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!
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.