Strong Female Characters: Emily

For those of you that don’t know, Emily is the titular character from Tim Burton’s 2005 movie, The Corpse Bride. Set in the 19th century, the story follows Victor, a nervous young man who runs out of a wedding rehearsal to practice his vows in some creepy woods – only to find that he’s said them in the presence of a zombie bride who’s convinced this means they’re married. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit but did well with critics and spawned at least a tonne of Hot Topic merchandise. Emily herself is at the centre of all this, both as the heroine of the story and as the darling of emo teens everywhere.

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

 

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

At the beginning of the film we learn that when Emily was alive, a handsome stranger persuaded her to elope with him – and then promptly murdered her so he could get his hands on her money. She then decided to wait until someone married her (likely for at least a decade, as no-one seems to remember her). When Victor comes along and practices his vows, she sees this as a genuine wedding, even when it gets a little creepy.

After this point she’s a very active character. She holds Victor to his vows, chasing him down when he tries to back out of the marriage. Later she decides that as Victor would need to die for them to be properly married she can’t hold him to his promise and lets him go. She also faces down her murderer, protecting Victor and Victoria (Victor’s living fiancée) and eventually moving on and finding a kind of peace.

Emily’s character is an interesting one in terms of shaping her own destiny. Before Victor ‘marries’ her she wasn’t in control of her life at all: she was tricked, murdered and had to wait around for someone to marry her before she could get up and do anything. But this is all presented as backstory – when we actually see her in the film, she’s a very active character. She could generate the plot just by being in it, as the film could just have easily focussed itself around the living’s attempts to get rid of her, rather than Emily’s attempts to make herself a happy marriage.

But at the end of the day, Emily can’t shape her destiny on her own. She wants to have a happy marriage, and as any couples’ counsellor will tell you that means both people have to be on board. If she wants her life to include a happy marriage she has to rely on her husband reciprocating her feelings. She can be as active as she likes, but she can’t force someone to love her. She does attempt to shape her own destiny, and to a certain extent she succeeds, but there’s no getting away from the fact that most of her attempts depend on the consent of someone else if they’re going to work. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Emily’s hobbies are made clear in the film – she enjoys music, dancing and playing the piano. Her goals are clear too: she wants actually be a proper bride and get married. Her beliefs are also laid out for the viewer – she clearly thinks that marriage is a very important institution, for example. However, most important is her belief that she shouldn’t harm people to get what she wants – she wants to reach her goals, but she wants to do so in a way that she can be proud of, as is evidenced by her refusing to poison Victor to make their marriage binding.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

Emily is a very consistent character. She’s charming, vivacious and kind, a little impulsive, quite determined and with a strong sense of empathy. She’s also shown to be a talented musician, despite having been dead for however many years.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Actually, you can’t really describe Emily without referencing her love life as it forms such a huge part of her identity. There’s no separating her from her status as a bride – whether that’s as a bride who was tragically murdered or as a bride who is determined to be married.

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Unfortunately this option doesn’t occur to her. (image: weddingplanner.co.uk)

It forms a huge part of her goals, her backstory and the ultimate resolution of her character. We never once see her without her wedding dress, her story literally revolves around marriage – and in fact, the other characters only refer to her by name about three or four times, and she’s referenced as ‘the bride’ far more often. I think that this is one of the film’s greatest shortcomings – Emily as a person takes a back seat to Emily as a bride.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

All of Emily’s decisions are influenced by her love life – or more specifically, her desire to actually get married. This is the goal that drives her through the plot, no matter what she does. We simply don’t hear about her making a decision that isn’t directly related to her desire to find a husband. She chases Victor down when he tries to back out of their marriage, she follows him when he runs off under the pretence that he’s going to meet his family, and she’s wildly jealous of his living, breathing fiancée.

I suppose you could make a case for the decisions Emily makes at the end of the movie – namely, to release Victor from his promise and move on to the afterlife – is more influenced by Emily’s good nature than her love life. However, I don’t think this argument holds water. When Victor and Emily are about to marry, and she sees Victoria watching them, she says the following line:

“I was a bride. My dreams were taken from me. But now – now I’ve stolen them from someone else. I love you, Victor, but you are not mine.”

Her good nature obviously plays a part in this, but so do Emily’s feelings for Victor. It’s quite clear that if they marry, she wants it to be a legitimate, loving marriage, both for her sake and his – but she cannot have this if she marries Victor, as they both know he’s in love with someone else. Personally, I don’t see this as Emily’s conscience finally catching up with her, but as Emily finally realising the enormity of what she is asking him to give up – and knowing that she can’t ask this of someone that she loves.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Emily does develop over the course of the story. She comes to realise that she can’t force Victor to love her, and in doing so finally accepts that she is dead and moves on to the afterlife. In the final scene she gives up what she dreamt of as a mortal, but it’s not just that – she comes to terms with who she is, what she’s lost, and in moving on, doesn’t let that define her any more.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Emily’s greatest weakness is her inability to face up to the truth. When things go wrong she tends to cling to what she wants them to be, instead of seeing them for what they are.

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OK you know that isn’t what I meant. (image: brainden.com)

We see this all the time – in her insisting that Victor honour his vows to her, in her jealousy of Victoria, and in her refusal to be anything but a bride.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Emily is a huge influence on the plot. She’s one of those characters that could influence the plot just by being in it but fortunately, that’s not what she chooses to do. She’s an active player in pretty much every sense of the word, whether she’s holding Victor to his vows or releasing him from them.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Emily is an interesting one in terms of gender stereotypes. If she were alive she’d hit several of them – she’s a charming, beautiful young woman desperate to be married, who can come across as slightly fickle. She was tricked and murdered in a particularly tragic way. She almost got married but didn’t, and now waits in her wedding dress to be married again.

What undercuts all these stereotypes is that she’s dead.

She doesn’t exactly fit into the role of society beauty when bits of her body are rotting and occasionally drop off. She was tricked and murdered by someone who pretended to love her – but she lives on (for want of a better term) and actually ends up facing down and driving away her murderer. She’s a jilted bride who doesn’t take off her wedding dress, but instead of her story ending in tragedy she decides to move on, in a scene that is actually quite touching.

I suppose the closest she would come is fitting into several ‘undead bride’ legends that can be found in various cultures – in fact, the plot for The Corpse Bride is actually taken from an old Jewish legend, which you should definitely read if you have time. Most of these centre around a bride killed on or at her wedding, who haunts/murders people while still in her wedding dress. But a) these legends vary a lot between cultures and b) they aren’t always strictly to do with gender.

Take, for example, the original Jewish story the film was based on. As with most legends it has a basis in real life: in Tsarist Russia, groups of anti-Semites would ambush Jewish wedding parties on their way to the ceremony. They would often target the bride, as once she was married she would presumably end up having Jewish children, and would kill her to make sure that this did not happen. She would often be buried in her wedding dress. It seems to me that this story came about as a way to make sense of that loss, and so while gender undoubtedly plays a part I’ve always seen this legend as being more about lost potential and futures being taken away.

There are shades of this in The Corpse Bride too – which should come as no surprise, seeing as this is what it’s based on. Long story short, I think that Emily manages to subvert a lot of the gender stereotypes that might be laid at her door if she were living, and the original legend isn’t a straight gender fable, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Emily doesn’t really have many relationships with other female characters – the only ones she really interacts with are the black widow spider, who acts as a supportive figure, and Victoria, Victor’s living fiancée.

Victoria and Emily’s relationship starts off pretty typical – Emily is really jealous of Victoria, both because Victor is in love with her and because she’s alive and Emily is dead. But this envy turns to pity as Emily realises what she will be taking from Victoria if she marries Victor. Eventually Emily lets go of her jealousy and gives Victoria and Victor her blessing, moving on from her jealousy in a positive and constructive way which we don’t often see. However, these are the only relationships with other female characters Emily has (and one of them is a) not human and b) has about five lines), so she’ll never ace this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Emily is an active character who’s in control of her own destiny, has a range of consistent strengths and weaknesses and develops over the course of her story, but ultimately that isn’t quite enough to let her pass my test. She comes close, but ultimately the story is too wrapped up in presenting Emily as a bride to present her as a person. I still enjoy the film, but I can’t help but feel like it lets her down.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche, 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: Door

For those of you that don’t know, Door is the leading lady of Neil Gaiman’s wildly successful novel, Neverwhere. Originally a TV series made in the 90s (complete with awful haircuts), the story centres around Richard Mayhew, a young man who gets drawn into a magical subterranean world called London Below when he rescues a young woman – Door. The story has proven to be one of Gaiman’s most popular and enduring books, remaining a feature of Waterstones everywhere, and was adapted as a BBC radio play not too long ago – and that had Benedict Cumberbatch in, so you know it’s good. Door herself is at the centre of all this, and is one of Gaiman’s most famous female characters.

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

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

Door is only in control of her own destiny to a certain extent. The plot is set in motion when her family is murdered and mysterious assassins try and hunt her down. A variation of the Universal Monster Law applies here: because Door is constantly on the run from these assassins, she’s always on the back foot and is often in a very reactive position. Because she has been forced onto this path, she doesn’t have the same amount of control as someone who chose it.

However, Door isn’t a total doormat (heh). She decides she wants to find out who killed her family, so engages a bodyguard and sets about trying to free the Angel Islington as she believes this will help her. She decides where she goes and what she does, and her decisions affect the rest of her party too. This is slightly undercut when we find out that the Angel Islington is actually a secret baddie, orchestrated the murder of her family and has been manipulating Door into setting him free all along, but cut the girl some slack. She was being manipulated, but she still made the decisions of her own accord, she had a backup plan, and when she realised Islington’s real intentions she put a stop to his plans pretty sharpish. She’s not perfect, but she does deserve half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

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

We don’t know a lot about Door’s hobbies, apart from that she has an incredible capacity to eat, and I’m not sure if that counts.

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But it’s definitely something I can get behind. (image: tumblr.com)

Her goals and beliefs are much clearer. Her family is very important to her, she doesn’t like to see people get hurt and she always includes a third thing in her lists. When it comes to her goals, she wants to find out who killed her family, free (and then stop) the Angel Islington, and live a relatively normal, murder-free life.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

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

Door is a pretty consistent character. She’s intelligent, determined, brave, compassionate, isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty and has a strong sense of loyalty. Her skills are consistent too: Door is an Opener, someone with the talent to unlock any door and magically create openings. This is a rare talent that remains consistent throughout the story.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

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

An intelligent, determined and magically talented young woman sets out to discover who murdered her family.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

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

Door doesn’t really have a love life. It’s kind of hinted that she and Richard have something of an attachment, but it’s never really made clear whether this is romantic or just a really strong platonic bond.

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Like in EVERY SITCOM EVER. (image: tv.com)

What really affects her decisions are her goals: to find out who murdered her family and to find the Angel Islington.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

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

Door doesn’t really develop over the course of the story. She’s something of a mystery, and unfortunately a lack of solid character development is something that we occasionally see in characters who are intended to be a little bit mysterious. I’ve talked about this in greater detail in my post about Trinity, and while Door is nowhere near that bad she still doesn’t pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Door doesn’t really have much of a weakness, either. The most you could say about her is that she’s a bit on the gullible side, because she falls for the Angel Islington’s charade – but so does pretty much everyone else in the novel, and as she’s supposed to be quite young I don’t think this is really fair. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

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

Door is a huge influence on the plot. When you take out the assassin element it is her actions that drive the story. She finds herself a bodyguard, she goes looking for the Angel Islington, she makes a duplicate key to Islington’s prison in case the real one is stolen. She may not set the entire story in motion as some other heroines do but she is nevertheless a very active player.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Door is a pretty progressive character as gender stereotypes go. She’s from a noble family in London Below but she has absolutely no issues with sleeping in sewers, eating cats and other things noblewomen are traditionally supposed to sneer at.

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Sound familiar? (image: comicvine.com)

She’s a young girl at the centre of a kidnap and murder plot – but she’s not a victim or relegated to the sidelines: she’s very firmly at the centre of the action and gets to take her revenge. She’s being pursued by assassins and has to hire a bodyguard – but that bodyguard is a woman, and isn’t much help in the end, so Door has to get rid of them herself. All of these are inversions of some fairly standard tropes that we see pretty often, so she definitely passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Unfortunately the only relationship Door has with another female character is with her bodyguard, Hunter. It’s a pretty stilted relationship, mainly due to Hunter’s taciturn personality, and doesn’t get a lot of depth or development. She interacts briefly with some other female characters, such as Lady Serpentine, but there’s not much else there. We know she loved her mother and sister, but as we never actually see them I can’t really count this.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

Door is a character with a certain amount of control over her own destiny and a range of goals and beliefs, who is consistent, progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes and isn’t dominated by her love life. However, this isn’t enough for her to pass my test. The biggest thing that lets her down is her lack of character development and weaknesses, which are important parts of any character.

This seems to stem from the broad building blocks used to make her character – she’s quite clearly an inversion of the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope we’re all so familiar with, but just inverting the trope isn’t always enough. Interestingly, Neil Gaiman himself has said something similar on his blog, in a short article about novels having genders (which is really interesting, so I’d definitely recommend reading it).

But does this mean I don’t enjoy Neverwhere, or I don’t find Door’s character compelling? Absolutely not. I’ve always enjoyed this book and I probably always will – acknowledging its flaws won’t have any effect on that.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a character that will get us into the Halloween spirit and diving into Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride. Emily, 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: Esmeralda

For those of you that don’t know, Esmeralda is the leading lady of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre-Dame de Paris – or as it’s more widely known, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in Medieval Paris, the novel centres around Esmeralda, a beautiful Romani girl, and the various men who obsess over her – and like any Victor Hugo novel it also crams in a lot of stuff about sacrifice, racism, architecture, passion, faith, hypocrisy and yet more architecture. The book has been an enormous success, adapted for a range of different audiences, and Esmeralda herself has been at the centre of pretty much every single version.

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

 

NOTE: Once again I’ll be focusing on the original Victor Hugo novel, but I may reference other adaptations from time to time.

 

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

In pretty much every single version of the story Esmeralda isn’t really in control of what’s happening to her, and that’s because so much of the plot is just other people falling in love with her. She is just rolling along doing her own thing, and then BAM! A creepy priest guy is trying to kidnap/rape her, a random soldier guy is trying to talk her into bed, people are accusing her of witchcraft and Quasimodo drags her off to Notre Dame for her own safety.

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Seems legit… (image: thecinematicpackrat.wordpress.com)

She does try and mitigate this a little bit. In the novel, when Gringoire breaks into the Romani encampment she agrees to marry him, thereby saving his life. She goes to Phoebus and tries to start a relationship with him – but in most adaptations that backfires horrifically. She chooses the possibility of death over Frollo’s weird molesty offer. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Esmeralda is reacting to a series of options put in front of her, rather than truly making her own choices. She does have an opportunity to make choices for herself, but these choices were engineered by other people. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Esmeralda’s hobbies aren’t really mentioned. We know she’s a dancer, but it’s not 100% clear if this is because she actually enjoys it or because that’s all she can do to make enough money to live on.

Her beliefs and goals are clearer. In pretty much every adaptation it’s made very clear that Esmeralda tries to be a good person despite her circumstances – like most of the other gypsies she is very poor, and something of a social outcast. It would be easy for her to internalise this and become quite bitter after the way she’s treated, but Esmeralda quite clearly believes that being a good person is more important. This ties into her goals – she wants to alleviate what suffering she can (by marrying Gringoire and giving Quasimodo water), to stay as far away from Frollo as she possibly can, and to have a happy life with Phoebus – but that doesn’t always end well.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

For the most part Esmeralda is a pretty consistent character in terms of both her skills and personality. She’s kind, naïve, brave, compassionate and occasionally quite stubborn and defiant, and this remains the case throughout the book. In terms of her skills we know that she’s an excellent dancer and street performer, and it can also be assumed that she’s good at training animals, as she’s got this little goat that follows her everywhere and does cute little magic tricks.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Unfortunately, you really can’t describe Esmeralda without referencing her love life or her appearance as it’s so tied into her role in the story. The entire novel pivots around her physical beauty and the men who admire her – take that out and there’s no plot at all, just a lot of stuff about architecture.

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Look, I like a good facade as much as the next nerd, but can we please get back to the murder trial? (image: notredamedeparis.fr)

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

No.

Esmeralda’s decisions are all directly linked to her love life. She marries Gringoire to save his life, but won’t touch him as she’s in love with Phoebus. She agrees to meet Phoebus for a secret date, even though he’s engaged – but this is largely because Phoebus has manipulated her into believing he loves her. She turns both Frollo and Quasimodo down repeatedly, and spends most of the book reacting to their various advances.

Esmeralda’s love life is completely central to the plot. The conflict of the novel is essentially about who she will or will not sleep with, and as she has no other significant goals she doesn’t really get to make decisions about anything else. What’s more, she actually has very little control over her own love life. Phoebus manipulates her and often ignores her objections, Quasimodo kidnaps her and tries to wear her down with kindness, and Frollo just straight-up tries to rape her, obsessing over her creepily for several months, orchestrating a few kidnap attempts, accusing her of witchcraft and actively causing her torture and death when she turns him down. And she’s sixteen years old. Will none of them leave this poor girl alone??

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Fun fact: some people actually fancy this man. (image: moviepilot.com)

To sum up: Esmeralda’s story is directly linked to her choice of boyfriend – and she doesn’t even have all that much choice. There’s no way she’s passing this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Not really, no. Esmeralda’s actually a pretty static character. She is good and kind when the novel begins and good and kind when it ends – only when it ends she’s also dead. She learns nothing as the story goes on and doesn’t change her views at all. This is actually very surprising when you consider how much she’s been through – attempted kidnapping, framed for attempted murder, torture, escaped execution and attempted rape.

There’s one scene towards the end of the novel that really drives this home for me. Esmeralda has escaped execution and is living under sanctuary in Notre Dame, thanks to Quasimodo. She knows that Phoebus, who could have cleared her name at her trial, has done nothing to save her – but she still loves him. Quasimodo, who loves her too, makes a point of this by showing her two vases full of flowers – one ugly but whole pot, and one crystal vase that is beautiful but cracked, allowing the water to leak out. As you might expect the flowers in the manky pot are thriving, and the ones in the crystal vase are dead. They both know that the pots represent Esmeralda’s potential boyfriends – Quasimodo being the pot and Phoebus being the vase – and that it’s all a metaphor for how they are treating her. But Esmeralda still cherishes the dead flowers, completely unable to reconcile her love for Phoebus with his terrible betrayal.

This makes the static nature of Esmeralda’s character very clear. She does not learn or grow from her experiences even though they have caused her very serious harm. Of course you could argue that her character is meant to be static – she’s supposed to represent an inherently good person resisting the pressures of poverty and ostracisation – but I’d argue that it’s very possible to remain a good person while learning to recognise a situation that is no good for you.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Esmeralda does have flaws and her biggest by far is her inability to change her own viewpoint. We see this in her continued rejection of Quasimodo and her blind devotion to Phoebus – she’s simply unable to see how her own resistance to change is doing her harm. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Actually, not really. Esmeralda gets captured a lot and this is what drives the events of the plot forward. When you take out all the kidnapping attempts the only other kind of influence she has is her status as an A-grade hottie. I’m withholding the point.

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No amount of winking is going to fix this, love. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Esmeralda conforms to several different gender stereotypes and inverts some of the others – she’s quite a complicated character in this regard. What really causes this is the intersection of two different parts of her identity – Esmeralda as a woman, and Esmeralda as a Romani.

If you look at Esmeralda as a woman, without bringing any aspect of racial or ethnic identity into your analysis, it’s easy to see her as a very traditional character. She’s a young, beautiful, innocent girl who does very little, holds onto her virtue as best she can, and dies a tragic death. This is a stock character we’ve seen since time began. Even when you add in her passionate affair with Phoebus – where he seduces her, allows her to take the blame for his attempted murder and ultimately hands her over to be executed – this still isn’t anything particularly new. The story of the beautiful, innocent girl seduced and brought into trouble is as old as time itself, and it fits Esmeralda perfectly.

Where she starts to get a bit more subversive is when you look at Esmeralda as a Romani. There aren’t many sympathetic portrayals of Romani and Travellers in fiction – of course things have gotten better as cultural ideas have developed, but there’s no getting away from the fact that itinerant peoples have historically been portrayed as vagrants, thieves and worse. Cher even sang a song about it.

 

Hunchback is one of the few stories that has a very sympathetic Romani lead, and the fact that it was written in the nineteenth century makes it even more unusual. Hugo goes to some lengths to avoid Romani stereotypes – for example, Esmeralda is accused of witchcraft but it’s made perfectly clear to the reader that she has never meddled in magic, subverting the centuries-old stereotype of the ‘magical fortune-teller’. But what really makes Hugo’s portrayal of Esmeralda noteworthy is the sheer lengths he goes to to establish her purity, virtue and innocence. Romani women were (and in some places, still are) widely stereotyped as being quite promiscuous, so the fact that Hugo went to such lengths to convey Esmeralda’s purity is actually pretty ground-breaking, especially if you consider when it was written. This is a direct subversion of a trope that has plagued Romani women for centuries and it deserves to be noted.

However, this isn’t exactly the revolutionary portrayal I was hoping for. As a Romani woman, Esmeralda is still exoticised to a ridiculous extent, both by the other characters and by Hugo himself. When you read through all the long, loving descriptions of her exotic beauty, passionate nature and sensual movements it’s pretty clear that she’s being fetishized. She’s seen as a sexual being whether she wants to be or not – and most of the time, she doesn’t want that. And of course, this is further undercut at the end of the novel, when we discover that Esmeralda is not actually Romani by birth, but a French girl who was kidnapped as a baby – another old stereotype about the Romani which I could really do without.

Long story short, you can’t really separate out the different pieces of Esmeralda’s identity – you have to talk about her racial and gender identity together, as they both have an effect on how she is treated. All of the stereotypes that inform her character (both ethnic and gendered) interact in pretty complicated ways, being pretty backward and pretty progressive at the same time, but in different ways. I’m going to give her half a point, as I feel that would best represent this weird balancing act, but I can’t help feeling I’m being generous.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Esmeralda doesn’t have many relationships with other female characters – there’s really only two that are worth noting. There’s Fleur-de-Lis, Phoebus’s fiancé: the two girls are jealous of each other (Fleur-de-Lis because Esmeralda is prettier than her, Esmeralda because Fleur-de-Lis is engaged to Phoebus) and that’s about it. The other relationship Esmeralda has is with Gudule, a random woman who hates Esmeralda because she believes Romani stole and ate her baby – who of course, turns out to be Esmeralda’s mother. Neither of these relationships have any real depth and both are sketched along some pretty broad lines, so I’ll give half a point here.

FINAL SCORE: 4.5/10

 

Esmeralda is a consistent character with her own goals and beliefs and a weakness that holds her back but ultimately, that isn’t enough to let her pass my test. When you get right down to it she just doesn’t do anything for herself. Later adaptations have tried to mitigate this by making her more active, but at the heart of Hunchback is a story about three men trying to possess a young woman, regardless of what she thinks of this. There is no part of her story that is separate from this, so she’s never going to pass.

Next week, I’ll be going back to the work of one of my favourite authors – Neil Gaiman. Door, 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: Alice

For those of you that don’t know, Alice is the main character of Lewis Carroll’s classic book, Alice in Wonderland. The story starts when a little girl follows a talking rabbit into a place called Wonderland and from thereon in it just gets really, really weird. All sorts of shenanigans ensue, mainly as the result of Alice eating whatever’s lying around and trying to force various talking animals to adhere to some kind of logic. It ends happily when Alice escapes a beheading (but wouldn’t that put anyone in a good mood?) and continues along the same strange, strange lines in the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass.

Unlike a lot of the other comparison posts I’ve done so far, Alice in Wonderland has a clear source – Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel. But much like Dracula and my post on Mina Harker, this doesn’t mean that there’s only one version of the story. Even though it was published fairly recently (I mean, when you compare it to all the fairy tales) the story has made a massive impact.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have had a massive impact on the popular consciousness. There are millions of adaptations and new editions of the story, covering everything from films, TV programmes, musicals, cartoons, comic books, video games, operas, and an incredible amount of visual art. And that’s not even mentioning the enormous range of stories that use elements of the story in smaller ways – and that can be seen in anything from anime to The Matrix.

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But the less said about that, the better. (image: wikipedia.org)

 

But despite all these countless Alice in Wonderland adaptations and re-tellings, I’m only going to look at six, because I’ve occasionally got to do things like eat and sleep.

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

 

 

image: jilt.colorado.edu

In the original version Alice is very much a key player – it’s her name in the title, after all. What’s unusual is that unlike a lot of other Victorian heroines, it’s her actions that set the story in motion when she goes down the rabbit hole, so she’s much more in control of her own destiny. Her goals tie into the story but her beliefs are more solid – she puts a lot of emphasis on logical thought, for instance, which often results in conflict with the inhabitants of Wonderland.

She’s a little bit of a generic Victorian child character but she is consistently so. It’s completely possible to describe her without referencing her appearance, love life or the words ‘Strong Female Character’ because her story doesn’t really touch on any of these things. She also doesn’t have a love life, as she’s seven years old.

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness that holds her back – while she doesn’t adapt well to Wonderland’s weirdness that doesn’t have any lasting consequences, and her inability to foresee the consequences of her actions can hardly count as a character defect in a seven-year-old child. However, she is a strong influence on the plot and while she is a little generic, the fact that she actually gets to do quite a lot undercuts some of the gender stereotypes at play here. She doesn’t really have many significant relationships with other female characters, but there is at least more than one. Overall, she’s a lot better than most heroines of her day and age.

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Yay for feminism! (image: giphy.com)

FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10

 

 

image: warwickartscentre.com

This animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s works is definitely one of the most well-known – and that’s largely thanks to Disney. This version takes elements of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and combines them to make a brightly coloured, nonsensical film that, if I’m honest, still creeps me out a little.

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Mostly because of the walrus. (image: giphy.com)

Much of what can be said about the original books still applies to this version – it’s not a strictly faithful adaptation but remains true to the general spirit of the novels. Alice is still in control of her own destiny and still has clear goals and beliefs. She’s a little generic, doesn’t have a love life, and can be defined without referencing her appearance, boyfriends or the words ‘Strong Female Character’.

She doesn’t really develop much – Disney tries to shoehorn in a lesson about the importance of home, but this is all slightly undercut when Alice wakes up to discover it was all just a really weird dream. She doesn’t have a weakness but she is still an active character, and much like in the original novel this softens the impact of some of the traditional gender stereotypes she dabbles in. She has even fewer relationships with other female characters – mainly just her sister and the Queen of Hearts – and these are sketched along the broadest of lines with no real depth.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

 

image: sffbookreview.wordpress.com

And now we come to the inevitable YA adaptation. In The Looking Glass Wars, Wonderland is an alternate universe where people can quite literally imagine the stuff they want out of thin air. When it’s taken over by the evil Queen Redd, the rightful heir to the throne (Princess Alyss) escapes into our world – but eventually has to return to cast Redd out and take her place as queen.

Obviously this is a very different story to Carroll’s original. What’s most noticeable is that Alyss doesn’t have anywhere near the same amount of control over her life as the original version does – throughout the trilogy she’s reacting to the villains, not doing stuff on her own. Her goals and beliefs are clear: she wants to defeat the villains and believes that the power of imagination should only be used for good – something the novel refers to as ‘White Imagination’ and is an important part of the plot. Alyss is also consistently brave, determined and kind (albeit a little generic), and it is possible to describe her without referencing her love life, appearance, or the words ‘Strong Female Character’.

Her love life is a feature of the story but it doesn’t affect most of her decisions – she’s more preoccupied with defeating Redd. She’s also a strong influence on the plot. However, she doesn’t really develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – the things she has to overcome are either a direct result of the villains’ actions or the adjustment period after spending ten years in a world with no tangible manifestation of imagination.

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But the less said about that, the better. (image: wikipedia.org)

When it comes to gender stereotypes she’s a bit of a mixed bag – she does need rescuing a fair few times but on the other hand she is a strong and competent ruler, which is all the more important as this version of Wonderland is actually a matriarchy. She also has plenty of relationships with other female characters, all of which are different in their own ways.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

 

image: mr-movie.com

Alice in Wonderland is notorious for gritty and dark remakes. There are several retellings of the story that really turn up the scary dial, so that what was only mildly unsettling in Lewis Carroll’s original becomes utterly and completely horrifying. This version of the story is set in a gritty urban jungle and centres around Alice – in this case, a missing American heiress who lost her memory – trying to get her memory back while on the run from various creepy criminals. I chose this one in particular because I wanted to look at an adaptation that really leaned in to all the creepy stuff and made an effort to put the story in a completely different setting.

I have never regretted anything more.

This film – aside from being an hour and a half of my life that I’m never going to get back – is an absolute trainwreck. It’s style over substance taken to ridiculous lengths, with little to no coherent plot and characters that have all the personality of those flat, cardboard celebrity masks. Alice is no exception.

She is utterly and completely useless. She spends the whole film running away from people, sitting around, and taking a bunch of drugs because a random cab driver told her to. She wants to regain her memory and run off with Danny Dyer but that’s all there is to her. She has no personality whatsoever, can’t go two minutes without someone talking about how pretty she is, and makes absolutely no decisions of her own. That’s because in the course of eighty-seven minutes, she gets kidnapped SIX TIMES.

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I mean REALLY. (image: giphy.com)

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story because in order to do that she’d have to have a personality to begin with. She has no weaknesses unless you’re going to count her total and utter lack of common sense, self-preservation skills and personality. She influences the plot just by being in it, never once making any decisions for herself, and when it comes to gender stereotypes she is the definition of the damsel in distress. She talks to two or three other female characters but the conversations she has with them leave absolutely no impact – she talks, she leaves, and she forgets them.

I did actually toy with the idea of putting up my notes for this film, just so you could all see how much I suffered, but when I realised they were about forty percent swearing I decided against it. It’s basically an unfunny version of this sketch, with a couple of vague Lewis Carroll references shoved in:

All I’ll say is this: life is short, don’t waste your time.

FINAL SCORE: 0.5/10

 

 

image: library.creativecow.net

Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland is a fairly standard reboot – things are made darker, weirder and generally more unsettling, with a few big set-piece battles thrown in for good measure. Set when Alice has grown into a young woman, the first film deals with her return to Wonderland (called Underland, for some reason) and defeat of the Red Queen, and its sequel – Alice Through the Looking Glass – is about various misadventures with time travel.

In this version, Alice is a reasonably active character, whose actions have an affect on her life – although it’s worth mentioning that a lot of what she does has apparently been ‘foretold’, so that does raise a few questions about whether she or ~*Fate*~ is responsible for her own actions. Her goals and beliefs are clear – she’s very anti-establishment, and wants to defeat the Red Queen – and for the most part she’s a consistent, if bland character. You can describe her without referencing her love life, appearance, or the words ‘Strong Female Character’, and as far as her love life actually goes, she doesn’t really have one.

She develops over the course of the first film, where she comes to terms with her weird experiences in Underland, but not in the second. She does have a weakness – she tries to avoid making decisions all the time, but this isn’t quite as prevalent in the second film. She’s a huge influence on the plot, has loads of different relationships with other female characters, and when it comes to gender stereotypes, she’s a character who has quite clearly been designed to subvert them. I didn’t really like her or the films all that much (I found them a bit bland, which takes effort when you’re working with material like Alice in Wonderland) but it’s quite clear that a lot of thought has been put into making her an active and balanced character.

FINAL SCORE: 9.5/10

 

 

image: onceuponatime.wikia.com

Once Upon a Time has become a regular feature of my comparison posts – mainly because the show’s creators are determined to shoehorn in every single public domain character they can think of. Alice is no exception. She’s the star of this spin-off series set within the broad, broad confines of the Once Upon a Time universe, which starts off when Alice – who’s been confined to an asylum after talking about her experiences in Wonderland – decides to prove her sanity by going back to Wonderland and returning with proof.

In this version Alice is a very active character – she puts herself on her quest and decides how she’s going to accomplish her goals. Speaking of which these are pretty clear: she wants to get her father to believe she’s sane, get her boyfriend back and defeat the Red Queen (and Jafar, who’s in this for some reason). She’s a pretty consistent character who isn’t dependent on her love life, appearance or her identity as a ‘Strong Female Character’. She does make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life, but it has to be said that her boyfriend is a huge part of her motivation.

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He’s not even Ryan Gosling. (image: newnownext.com)

She doesn’t really develop or have much of a weakness, but she is a strong influence on the plot. When it comes to gender stereotypes she’s another one on the fence – she does quite a lot of untraditional things, but at the end of the day it all comes down to trying to get back her boyfriend. However, she does have loads of different relationships with other female characters which change over the course of the series.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

 

And that’s my analysis of the various incarnations of Alice in Wonderland! It’s worth noting that unlike a lot of more traditional fairy tales, adaptations of the various Alice books tend to give the heroine a lot more to do – and I think that’s down to the very unconventional nature of the original book. There’s much higher scores across the board – without mentioning that soul-crushing uselessness vortex I can’t wait to forget about – and I think that really brings home the benefits of a more unconventional story.

Next week I’ll be back to my usual format and looking at an old favourite: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Esmerelda, 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: Esther Summerson

For those of you that don’t know, Esther Summerson is one of the central characters in Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel, Bleak House. Set round about the 1830s, the novel is broadly about a long, drawn-out case in the English legal system – but as with most Dickens novels it also covers all sorts of stuff on class, poverty, morality and love. Esther herself is at the centre of all this, as the narrator of part of the novel and Dickens’s only female first person perspective. The book, originally serialised when Dickens was at the height of his popularity, is widely recognised to be one of his best novels, and Esther herself has been the subject of much criticism and debate in the 160 years or so since its publication. So no pressure.

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?

Esther is a pretty reactive character. Most of the action in the novel is not a result of events she has set in motion – instead, stuff just happens and Esther has to deal with it. She gets palmed off to Mr Jarndyce when he becomes her guardian and her life changes very rapidly – she makes the best of it, eventually becoming his housekeeper and making friends with some of his other charges, but didn’t set this up herself. She nurses her maid when she contracts smallpox, and ends up catching it too. She finally gets to meet her birth mother, after having been raised in a loveless home without knowing her parents, but her mother is the one who sets up the meeting and she forbids Esther to ever seek her out again. As you can see, none of these significant events are the result of Esther’s own actions.

Most of Esther’s story is her trying to make the best of the terrible, terrible hand she’s been dealt. This is really the only way that she can exercise control over her life. Unlike Jane Eyre, who actively wants to be her own person and make something of herself, Esther never considers taking her situation into her own hands. When she’s dissatisfied with something, she very rarely takes it upon herself to change things – instead she tends to wait around for a situation that will allow her to make a choice to change things. When she’s presented with these opportunities she can and does take control of her life in a way that will make her happy – such as turning down the proposal of the insufferable Mr Guppy – but she doesn’t go out of her way to find these opportunities for herself. It’s very useful to draw a parallel with Jane Eyre here as both are similar characters, having grown up in loveless and parentless environments. But whereas Jane actively looks to get out of her situation – and has been doing so since the age of about eight – Esther waits to be taken out of it, and never once considers leaving on her own.

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And what better way to illustrate this than with a cat gif? (image: imgur.com)

There’s quite a few situations in Bleak House which could be construed as active or reactive depending on how you read Esther’s motivations. But overall, I don’t think it’s too much of a reach to say that while Esther does have some influence over her own life, she certainly doesn’t go looking for it, and the big narrative events are always set in motion by other characters. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

We don’t really know much about Esther’s hobbies, but she’s something of a homebody who takes satisfaction in very domestic pursuits. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. Esther’s goals vary depending on her situation, but tend to be focussed around domestic or small-scale accomplishments – she wants to nurse her maid back to health, for example. As far as her beliefs go, Esther quite firmly believes that she is an entirely unremarkable and unimportant person, going so far as to say that she is neither clever nor interesting. This is a direct result of her neglectful upbringing, and something I’ll go into in more detail later on. She also believes that charity should begin at home, has a strong sense of duty, and doesn’t seem to think much of the boundaries of class when dealing with the poor. 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?

Esther is quiet, modest, demure, kind, helpful and compassionate, with a self-deprecating streak a mile wide, and she remains this way through much of the novel. As far as her skills go, we don’t hear a whole lot about them, but we know she’s a good housekeeper whose organisational skills tend to rub off on other people.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

A kind, helpful and compassionate young woman wants to make the best of her life, despite her abusive upbringing.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Esther doesn’t make loads of decisions, but does have a reasonable amount of agency in her life. That said, a significant amount of the decisions she makes do revolve around her love life. While she does get to do things that don’t revolve around who she might end up marrying – like caring for the poor, for example – a substantial amount of the big decisions she’s asked to make are about potential suitors. Esther has three of these in the novel: Mr Woodcourt, who’s the textbook definition of ‘a nice young man’, Mr Guppy, who’s both annoying and shallow, and Mr Jarndyce, who is her guardian/adopted father figure/bringer of a thousand daddy issues.

giphy ben2
That’s a liiiiiittle bit tricky. (image: giphy.com)

All of these three men ask her to marry them at some point in the novel. Esther agonises over them to varying extents, but gives them her answer and that is usually that. The trouble is that while Esther doesn’t actually think about these three all that much in the novel – especially when you consider how long the book is – their proposals are some of the only opportunities Esther is given to make a decision that will actually change her life. This presents a bit of a problem because while Esther certainly has other concerns and motivations, she doesn’t always get a chance to act on them. It gets better as the novel goes along, but there’s a lot of stuff that Esther just doesn’t get a say in. It’s a question of what you, as a reader, consider more valuable – the fact that Esther has other concerns in her life, or the fact that she rarely gets an opportunity to act on them. I can see both sides of the coin, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Esther does develop over the course of the story. She becomes more confident, more outspoken (although never to an unladylike extent) and learns to tell people off when they deserve it, much to the reader’s satisfaction. By the end of the book she’s much less restrained and much more comfortable with herself, which is pretty solid development on all counts.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Esther also has a pretty serious weakness – her almost total lack of self-esteem. This is a direct result of her emotionally abusive childhood. She is an illegitimate child, raised by her mother’s sister in secret, and spent a good chunk of her formative years being told that she was worthless, that she corrupted people, and that she didn’t deserve love.

This is actually pretty rare in Victorian fiction, particularly as there was a significant stigma around being an illegitimate child. This is child abuse depicted as child abuse, which leaves lasting scars. Esther’s own self-deprecation is something she struggles with all through the novel – and which gets worse after she’s disfigured by smallpox. It seriously gets in the way of her own happiness, as she firmly believes that even though she loves him, Mr Woodcourt would never marry her due to her disfigurement, and she resigns herself to a loveless marriage to Mr Jarndyce as she believes that is the best offer she’ll ever receive.

However, what makes this kind of tricky is that for much of the novel, the other characters treat this as a virtue on Esther’s part, rather than what it really is – some serious psychological scarring. Much is made of the fact that Esther is so modest and humble and never presumes anything of anyone – even though this is a direct result of what amounts to childhood trauma, Esther’s humility is talked about as if it is one of her best qualities. Sometimes, this bleeds into the narration itself, and modern readers are left wondering if Dickens himself didn’t see Esther’s total lack of self-esteem as a good thing.

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Fun fact: the nopetopus is also my patronus. (image: giphy.com)

A lot of this is due to nineteenth-century social norms, which tend to ruin a lot of things I like. Modesty and humility were considered incredibly attractive in women, and often taken to ridiculous lengths – for example, women weren’t even supposed to act surprised when they received a proposal, as a proper Victorian woman would never consider herself attractive enough for a man to want to marry her. I’m not sure how often this would’ve happened in practice but if you flip through any nineteenth-century etiquette book that’s what you’ll find. And it’s certainly true that Dickens himself may have held some of those views, as he had notoriously sketchy relationships with the women in his life.

While there’s no denying that this is a serious flaw, and one which regularly leads people to take advantage of her, it’s also portrayed as a part of Esther’s appeal by both the characters and the author. It’s a tough line to walk, so I’m going to give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Esther does have influence on the plot, but it’s usually a pretty passive kind of influence. Essentially, she is a significant player in the book not because of the things she does, but because of the way she is. In this respect she has quite a lot of influence – mainly because a lot of the other characters want to be like her or be with her – but there’s no getting past the fact that she doesn’t really do much. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

 

Whichever way you look at it, there’s no getting away from the fact that Esther is the perfect Victorian woman. She’s kind, she’s nurturing, she’s demure, she’s humble, she’s religious, and she’s utterly content with domestic life. She’s the archetype of ‘the angel in the house’ – the gold standard that housewives everywhere were once forced to adhere to.

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And Betty isn’t going to take it any more. (image: giphy.com)

This is taken to near ridiculous extents. Esther is so perfect and demure that she never causes any trouble: not even after losing her looks, not even after she watches her friends Richard and Ada slip slowly into debt, not even after she meets her birth mother for the first time in her life and is told that she can never see her again. Esther reacts like the perfect Victorian lady would in all of these situations – she’s sad about it, of course, but she’s never angry, or confused, or upset. She doesn’t dwell on her misfortunes, and she’s had plenty, she just gets on with cleaning up the house or making other people’s dinner.

This would all be fine if it was at least acknowledged that this is how Esther copes with things – it’s no secret that a lot of people take comfort in normalcy after going through something disruptive. But the thing about Esther is that she’s so perfect that nothing really seems to disrupt her at all. Actually being bothered by the things that happen to her would be inconvenient for the people around her, and heaven forbid that a Victorian lady should so much as dream of exposing her emotions to other people.

The upshot of all this is that she doesn’t feel like a real person. Anger, confusion, and sustained sadness were simply not features of the ideal Victorian woman, and that’s why Esther doesn’t exhibit these. Everything she does is perfectly in line with Dickens’s ideal – and that’s why she won’t pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Esther has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She becomes friends with Ada, one of Mr Jarndyce’s wards, when she’s employed as her companion, and becomes a kind of mother figure for her. She takes her maid, Charley, under her wing, nursing her through smallpox and bearing no resentment when the disease disfigures Esther herself. She does a similar thing with Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of a philanthropist, but resents her mother for not taking better care of her. And, of course, there’s her mother – who she loves and values despite her absence from her life, even when she tells her they cannot meet. These are just a handful of the relationships Esther has with other female characters, so she definitely passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

Esther is a well-rounded character with believable strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs who develops throughout the story and has relationships with other female characters, but ultimately that wasn’t quite enough for her to pass my test. She’s an incredibly passive character who fits several gender stereotypes down to the ground – and ultimately, this means she just doesn’t seem like a real person.

Next week, it’s the ninetieth post on Strong Female Characters, and anything with that number in it is going to make me feel old. I’ll be going back to the comparison format and looking at a modern classic – Alice in Wonderland. Alice, I’m coming for you.

 

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