Strong Female Characters: Ellen Ripley

For those of you that don’t know, Ripley is the main character of the phenomenally successful Alien series. Set in the future, the plot revolves around Ripley’s attempts to defeat, well, aliens – terrifying creatures called Xenomorphs that burst out of people’s chest and generally ruin everything. The first film was an incredible success – so much so that it has permanently changed the face of cinema, the Library of Congress declared it significant in 2002, and has been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry. Ripley herself has been at the centre of all this, and has been widely heralded as one of sci-fi’s truly ground-breaking 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?

Ripley’s adventures come under the heading of my Universal Monster Law – in general, if a story is about stopping a scary monster, it’s the monster that is really the one calling the shots, as it’s their actions that set the larger plot in motion. Really good characters aren’t held back by this, and despite all the monstrous nastiness they have to deal with, their decisions still have a tangible impact on the plot.

Ripley is one of those characters. She may spend a substantial amount of time trying not to get eaten but she still has a certain amount of control over her life, whether that’s through preventing the Xenomorphs from spreading or saving the lives of others. What sets her apart is that she’s not simply trying to survive her ordeal – she’s also trying to ensure that no-one else has to go through it ever again. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t hear a lot about Ripley’s hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to defeat the Xenomorphs and wipe them out and when it comes to her beliefs she will usually do what benefits the most people – even if that means letting one, two, or an entire prison colony die.

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Eh, you win some, you lose some. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Ripley is a pretty consistent character. She’s determined, intelligent, brave and responsible, good at thinking on her feet and adapting to a wide range of situations. She stays this way through all the movies, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A determined, brave woman sets out to destroy the aliens that killed her entire crew – whatever the cost.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Ripley doesn’t have a love life, so this question isn’t really relevant. What influences her decisions are her missions, her need to protect the people she cares about, and the desire to stay alive – while killing as many Xenomorphs as she can.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Ripley does develop over the course of the movies. She develops PTSD as a result of her experiences – an entirely realistic response to being chased around by this cuddly little darling:

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How…adorable. (image: collider.com)

She also starts losing trust in other people, loses patience with her employers, and starts losing her temper much faster. This isn’t positive character development but it certainly counts: it’s a direct result of her scary, life-threatening experiences, so she definitely gets the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Ripley does have a couple of weaknesses – her inability to trust people and how quickly she can lose her temper – but to be honest, they don’t really affect her much. They’re often presented as survival skills rather than as something she should overcome. Ripley’s losses of temper and inability to trust other people are almost exclusively directed at people who deserve it – such as her employers, who put her in danger by trying to collect Xenomorphs for study.

This is entirely justified – and this is where the problem lies. When Ripley’s anger is directed towards people who were prepared to let her die, and when her inability to trust people is directed towards people who have previously betrayed her, it’s pretty difficult to see it as a flaw at all. They don’t hold her back or make her unhappy – they actually help to keep her alive. I’ll give her half a point because the flaws are there, but they certainly don’t have much of an impact.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Ripley is a huge influence on the plot. In all her movies she’s right in the centre of the action, whether she’s trying to protect her crew or kill the Xenomorphs.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Ripley is a breath of fresh air when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an accomplished pilot, a military officer in a position of responsibility, and a scarred, determined survivor – all unusual for a female character. She’s nobody’s sidekick, nobody’s girlfriend, and doesn’t prance about in tight lycra when she’s trying to be badass – unlike some characters I could mention.

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

She doesn’t have to rely on anyone else to get her out of trouble. She doesn’t depend on other people. She doesn’t need to have an excuse to be in the plot – she’s very firmly the hero of her own story. This is particularly unusual for women in science-fiction, who are often cast as a helpless girlfriend, or the token ‘sexy one’ in part of a wider team. Ripley is one of the first characters who broke that mould – and she completely smashed it.

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Ripley has a few different relationships with other female characters, but none of them are given any real depth. She works alongside Lambert and Vasquez in various movies, but their relationships aren’t really explored much as they’re mostly trying not to die.

The most significant relationship Ripley has is with the little girl she rescues in Aliens, Newt. They actually get a chance to bond, and Ripley becomes something of a Mama Bear when she’s protecting Newt from the aliens. Their relationship is also a way to Ripley to mourn the loss of her own daughter, who died when Ripley was being kept in stasis for fifty-odd years. This relationship is probably Ripley’s most significant interaction with another female character, but it’s not quite enough for her to completely ace this round.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Ripley is a consistent, active character with a range of goals, beliefs and strengths. She isn’t completely controlled by her love life or gender stereotypes, she develops over the story – and to top it all off, she’s also a ground-breaking character. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – Spirited Away. Chihiro, 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: Scarlett O’Hara

For those of you that don’t know, Scarlett is the leading lady of the 1930s classic, Gone With the Wind. Set in the American South, the book follows the life of Scarlett O’Hara, a spoiled Southern belle whose life is turned upside-down by the American Civil War. The book was a massive success, topping the best-seller lists for two years straight (and during the Great Depression, no less) and was eventually made into one of the most famous movies of all time. Scarlett herself is at the centre of all this – in particular, for the nature of her passionate relationship with Rhett Butler – and has become one of the most loved and hated female characters of all time.

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?

Scarlett is very much in control of her own destiny, which is actually very unusual for a young woman of her social class. Scarlett is a Southern belle, who were supposed to be very delicate and demure women, deferring to their husbands or fathers on pretty much everything. Scarlett doesn’t do this once. She’s a very active character who’s not just in control of her own destiny, but of several other people’s too. She goes through several husbands, choosing them on what they can do for her and her family. She delivers her sister-in-law’s baby and takes them back to her home in Georgia, protecting them from the advancing Union soldiers. She single-handedly drags her family out of poverty by going into business – something that was almost unheard of for upper-class women of the time. Scarlett is a really active character who’s in control of her own life, and the lives of several people around her, so there’s no way she could fail this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Scarlett enjoys dancing, but we hear much more about the things she doesn’t like – such as discussing current events and reading. Her goals are pretty clear – she wants to marry Ashley Wilkes, her slightly soppy brother-in-law – and to restore her family home, Tara. As for her beliefs, Scarlett clearly values the way of life of the ‘old South’, although she does find the social niceties quite restrictive, and she is also a passionate defender of slavery.

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

I’ll talk about this more later on, but 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?

Scarlett is a very consistent character. She’s vain, spoiled, manipulative, selfish and loves to be the centre of attention – but she’s also very passionate, determined, intelligent in certain areas, and goes to great lengths to take care of her family. As far as her skills go, she’s a total pro at flirting and displays an aptitude for figures and business which ends up becoming very useful to her. 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 manipulative, spoiled Southern woman must leave her pampered life behind her to rescue her family’s fortunes.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

It has to be said that a lot of Scarlett’s decisions revolve around her love life, but much like many other characters I’ve looked at, she doesn’t always choose her men for their own sakes, but rather what they represent for her.

Scarlett spends most of the novel mooning after Ashley Wilkes, her brother-in-law, but she also makes a point of seducing and marrying several other men: Charles Hamilton, Frank Kennedy and, most famously of all, Rhett Butler. But she rarely goes after these men because she actually likes them – when she’s pursuing them her chief concerns are more often about what they can do for her or her family. She marries Charles Hamilton so she can get close to Ashley, and to take revenge on Charles’s sister Melanie, who Ashley chose over her. She persuades Frank Kennedy to dump his fiancée – who also happens to be Scarlett’s own sister – and marry her so that she can use Frank’s wealth to save her family home, breaking the ultimate sibling code in the process.

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Mean Girls is the gif that keeps on giving. (image: tumblr.com)

Even Rhett and Ashley, her two great loves, are tangled up with what they can offer her. Ashley is the quintessential Southern gentleman, the kind of man Scarlett has been brought up to idealise – so I’ve always wondered if she’s actually going after him because he represents a return to the Old South of her childhood, or if she thinks that marrying him will make her into a proper Southern belle. Rhett is the opposite – he helps Scarlett to throw off the restrictions of Atlanta society and represents a break from all the pressures of the life she has to maintain. It’s a classic case of old vs new – Ashley is the old, and Rhett is the new.

However, even when you add in all of this there’s no getting away from the fact that Scarlett’s life revolves around the men she marries. Part of this is due to the restrictions of Southern society, as women staying unmarried were relatively unusual, but part of this is also because Scarlett uses men to feel good about herself. If you took out Scarlett’s various romances, the plot would be slashed in half. I’ll be generous and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Scarlett does develop over the course of the story. She goes from being a spoiled, pampered young girl to a ruthless businesswoman who sees no issue with getting her hands dirty if it means saving her family home. She also realises that she has been deluding herself about her feelings for Ashley, and that it’s Rhett she really wants – but I think her character progression is a more interesting. Either way that’s some solid development on more than one front, so she definitely gets the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Scarlett has plenty of weaknesses. She treats people terribly, has very limited understanding of the consequences of her actions and she’s completely blind to her own feelings. Her insecurity and vanity prevent her from really thinking about her actions, or learning from her mistakes, and this is something that actively hinders her happiness more than once.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Scarlett is a huge influence on the plot. While a certain amount of it is out of her control – she definitely didn’t have anything to do with the Civil War, for instance – she is nevertheless important. Whether she is seducing men or setting up a business, her actions and decisions have a palpable impact on the plot. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Scarlett has a pretty complicated relationship to gender stereotypes. On the one hand, she fits the stereotype of the ‘Southern belle’ pretty well – she’s attractive, charming, spoiled, shallow and has several men wrapped around her finger. But on the other hand, she subverts this too – she finds the social constraints that come with this stereotype very restrictive, is far too flirty to fit into the chaste aspects of this stereotype, and is much more intelligent and determined than she really lets on, implying that she’s only pretending to be as frivolous as she can seem.

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I think this is the Old South way of saying ‘Shut the hell up’. (image: pinterest.com)

All of this speaks to the complexity of Scarlett’s character – she idealises and hates the idea of the ‘Southern belle’, and tries to live up to and reject said stereotype throughout the novel. This complexity extends to her relationships as well – and this is the point that we’re going to have to talk about Rhett Butler.

Rhett is presented as Scarlett’s true love – the one man who truly understands and accepts her while seeing through her manipulation. Their relationship has been (and still is) idealised by many – it’s still held up as the ideal of a passionate, stormy romance, which is part of the reason why the novel itself has lasted for so long.

But here’s the thing. Rhett is kind of a terrible person.

He calls her names all the time. He belittles her. He often comes close to declaring his romantic feelings for Scarlett but then backtracks, making her believe that he was making fun of her and doesn’t actually love her. When she tries to reach out to him (which doesn’t happen often), he pushes her away. He threatens her with physical violence, saying that he will “crush her skull”, for example. When she tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he asks who the father is, and says (and I quote) “Cheer up, maybe you’ll have a miscarriage”. And, of course, there’s the scene where Rhett and Scarlett have a blazing row and he carries her upstairs and rapes her.

This is textbook abuse. A lot of this is excused as being a part of Rhett’s ‘passionate’ nature, or his unwillingness to confess his true feelings to Scarlett, who would use them against him. A lot of the nastier aspects of his behaviour are slightly veiled – for example, his rape of Scarlett is not explicitly shown, and it’s a decades-long debate about whether he actually raped her or whether they had consensual but angry sex. But there’s no getting away from the fact that none of this is acceptable behaviour in a relationship.

Rhett and Scarlett’s relationship is fundamentally destructive. They both verbally and emotionally abuse each other and make each other miserable. Yet their relationship is still presented as something to aspire to. Countless people argue that when they call each other names and lash out at each other that it’s an expression of the depth of their feelings. But this is idealising abuse. This is teaching people that violence and threats can be an expression of love – something to run to, rather than run from.

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Come back, nope-rocket! TAKE ME WITH YOU! (image: photobucket.com)

I’m going to be giving Scarlett half a point for this round. When you look at her character in isolation, you can see how she subverts and twists some pretty strong gender stereotypes. But when you look at her relationships, it becomes clear that while she may not conform to some stereotypes, she does reinforce some of the most dangerous ones.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Scarlett has relationships with plenty of other female characters. She’s jealous of her sister-in-law Melanie, but Melanie’s kindness eventually turns this into friendship. She idealises her mother. She loves her sister Suellen, but realises that Suellen would never use her fiancé’s money to save Tara, so she destroys their relationship by seducing him away from her. And she cares for her female slaves, known as Mammy and Prissy, although she patronises and abuses them at the same time. These are a range of different relationships with different female characters – and there’s several more that I haven’t even touched on here. I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Scarlett is a well-rounded character in control of her own life. She has a range of strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs and develops over the course of her story. She has different relationships with different female characters, she’s consistent, and she’s a driving force on the plot.

But you want to know a secret? I can’t stand her.

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Literally everything about this is terrible. (image: pinterest.com)

I’ve been holding it in all through this post but my God, I hate Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is just the tip of the iceberg – for me, the whole book is utterly reprehensible. The story itself is interesting and I can see why people like it – after all, people have been writing about love and war for centuries. But it’s so incredibly racist that I just can’t bring myself to enjoy it, and I never have.

I touched on this briefly but I’ll go into it in more detail here. Gone With the Wind is pro-slavery literature. Every single ‘good’ character (with the possible exception of Rhett Butler, if the mood takes him) is in favour of slavery. The n-word is used all the time. The KKK are presented as heroes, and in fact, some of the characters we’re supposed to like are actually members. They all believe that it was a good thing for black people, and some of the slaves do too. African-Americans who rejected slavery are presented as ungrateful, and those who stay with their former owners are shown as loyal, and somehow better than people who objected to being whipped and starved and bought and sold like animals.

As I’m sure you all know, Gone With the Wind is one of the most inaccurate and deluded depictions of slavery ever to be published. I’m a history graduate, and I actually wrote my dissertation on the relationships between slaves and mistresses in the American South, so I’ve read a lot of the first-hand accounts of former slaves. When former slaves spoke of their experiences – whether they were writing their autobiographies or being interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project – they were absolutely horrific. Mistresses would beat their slaves, spit in the food they’d cooked to prevent them from eating the same food as their masterspunish them for being raped by their masters, and – in one particularly nasty incident that I will always remember reading about – throw dead snakes at them as a joke. This is the kind of behaviour that the characters in Gone With the Wind are condoning.

Scarlett herself is at the centre of all this nasty, racist mess. She owns slaves, and is shocked when they abandon her and her family after the Civil War ends. She routinely says horrible and disgusting things about black people, and even after Emancipation expects them to behave as if they’re still enslaved. She was raised by a black slave who she calls ‘Mammy’ – a gendered racial stereotype you can read about here – but she doesn’t even know her real name.

I’m never going to like Gone With the Wind, or Scarlett. She’s a well-written character, certainly, but when both she and the novel spout views like that I just can’t enjoy it and frankly (my dear), I never will.

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I am 10000% done with this. (image: tenor.co)

Next week, I’ll be looking at a sci-fi classic – the Alien series. Ellen Ripley, 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: Fa Mulan

For those of you that don’t know, Mulan is the leading lady of the 1998 Disney film, Mulan. Based on an old Chinese legend, the plot follows a young girl whose elderly father is conscripted into the Chinese army – so she takes his place, kicks some butt and ends up saving China from the fictional equivalent of Genghis Khan. The film was a critical success, spawning endless merchandise and the obligatory terrible direct-to-video sequel, and Mulan herself was at the centre of all this.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out GET DOWN TO BUSINESS!

Watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: I will be basing my review on the Disney movie, not the original Chinese legend, as I’m much more familiar with this. I’m aware that the two are very different, though, so I may choose to look at the legend in a separate post some point in the future.

 

 

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

Mulan is in control of her own destiny. Instead of letting her father fight she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, but even once she’s in the army she doesn’t just follow orders. She’s constantly using her brains to try and take control of her life and the lives of others, whether that’s by dropping an avalanche on Genghis Khan Shan Yu or saving the Chinese Emperor’s life.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

We don’t hear much about Mulan’s hobbies but we do know what she doesn’t like: the kind of ladylike restrictions she’s forced to adhere to before she runs off to join the army. Her beliefs and goals are much clearer. She believes in the importance of family, even above the laws of China and decrees of the Emperor, and clearly doesn’t set a lot of store by gender roles. Her goals are to stop her father from fighting, survive in the Chinese army and to stop the Huns from taking over, not necessarily in that order.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Mulan is a very consistent character. She’s brave, determined, intelligent, adapts very easily and is a little unconventional. We also see her skills develop, as she goes from bumbling idiot to a soldier to be reckoned with.

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LIKE A BOSS. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A brave, determined young woman disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Chinese army to protect her family.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Mulan doesn’t really have much of a love life. She has a massive crush on Captain Shang –

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Can’t imagine why… (image: pinterest.com)

– but it’s a subtle one, played more for laughs than romantic drama. It doesn’t affect a lot of her decisions, which are more influenced by her desire to save China. Of course, this isn’t the case in the sequel, which is more explicitly about Mulan and Shang’s relationship, but even then it doesn’t influence too many of her decisions. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Mulan doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. Her overall arc in the film is more about staying true to herself and learning to accept her identity, so in this light it’s easy to see character change as a bad thing. Of course you could argue that Mulan learns to accept herself for who she really is, but when you see her at the beginning of the film she seems to be pretty comfortable with herself already. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Mulan doesn’t have many weaknesses, but she does have a few. She’s a terrible liar, which is a serious drawback when she’s disguising herself as a man, and she’s also somewhat reckless, which puts her in real danger more than once. I’ll give her the point.

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No reason why this is here, I just really love this face she’s pulling. (image: tvtropes.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

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

Mulan is a huge influence on the plot. Whether she’s sneaking into the Chinese army, blowing up a mountain or kicking Shan Yu in the face, Mulan drives the plot forward at every turn.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Mulan is very progressive when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an unconventional young woman who dresses as a man to join the Chinese army – you can’t exactly do that while acting like a delicate little flower.

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Do it! Faint for victory! (image: giphy.com)

She does fit into some of the stereotypes that I discussed in my post about Eowyn – namely, the idea that warrior women only join up because they have to, and they give it up at the first opportunity. But even then she doesn’t fit in with all of them. She does join up because it’s the only way to stop her father being drafted, but she doesn’t give it up at the first opportunity – while she does walk away from a cushy government job at the end of the first film, in the sequel she’s still a badass warrior.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Mulan has quite a few relationships with other female characters, particularly if you count the sequel. She’s close with both her mother and grandmother, although it seems like her grandmother is more supportive. She clearly feels like she doesn’t fit in with the rest of the girls in her village and antagonises the matchmaker, despite her best efforts to cheat her way through the meeting. In the sequel she befriends three princesses and helps them escape an arranged marriage, and is idolised by many of the young girls in her village. That’s plenty of relationships, so she definitely passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Mulan is a well-rounded character who’s in control of her own destiny, isn’t dependent on gender stereotypes and has a set of clearly defined strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She may not develop all that much but that definitely isn’t enough to stop her from passing my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at another American classic – Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara, 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: Blanche DuBois

For those of you that don’t know, Blanche DuBois is one of the main characters in Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Set in post-war New Orleans, the play begins when Blanche, an ageing southern belle, goes to stay with her impoverished sister and her husband – and it pretty much all goes downhill from there. The play was pretty ground-breaking for its time and became a huge success, being made into several films and – the true benchmark of having ‘made it’ in popular culture – a Simpsons episode. Blanche herself has been at the centre of all this, widely hailed as one of Tennessee Williams’s most intriguing and complex 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?

The events that bring Blanche to her sister Stella’s house are pretty firmly out of her control. Once from a wealthy family, a series of deaths in the family have led to them losing their childhood home, the plantation ‘Belle Reve’. This is symptomatic of how Blanche’s hand is forced throughout the play, so she’s not exactly 100% in control of her own destiny. Various relatives fall sick and die, and of course she could have abandoned them if she wanted to – but that’s not an option for Blanche, who feels she has to take out various loans in order to pay for all the doctor’s bills/funeral expenses.

This is a pattern that repeats itself in the play. Blanche doesn’t really choose to go and stay with her sister, she has nowhere else to go – she gets run out of town after she starts an affair with a high-school student and, it’s implied, has no money to set herself up anywhere else. Blanche doesn’t really want to marry Mitch – but she wants to get out of Stanley and Stella’s apartment, still doesn’t have enough money to take off on her own and marrying Mitch seems like the best option. Blanche doesn’t want to tell Mitch about her past – but she has to, when Stanley tells him about it and Mitch confronts her.

So Blanche isn’t really in control of her own destiny – other people and events constantly force her hand. By the end of the play all control has been taken from her, as being raped by Stanley has triggered a full nervous breakdown and she’s about to be committed to a mental hospital. But this is actually an important part of her character, and a recurring theme in Tennessee Williams’s work. Blanche is a delicate, ethereal character who cannot survive in the world as it is. The realities of life repeatedly break her, until there’s nothing left to take from her and she is eventually driven mad. Blanche is so fragile that she cannot deal with the world as it really is – she cannot take control of her own life, so she makes a fantasy life that’s much more in line with how she thinks ought to be. This fantasy is the only thing she’s really in control of.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Blanche is a very cultured character – we know she enjoys music, dancing and poetry. It’s safe to assume that she enjoys all the pastimes of the ‘accomplished woman’, which I’ve touched on in various other posts.

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

Her beliefs are well-discussed in the play: she clings to old-fashioned ideas about chivalry and manners, expects people to show her a certain amount of deference and prefers fantasy to reality. She also firmly believes in her own little fantasy world, where she is a delicate Southern beauty, adored from all sides, and literally cannot face up to anything that punctures that illusion. Her goals are pretty clear too: she wants to get away from her past and to marry Mitch, even though he’s not everything she hoped for.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Blanche is a very consistent character. She’s charming, flirty, delicate, ethereal, sensitive and mostly kind, but she’s also a very traditional woman who’s so firmly entrenched in her fantasy world that she rarely sees things for how they actually are. She’s also quite spoiled and needs constant flattery to feel good about herself, and extremely concerned with her looks.

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 fragile, flirty woman goes to stay with her sister when she loses the family home, and begins to lose her grip on reality.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

The question of Blanche’s love life is a little complicated. It’s certainly a central feature of her character, as she spends most of the play flirting with men and trying to get Mitch to propose to her. However, it’s also made very clear that this is the result of a pretty traumatic experience in her youth, when she discovered her young husband having a homosexual affair which ended up leading to his suicide.

Blanche’s relationships with men are pretty complicated. Two things are made clear in the play: that Blanche’s self-esteem is directly related to what men think of her and that her husband’s death has left a void, that she has tried to fill with meaningless sexual relationships, which may or may not include some sex work. So Blanche’s love life isn’t just about her wanting to find a boyfriend, it’s also a means to an end: it makes her feel better about herself, gives her confidence, and has become a kind of crutch for the grief she hasn’t really been able to deal with.

Even when she meets Mitch, it’s not a straightforward love story. Mitch is clearly enchanted by her, but the same cannot be said for Blanche. She likes him, but she does not love him. He is the only one of Stanley’s friends who is polite to her and expresses any kind of interest in culture, so she really just sees him as the best of a bad bunch. Mitch represents an escape: both from Blanche’s sordid past and from the explosive tension between her and Stanley. It’s not Mitch she really wants, it’s what he can bring her.

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That’s not what I meant, but I’ll take it. (image: giphy.com)

There’s no getting away from the fact that most of Blanche’s decisions are related to her love life. However, Blanche’s love life represents more than just her romantic feelings: it’s a chance to make a new life, a way of supporting her fragile self-esteem and a coping mechanism for her grief. Genuine feelings don’t really come into it. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Blanche does develop over the course of the play, but not in a positive way at all. Her tenuous grip on reality is finally shattered and she has a full nervous breakdown, leaving the last of her independence and sanity behind her. It’s not a nice development but it is a change in her character that’s well plotted out, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Blanche has plenty of weaknesses. She’s fickle, she’s manipulative, she’s a snob, she constantly resorts to sex and alcohol to deal with her problems – Blanche has weaknesses in spades. But her biggest weakness is her inability to face up to reality. She constructs an elaborate fantasy world around herself, filled with rich Southern gentlemen coming to take her away, and is so convinced that it is real that pointing out the truth is almost painful to her.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

Blanche is an influence on the plot. It’s not always her actions that drive it forward, but it is certainly the decisions she makes in her relationships. The way she treats the other characters in particular is a real influence on the action, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

At first glance you might think that Blanche is the typical Southern belle – very prim and proper, and hung up on the idea of class and Southern manners. However, as the play goes on it becomes clear that this is only what she wants to be, rather than what she is. The result is a kind of tragic subversion of the trope which leaves the audience with conflicting impressions of her.

For example: Blanche is a fickle, flighty and flirty woman who manipulates men into doing what she wants, needs compliments in order to feel good about herself and spends most of the play fussing about her appearance. However, this masks a plethora of insecurities – about her looks, about ending up alone and friendless, and about her identity as a woman – which gradually becomes visible as the play goes on. She comes across as a demure lady, shy and retiring when a man starts putting the moves on her – but she is actually very promiscuous, and only acts this way because she wants a real relationship and not a meaningless fling. She’s the epitome of a high-class heiress from old money – but all the money is gone, she’s been driven out of her hometown after her various sexual escapades, and the audience doesn’t know if all the millionaires she name-drops are even real.

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I’m really glad this millionaire isn’t real. (image: yourtango.com)

Blanche is a character that uses gender stereotypes to prop up her flagging self-esteem. She’s incredibly insecure and really leans in to the idea of the ‘delicate Southern belle’ in order to feel good about herself. She has an idea of what she should be – but that’s not what she is. This is just another aspect of Blanche’s mental instability, but it also ties into the pay’s commentary on the toxic nature of gender stereotypes. Williams makes much of the destructive nature of the hyper-masculine Stanley, and goes to great lengths to show the damage this can cause, but Blanche can just as easily be held up as an attempt to showcase how feminine gender stereotypes can be. Instead of accepting that she is a woman who enjoys sex and drinking, she insists that she is a proper lady who would never dream of such things, even while she’s doing them. In attempting to hold herself up to these beliefs, Blanche is tearing a hole through her self-esteem and spinning out a web of denial – which she can’t help but be caught in.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Blanche doesn’t really relate to many other female characters. We only see her interact with two: her sister, Stella, and Eunice, Stella’s neighbour. Her relationship with Eunice is nothing more than cordial, although Eunice does help her when she’s being taken to the mental hospital. It’s her relationship with Stella that has the real meat to it, with both of them reconciling themselves with the loss of their family home and Stanley’s aggressive presence.

Stella and Blanche have a very complicated relationship. They love each other but are so fundamentally different that there’s a gulf between them. Stella waits on Blanche hand and foot, but ultimately chooses to believe Stanley over her when he rapes Blanche; Blanche is concerned for Stella’s welfare, as Stanley is a textbook domestic abuser, but can’t understand that Stella actually wants to stay with him. Eventually, Stella’s rejection of her sister pretty much severs their relationship, as Blanche has completely snapped. When she decides to commit Blanche to a mental hospital she will never see her again – mental healthcare wasn’t great, and even if Stella did see her sister again she certainly wouldn’t be the same Blanche, as it’s highly likely that she would have been lobotomised.

However, while this relationship is very complicated, nuanced and symbolic of all sorts of different things, it is ultimately the only significant relationship Blanche has with another female character, so she can never ace this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

Blanche is a well-rounded character with clear beliefs and goals, strengths and weaknesses who influences the plot and has a complex relationship to gender stereotypes. She isn’t really in control of her own destiny and her decisions do revolve around her love life, but that’s enough for her to pass my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at another Disney character – one of my favourites, in fact. Mulan, I’m coming for you.

 

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