhead beauty queens are these films’ bread and butter – you literally couldn’t tell the story without them.

That makes the way the films present these stereotypes that much more interesting. In some ways it presents a very healthy view. Gracie starts off as a real tomboy who’s actually pretty mean to stereotypical girly girls, treating them with a certain amount of disdain. But when she actually gets to know them she finds that they’re more complex than she first thought, starts respecting them as people and gains a new appreciation of her own femininity as a result. That’s some pretty solid character growth that doesn’t undercut Gracie’s strength as a character, as well as being a very progressive view of gender stereotypes.

But in others, it’s not so great. It’s really the second film that lets Gracie down here. Following her success in the first film, she’s asked to be the public face of the FBI. Gracie lets this go to her head in the worst possible way, becoming a glammed-up, spoilt celebrity at the drop of a hat. This is reflected in her appearance – she starts dressing in a much more feminine way, spends much more time on her makeup, hair and nails and refuses to demonstrate fighting techniques when asked. In this respect, Miss Congeniality 2 undoes the work of the first film by linking Gracie’s more feminine appearance with shallow and silly behaviour, which really stings when you consider how much the first film tried to establish that all its beauty queens had their own distinct personalities. The film also draws on a lot of really tired old tropes – such as Gracie being able to shake off a couple of FBI agents by pretending to have her period – so it’s not exactly up to scratch. I’ll give her half a point, because the sequel really let her down.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Gracie has a bunch of relationships with other female characters. She makes friends with the other contestants – most notably Cheryl Frasier, who is the closest thing to a puppy in human form.

 

 

She doesn’t get on with the pageant’s director, Miss Morningside – which is just as well because she turns out to be a psychopath. She doesn’t get on with her bodyguard Sam in the second film, either, but the two eventually put aside their differences and become good friends. In short, Gracie has a huge range of relationships with other female characters, some of which develop quite a bit, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Gracie is a consistent character with a well-defined set of hobbies, goals and beliefs. She has clear development, is in control of her own destiny, isn’t completely ruled by her love life and has a wide range of relationships with other female characters. Does Miss Congeniality have its flaws? Certainly – but I still really enjoy the first film and Gracie has definitely passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite movies and its slightly worse sequel – The Mummy. Evie, 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: Evey Hammond

For those of you that don’t know, Evey Hammond is the leading lady of the anarchists’ favourite comic book, V for Vendetta. Set in a dystopian future where England is ruled by an oppressive fascist government, the plot revolves around Evey, a young woman who gets caught up in the targeted anarchy/elaborate revenge plot of a charismatic terrorist. Widely regarded as one of the best graphic novels of recent years, the comic has had a massive impact on the cultural consciousness – not least of which is the stylised Guy Fawkes mask V wears, which has become a shorthand for popular protests against the government. Evey herself is at the centre of all this – winning Natalie Portman an award for getting all her hair cut off when she’s not tagging along with trigger-happy anarchists.

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?

Evey is a subject of a totalitarian regime that uses secret police, a network of informers and torture to keep its citizens in line. As you’d expect, this means that Evey isn’t exactly free to wander about where she pleases. A significant amount of where she goes and what she does is dictates by the fact that she’s living under this regime – whether she’s sneaking out past curfew or trying to bring down the government.

But even leaving all that aside, Evey still isn’t really in control of her own destiny. The person who has the most control over Evey’s life is V – the mysterious and charismatic terrorist who takes her under his wing. After rescuing her from an attempted rape, he takes her back to his secret lair and tries to get her to help out with his plans to bring down various fascist bigwigs. She runs away from him and spends some time being sheltered by Gordon Deitrich – a gangster in the original comic, Stephen Fry in the movie – but when he dies, she quickly ends up back in V’s custody. This time, however, he doesn’t introduce her to music and films the government have banned – instead he allows her to believe she’s been kidnapped by the government, systematically tortures and beats her and eventually makes her think she’s going to be executed. He does all of this in an attempt to ‘free’ her from the various things that tie her to society – including her self-preservation, desire not to harm anyone, and the last few dregs of her innocence, hope and/or sanity.

This is all painted as being for Evey’s own good (so please excuse me while I take a minute to throw up into this bucket) but it’s just pure and simple brainwashing. V moulds Evey into someone who can carry on his work after his death without asking her if that’s what she really wants to do. She has a few moments (both in the comic and the film) where she makes her own decisions – such as refusing to help him kill people, or going to Gordon Deitrich for help – but these are nowhere near frequent enough to stand on an equal footing with the amount of control V has over her life. I’m going to have to withhold the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

We don’t hear a lot about Evey’s hobbies – in the graphic novel it’s made clear that she’s too preoccupied with her financial worries to have much free time, and in the film they just aren’t mentioned. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined – but as I mentioned earlier, they change pretty drastically thanks to V.

At the start of V for Vendetta, Evey just wants a normal life – she wants to make sure she has enough to eat, make sure she isn’t picked up by any Fingermen (secret police to you and me) and above all, to have a safe and normal life. She doesn’t want to hurt people and seems to value having a quiet, safe life over bigger concepts like freedom and justice.

V doesn’t like this, so he changes it.

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It’s too disturbing. Quick! Hide! (image: giphy.com)

He systematically tortures Evey, pretending to be a government official interrogating her about his own whereabouts. At the same time, he supplies her with a letter – which he himself received while he was a political prisoner – detailing the life story of a famous actress who was imprisoned and executed over her sexuality. Inspired by the efforts of her fellow prisoner – who, in fact, has already been dead for several years – Evey develops an entirely new set of goals and beliefs. She completely turns against the fascist regime, disregarding all her concerns about her own safety, and resolves to bring them down.

This is exactly what V wants, and exactly what he thinks. He’s aware that his political activities put him at risk and wants a successor to carry on his work, so he makes Evey into his creature, regardless of what she actually wants to do or be. It would be an entirely different situation if she was captured and interrogated by the real secret police and her views changed on their own – that would give her much more autonomy and be considerably less creepy. But these aren’t really conclusions she reaches on her own, but conclusions he beat into her.

As such, I’m not going to be giving her the full point. Her goals and beliefs are clear and well-defined, but they’re also the result of systematic brainwashing explicitly designed to make her goals and beliefs into something her torturer approves of. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Evey is a relatively consistent character. She starts off naïve, well-meaning, but overall concerned more with her own safety and happiness than political ideology. After being tortured by V she becomes quite a different character – much more determined, a committed and zealous revolutionary, much more at home with violence and chaos and far less innocent.

The two parts to Evey’s character are pretty consistent, and it’s reasonable that she would change after undergoing such a dramatic experience. Before her ordeal we do see hints that she would be prepared to do terrible things if she felt she had to, particularly in the graphic novel, where she tries to become a sex worker to get some extra cash, and tries to kill the man who murdered her gangster boyfriend. We also see most of her knowledge about popular culture, illusion and how to build highly destructive explosives come from V – it’s not like it just magically drops into her head. I’ll give her the point this time round as to be quite frank, it’d be weird if she didn’t change after all she’s been through.

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 naïve young woman is trying to survive in a totalitarian regime and, after a traumatic experience, becomes a committed revolutionary.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Evey’s love life isn’t really a feature of the film, so I’ll be focusing on the graphic novel here.

In the original V for Vendetta, Evey is a sixteen-year-old girl who uses her love life as a ticket to security – whether that’s financial or is she’s just after a bed for the night. As such, when it comes to her romantic entanglements she’s not always acting as a result of any real feelings. We only really see her motivated by love is when she attempts to shoot the man who killed her boyfriend, Gordon Deitrich – but as Gordon was also the man who took her off the streets, there’s probably a bit more going on there. You can also make a case for love motivating her when she decides to carry out V’s final wishes, but seeing as she’s been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by that point I’ll be chalking that one up to the total number he did on her psyche.

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Did someone say ‘Stockholm Syndrome‘? (image: yahoo.com)

The rest of the time she’s motivated by self-preservation or revolutionary zeal, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Evey does develop over the story, mainly as a result of her incredibly traumatic not-a-real-prison-camp experience. She goes from being an innocent, naïve young woman who just wants to keep her head down into a determined, dedicated anarchist, fully prepared to use violence and chaos to bring down the last remnants of a fascist regime.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Evey doesn’t really have a weakness. In the graphic novel, she’s extremely naïve, but she’s also a sixteen-year-old girl, so that’s not exactly an unusual character flaw. In both the comic and the film she doesn’t really have any character traits that cause problems for her or hold her back. All the situations she’s confronted with aren’t the result of her mistakes or poor choices – they’re made by other people. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Not really. Evey is a pretty passive character: she gets rescued by V, helps him with his plan to bring down a creepy bishop, then goes off with Gordon Deitrich for a bit. She gets captured, ‘re-educated’ by V, and ends up helping out with more of his plans for revolution, and goes on to pick up where he left off after he dies.

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And it’s just as creepy as you think it is. (image: the-v-for-vendetta.wikia.com)

Evey’s not really the one calling the shots here. For a moment, let’s leave aside the fifty bazillion times she gets kidnapped and/or rescued by various characters and focus on what she does. All the events she participates in are set in motion by other people, and usually by V. She moves through the story thanks to the way other characters look at her – whether that’s as a potential victim, lover or successor. She has a few moments where her actions directly influence the plot but these number in the single digits, so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Evey’s a fairly complex character in terms of gender stereotypes. On the one hand she can be quite progressive – she’s prepared to get her hands dirty, withstands terrible torture and eventually takes up the mantle of a very violent revolutionary. None of these are things young women are usually seen doing in fiction, and Evey does them very well.

But on the other hand, she’s a character who’s frequently punished when she tries to express her sexuality, has to rely on other characters to take care of her, and rarely makes any of her own decisions. She spends a substantial amount of the plot being captured and rescued by various characters – more often than not she’s being taken places, rather than choosing to go there on her own. And of course, V grooming her as his successor – systemically breaking down her sense of self, removing her happiness piece by piece and replacing it with something he approves of – is treated as a positive thing. Evey’s torture is seen as a necessary evil – something that she must endure in order to become free of pesky little things like happiness and mental stability – and the worst part is that she eventually comes to think this, too.

Whenever I read V for Vendetta, the overwhelming sense I get is of Evey as a victim. Her helplessness is stressed from the very beginning, but it’s not something she overcomes herself, or even by her own choice; it’s something that she’s forced to do by a violent and dangerous man. She undergoes a traumatic and violent experience simply because a male character decides that it’s for her own good – never mind the fact that she becomes a completely different person because of it. She is a character who’s forced to do things far more than she actually decides to do them for herself.

For me, that means she can never be a positive character when it comes to gender stereotypes. Yes, she certainly has her moments, but there’s no getting away from the fact that she spends the bulk of her story in a position of helplessness – and she only gets away from that position when she submits to a violent, insane man. She has to give herself to him completely, not even keeping her mind safe from him, in order for her to be ‘free’ – but she’s become his puppet, and she’ll never be free from him.

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I can’t decide if that’s more tragic or horrifying. (image: tristanvick.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Evey doesn’t really interact with many other female characters – most of the people she talks to and cares about are men. The one exception is Valerie – the lesbian actress whose letters she reads in prison. Evey cares about her and is inspired not to give in by reading her letters. But the thing is, those letters weren’t even written for her. Valerie actually passed those letters to V – Evey never met Valerie, as she died several years before the story even started. I can’t really let her have this one.

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10

 

Evey is a reasonably consistent character with clearly set out goals and beliefs, who isn’t ruled by her love life and develops over her story – but this still isn’t enough to pass my test. She doesn’t have a weakness, she doesn’t have any real relationships with any other female characters, she spends a hell of a lot of time getting captured and rescued by various characters and her trajectory through the story is dictated by other characters. And that’s not even mentioning the brutal torture that V decides is for her own good – a position that the book seems to agree with.

But should all of this affect your enjoyment of V for Vendetta, or negate the impact it has had? I’m not so sure. Like much of Alan Moore’s work it has come to be seen as a classic, but I think it could benefit from a more critical approach – there’s a lot of things about the graphic novel I find particularly troubling that I haven’t really been able to touch on here. But there’s no denying the impact it has had, or how compelling the story can be. I’d encourage all of you to read the book yourselves and make up your mind for yourself – and feel free to leave a comment if you do!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my favourite films – Miss Congeniality. Gracie Hart, 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: Sara Crewe

For those of you that don’t know, Sara Crewe is the heroine of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Originally serialised in 1887, the story revolves around the young Sara Crewe, a rich little girl who, while at a strict boarding school, falls on hard times and is forced to become a servant. Sara resolves to behave like ‘a little princess’ in everything she does, despite being cast into poverty, and is eventually rewarded when things end happily, as such stories often do. Originally published in instalments and printed in a magazine, the story proved very popular: the original story was turned into a play and expanded into the full-length book we know today, and this was all before 1905. Since then A Little Princess has been turned into films, TV shows, musicals, theatre and video games, and Sara herself has become one of the most beloved fictional characters in recent history.

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

 

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

Like many other child characters, Sara’s control over her own destiny is limited by her age. She’s quite a young girl, and has to rely on other people for basic things like food, shelter and clothing. This dictates a lot of the plot of A Little Princess – when her father dies, leaving her with nothing, she’s cast into poverty and has to become a servant. When she meets her father’s business partner, who’s determined to provide for her, she’s raised back up to her former position. A lot of Sara’s story isn’t the result of her own actions, but the result of other people deciding whether or not they will be looking after her.

As such, Sara’s always on the back foot here – the most she can control is how she reacts to things, and she makes a point of doing this as much as possible. Determined to always behave like a kind and magnanimous princess, she never allows her changed circumstances to affect her behaviour. But she never really tries to change things. She tries to make herself feel better using her imagination, and trying to keep up her friendships, but she never thinks about how she can change what’s really causing her problems: her financial situation.

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Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

Let’s compare this to other child characters. Matilda grew up a great reader in a house where books were pretty much banned – so she took herself off to the library at the age of four, developed superpowers and eventually manoeuvred herself into a much better family life. Scout Finch grew up in the Deep South, where she finds the gendered expectations stifling – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living her life the way she wants to. Coraline is put into a new living situation she doesn’t really like – and then has to fight a demonic nightmare-beast and rescue her own parents. These characters are all under the age of ten, but they’re still in control of their own stories.

Sara, however, is not. She holds her head high and behaves properly, that’s true – but she doesn’t actually think about how she could make things better for herself. It must be said that she doesn’t have a lot of resources, but she’s not completely friendless. Her father has a solicitor who’s partially responsible for her care, but she never thinks of writing to him to let him know how she’s being mistreated. She doesn’t ask her friends to speak to their parents about taking her in, or ask a trusted adult – such as Miss Minchin’s sister, Amelia – to intervene on her behalf. She doesn’t even think about running away. She just calmly accepts that she’s a servant now, never makes life difficult for anyone and takes herself out of the way to have a good cry.

Granted, it must be said that Sara doesn’t have a lot of options. The examples I gave above wouldn’t really work out: her father’s solicitor is more concerned with paying his own bills, the majority of her friends have very bad relationships with their parents, and as the novel is set in Victorian England, Sara would have been a lot safer staying as a servant than running off on her own. But she doesn’t even consider any of these options; she just automatically accepts that this is her life now. A lot of this is to do with Victorian perceptions of what a ‘good child’ was – mainly, that they were quiet, innocent, calm and obedient. However, I think it’s really unusual for a child as imaginative as Sara – she constantly imagines how her life could be different, but never once thinks about how she could make it different. She just accepts it, so calmly and quietly that it’s almost like she was expecting it. I’ll talk about this in more detail later on, but that makes her a pretty passive character in my book so I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Sara is a very imaginative child, and one of her main hobbies is to make up stories and elaborate pretend games that the seven-year-old me would have killed to have joined in with. Her beliefs and goals are pretty closely linked – she believes that she should always act like a dignified, kindly princess no matter what her circumstances, and her goal is to live her life to this standard, particularly if it involves making other people’s lives better. The goal is a little bit of a stretch on my part but I’ll allow it and give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Sara is a very consistent character. She’s kind, good, dignified, innocent, forgiving and imaginative. She takes pity on social outcasts and always tries to help out the less fortunate, even when she could use quite a bit of help herself. She’s also extremely good at French and good at making up stories, and she doesn’t forget these skills as the book goes on.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

A kind, forgiving, imaginative young girl resolves to behave like a little princess in everything she does – despite being forced into poverty and becoming an indentured servant.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Sara doesn’t have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply. Most of the decisions she makes are motivated by her desire to behave properly and help other people, so she definitely passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Sara doesn’t really develop at all. She’s actually quite a static character, particularly when you look at what she’s been through. She lost her mother before the story starts, then loses her father, her fortune and her social standing in very quick succession. Most of her friends go too, along with her education, most of her free time, and a substantial amount of her belongings – and this all happens on her birthday.

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I feel like I’m going to get a lot of use out of this gif. (image: giphy.com)

So in the space of a few days, she goes from one end of the social spectrum to the other – and this is Victorian England, where a change like that would have cut you off from literally everything you knew and halved your life expectancy. (I’m really not exaggerating.) But Sara remains good and pure, calm and dignified, kind and forgiving all through this – and all through the following years, when she has to watch her friends drift away from her, run errands in the rags of the fine clothes she’s grown out of, and starve in her freezing attic while the rest of the school eats dinner and sits by the fire.

This doesn’t change Sara at all. She never once starts to feel resentful, or angry, or bitter. She never steals food, even though she’s starving, or clothes, even though her rags are literally almost falling to bits. And this is all when she’s still a very young child, and still forming her own view of the world, but she’s never once tempted to lash out when she’s angry, or steal something just to make her life a little easier. She doesn’t even become guarded, or find it difficult to trust people, or start hoarding things she might find useful – she continues being her normal, perfect self. It’s simply not realistic for her to be such a saint when she’s suffered so much, and so long. Even Oliver Twist – widely agreed to be one of the saintliest child characters in literature – has a moment when he’s tempted by the camaraderie of Fagin’s criminal gang, but Sara has nothing of the kind.

For a character to go through so much upheaval in such a short amount of time – and to go through a protracted period of hardship at an already pivotal time in their lives – and not change as a result of that is just unrealistic. It’s not how human beings work. We’re all shaped by our experiences, but Sara’s experiences of loss, poverty and loneliness just seem to bounce off her. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

No. Sara is pretty much perfect in every way. She’s kind, forgiving, dignified – but not to the extent where she lets herself get walked all over when it counts. Even when she’s grieving she doesn’t inconvenience anyone – she’s calm and composed and only breaks down when she’s out of everyone else’s way, and even that she does quietly. She doesn’t develop any negative tendencies as a result of her experiences and is forgiving and gracious to everyone who tries to keep her down. As you can imagine, I get pretty fed up of that.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Sara doesn’t really influence the plot all that much – as most of it revolves around who’s going to provide for her, she could just lie in bed all day and the bare bones of the story would be pretty much the same. How she does influence things is by being kind, and pure, and gracious, and dignified. She doesn’t set out to change things, but other people see her being kind, pure, gracious, insert Disney Princess attribute here and dignified, are inspired by her and decide to help her out in some way. She influences other characters more than she influences events and actions, and that’s usually by setting them an example or just by being kind. This does influence her trajectory through the story somewhat, but not by much, and most of the time it isn’t intentional. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

When it comes to gender stereotypes, Sara ticks several very problematic boxes, most of which stem directly from Victorian conceptions of childhood and morality. She’s the archetype of the good little girl – kind, innocent, forgiving and sweet. She’s an angelic child, despite the fact that her father spoiled her rotten and the poverty and deprivation she endured after his death. Sara tries to be good through all of this, but as I’ve already mentioned, she’s already pretty much perfect.

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That’s not a good thing. (image: tumblr.com)

Where this starts making me uncomfortable is when you examine the fact that it’s all tied up with class. Sara doesn’t just decide to be kind to everyone, she decides to act like a princess – it’s an understandable thing for a little girl to do, but it’s also a subtle link between good behaviour and the upper classes. This might seem like a little thing, but as the book goes on it really starts to escalate.

When Sara’s father dies and she’s cast into poverty, Sara makes it a point of pride not to lose her sense of self and to always act like a princess. But Sara’s sense of self is tied up with her social position – what she most wants to hold onto are her impeccable manners and her soft-spoken, educated nature. When Sara is poor – and she’s very much at the bottom of the pecking order, not being able to afford new clothes, shoes or food – other characters constantly talk about how she doesn’t look poor. Her good behaviour and well-spoken nature are always remarked upon and the two are very closely linked. It’s not just that she sounds well-educated when she talks, but that her politeness, kindness and efforts to help other people are constantly taken as evidence of her ‘good breeding’. Equally, Sara’s calm and quietness after being told of the death of her father are presented as evidence of her innate dignity in the face of adversity.

If you think about this, it actually has some really horrible implications. Sara has been orphaned at a very young age and cast into terrible poverty – something which would make any child of her age extremely distressed. But she’s being held to adult standards of behaviour, expected to keep a stiff upper lip and soldier on despite all she’s been through. All her systems of support have been taken from her and she literally has no-one else in the entire world to care for her, and yet Sara’s remarkably restrained grief is held up as the ideal. This poor child has lost everything, but after a few quiet moments when she cries in the attic, out of everyone’s way, her grief is pretty much glossed over.

This is particularly important when you look at how other characters in the novel deal with grief and good behaviour. In one of the earliest scenes, Sara befriends a much younger girl called Lottie, who frequently cries over her dead parents. Lottie howls and wails and has frequent temper tantrums, and is branded a naughty child because of it. Sara, on the other hand, deals with her grief in a way that never inconveniences any of the adult characters. She is held up as the behavioural standard for young girls, rather than Lottie – both by characters within the novel and by the novel itself – and I find this incredibly disturbing. The way Sara and Lottie handle their grief makes it incredibly clear that a ‘good child’ was a convenient child, no matter what they were going through.

The upshot of all this is that Sara’s innate ‘goodness’ as a character seems to stem from two things: her social class and her ability to repress inconvenient outbursts of emotion. The fact that either of these are taken as signs of good behaviour is, to my mind, pretty worrying. As a character, Sara is built upon a foundation of extremely unhealthy notions of what constitutes good behaviour for young girls – and as such, I just can’t give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sara has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She befriends several of the boarding school outcasts including the grieving Lottie, the struggling Ermengarde and the servant, Becky. She doesn’t like the school snob, Lavinia, but still tries to be nice to her. She really doesn’t like the headmistress, Miss Minchin, but is a good child and doesn’t give her any trouble – until she comes into her fortune and Miss Minchin tries to make her the star pupil again. After all the indentured servitude, this doesn’t pan out like she planned.

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Can’t see why – just look at that winning smile. (image: pinterest.com)

All of her relationships tend to take the same kind of tone – Sara tries to be kind, and the other woman is either impressed or repulsed by it – but I’ll be generous and give her the full point.

FINAL SCORE: 5.5/10

 

Sara is a consistent character with a range of goals, hobbies and beliefs that aren’t dependent on her love life, but she still hasn’t passed my test. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have a weakness, other people are completely in control of her destiny and her character is grounded in some incredibly old-fashioned and insidious gender stereotypes.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the reason for this is due to the time period in which the book was written. Victorian expectations of children were beginning to soften by the time the full novel was published, but they were certainly pretty ridiculous. But when I finished reading A Little Princess, the overwhelming sense I got was that Sara was not a character with fully developed flaws, agency and development but an example for other children. When you factor in Sara’s extremely muted response to the tragedy she goes through, it becomes pretty clear. There are a lot of problems with the book (not least of which is its uncomfortable handling of racial dynamics, which I didn’t even touch on here) but I think that this is one of the most significant.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a classic among comic books – V for Vendetta. Evey, 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: Rachel Watson

For those of you that don’t know, Rachel Watson is the heroine of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 book, The Girl on the Train. Set in suburban London, the book follows Rachel – a depressed alcoholic and recent divorcee – as she struggles to cope with her obsession over her ex-husband and his new wife and child, and gets involved with a young woman’s disappearance. The book exploded onto the literary scene last year, winning several awards and dominating the bestseller lists, and is set to be made into a movie just next year. Rachel herself has been at the centre of this publicity storm, with critics and readers alike praising her as a refreshingly honest depiction of an unreliable narrator.

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 whether or not Rachel shapes her own destiny is an interesting one. Rachel is an alcoholic, having originally started drinking when she found out she couldn’t conceive a child. She has regular blackouts caused by her drinking, and much of the novel is simply her trying to piece together what she might have done the night before. There’s an interesting current running through the novel about whether Rachel is truly responsible for her current state, or whether the blame can be firmly placed on her alcoholism.

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But that depends on how you view these sorts of things. (image: giphy.com)

The result of all this is that it’s often up to the reader whether Rachel is truly responsible for her quality of life – it depends on your own personal view of alcoholism, as the novel doesn’t really offer a concrete solution. However, it’s worth noting that several times in the book, Rachel actively makes the decision to stop drinking and to find out more about the disappearance of a young woman she’s come to recognise from her morning commute. By throwing herself into the investigation around the young woman’s disappearance, she finds a new outlet for her time and energy. She has several relapses, but ultimately does kick her drinking habit as she becomes more involved. I’ll be generous and 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?

Rachel doesn’t really have many hobbies. She’s an alcoholic and becomes obsessed with the investigation into the disappearance of a young woman (Megan), as well as her ex-husband’s new wife and child. But I’m not going to count any of these, as alcoholism is a serious medical condition and all three are a product of her post-divorce misery. The only thing she really seems to enjoy is imagining what Megan’s life is like when she passes by her house on her way to work – but even that is tinged with a little bit of envy, and as she finds out more about Megan’s real life and personality this starts to fade too.

Her goals and beliefs are a bit easier to pin down. Sober Rachel wants to find out more about Megan’s disappearance, which is eventually revealed to be a murder, and to piece together the gaps in her memory. Drunk Rachel wants to get back together with her ex-husband, or just to harass his new wife and child. Her beliefs are similarly split: Sober Rachel feels responsible for her actions, wants to make amends, doesn’t think well of herself but would like to get back on track; Drunk Rachel is almost the exact opposite. I’ll allow it.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Rachel is a reasonably consistent character, but still acts very differently when she’s had a bit to drink. When she’s sober, she’s listless, self-pitying, has a tendency to torture herself with her own imagination but also a certain kind of determination that propels her forward. When she’s drunk she’s belligerent, irrational, irresponsible and borderline dangerous – she’s taken to harassing her ex-husband and his new wife, who was originally his mistress when he was still married to Rachel. Rachel’s behaviour when drunk is consistent, but very different to her behaviour when sober, and both sides of her personality are marked with a wide streak of loneliness and impulsive behaviour. Given that it’s already been proven how much alcohol can affect someone’s personality, 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 lonely, depressed alcoholic starts fixating on the disappearance of a woman she recognises from her commute, in an effort to distract herself from her own problems.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Rachel is not over her ex-husband. Her inability to have children with him – compounded by his infidelity, the divorce and his subsequent happy family with his new wife – has completely destroyed her. These are the events that sent Rachel into the downward spiral that dominates most of the book, and if they hadn’t happened it’s highly likely that she wouldn’t be an alcoholic.

As such, Rachel’s love life – or former love life – is a huge feature of her character. She obsesses over Tom’s perfect new life, is jealous of his new wife and even tries to break into their house and take their child. She calls them constantly, leaves them notes, and stares at their house every day on her morning commute. She’s not a healthy woman, and this behaviour is a regular feature of the book – albeit more so when she’s drunk.

 

However, this isn’t the only focus in her story. When Megan disappears, Rachel throws herself into the investigation, convinced that Megan’s boyfriend Scott could not have harmed her, having seen snatches of their relationship in her view from the train. What’s motivating her here is her need to find the truth – and, thanks to her frequent blackouts, a need to make sure that she might not have done something to harm Megan on the night she disappeared.

But this is all linked in with Rachel’s ex-husband, and that’s what makes things complicated. She started fixating on Megan and Scott’s relationship to distract herself from her own misery, imagining all the details of their perfect relationship before she met either of them and naming them in the privacy of her own head. When she starts looking into Megan’s disappearance, it’s after another episode with her ex-husband – who just happens to live on the same street as Scott and Megan – and her investigation frequently happens to take her into his orbit, as it were. As she gets more involved, it becomes something she looks into for her own reasons; it gives her something else to focus on, helps her distract herself from drinking, and as time moves on it becomes more about her need to establish her own innocence and find out the truth. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Rachel does develop over the course of the story. She does it shakily, but as the novel progresses she stops drinking, starts re-examining her own behaviour and tries to put her life back on track. She faces up to uncomfortable truths, tries to get a hold on her memory lapses and starts looking at the past – and her own actions – in a new way. That’s some solid development on all counts, so I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Rachel has plenty of weaknesses. She’s obsessive, impulsive, belligerent, shies away from her own responsibility and has a tendency to take the easy way out when stuff gets too much for her. She mooches off her friend and her mother, gets blackout drunk on a regular basis and frequently does some dangerous things when she does so. Take your pick.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Rachel uncovers the plot more than she influences it. She doesn’t necessarily make things happen – it’s more that she tries to find out what’s happened, which is often the case for mystery stories. However, her actions still have an impact. Whether she’s harassing her ex or looking for suspects, her decisions and choices have consequences that ripple right through the book. I’ll give her the full point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

When it comes to gender stereotypes, Rachel has a few of them up her sleeve. At first glance it’s easy to see her as the bitter alcoholic ex-wife, who resents her husband for moving on but can’t bring herself to do the same. However, what stops this from being caricature is the detail that’s put into it.

In fiction, alcoholics are rarely female. If you imagine the standard drunk as portrayed in the majority of stories, chances are you’ll probably imagine a dishevelled-looking man swaying on the spot with a bottle in his hand. This is largely due to a long-standing cultural bias that drinking to excess is ‘unladylike’, which probably goes back as far as alcohol itself. When you do see female alcoholics in fiction, they’re still slumped over the table by a mountain of empty glasses, but they’re usually still pretty – often made up, sometimes quite glamourous, and rarely on a park bench drinking out of a can in a paper bag.

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You wouldn’t catch her with a can of Special Brew (image: pinterest.com)

Rachel isn’t like this at all. Her alcoholism has no frills; we see it all in a brutally honest light. She forgets everything, wets herself, throws up everywhere, comes home with mysterious injuries, swears at people and sleeps with strangers. We see her the morning after, surrounded by the mess of mistakes she’s made, and watch her get back into bed, too depressed and hungover to clean them up. Rachel’s alcoholism isn’t a neat little detail that gives her character a sassy edge; it’s a disease which has sent her life spiralling downwards over the course of several years.

What’s also interesting about her character is her relationship with her ex, Tom – and this paragraph is going to be chock-a-block with spoilers so watch out. She still misses Tom, and for most of the book we’re lead to believe that Tom was a pretty decent guy who tried his best, but ultimately couldn’t take her drinking. But soon, the cracks start to appear – we find out about his infidelity, and all the lies he told, and all the lies he’s started telling his new wife – and we find out that Tom used Rachel’s drinking to manipulate her, telling her she’d been violent during a blackout when she’d never done anything of the sort. This kind of abuse is called gaslighting, which is when one partner lies to the other about their behaviour so often that they start to doubt themselves, and in Rachel’s case, doesn’t know what to believe any more. This puts their relationship into a completely different light, Tom’s manipulative behaviour is finally revealed, and Rachel starts to trust her own judgement again.

All in all, the level of detail devoted to Rachel’s behaviour and relationships produces a very complex character – one who can be guilty of many things, yet still the victim of many other things too. She has many layers to her, all of which are portrayed with an unflinching honesty, and which all fit together to make up a unique and compelling character.

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Rachel has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She’s jealous of Anna, Tom’s new wife, but eventually realises that she’s in danger and tries to warn her. She dislikes the female police officer assigned to Megan’s disappearance, as she feels dismissed whenever she speaks to her. She takes advantage of her housemate, and frequently borrows money from her mother, lying to them both about still having a job and the full extent of her alcoholism. Her most interesting relationship is probably with Megan – but the two of them never met in real life; Rachel imagined a perfect life for her, and then this picture is slowly broken down as more details about Megan’s life emerge during the investigation. That’s a nice mix of relationships with a range of different characters, so I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

 

Rachel is a well-developed character with a range of strengths and weaknesses. She’s still focused on her love life but she impacts the plot, takes control of her own life and is consistent in both her sober and drunk behaviour – and that’s saying nothing of the way she’s subverted gender stereotypes. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at another one of the classics – The Little Princess. Sara, I’m coming for you.

 

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