Category Archives: Strong Female Characters

Game of Thrones: Ten Predictions for Season Seven

Tomorrow, the first episode of Game of Thrones season seven airs, and I’m displaying the amount of enthusiasm that is appropriate to a respectable adult.

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YES BRUV (image: giphy.com)

I’ve been watching the show for a few years now and one of the things I like most about it is the way it can keep me guessing. I never know what’s going to happen, especially since the show started veering away from the books. I’ve always had a bit of a knack for guessing where plots end up going, so the element of surprise is a huge draw for me.

I’ve got no clue what’s going to happen in season seven but here are my ten best guesses, plus a wild card thrown in. Spoilers are coming.

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Seriously, EVERYTHING. (image: imgur.com)

 

  1. Stark family reunion

Ever since Jon and Sansa were reunited in season six, there’s been talk of a full Stark reunion. Now, it looks like the surviving Starks are at least heading to the same place. Arya is heading north and Bran is turning back towards the Wall. It looks like both of them are heading to Winterfell, and shots from the trailers appear to support this.

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She looks really chilly, she must be heading north. (image: HBO/showsnob.com)

I think this is probably one of the most likely things to happen in season seven, and not just because I want an excuse to cry big ugly tears and eat my feelings. The Stark family split up right at the beginning of the series: Jon headed for the Wall; Ned, Sansa and Arya went to King’s Landing; Bran and Rickon stayed in the north; Robb and Catelyn went off to war (which really didn’t end well). As the series went on they were split up even further: Ned was executed, Robb and Catelyn were murdered, Sansa was held hostage in King’s Landing, Arya ran off to Braavos via the Riverlands, Bran went beyond the Wall and Rickon wandered into a trap with Osha. With the series as a whole coming to an end, I think it’s likely their storyline will come full circle and we’ll see them reunite.

The showrunners have used this particular quote from Ned in this season’s promo material: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.” Ned originally says this to Arya when he’s trying to explain the importance of family – it’s essentially a wolfier version of ‘untied we stand, divided we fall’. I think that’s a pretty strong hint that the Starks will get back together and be a much more serious threat. How long that reunion lasts is another matter.

 

  1. Daenerys will lose a dragon

There hasn’t been much hinting for this one in the season seven promo material, so this is mostly speculation. Hear me out. Remember Euron Greyjoy?

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You know, the damp one with the sideburns. (image: gameofthrones.wikia.com)

He became king of the Iron Islands last season when he won that special clifftop election. In the books this is pretty significant, as Euron has a magical horn called Dragonbinder that he claims can control dragons. This hasn’t been tested yet, as the horn hasn’t got close enough to any dragons to have an effect. We know it has some magical properties (it kills the man who sounds it from the inside out) but the dragon thing hasn’t been confirmed. This is what wins him the election, and Euron and his Ironborn start making plans to reach Daenerys and take the Iron Throne. Euron’s storyline in the show is obviously different to the books, but his end goals are still the same: he wants to marry Daenerys and conquer the Seven Kingdoms.

I’m pretty sure that Daenerys won’t marry him. She’s already allied with Yara and Theon and promised to overthrow Euron in their favour. I also don’t think she’d respond well to Euron’s particular brand of charm, mainly because he has none. So Euron’s only option would be to take a dragon by force using magic. This probably wouldn’t be all that difficult, as Daenerys’s control over her dragons is shaky at best. She can command them to burn things, but she can’t always get them to stop – just look at season four.

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Pretty sure that this incident isn’t going to be a one-off. (image: gameofthrones.wikia.com)

The show hasn’t actually confirmed that Euron has Dragonbinder, so this may not happen exactly as I laid out. Regardless, I think it’s still a likely twist. At the moment Daenerys has an army of Unsullied, an army of Dothraki, Varys, the Sand Snakes, Tyrion Lannister, and three fully-grown fire-breathing dragons. None of the other Westerosi lords can compete with the kind of firepower she has (heh heh literally). It’d be far too easy for her to sweep in and take the entire continent, and there’s still two more series to go. Something’s got to level the playing field. If it’s not Euron, it could be Bran warging into a dragon, or even just a dragon being killed by normal people – this has happened before in Westerosi history, when dragons were trapped in confined spaces. But my money’s on the Euron storyline, mainly because it would make things so much more interesting if someone else had a dragon on their side.

 

  1. Jaime will break with Cersei

A rift has grown between Jaime and Cersei over the past few seasons. Since Jaime lost his hand (and met our precious warrior angel, Brienne) he’s redefined his notions of honour and bravery. He helped Tyrion escape when he knew Cersei wanted him dead. He obeys her orders, but it’s become increasingly clear that he’s not happy about it.

Cersei has changed too. She’s become more paranoid and scheming than ever, but she’s also not very good at it. She blamed Jaime for being taken prisoner and has repeatedly mocked him for things that are beyond his control. She’s become incredibly twisted since her humiliation at the hands of the Faith of the Seven. What’s more, all three of her and Jaime’s children are dead, so aside from their secret relationship (which has been floundering, given the time they’ve spent apart) the bonds between Jaime and Cersei are starting to crack.

I think that in the next season this will only get worse. It’s pretty clear that Jaime wasn’t happy with Cersei’s decision to declare herself queen – just look at his face:

It’s not hard to see why. Aside from the fact that Cersei’s terrible decisions have actively made everything worse (i.e. arming a group of religious fanatics), Cersei is responsible for the death of their uncle, Kevan Lannister, and indirectly responsible for the death of their son, Tommen. I’m not sure that Jaime will be able to forget that.

There are a few shots of Jaime and Cersei together in the trailer, so I don’t think this will happen right away. But in the second trailer there’s more shots of Jaime on his own, which could be a nice little bit of foreshadowing from the showrunners. Let’s not forget that Tyrion is also heading back to Westeros this season, and fans have speculated that there’s some shots of Casterly Rock. I wonder if this means we’re in for a Lannister reunion as well as a Stark one. Given that Jaime loves Tyrion enough to set him free against Cersei’s orders, I’m really excited to see if Jaime will have to choose between his two siblings. There is also the little matter of the valonquar prophecy mentioned in the books – but personally, I think that’s one for season eight.

 

  1. Jorah will die of greyscale

Yeah, he’s a goner. It’s an incurable disease and he knows it’s spreading. He’s a dead man walking.

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Jebediah and I would be best mates. (image: reviewtoakill.wordpress.com)

 

  1. The Wall will be compromised

In the previous season Bran’s time-bending vision quests were all fine and dandy until the Night’s King showed up and ruined everything. In a vision where he sees an army of White Walkers and their ice zombies, the wights, this incredibly creepy thing happens:

The mark the Night’s King leaves on Bran’s arm lets him get past Bloodraven’s magic. The one safe place north of the Wall that was supposed to be safe from the Night’s King was blown wide open, and of course our favourite ice zombie came storming in and tried to kill everybody. The show makes it explicitly clear that it’s the mark that has made this possible. Who’s to say that this magic won’t work on the Wall itself? We know that Bran is heading south, and there’s no reason to suggest that the mark would only work once. The Wall isn’t made of just ice; there’s magic holding it together too. If it’s the same kind of magic that protected Bloodraven’s hideout, Westeros could be in trouble.

This is all but confirmed in the books through the character of Coldhands (which the show morphed into Benjen Stark). Coldhands is essentially a good wight: he’s a member of the undead that has somehow been enchanted to regain his sense of self. The books make it explicitly clear that Coldhands cannot enter Bloodraven’s cave or cross the Wall due to the magic imbued in both. If Bran’s mark was enough to break the wards on Bloodraven’s cave and let the undead through, why wouldn’t it do the same to the Wall?

 

  1. Sam will find an important secret about the White Walkers in the Great Library, but die before he can deliver the information to Jon

This is exactly the kind of thing that Game of Thrones would do. In fact, they’ve done it before, in pretty much every series. But I won’t just leave it at that.

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OR WILL I (image: tumblr.com)

Sam was sent to Oldtown to become a Maester for the Night’s Watch after Maester Aemon’s death. He goes to the library at the Maester’s Citadel, and it’s been made very clear that Sam will read anything that stays still long enough. In previous seasons he read about the White Walkers before the rest of the cast encountered them, and has also read about the history of the Night’s Watch. I think it’s extremely likely that in his time in Oldtown, he will go to the library and look up those subjects again, if only to see how he can help Jon.

However, that’s not all Sam has been up to. He stopped to visit his family on the way, and while he was there he got into a fight with his awful father. He stole the family sword, a Valyrian steel greatsword called Heartsbane. This was a terrible decision all round, because not only is Sam not very good at using a sword, Heartsbane is a highly recognisable and valuable heirloom which his father, Randall Tarly, is deeply proud of. Randall has been adamant that Sam will never inherit Heartsbane, and he hates the idea of him having the sword.

So here’s what I think will happen. Sam will use his time in the library to look up White Walkers, the Wall, wights, and the Night’s Watch – anything that could be useful in the fight against terrifying ice zombies. I think it’s likely he’ll discover something important: the Citadel’s library is the largest in Westeros and is rumoured to have all sorts of secret knowledge. But just as he’s found his secret, Randall Tarly will pop up and kill him, take back Heartsbane, and prevent Sam from ever delivering his very important message. Because that’s just the kind of show this is.

 

  1. Littlefinger will die

I’m not entirely sure if Littlefinger is going to pop his clogs in season seven or season eight, but regardless of which I think his days are numbered.

Despite the fact that he’s only second to Varys in terms of craftiness, when you actually look at Littlefinger’s assets he doesn’t have as much as you might think. He was in a very different position at the beginning of the series: Master of Coin, Lord of Harrenhal, and the owner of at least a third of Westeros’s most thriving industry – brothels. When he married Lysa Arryn he also became Lord of the Vale. For a while it looked as though he might have control over three of the Seven Kingdoms: the Vale, the Riverlands and the North (mainly because he kept on trying to marry Sansa).

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

But things have changed. Littlefinger isn’t Master of Coin or Lord of Harrenhal any more; he lost both of those titles when he defected from the Lannisters. He doesn’t have anywhere near as much money to play with, either, as his wealthiest brothels (ie. the ones in King’s Landing) were destroyed by the Faith Militant. He’s now Lord Protector of the Vale, but that isn’t a position that can really last. He’s acting as Protector for Robin Arryn, who is Lord of the Vale in name only, but Robin is fifteen and won’t need a Protector for that much longer. Littlefinger doesn’t have much loyalty from the other lords of the Vale either; the interactions we’ve seen have been marked with tension and hostility on both sides. House Tyrell has also been destroyed – and this is significant, because in a scene at the end of season five, Olenna Tyrell tells Littlefinger that if her grandchildren are harmed, she will reveal his involvement in Joffrey’s murder.

What’s more, Sansa has shown absolutely no interest in marrying Littlefinger, which scuppers his future plans. This is understandable considering he betrayed her father, murdered her aunt and arranged Sansa’s marriage to a rapist and psychopath – oh, who was also the son of the man who murdered and betrayed her mother and oldest brother. It’s going to take a lot of roses and chocolates to make her forget that.

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Dogs really are a woman’s best friend. (image: gurl.com)

Littlefinger is now in Winterfell. He has the Knights of the Vale with him, but they aren’t loyal to him personally. Olenna Tyrell may be about to make his involvement in Joffrey’s murder public knowledge, which would turn the Lannisters against him for good (along with a few other families besides). He’s cut off from what resources he has and winter is fast approaching; when the snows get deep he might not be able to leave the castle at all. Littlefinger is a southerner with a reputation for deviousness and trickery, which wouldn’t exactly sit well with some of the more straight-talking northerners. He’s surrounded on all sides by people who neither like nor trust him. I’d be surprised if he left Winterfell alive.

The trailers have dropped a few hints about this. There’s a couple of brief shots of Littlefinger being attacked which have got people talking, and as I mentioned earlier there’s been a lot of focus on Stark family values. Littlefinger is trying to sow discord between Sansa and Jon, but given the strong hints we’ve been getting about Starks banding together I don’t think this’ll work. Besides, with the show eventually gearing up for the inevitable dragons vs ice zombies battle, sooner or later the political stuff is going to have to be set aside – and that’ll probably mean the end of Littlefinger’s story arc.

 

  1. Bran will possess a wight

Bran is becoming an incredibly powerful character. His weird mind-hopping powers (aka. warging and greenseeing) give him the ability to access knowledge no-one could have dreamt of and to jump in and out of other beings’ minds. Since last season it’s not limited to animals any more; he can now possess human beings. Why not a wight?

Of course, there are a few flaws in this theory. We don’t actually know how Bran’s powers work but so far, all that’s been confirmed is that they can work on living things. As the wights are reanimated ice zombies this presents a problem: we don’t know if it’ll work on the dead. There’s a good chance that they wouldn’t. Wights are reanimated corpses, but whatever magic holds them together doesn’t seem to stop them from decaying at the normal rate. I don’t know much about mind control, but I’m willing to bet that it’s much more difficult to pick someone’s brain when it’s literally rotting out of their skull.

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It is. (image: giphy.com)

But Game of Thrones is fantasy, and as such Bran’s powers are more likely to be limited by magical restrictions than biological ones. With that in mind I think this theory stands a better chance. If you look at the way the wights and White Walkers interact, it’s pretty clear that the White Walkers are the ones calling the shots. Wights seem to be creatures ruled by their killing instinct; left to their own devices they attack on sight. It’s only when a White Walker is around that they move like a more intelligent being, whether that’s by waiting for their prey or trying to herd it. Instructions are clearly being given. Odds are they aren’t verbal, as we never see a White Walker speak, and we rarely see them communicate with gestures. The White Walkers’ interactions (in general, not just with the wights) are marked by an unnatural kind of stillness, with very few visible signs of communication. As they clearly are communicating in some way, this leads me to assume it’s telepathic.

So if the White Walkers can control wights with some kind of telepathic connection, why can’t Bran? He clearly has very powerful abilities; we’ve seen him possess a fully-grown man in the present while his own consciousness was trapped in the past. The Night’s King has also left a brand on his arm. So far this has only been negative, as it allowed the Night’s King to break Bloodraven’s magic seals and track Bran down. But what if there are benefits to this that Bran hasn’t yet discovered? What if, in marking Bran, the Night’s King left a little piece of himself behind – and perhaps, some of his powers?

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…who left that there? (image: quirkybyte.com)

 

  1. Daenerys will begin exhibiting signs of her father’s madness

Quick recap for those of you that don’t have time for a binge watch. Daenerys’s father, Aerys II, was the king before Robert Baratheon took the throne. He started off all right but then went mad, which is mainly due to the fact that the Targaryen kings were really into the concept of sister-wives.

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

Madness has been a pretty consistent feature of the Targaryen dynasty, and after centuries of incest it’s not hard to see why. If you look through Game of Thrones lore there’s a few other Targaryen kings who went mad too, and they were often pretty cruel along with it. So there’s a reasonable chance that Daenerys could’ve inherited this from her father. Much like Daenerys, Aerys started out as a promising ruler; it was only later that these tendencies began to surface. Daenerys’s parents were siblings, so her chances of inheriting some of this behaviour will be much more likely than if they weren’t already related.

What’s more, the show has set another precedent: we’ve actually seen Aerys. Before season six we never actually saw his character in action, he was only ever talked about. But thanks to Bran’s crazy mind powers, we got a brief glimpse of Aerys in the full grip of his madness. Now that an actor has actually been cast, I can’t help but wonder if we’re in for more flashbacks, which could serve as a parallel to Daenerys’s own storyline.

Daenerys has changed a lot over the course of the show. She’s gone from a sweet, naïve girl to a competent and determined ruler, but she’s had to be brutal to get there. She’s crucified people, fed people to her dragons, and burned people alive – which was something that her father was famous for doing. She’s slowly become a much more violent person. It’s a necessary part of her journey to becoming a ruler – she has to prove that she’s just as brutal as the rest of the Westerosi knights and lords, or they won’t accept her claim – but it’s not clear if she’ll know when to stop.

I think this is exactly the sort of thing that Game of Thrones would do to mess with the viewers. So far Daenerys’s storyline has been pretty standard: the exiled ruler returns to take their rightful place on the throne. Dany’s journey hasn’t really been thrown off course. A few people have died along the way, but ultimately she’s still doing exactly what she set out to do – unlike any other character on the show. That sweet and simple storyline is far from the kind of nasty surprise that Game of Thrones likes to spring on us.

 

  1. Cleganebowl

IN THE RED CORNER: The Mountain. Ser Gregor Clegane, over eight feet tall and strong enough to rip a man’s jaw off (no, really). He’s back from the dead, he’s got new Darth Vader armour and he’s out for blood.

IN THE BLUE CORNER: The Hound. Sandor Clegane, back in the game after he was left for dead. His wounds are healed, he’s got a sweet new Brotherhood to hang out with, and he’s all out of chickens. You know what that means.

Get hype.

 

And now, just to make things interesting…

WILD CARD: Jorah’s greyscale has already been passed to Daenerys. She and her court get infected by the disease

Do you remember this shot from season five? Daenerys has just been attacked in the fighting pits of Meereen, and in swoops Jorah the Explorer, ready to save her:

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Side note: this is just a really lovely shot. (image: cinematiccorner.blogspot.com)

That moment was very sweet, but it might have a nasty sting in the tail. In season four Jorah is banished from Daenerys’s service. He wonders around being miserable for a bit until he kidnaps Tyrion and decides to bring him to Daenerys as a gift. Most men go for flowers, but whatever. On their way back to Meereen, Jorah and Tyrion fight some men infected with greyscale (aka. the Stone Men) and Jorah contracts the disease.

No-one really knows how greyscale is spread. Most people in Westeros think it could be through touch, but this hasn’t actually been proved. It could be spread by anything – rats, water, air, contaminated food, you name it. But it’s infectious and incurable, and Jorah’s got it.

And right after he was infected, he touches Dany’s hand.

Jorah didn’t touch Dany with his greyscale hand, so there’s a chance that she might not have been infected. But we can’t actually rule that out. Jorah appears to have caught the disease after one of the Stone Men touched him in the fight, so it’s likely that skin-to-skin contact will spread the disease. It’s also not clear how long the disease will take to manifest itself: Jorah has seen his symptoms appear pretty quickly, but that might well be for dramatic effect. Game of Thrones likes to keep its timeline a bit fuzzy, so the incubation period hasn’t really been confirmed.

So there is a chance that Daenerys could have been infected with the disease and it hasn’t manifested itself yet. At the moment, Daenerys and her massive army are on their way to Westeros – in a fleet of ships, where they will be stuck together for weeks at a time in very close quarters. That is exactly the kind of conditions that infectious diseases thrive in. If anyone’s got greyscale it’ll spread through the lot of them like wildfire.

This would be a pretty unsatisfying end to Dany’s story, but in some ways I can see it working. It mirrors how Khal Drogo died – a great warrior brought down by an infection that’s impossible to cure. On the show, Daenerys is often hailed as the most beautiful woman in the world, so for her to catch a disfiguring disease would be quite symbolic, in a nasty kind of way. And it’s exactly the kind of curveball that the show likes to throw at its viewers. It might be a little bit ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’, but I wouldn’t put that past the showrunners.

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I still haven’t forgiven them for the Dorne storyline. (image: giphy.com)

 

And there you have it! That’s my ten best guesses for what will happen on the next season of Game of Thrones, plus one mediocre guess just for the hell of it. Let’s see how this turns out.

Fantasy Fiction – A Closed Book?

I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.

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Mmm-mmm, tasty words. (image: giphy.com)

But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.

And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:

  • Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
  • Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
  • Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
  • Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
  • Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
  • Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.

Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.

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I mean. (image: vsbattles.wikia.com)

But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.

I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.

But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.

When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?

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Heh heh heh. Boobs. (image: giphy.com)

As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.

The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:

…it’s fantasy.

Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.

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In reality they would just crawl about like big spiders. (image: bt.com)

And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.

It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.

All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.

But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.

bYggEeT
Apart from this little hell-angel. (image: imgur.com)

Strong Female Characters: How to Use the Test

Since I started this blog I’ve had a few questions about the test from readers. I tried to answer them as best I can but never had time to properly go through the test when I was running the series. Well, that’s what I’m going to do now.

Here’s a run-down of how I answered each question on the test, with a little bit of background as to how I came up with them. It’s by no means definitive – I’m 90% sure that two people could put the same character through the test and get different results – but hopefully some of you will at least find it helpful when examining characters – or even writing your own.

 

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

One of the key problems that female characters have had to deal with is passivity. Historically, women haven’t always been portrayed as active characters – just look at all those stories about princesses waiting to be rescued from towers. It’s the first question for a reason, as it’s both a long-standing and an important problem. Essentially it boils down to this: is she in control of her own life?

It kind of overlaps with question 8, but this is how I differentiate the two. This question is a ‘big picture’ kind of question whereas question 8 is much smaller-scale. Look at the character’s overall journey through the story: is she being propelled along by other people, or is she making her own decisions? Does she get to where she wants to be? If so, is it because she’s worked for it or because chance has worked out for her? If not, why not?

You can have a lot of fun talking about ~*Fate*~ and ~*Destiny*~ with this question as obviously, it would be a bit unrealistic if literally nothing else influenced the course of a character’s life. Background and setting are important here. A character who always does what she’s told can be pretty boring. But if the character has grown up controlled by a totalitarian government and would be executed for stepping out of line, that’s a pretty good excuse, and it makes her much more interesting. This is also something that you should always bear in mind for historical characters, as they were likely written with a completely different idea of what constituted as acceptable behaviour for women.

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Although apparently whatever she’s doing to this dog is allowed. (image: the-toast.net)

Try and keep small stuff out of the question here and look at the overall story arc for the character. Look at her motivation and the society she comes from. Bear all of these in mind when reaching your decision, as they all have an impact – and if you’re stuck, give her a half point.

 

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

This question is really designed to work out whether a character is properly fleshed out. Ideally, a well-written character should have all three.

  1. What does the character want? It doesn’t have to be something she’s actively working towards, and it doesn’t have to be something that’s always relevant to the plot. She’s just got to have them – even if she’s only saving up for a girls’ weekend in Lanzarotte.
  2. What does the character believe? How does this affect her decisions? Is she in line with, or opposed to, any significant beliefs mentioned in the plot? You should be able to state an opinion belonging to any well-written character. It’s a reflection of what and how they think, so this is really vital.
  3. What does the character do for fun? How does she choose to spend her free time? This often falls by the wayside for many characters, particularly when they’re in a very fast-paced story which doesn’t have many slow moments. But it’s a very easy way to make a character seem more realistic, which is often overlooked.

These are often interlinked with both each other and the wider elements of the plot, but that doesn’t matter. As long as a character has all three, she’s well on her way. It’s important that these are properly followed through, though – it’s no good saying that a character loves reading if you never see her crack a book open. The best characters’ goals, beliefs and hobbies are reinforced in their actions. Just look at how many times Hermione mentions Hogwarts: A History.

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It’s her favourite, much like all these other books. (image: stoppingandsmellingtherose.wordpress.com)

It’s also important that a character’s goals, beliefs and hobbies are truly her own. Personally, I really dislike it when a female character meets the male lead and promptly changes her entire worldview to fit his. That’s not to say that a character should be static: just that if her goals, hobbies and beliefs are going to change, this development should be treated with care. We should be able to see the change and understand what this means for her.

This is a question where it helps to imagine the character as a real person. Put yourself in their shoes as much as possible and answer these questions:

  • What do you want?
  • What do you believe?
  • What do you enjoy?

If you have an answer for all three, you’re doing well – but this is only half of it. Then, you need to pull back and look at things more critically. Are your answers backed up? Can you point to specific incidents where the character is shown working toward goals, living by what she believes, or just doing something she enjoys? Did these things suddenly appear right after she met a male character, or can you show that she’s been consistent regardless of who she’s met? If you can answer all of these questions she’ll probably pass this round.

 

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

All characters should be consistent, and female characters are no exception. Essentially, what you are looking for here are moments when the character isn’t acting like herself (with no explanation given). Has a tough-as-nails badass suddenly become helpless? Is a brilliant scientist completely stumped by a simple problem? It’s that kind of thing.

Skills can often be a problem area for female characters. I’ve found that this happens quite a lot in action movies: a woman is set up to be a total badass, regularly kicking baddies in the face, but then in the final third of the film she gets captured by the villain and the heroes have to jump in and save her. It happens so often that TV Tropes has a whole page about it – grab her by the upper arm and our heroine is powerless.

On the other side of the coin, you want to make sure that any skill or personality developments are realistic. If our character decides she wants to learn kung fu and gets to black belt in a week, she’s very firmly in Mary Sue territory. I’ve talked about this on the blog before, so I’ll just leave a link and summarise. Mary Sues are ridiculously perfect characters, usually overpowered, gorgeous and drowning in potential boyfriends. The label isn’t usually applied to male characters (the counterpart, or Gary Stu, is much less common) and, if I’m honest, I do wonder if that isn’t because of the whole gender thing. But that’s a post for another time.

EbonyWay
One day… (image: myimmortal.wikia.com)

To sum up – a character should be recognisable as herself both at the beginning and the end of the story. Characters can and should change; it would be daft if they didn’t. But this should be handled realistically, and should also be dictated by the character’s own actions and experiences, rather than because there needs to be a good way to finish off the final act.

 

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

This one is pretty straightforward. I came up with this question to weed out characters who’ve only been included to fulfil the very limiting roles of ‘love interest’ and ‘eye candy’. It was originally only going to be appearance and love life, but I added ‘strong female character’ after reading this excellent article.

The crux of the question is this – female characters shouldn’t be limited. If all you can say about them is that they’re pretty, or strong, or someone’s girlfriend, then someone’s not trying hard enough. Male characters get to be complex, intelligent, difficult, demanding, intriguing, damaged, determined – and there’s absolutely no reason why female characters shouldn’t get the same treatment.

 

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

I included this question to differentiate between well-rounded characters and characters that have been introduced just to be the love interest. I’ve found that this can actually be a bit of a controversial one, as some people think that what I mean by this is that all love stories are automatically bad. OK, I’m over-simplifying here, but you get the gist.

I don’t think that love stories are rubbish by default. That would be a dismissive and blinkered point of view which is steeped in gender bias of its own – sadly, a lot of the reasons why people tend to assume that romance books are rubbish is because they’re ‘for girls’. However, that’s not to say that the genre is without its flaws. Romance stories can often make use of some very tired old gender stereotypes, some of which can be harmful. For instance, there’s a marked trend in romance fiction for ‘alpha male’ heroes – and some authors illustrate this ‘alpha’ behaviour by having their heroes stalk, kidnap, or rape the heroine.

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

It goes without saying that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be romanticised – but it is. Look at Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all tied up with the ideas surrounding traditional gender roles in relationships, and traditional ideas about both masculinity and femininity. This question is essentially a litmus test to see if any of those ideas could be present.

As a very broad rule of thumb, I’ve often found that when female characters are only ever influenced by their love lives, they usually end up falling prey to some of the more problematic gender stereotypes. But when these characters have something else in their lives that influences their decisions – be it a goal, an interest, or the influence of another character – they tend to avoid them. Allowing a female character to have a life and interests outside of her boyfriend is not only more realistic, but it makes her more well-rounded and it makes it easier to avoid unfortunate implications. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but I’ve found it works in nine cases out of ten.

To sum up: in real life, women aren’t defined by their relationships to men, so this shouldn’t be the case in fiction.

 

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

This is a question that can be applied to pretty much any character, regardless of gender. Character development is a hugely important part of any story. It adds so much – everything from emotional attachment to increasing the tension of the plot. It can reinforce both the strength of the character’s personality and the impact of the things they go through, so I think it’s a pretty crucial element.

How I scored characters on this question depended on a few different elements. I’ve listed them below:

  1. Do they develop at all?
  2. Is the change in their personality gradual or sudden?
  3. Is it proportional to the events of the plot, and the importance the character placed on them?

The first question is the easiest to answer. If a character doesn’t develop at all, then they’ve obviously failed this round. Experiences have impact, and that’s just as true for fictional characters as it is for real people.

The second question requires a broader focus – here, you want to be looking at the story in a larger sense. Look at the character’s overall story arc, taking the plot into account, and try and work out where and how the change took place. If it’s a snap change with no build up you might not do so well; if it’s a more gradual change, odds are it’ll be all right.

The third question is arguably the most important. Context is everything and this is no exception. If, for example, a character discovers a dead body, you might think that this could trigger a dramatic change in her personality – but this wouldn’t necessarily apply if she was a police officer on a murder investigation. Conversely, if a character didn’t get elected to the yearbook committee in high school, you might think that this wouldn’t be a big deal – but this might not be the case if it was something that, say, she really needed for a university application. It should all be relative – not just to the character but to the events of the plot. If our police officer was getting upset about not getting to do the yearbook, that might seem a bit out of place.

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BUT I WAS GONNA DO THE PICTURES (image: vogue.com)

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule – minor events can have significance for characters who go through very serious circumstances, and characters can ignore major events because it may be easier in their current circumstances. But as a general rule this usually works. Character development should be present, planned, and proportional – try saying that with a mouthful of crisps.

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

When I was first thinking up the test this question seemed a bit disingenuous for a blog about Strong Female Characters. But I soon realised this was crucial – and not just to avoid the dreaded Mary Sue.

I talked about this a little bit in question four – how male characters are allowed all kinds of interesting flaws, but female characters are just described as ‘strong’ and left at that. This is neither realistic nor fair. People have flaws, and so fictional representations of them should, too – and female characters should be treated with just as much complexity as male ones.

But this question is an interesting one, because this can often be a place where traditional and modern gender stereotypes connect. It’s all to do with the types of flaws a character has, and whether they actually affect her.

It goes without saying that all characters should have flaws. It makes them more interesting, more relatable, and more realistic. But when it comes to female characters, the question of flaws can get pretty complicated. If you go back – and I mean right back, into the realm of fairy tales – women tended to be boxed up as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ characters. I’m over-simplifying a little for the sake of argument, but as a general rule the mark of a ‘good’ character was their absence of flaws, and the mark of a ‘bad’ character was the sheer overwhelming number of flaws. These were not so much characters as examples for women to follow – illustrations of how they should and should not behave.

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…and thou shalt not let thine cow lick another animal’s butt, for that would be weird. (image: historylearningsite.com)

As fiction began to develop the idea that good women don’t have flaws took on a different form. Women were allowed to have flaws, but they weren’t really flaws that held them back or made them unattractive. They were often described as too pure, too innocent, too kind for their own good – essentially, flaws that made them more appealing to their audience and rarely had any negative consequences. It wasn’t a coincidence that most of these flaws were ‘fixed’ when these characters married. Now, we’ve swung the other way. People are often keen to avoid writing female characters with tangible flaws because a) writing any character with a serious flaw is difficult and b) a lot of people are convinced this will make their characters less likeable. But they also don’t want to write a fragile little flower who’s completely helpless without a man. The result is characters who are so efficient, well-adjusted and confident that they don’t really have any problems at all – and this is where the Mary Sue comes in.

So, how do you judge a female character’s flaws? I did this in two ways. First, you look at how it interacts with gender stereotypes. Is her fatal flaw that she’s so innocent, pure and naïve that she cannot recognise a bad situation when she sees it? Then you’re off to a bad start. But this isn’t completely unredeemable.

What really clinches it is how it actually affects her life. A character’s flaw should have a tangible impact on both her life and her relationships. It’s no good telling your audience that a character is a compulsive liar if we don’t see how no-one trusts her to tell the truth. It’s no good telling your audience that a character has trouble forming meaningful relationships if she immediately starts a happy and healthy relationship with the first man she sees. As long as you show the evidence of this, you can pretty much write any flaw you want. So it’s perfectly fine for a character to be so unbelievably naïve that they cannot recognise danger – but only if this has real consequences. If they blithely wander off, skipping happily towards a field of bear traps just in time to be saved by a lantern-jawed hero, then yes, she’s not going to pass this round. But if her naivety gets her into a situation where she has to directly confront the consequences of her actions, then we’ve got something much more substantial to work with.

For me, this is really exemplified by the contrast between Snow White and Sansa Stark. Both start their stories in a reasonably similar position – both innocent, naïve young girls who find themselves caught up in royal intrigues that put them in serious danger. But whereas Snow White is saved by the timely intervention of a handsome prince, Sansa has to get herself out of trouble. She realises how her naivety has led her to delude herself about people’s true motivations, learns how to survive in a brutal court, and actively tries to work against her flaws.

To sum up, these are the questions you should be asking. Is the flaw a cliché? Does it have real consequences on the character’s life? Look at how this flaw is presented, and how we see it in action. If the two match up, you’re on the right track.

 

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

As I said earlier, this question can overlap with question 1 – but the key difference between the two is that this question deals with events on a much smaller scale. You’re not looking at the overall plot here – this question is for smaller events, like individual scenes or chapters.

Essentially, what you’re really looking for here is multiple instances where the character makes a decision and that decision has a direct impact on the events of the plot. They don’t have to be huge, monumental decisions but they do have to be made.

What often lets characters down on this question is the idea of passive influence – which is why I included the ‘captured or killed’ caveat at the end of this question. Unfortunately, this tends to happen to a lot of female characters. They’re either kidnapped and the plot revolves around other people trying to rescue them, or they’re killed and the plot revolves around other people trying to avenge their death/deal with grief. If a character’s only impact is that she isn’t there and other people are sad about it, that doesn’t exactly speak wonders for her.

But these aren’t the only two ways in which passive influence can be seen. I’ve looked at quite a few characters who don’t do much of anything and the plot revolves around them. This is often related to things they have no control over – such as their social position, or the effect of some ~*Great Prophecy*~ that marks them out as special. In this case it’s not so much what they do but what they are that drives the plot forward – and that doesn’t count. I disqualified this because you can apply exactly the same traits to an inanimate object.

What a character needs to pass this round is pretty simple, which is why most of them tend to do well on this question. All you need is a couple of instances where you can show that her decisions – not her position – has a direct impact on the plot, and you’ll pass this round.

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

This was the question that tended to read most like a gender studies essay, liberal use of gifs aside. This is par for the course, considering what you really need to answer this question properly is a strong knowledge of tropes and clichés. I included this question because stereotypes are still pretty commonplace in fiction, and still have an affect on real women’s lives. It’s not just lazy to build a character using only stereotypes – it can have a very negative impact on how real people are perceived.

Look at how the story draws on traditional stereotypes. Your first step should be to see if there’s any present (and there usually are). These can take many different forms including character traits, story arcs and motivation. Is your character a pretty, shallow high school girl? Is your character a princess waiting to be rescued? Is your character’s only purpose in life to find and marry a nice man? Any one of these three is a stereotype, but they all relate to different aspects of a character’s role within a story. To properly look for stereotypes you’ll have to look at all aspects of the character and see how they compare to traditional beliefs about women.

Having identified your stereotypes, your next step should be to look at how the story treats them. If they are just repeated verbatim, then odds are the character won’t pass this round. But if the stereotypes are used subversively you’re in with a better chance. Subverting tropes can be a really interesting way of commenting on traditional roles and expectations, and there’s no better place to do this than in fiction. Does the shallow high school girl use judgemental behaviour as an outlet for her insecurities? Does the princess waiting to be rescued end up manipulating her captors? Does the woman trying to find a husband have to marry to save something else she cares about? All of these undermine traditional gender-based narratives. By allowing characters to break out of these boxes, writers can not only produce more original content but also create more interesting characters.

giphy boxcats
Go, kitties! Be free! (image: giphy.com)

It’s also very important to consider the character from an intersectional point of view. It would be naïve to assume that all female characters are subject to the same stereotypes, so it’s important to bear any other stereotypes which may affect them in mind. When I was writing these posts I often had to supplement this with extra research – I’m a young, straight white woman, so I didn’t have direct experience of some of the clichés I was writing about. Race, sexuality, disability and age all have direct affects on how real women are perceived, and so these affects need to be noted when you’re looking at fictional characters. In some cases they can completely change the meaning and implications of stereotypes. For example, you might think that a woman who spends a whole film waiting for her husband to come and rescue her would fall prey to some pretty old-fashioned gender stereotypes. But this is essentially the role of Broomhilda in Django Unchained, and Kerry Washington makes the point that this is quite subversive, as the role of damsel in distress has historically been denied to black women. Washington, who studied slave narratives at university, makes some very eloquent points on how race can affect a character’s role, and I would really encourage you to read her article.

To sum up: check for stereotypes, see how they’re treated, and always bear intersectionality in mind. And prepare yourself for a lot of head-scratching.

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

As most of you guessed, this question is based on the Bechdel Test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test was invented in 1985, and originally only applied to movies. There’s three rules: the film must contain two female characters, who must talk to each other, about something that isn’t a man (or boy). There’s also a handy cartoon:

Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin)
Ta-dah! (image: en.wikipedia.org)

The test has been widely used and discussed ever since then but the basic principles remain the same. I adapted it slightly for my version, because as many people have pointed out over the years, you can still pass the Bechdel Test and be sexist. Your first step should obviously be to see how many other female characters your character interacts with. Obviously, if there aren’t any other female characters then that’s an automatic fail.

A general rule of thumb is the more female characters you have, the better. In recent years there’s been a trend to include two female characters in a group instead of just one. This is a step forward, but if there’s only one other female character that can lead to problems of its own. What often happens is the two female characters are used as a contrast: the tomboy and the girly girl, the party animal and the stick in the mud, the innocent virgin and the temptress. This is something that should really be avoided. It reduces women into one of two groups, and depending on how one or the other is treated, can reinforce some pretty old-fashioned ideas about women. Take a look at one of the many Dracula adaptations. There are two named female characters, Mina and Lucy. Lucy is almost always portrayed as a flirt, and Mina is almost always shown to be shy and demure. Mina gets to escape death and lead a happy life – Lucy pretty much always dies horribly and then has to get staked through the heart. It’s not hard to draw some pretty unfortunate conclusions from a story like that. The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to include more than one other female character.

Next, you should look at how the characters interact. If they spend the whole story fighting over a man, or getting jealous of each other’s dresses, then you’re probably going to fail here too. But if they interact in different ways depending on each other’s actions and motivations, you’re probably onto a winner. The best relationships between female characters take this into account. The ideal would be something like Buffy, where there’s a range of different female characters. This allows for different kinds of relationships to be displayed – everything from friendship to enmity to romance – and the characters’ actions and decisions have a direct impact on the tone of these relationships. They grow with the characters, and that’s what makes it work so well.

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That’s it Xander, just stand at the back while I make my point. (image: avclub.com)

So there you have it! That is how to use the test. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful. If you tweak the questions slightly, you can also use the test for male characters too. I’ve found that leaving out questions 5 and 10 and changing the pronouns for the rest will usually cover most characters fairly well.

And that’s it for my Strong Female Characters series. But it’s not the end of this blog. I’ll be starting up two new series: one where I’ll talk about general trends in fiction and storytelling and another, sillier one called Book Recipes. There’ll be a new post every two weeks, so watch this space!

I’ll kick things off with the first Book Recipe – How to Write a Military SF novel. Bring your lasers.

 

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

Strong Female Characters: What I Learned

Hey guys! I’ve returned to the blogosphere. Here’s what I’ve been doing for the past few months:

  • Reading
  • Learning Russian
  • Making a fool of myself at various social occasions
  • A little bit of writing of my own
  • Eating pizza

And absolutely nothing else that was not included on that list.

funny-cat-beer-sitting-television
The rest of the time I just sat around like this. (image: memey.com)

But now that the Strong Female Characters series is over, I’ve had an opportunity to think about what I’ve learned in writing the posts. That’s just as well – if, after a hundred-post series that lasted over two years, I’d learned nothing, then there’d be something wrong. Maintaining the series taught me a lot about reading, writing and thinking critically, and this seems as good a time as any to put it all down.

Because I’m a sucker for a consistent format, here’s ten things I learned while working on the series:

 

  1. Writing is hard

This one feels like it should be a no-brainer, but it’s at the top of the list for a reason. Writing is bloody difficult. It took me a lot of effort to lay out my thoughts on each character in a vaguely comprehensible manner, and I didn’t even come up with the characters in the first place. A lot of hard work went into the characters I looked at, whether they passed or failed, and you have to respect that.

 

  1. Criticism can be a positive experience

Writing the blog series gave me a set of criteria that I had to look for in every single character, which covered most a range of different literary skills. I can tell you with absolute certainty that this has made me a better writer. Looking at fiction critically has been a real help and it’s given me a whole new perspective on things. It also gives me a chance to re-examine stories I really enjoy and has introduced me to completely new things. It’s actually pretty fun!

 

  1. Planning is key

At least five of the blog posts went live when I was out of the country. Loads more went live when I was stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere. I could never have stuck to any kind of schedule if I just made them all up on the spot. A normal post took a couple of hours to write, and maybe one more to lay out properly. I often had to work several weeks in advance, particularly if I was working with a comparison post, and I often tried to look ahead to see if there were any trends I could try and jump onto (but most of the time that didn’t work). I started preparing for the Anastasia Steele post in October – ten weeks before it actually went live.

 

  1. Peppermint tea can get you through just about anything

See above. Also works for indigestion, heartbreak, work-stress and minor natural disasters.

 

  1. There is such a thing as too much choice

It was really, really hard to choose who to talk about. There were so many characters that I still wanted to look at when I ended the series – the running list I kept alongside the posts has over forty characters on it. I tried to choose characters that I thought were relevant, interesting and meant something to people, but there’s loads of them that I missed.

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It would’ve been so perfect… (image: abc.net.au)

 

  1. Context is hugely important

This can have such a big effect on how a story and a character are received. The time and place in which a story is written can radically change how we examine its characters – just look at Lizzie Bennet and Jane Eyre. Every time I wrote about a historical character I had to brush off my researcher skills, because it’s just such a big part of how characters are received. This goes for so many other aspects of the posts – including agency, stereotypes and characters’ beliefs, to name a few – because when a character hasn’t been properly fleshed out, the reader often has to fill in the blanks themselves.

 

  1. Never try and write a blog post while cooking your dinner

Something will burn. Unless it’s soup, soup is probably fine.

 

  1. Knowing where to stop is just as important as knowing how to begin

When I first came up with the idea of the series I pretty much pulled it out of my hat. I made up the test myself, picked whichever characters I felt like talking about and just went with it. As I’m sure you’ve picked up from the posts, it took me a while to get into the swing of things.

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Don’t worry, monkey, it’s a learning curve. (image: giphy.com)

But as much as I enjoyed it, it was a very time-consuming project and keeping it up meant I just didn’t have the time to do the things I really enjoyed. I wanted to stop from about the second half of 2016 onwards – but I didn’t just want to stop the series, I wanted to properly finish it. That’s why I kept going until post number 100 and why I chose such a terrible, terrible character to talk about. I didn’t want to keep going for the sake of it and end up resenting the whole project, but I did want to go out with a bang.

 

  1. Nothing is perfect…

If you look hard enough you’ll find a flaw in anything. A lot of this comes down to opinion, but usually there’s always something. Personally, I think this is a good thing – I don’t see any other way to become a more critical reader and writer if you aren’t willing to look for the flaws in things you enjoy.

 

  1. …and that’s okay.

I ended up failing loads of characters that I really like. Lizzie Bennet, Marion Ravenwood, Princess Leia, Peggy Carter, Morticia Addams, Harley Quinn…the list goes on (and on). But even though I had to pick apart the ways these characters weren’t as good as they could’ve been, that doesn’t mean I don’t like them any more. I really enjoyed looking at old favourites in a new way, even if they didn’t do as well as I hoped. It gave me a chance to think about them in a new light, and sometimes meant I discovered whole new things I liked about them that I just hadn’t thought about before. Despite its flaws, I still watch Beauty and the Beast pretty much every time I’m hungover, and that’s probably not going to stop any time soon.

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I still don’t know how to feel about this version though. (image: comingsoon.net)

 

So there you have it – ten things I learned from the Strong Female Characters series. Hopefully that’s shed some light on some of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I’ll be doing one more post to round off the series completely, where I talk about how the test works in more detail, but after that the series will be well and truly done with.

“So what’s next for Jo Writes Stuff?” I hear you cry.

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Just…just listen really carefully. (image: istockphoto.com)

Well, I still have a lot of feelings about fiction, so you can definitely expect some more vague ramblings about that. There’s no new series in the works just yet, but I definitely haven’t finished with the blogosphere. Watch this space!

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Anastasia Steele

Anastasia Steele.

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

I’m sure you’ve all heard of her by now, but for those in the cheap seats here’s a quick recap. Anastasia Steele is the heroine of the Fifty Shades trilogy, a series of books about an innocent young woman who falls in love with a billionaire who likes BDSM. I could go into more detail but that’s pretty much all the plot there is.

The series started out as Twilight fanfiction, but a hop, skip and a quick name change later, Anastasia – or AnaBella, as she’s more widely known – was thrust (heh heh) into the public consciousness. This series was absolutely everywhere and it’s still refusing to die. Fifty Shades of Grey has been credited with bringing erotica into the mainstream, making BDSM cool, revitalising the publishing industry and spicing up millions of marriages. The story was nothing new – ‘innocent young virgin meets broody hottie with dark secret’ is not exactly original – but for some reason this trilogy completely dominated bookshops for a solid three years. And yes, by some reason I mean E.L. James’s pre-exisiting Twilight fan base and lots of explicit sex.

You just couldn’t get away from it – and in fact it’s still pretty tricky to escape it, because E.L. James is rewriting the entire trilogy from her rapey hero’s point of view. You don’t have to go too far to find an article about how Fifty Shades is a new kind of feminism, gave women permission to enjoy sex, and probably did the washing-up on its way out. At the height of the series’ popularity it spawned enough merchandise to sink a ship, and it wasn’t all sex toys – you can still buy Fifty Shades baby clothes, although presumably you’re going to have to wait until you’ve stopped vomiting before you hand over your credit card.

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Looks like I’ll be here a while… (image: memegenerator.com)

But most of the hype around the series focused on its hero – the dark, brooding sexpot that is Christian Grey. This kind of makes sense – whether you love him or want to set him on fire, you have to admit that Christian is what really draws people into the series. Next to him and his helicopter, Ana tends to fade into the background.

Well, not any more. Anastasia Ridiculous Name Steele is under my microscope because it turns out I’m just as much of a glutton for punishment as she is. Let’s get cracking – and watch out for spoilers!

 

NOTE: Since I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, this post is likely going to be NSFW. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if your boss starts looking over your shoulder.

 

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

Here’s the thing: when you boil down Fifty Shades of Grey to its most basic components, it’s pretty much rigged against Ana from the start. She meets Christian Grey, who pursues her romantically until they get married. It’s made explicitly clear that he is the one pursuing her, not the other way around. That is not exactly a plotline which will allow a woman to take her destiny into her own hands.

Even when you take her boyfriend out of the equation, she’s still not in control over her own life. The interview she conducts at the beginning of the first book isn’t something she arranged herself – it was set up by a friend, who conveniently got sick and made Ana go instead. At the end of the last book she lies to Christian in an attempt to save his sister – by doing exactly what she’s told when his sister Mia is kidnapped, complying with the kidnappers’ demands instead of calling the police. Ana is set up to be a passive character from the start, and this continues all through the trilogy. This is largely because the Fifty Shades trilogy draws on some pretty old themes from romance novels: namely that the man must do the pursuing, and that the woman must sit around, look attractive, and be pursued.

And this is exactly what happens. Ana is not in control of her own life – Christian is. When she stumbles into his office, she’s so attractive that he shows up at her workplace to see if she’s interested in dating him. Kate gets Ana to organise a photoshoot to go with the interview she conducted, and he insists on taking her out for coffee. She drunk-dials him, so he decides to whisk her off to a hotel room where she can sleep off her drink – by tracing her phone and showing up at the bar.

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Benedict Cumberbatch wants you to respect people’s Cumber-boundaries. (image: reactiongifs.com)

He’s the one who pushes her into signing the NDA, and tries to get her to sign the contract. He’s the one who insists on taking her virginity before they have any kind of proper arrangement or relationship. He’s the one who introduces Ana to BDSM, as she’s never had any kind of sexual experience before – and yes, that apparently includes using Google. He’s the one who pushes her too far, which leads to her calling it quits – and he pursues her again until she agrees to get back with him. He buys the company she works at after she refuses to work for him, he fires her boss when he starts coming onto Ana, and he’s the one who decides to take their relationship to the next level by proposing. He gets her to stop using her maiden name at work. He tries to stop her from going out for drinks with her friends. She says she needs some space from his intensity and flies across the US to visit her mother; he follows her.

That’s just a bare-bones overview of the things Christian controls. It’s not even mentioning what she eats, how much she drinks and what she wears, but all of it is subject to Christian’s approval. He literally writes it into their sex contract. There’s a scene from their honeymoon where Christian decides he doesn’t want Ana sunbathing topless, so gives her hickeys all over her chest so she’ll be too embarrassed to go through with it. Everything about her life is under his control.

The key argument that fans of the series use to defend this is that Ana apparently agreed to this – but she doesn’t. In their BDSM contract, Christian includes a clause about a Total Power Exchange, or TPE. This is exactly what it sounds like – Ana would agree to do absolutely everything Christian tells her to all the time. This is a reasonably well-known choice that some couples in the BDSM community make. It may seem a bit controlling, but a TPE relationship is based on consent, and would only take place with both partners having a thorough understanding of each other’s limits. According to a quick Google it can be quite a serious arrangement, and something that long-term BDSM couples do as a mark of trust.

But Ana does not consent to this, because she does not sign that contract.

She signs an NDA, which prohibits her from talking about Christian’s extensive collection of sex toys, but she does not sign the contract agreeing to TPE. What’s more, she does not want to sign the contract. She’s uncomfortable with Christian’s insistence that a BDSM relationship is the only thing he is willing to offer her. She tries it, but when she asks him to show her how intense it can get she’s traumatised and realises that it’s not for her. She leaves him over it – but then he wins her back with a few choice gifts and Ana soon finds herself having to – in her own words – “put up with” Christian’s sexual preferences.

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That’s not how that’s supposed to work. (image: mrwgifs.com)

Ana wants a traditional, ‘hearts and flowers’ romantic relationship. She wants to have her own career. She wants to decide what she eats, drinks and wears. She doesn’t get to do any of these things. In every single aspect of her life, Christian’s thoughts and wishes take precedence over hers. No matter what she thinks of his decisions, or what she wants for herself, she fundamentally views his opinions and goals as more important than her own.

Her life isn’t hers. It’s his.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

First let’s look at Ana’s hobbies. She’s supposed to be a great reader with a particular fondness for ‘classic’ literature – which really only means the 19th century novels with great romantic heroines in. But we never actually see her read anything that isn’t directly related to the plot, and even those are few and far between. She mentions that her stepfather taught her how to shoot when she was growing up, but this only comes up when it’s relevant to the plot – we don’t see her head down to the gun range on a weekend or anything else that suggests she actually enjoys shooting.

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Like, for example, doing this dance. (image: giphy.com)

Now, let’s look at her beliefs. She’s clearly pro-gun as she and Christian clash over it, but this belief doesn’t extend to telling Christian to keep the gun in a safe place instead of in his drawer. After this scene it doesn’t really come up again. She has issues with Christian maintaining contact with the woman who sexually abused him as a teenager (Mrs Lincoln) – but weirdly, this is more because she thinks he’ll cheat on her, rather than because she has a moral objection to her boyfriend hanging around with a paedophile. She’s a bit of a literary snob about anything written after the nineteenth century – but this is something that’s told to the reader, rather than shown. Most of Ana’s beliefs seem to come up as and when they’re relevant to the plot, rather than being woven into her character. The upshot of all this is that they don’t really seem realistic.

However, Ana has a few beliefs that the trilogy doesn’t really acknowledge: namely, her weird attitude to other women. She’s constantly judging them based on their looks and how much they try and flirt with Christian. Her internal narration is peppered with snide little comments about how desperate they act and look. Sometimes, this even extends to her friends and Christian’s family. It’s pretty clear that this was intended to illustrate Ana’s insecurities, but it comes off as some serious internalised misogyny – something which the book just doesn’t address.

And now we come to her goals. Before she meets Christian she doesn’t seem to have any. We don’t hear anything about her plans for her life without Christian – no travel, no career, nothing. It’s only when she meets Christian that we start to find out what she actually wants, but in a shocking turn of events that will surprise literally everyone, all her goals revolve around him.

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Unfortunately, Christian never has this realisation. (image: giphy.com)

These are at least made a little bit clearer. She wants a more traditionally romantic relationship with Christian, she doesn’t want him to interfere with her career, and she doesn’t want to be subject to Christian’s various restrictions. These are all pretty clearly stated and provide a lot of the conflict in the trilogy, as Christian tends to want the opposite of what Ana wants.

And this is where the problem with Ana’s goals really lies. Christian steamrolls all over them, as I’ve already laid out: he insists that he ‘doesn’t do romance’, he makes her one of his employees when he buys her employer’s company, and he forces her to submit to his restrictions anyway, by tracking her phone and having his bodyguards follow her around. This would be fine from a narrative standpoint if Ana – or at least, the trilogy – acknowledged that this was not acceptable behaviour. But this isn’t what happens. When Christian stomps all over the things Ana wants, she either puts up a token protest and promptly forgets about it, or decides that Christian’s way of doing things is better and what she really wanted all along. This leaves the reader feeling that Ana’s goals don’t really matter to her if they’re brushed aside so easily.

Add all of this up and what do you get? A character who says one thing and does another. A character whose goals, hobbies and beliefs are slapped on them like Post-It notes, and come off just as easily. I’m withholding the point.

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He’s here for moral support. (image: pinterest.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

I’ll start this one by talking about Ana’s skills. It should be easy, because she doesn’t have any. We’re told that Ana has been taught how to handle a gun, use tools and to defend herself, but we don’t really see her act like these are parts of her personality. I’ve already talked about her lack of knowledge of gun safety in the section above – for someone who’s been taught to shoot she doesn’t know much about caring for a gun, and doesn’t even have any opinions on it either. We also don’t see her fix anything and we don’t really see her defend herself. That’s mainly because Christian has a bodyguard follow her around everywhere she goes, although we do see her manage to get away from creepy Jack Hyde when he corners her. However, I’m inclined to put this down to luck rather than skill: a huge part of self-defence is about learning to recognise unsafe situations, and Ana doesn’t seem to pick up on this. To be perfectly honest, Ana’s skills only seem to pop up when it’s convenient to the plot.

Let’s move on to Ana’s personality. Like so many other characters I’ve looked at on this blog, Ana has a massive informed personality. Quick recap for those of you that can’t be bothered with the link: an informed personality is where the reader is told that a character is, for example, flirty, cowardly, or bossy – but we never actually see the character do anything flirty, cowardly, or bossy. In Ana’s case we’re told that she’s kind, insecure about her appearance, stubborn, shy, intelligent and innocent.

I think you already know what’s coming.

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Is it a list?? (image: replygif.net)
  • Kind: I don’t think so. Ana’s internal monologue is incredibly bitchy, especially when she’s talking about other women. She never does anything nice for her friends without complaining about it and keeps up a running commentary on other people’s looks in her head. Here’s an example: she meets Christian’s grandmother for the first time in Fifty Shades Darker, and when she greets her warmly Ana describes Grandma Grey as being “all over [Ana] like a rash”. Tell me how that’s kind.
  • Insecure about her appearance: Eh, not really. At the start of the series you could say that this applies, but even then the nastiest thing she has to say about the way she looks is that her “eyes are too big for [her] face” – not exactly believable for someone who is apparently so insecure that she can’t even fathom that someone could fancy her. As the series goes on, and Christian starts putting her in fancy clothes, this vanishes, and we’re treated to long descriptions of her hair, her outfits, and how gosh-darned pretty she is now that her clothes cost so much more.
  • Stubborn: Absolutely not. No way. Ana tries to be stubborn, but then Christian “quirks a brow” at her or whatever and she just crumbles.
  • Shy: This is another one where you could just about get away with it. Ana is constantly the centre of attention and she says she hates it. The thing is, she doesn’t hate it enough to actually ask her boyfriend and his family to stop putting her in these positions, or have any trouble speaking to new people, or even to just leave when she finds the attention too overwhelming. She makes a couple of token protests but sometimes she doesn’t even say them out loud – she’ll just think “Jeez, how embarrassing” and will carry on as normal. She doesn’t struggle with interviews, or taking phone calls, or even – in Fifty Shades Darker – being put on a stage and having the right to dance with her auctioned off to a bunch of strangers. For someone who is just soooo shy, being the centre of attention doesn’t seem to bother her.
  • Intelligent: She gets good grades but we don’t see her work for them. We see her misinterpret a quote from Tess of the D’Urbervilles and never see her think or discuss the books she claims to love so much. We never see her use any kind of common sense, we rarely see her question things, we hardly ever see her reflect on things – not really the behaviour of an intelligent person.
  • Innocent: I’ll be fair. You can actually say that Ana is innocent – but it’s taken to such ridiculous extents that it just isn’t believable. This is a woman who, at the age of twenty-one, refers to her genitals as “down there” for an entire trilogy. This is set in the twenty-first century – so porn is always just a Google away – and Ana is so clueless she doesn’t really know it’s there, and she certainly doesn’t know about BDSM. Ana is supposed to be an average, twenty-first century woman who’s a little on the bookish side, but she’s so innocent she has absolutely no idea what to do with her own body. It’s not because of any religious convictions or any personal choice, either – it’s just so that Christian can be her first in every possible way. Once that bridge is crossed, all of these inhibitions disappear – she doesn’t have to work through anything psychologically after denying sex exists for twenty-one years of her life. Taken to these limits, it’s ridiculous.

What we do see of Ana’s personality is pretty much the opposite of the list above – she’s innocent, yes, but she’s also unkind to the point of cruelty, has little to no backbone and seems to care way more about the way things look than the way things are. But there’s one other element of her personality I haven’t discussed: the compartmentalization of various bits of her mind into her ‘inner goddess’ and her ‘subconscious’.

These are stupid and annoying. Ana’s ‘inner goddess’ is supposed to be the representation of all her suppressed desires, but is basically just a hyperactive idiot with too many props. Ana’s ‘subconscious’ is basically the personification of Marge Simpson making this noise:

The ‘subconscious’ and the ‘inner goddess’ provide a constant commentary on everything Ana does. They’re essentially the angel and the demon on her shoulder – the ‘inner goddess’ eggs her on, the ‘subconscious’ tells her to save our sanity and pack it in. If handled properly this could be really interesting – a good writer could talk about how Ana uses these to distance herself from her own feelings of guilt or desire, for example – but this is mostly played for laughs. To be perfectly honest they undermine Ana’s reaction to stuff – their reactions are so stereotypical and twee that it’s much easier to roll your eyes at them than to think about what Ana’s actually going through. They add nothing of value whatsoever and I want to punch them off the face of the earth.

So what does this all add up to? An inconsistent, flaky character who says one thing and does another. This is never acknowledged – not by the characters or by the narration. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

It should. Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction. It was picked up by a publishing house after E.L. James changed the names and self-published, and was apparently edited in the process. I don’t believe this. Jane Little of Dear Author ran the original fanfic and the text of the books through plagiarism software and there was an 89% similarity – it’s highly unlikely that any substantial changes were made with a rate that high.

Ultimately, I think this is why Ana’s characterization is so poor. She started out as fanfic of another character – one that E.L. James’s original readers were already very familiar with. There was already an established bank of material for her to draw on and Bella’s personality was already set up (but don’t worry, there’s a whole other post on that trainwreck). E.L. James didn’t need to establish Ana’s personality because she already had one: Bella’s. When you take that support away and make her an original character it becomes clear that she can’t stand up on her own. What’s left behind is insubstantial – it depends on our already knowing a character we’re supposed to be meeting for the first time.

That’s never going to work.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

You really can’t describe Ana without referencing her love life because that’s all her story is. If you take Christian Grey out of the story there’s absolutely nothing left to it. Neither her story arc nor her development as a character can be separated from her love life, so there’s absolutely no way she’ll pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Fifty Shades is ostensibly a love story, so it’s a given that most of the plot is going to revolve around Ana’s love life. You might think that the deck is somewhat stacked against her here, but that doesn’t have to be the case. As I’ve shown in other blog posts, good love stories are perfectly capable of having well-developed female leads – the key thing is to make sure that sitting around obsessing over Mr Right isn’t the only thing our heroine does.

Unfortunately, that is the only thing Ana does.

All of Ana’s decisions are motivated by her feelings for Christian. When she decides to call him, or flirt with him, or spend the night with him, she’s doing it because she wants a relationship with him. When she’s pushing for him to open up about his past, to let her meet his family, or to do more traditionally ‘romantic’ things with her, it’s because she wants to have a more conventional relationship with him. When she agrees to some of his demands in the bedroom, even though she’s not really comfortable with some of them, she does it because she doesn’t want to lose him. She doesn’t do these things because she’s realised that she wants to explore her own sexuality; she’d rather explore his.

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Presented here without comment. (image: popsugar.com)

Even the decisions she makes to show what a Strong Independent Woman™ she is are actually motivated by Christian. She decides to visit her mother in Georgia not because she wants to see her, but because she wants time away to think about Christian. She decides to work in publishing not because she really wants to, but because she doesn’t want to work for Christian. When his sister Mia is kidnapped, she decides to go along with their demands because she wants to protect Christian and his family.

Whatever she decides to do, Christian is what motivates her to make that decision. Even her choice of food and clothing ends up being influenced by him. He’s such a pervasive presence in her life that he influences literally everything she does. She ends up dressing the way he wants, working for him like he wants, and doing all the freaky bedroom things that he wants.

This is really where Fifty Shades starts to veer off the path of a standard trashy romance novel and into some really dark, messy stuff. I’m not talking about the fact that Christian Grey is into some pretty kinky things – as long as it’s between consenting adults I don’t really care what they get up to. Frankly, he could be super into dressing up like a unicorn and getting Ana to tell him he’s been a naughty little pony and I still couldn’t care less.

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Takes all sorts. (image: imgflip.com)

But here’s the thing. Ana doesn’t actually get to make many decisions of her own, and when you bring that into the bedroom that’s when it crosses the line. I’ve already talked about how Christian ends up making all of Ana’s decisions for her in the first question, and all of that definitely still applies in my answer to this one. Ana is constantly being pushed into things she doesn’t want to do because Christian makes the decisions for her – and that happens in the bedroom, too.

I’ll talk about this in more detail later on, so get ready for question nine. But for now I’ll say this: Ana’s love life undercuts every single decision she makes – it’s the focus of her entire being. But most of the time, her decisions are made for her by her terrible, awful boyfriend – and that’s a whole other can of worms just waiting to be opened.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

Characters that change as a result their experiences are one of the hallmarks of a good story – it shows that they’re not static, and much more like real people. Obviously, some characters go through a lot more than others. You might think that Ana’s story – which is essentially about finding true love with a guy who’s rich enough to stop you from worrying about anything, ever – doesn’t really have enough happening in it to allow her to learn or grow. This is something that’s often used to criticise romance novels, as it’s easy to assume that the emotional side of stuff doesn’t have the same kind of impact.

So let’s look at what Ana goes through in the Fifty Shades trilogy. She meets and falls in love with a reclusive billionaire, graduates, has her first ever sexual experience, is showered with a bunch of gifts, has a bunch of pretty intense BDSM sex that she’s not completely on board with, finds out her boyfriend was sexually abused, is overwhelmed by a spanking session and breaks up with Christian. In the second book she gets back with Christian, gets a job where she’s sexually harassed by her boss, meets her boyfriend’s childhood abuser, is stalked by one of Christian’s exes who threatens her with a gun, is blackmailed by her creepy boss who wants her to sleep with him, thinks her boyfriend has died in a helicopter crash for eight hours, and gets engaged. In the third book, she marries Christian and goes on honeymoon, finds out her boss is stalking them, almost gets kidnapped, her stepfather almost dies, she gets pregnant and Christian storms off, saves her sister-in-law when she’s kidnapped by Ana’s former boss, goes into a coma, then wakes up and resolves the baby argument with Christian.

All of this happens over the space of about four months.

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Yeah, I have trouble believing that too. (image: pinterest.com)

That’s a hell of a lot of stuff to go through – you could write a book about any one of those things. Ana’s life drastically changes over an incredibly short amount of time. She goes from poor college student to the wife of the richest man ever, which is a huge change in circumstances – that alone would be enough to make her change as a result of her experiences. Then, add in the intense BDSM stuff that she’s not completely on board with, the creepy boss, the kidnap attempts, and her boyfriend and stepfather’s brushes with death, and it becomes clear that she has a lot on her probably golden plate.

So how does this affect her?

It doesn’t.

She doesn’t change as a result of her experiences at all. She’s exactly the same person at the end of the series as she is at the beginning. She reacts in the same ways, she has the same problems, she shares the same opinions. It’s as if all this stuff has just bounced off her.

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Much like this, but not as satisfying. (image: giphy.com)

This is particularly awkward for the sexual side of her story. This is really what draws the fans in, and it’s an important part of her relationship with Christian. He’s supposed to be her sexual awakening, introducing her to all sorts of stuff that she never even dreamt of, and make her aware of her own sexual desires, power and appeal. She starts the story as an aggressively innocent virgin with no idea about sex at all – and she remains that way.

Obviously, Christian sorts out the virginity business pretty quickly, but even though Ana is supposed to become aware of herself and her sexual desires through their relationship, she still comes across as just as naïve as she was when they met. All through the novel she doesn’t even refer to her own genitals by name – she just says ‘down there’, even when they’re in the middle of sexy times. She’s so utterly embarrassed about sex that she can’t even call a spade a vagina spade – even after they marry and have a child together.

The upshot of all this is that Ana seems so painfully naïve that you have to wonder if Christian has really been her sexual awakening. She never articulates what she wants, or suggests that they try new things, and rarely comes on to him at all. She’s always the shy, retiring virgin, he’s always the dominant man who seduces her, and given the massive power imbalance in their relationship I sometimes wonder if she really wants any of his attentions. You’d think that if Christian was as good if he says he is, Ana would be a lot more enthusiastic.

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I mean, I’m just saying. (image: giphy.com)

All in all, she’s an unresponsive character. She goes through a lot in a short amount of time and it doesn’t really make her change or grow as a person – and personal drama (whether that’s an intense relationship, a change in circumstances, or a kidnap attempt) always does. Nothing she goes through seems to have any real impact on her, including her relationship with Christian, so you have to wonder if it really means as much as she says it does. This is a fatal flaw for any romance story, because if you can’t believe the characters’ feelings for each other, the whole thing falls apart.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Ana doesn’t really have a weakness, and she certainly doesn’t have one that actually causes problems for her. She’s supposed to be very shy and insecure – but as I discussed in question two, when you look at her actions and opinions in greater detail, it’s difficult to actually find any shy or insecure behaviour that she displays. As I said in my post about Bella Swan, I’m not going to count clumsiness as a weakness. It’s not a personality trait; most experts agree it’s the result of poor co-ordination.

Of course, Ana does have downsides to her personality – the trouble is that the rest of the characters are completely oblivious to them. She’s incredibly superficial: if you really look at the things she says about Christian, it becomes clear her attraction to him is based on his looks and his wealth. This is also reflected in the things she buys, and the details she picks up on – she never gushes over older things which might be more valuable; she goes for flashy, shiny things that aren’t so much good as new. She’s also incredibly spiteful – I still haven’t forgotten the rash comment she made about her boyfriend’s grandma – and spends most of her time complaining.

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Wait a second…

If these flaws were actually acknowledged in the text then Fifty Shades would be a better series. If Ana’s behaviour had consequences, she might actually develop, and then she might have scored points in the last round, too. But the trouble is that nobody else seems to even notice that this is how she behaves. The rest of the characters don’t treat her as though she is being superficial or spiteful; they treat her as though she is shy and insecure. As I discussed in question two, I don’t think she’s either.

Even if you disagree with my opinion of Ana’s personality, and think that she does exhibit shyness and insecurity, there’s no getting away from the fact that they don’t actually hold her back. Her supposed shyness and insecurity don’t actually stop her from finding happiness. She doesn’t refuse to appear in front of crowds, she doesn’t wind up damaging her relationships because she wants to avoid being the centre of attention, and she doesn’t embarrass herself or panic in a way that alienates other people. Her insecurity about her looks doesn’t lead her to refuse nice clothes because she feels she doesn’t deserve them, it doesn’t make her nasty to her friends (out loud), and although she is suspicious of other women she never turns that suspicion toward Christian.

If anything, her supposed shyness and insecurity actually make her life better. Her blushing, demure behaviour is something that Christian finds incredibly attractive – he sees her as ‘naturally submissive’ because of this, and it makes him want her more. Her shyness doesn’t stop him from pursuing her, and it doesn’t stop her from asking for the things she wants.

This is a hallmark of that dreaded beast – the Mary Sue.

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Hold me, Aragorn! Or Tom. You know, whoever’s free. (image: giphy.com)

Shyness, insecurity and naïveté are one of the first things writers will use to try and justify a Mary Sue character. It usually manifests itself like this: we’ll be told that the character is innocent, shy and naïve, but everyone treats it as part of the character’s charm, or a sign of their inherent ‘goodness’. This is especially prevalent in female Mary Sues, as it’s often used as a way to keep the character pure and virginal before she meets her ~*Twu Wuv*~ and rides off into the sunset.

Ana is a classic example of this. Her supposed shyness and insecurity is appealing to pretty much everyone she meets. She has no idea just how beautiful she really is – which is a trope that makes me want to throw up – but of course she would never even dream of so much as kissing a boy because gosh, who could ever want plain ol’ Ana? What we’re supposed to take from this isn’t that Ana struggles with shyness and insecurity: it’s that she’s modest, demure, and virginal – just as every proper, pure heroine should be.

This is something that romance fiction is notorious for. It’s a way of making the story easier. In making the heroine so shy that she’s barely spoken to a man before the story starts, you kill two birds with one stone. You get to tap into all the appeal of first love, and you also get to sweep aside any complicated stuff you might have to deal with when you have to reconcile any past relationships with the idea of true love. This sounds pretty old-fashioned, but it’s very much a feature of romance fiction: some people are just uncomfortable with the idea of heroines having relationships with people who aren’t the hero. Of course, this doesn’t really ring true for the hero – sleeping with a bunch of people tends to be a mark of the ‘alpha male’, which is still a pretty big draw in romance fiction – but that’s gender bias for you.

This is exactly what’s going on in Fifty Shades. It’s essentially an old-fashioned Mills & Boon novel with much more sex in it, and Ana’s lack of flaws ties directly into that. She isn’t a properly fleshed-out character in her own right, with flaws and weaknesses she has to work against. She’s a blank canvas – and any flaw would spoil people’s ability to project themselves onto her.

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Like this, but with an entire personality. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

This question kind of links back to question one, so apologies if I sound a bit repetitive here. We’ve already established that Ana is a character who barely does anything for herself. Much of the plot of the series is driven forward by things outside her control – whether that’s Kate getting sick and asking her to interview Christian, or Christian stalking her up and down the country.

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

We’ve already seen that Ana’s decisions don’t have an impact, because Christian is the one who’s calling the shots. That still applies here. When she does decide to do things for herself, it’s always in the context of her relationship with Christian – whether she’s trying to please him or trying to get away from him. What’s more, it’s not Ana’s actions that actually generate the tension that drives the (for want of a better word) plot forward – it’s Christian’s reactions to what she’s done. For example, when she gets herself a job working for someone else, Christian buys the company, thereby giving them something to argue about. She doesn’t find herself with more demands on her time, or meet a new group of people who make assumptions about her relationship, or start to get a different set of priorities from Christian’s. These aren’t what generates enough conflict to move the story forward – it’s Christian’s reactions, Christian’s opinions, and Christian’s actions. Essentially, what this is telling the reader is that Ana’s actions don’t really matter – the most important thing is what Christian thinks of them.

No matter how much you try and avoid talking about Christian Grey, he keeps coming back, like a really stubborn rash. This is exactly what happens with Ana’s decisions and actions. They don’t have an effect on the plot, but Christian’s response to them does.

But when you put all that aside, does she have an influence on the plot? To a certain extent, yes – but it’s certainly not because of her actions. Ana is another one of those characters who can influence the plot just by being in it. It’s like that old joke about sopranos screwing in a light bulb – she just has to stand still and the world revolves around her. I’ve talked about these characters before, and usually, they’re in this position either because of the circumstances they were born into – such as being royalty in a dangerous kingdom, or the last surviving heir to a bunch of money – or because they are ~*destined*~ for something really special, which is usually saving the world.

In Ana’s case, it’s because she’s hot.

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Can you pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? Asking for a friend. (image: giphy.com)

I’m not joking. A good proportion of the plot is the result of Ana being just soooo attractive that she drives men to create enough dramatic tension to pad out a trilogy. This is what drives Christian to pursue her in the first place, and all throughout the novel. It’s what drives her friend José to put the moves on her when she’s drunk enough for Christian to justify ‘rescuing’ her. It’s what drives her boss to start sexually harassing her at work – and if that sounds like victim-blaming, it’s because it is. It’s made explicitly clear that her boss only hired her because he thought she was hot and fancied his chances – and the really worrying thing is that after Ana escapes from him, Christian gets angry at her for having the temerity to be attractive in the workplace.

This is really the only influence Ana has. Her actions and decisions are overruled at every turn. Her experiences don’t make up the plot – it’s Christian’s response to those experiences, or just the experiences he allows her to have. That’s nowhere near enough to let her pass this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

OK, here we go.

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Get ready. (image: themarysue.com)

Fans of Fifty Shades tend to jump straight to the Bella Swan defence when discussing whether their heroine is feminist or a massive step backwards for all women ever. I’ll recap it quickly here: the crux of the argument is that if feminism is all about a woman’s right to choose what she wants from her life, it is therefore feminist if she chooses to follow a very traditional path. I agree with this.

But the thing is, Ana doesn’t get to choose this for herself.

I’ve already gone into some detail about how Christian is the one who really makes Ana’s life choices for her. He ends up telling her how to act, how to dress, and even what to call herself, because at first she doesn’t want to use her married name at work. Christian listens to all of these objections, acknowledges them – and then ignores them in favour of forcing Ana to do what he wants. Then, after they’ve had a token argument, Ana accepts all of the changes Christian made her make, never brings them up again, and is actually happier for it. This isn’t Ana choosing her own path. This is Christian putting Ana on a path that he deems better than the one she chose – and the worst part is, she ends up agreeing with him.

This is passed off as a part of Christian’s ‘dominant’ personality. Let’s put aside the fact that he clearly can’t leave the sexy stuff in the bedroom for one goddamn minute and look at the implications. Ana wants to do something, Christian makes her do something else, and Ana agrees that gee, Christian was right all along!

Sound familiar? It should. It’s the 1950s.

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Bondage gear not pictured. (image: fiftiesweb.com)

This interaction – which is repeated all throughout the series like variations on a theme – is the distilled version of every single argument they have. Ana caves to Christian on pretty much every single topic. The things she wants are undermined at every turn. She has nothing for herself. What Christian has, and what Christian wants, are much more important – not just to her, but to the series as a wider whole. Christian knows best.

This is the kind of nonsense that has kept women in the kitchen for decades. Christian gets vindicated at every turn. He’s the expert on everything – from wine, to cars, to sex – and this includes Ana herself. He knows what’s best for her, even if she doesn’t. Why should Ana worry her pretty little head about anything, when Christian can sort it all out for her?

This is just one example of the way that some of the most backwards gender stereotypes you can think of influence Ana’s character. Here’s some more:

  • As I discussed in the last question, Ana’s only real ability to influence the plot is through her looks. Her ability to appeal to men is the only way she gets to have any control over her life. Women have been reduced to being ‘just a pretty face’ for centuries, and that’s what happening here.
  • Let me refresh your memory of question five. Ana’s love life influences every single decision she makes. She’s nothing without it. For something that’s supposed to be feminist, this sure does reinforce the stereotype that all women really want is a man.
  • Look at her personality. She’s the stereotypically good, pure, innocent virgin, who’s never even thought about a man until she met her One True Love™ – because girls who date men they aren’t going to marry are just throwing away their virtue! Oh, someone fetch my smelling salts while I reinforce the idea that an intact hymen is the only part of a woman that actually matters!
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Would you, Sir Ian? (image: giphy.com)

I could go on, but I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and I’d probably cry. Let’s just agree that Ana is nowhere near as feminist as she’s held up to be. However, we should also acknowledge that ‘not very feminist’ is not the same thing as ‘the absolute worst thing ever, why haven’t you set this on fire yet’. Romance novels often get it in the neck as far as gender roles are concerned, as they do tend to use some pretty old-fashioned tropes, but that doesn’t always mean that they’re actively damaging.

But that’s not the case with Fifty Shades.

It’s time to acknowledge the leather-clad elephant in the room: BDSM. Ana and Christian’s kinky sex life is a massive part of the series, and quite probably the reason why so many people picked up the books in the first place. When it was first published, people were quick to hail the series as the bastion of a new and sexy wave of feminism, where women just like Ana were free to explore their inner freakiness with all the billionaires they could find.

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Most women had to keep looking for a while. (image: allposters.com)

On the surface, you might think there’d be something to this. BDSM has been stigmatised for a very long time. It still occupies a weird legal grey area (heh heh) in many countries around the world. In fiction, it’s often been used as shorthand to indicate how kinky and evil the villain is, although in recent years this has started to fade out. The interplay between sex and violence understandably makes people pretty uncomfortable, and even today it’s still seen as slightly sinister – just think of how many times you’ve seen a villain get a little too into a fight scene. So, to show a quite clearly ‘good’ character in a BDSM relationship is, in some ways, a step forwards.

Or it would be, if it wasn’t for Christian Grey.

Remember how I’ve been harping on about how Christian stomps all over Ana’s boundaries? Well, he doesn’t just do that with clothes, or food, or jobs – he does it sexually, too. I’m going to have to talk about things in pretty explicit detail here, so if you don’t want to read about this then skip ahead to the picture of Tom Hiddleston blowing a kiss.

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I’m a simple soul. (image: pinterest.com)

Christian is constantly pushing Ana’s boundaries in the bedroom. He insists that she sign a non-disclosure agreement which forbids her from talking about any of the stuff he’s into. What this means in practice is that a very inexperienced, naïve young woman can’t talk to her friends or family about what a much more powerful man is trying to get her to do. When they’re discussing the submissive contract (which, by the way, is not legally binding), Ana says she doesn’t want to do anything involving physical punishment or anal sex – but Christian refuses to take those off the contract because that’s what he wants to do. Later in the book he does end up physically punishing her, despite the fact that a) she didn’t even sign the contract and b) he knows that she didn’t want to be punished in the first place.

This is not acceptable behaviour for any kind of relationship. It’s certainly not acceptable behaviour for a BDSM relationship, despite the power exchange involved. A few minutes’ research (which I definitely wouldn’t recommend doing at work) will show you that just like any other relationship, Dom/sub partnerships are supposed to be based on mutual trust, respect and consent. What separates BDSM from abuse is that the submissive partner enjoys all this, and actively consents to it. If the dominant partner does something that the submissive doesn’t enjoy, or tries to coerce the submissive into doing something they don’t want to do, that counts as abuse.

And that’s what Christian is doing here.

Ana explicitly says that she does not want to do half the things that Christian wants her to do. She makes it clear she wants a more traditional relationship, with a more traditional sex life. She constantly worries about not being able to give him ‘what he needs’ – i.e. someone who actively wants to be in a BDSM relationship.

But she lets him do it anyway.

Look at the way Ana talks about the kinky sex with Christian. These quotes are all taken from a spanking scene in Chapter Sixteen, which Ana is supposed to be enjoying. When he spanks her she describes herself as “afraid”. She describes it as a “merciless assault”. She tries to “wriggle away from the blows”. She says she wants to “beg him to stop”. This is what she says when he’s preparing to spank her:

“Oh, how demeaning is this, demeaning and scary… My heart is in my mouth. I can barely breathe. … is this going to hurt?”

Does that sound like someone enjoying herself to you? Does it sound like someone who’s excited about trying something new? Does it sound like someone who wants to be there? No – it sounds like someone who’s afraid. And not just afraid of the pain, but of her partner too. She genuinely does not feel like she can use her safe word, stop the scene and tell Christian that she’s not enjoying this.

This is exactly where Fifty Shades gets BDSM completely wrong. Ana feels like she has to do what Christian wants. She thinks that she must endure all the kinky stuff he wants to do with her if she wants a relationship with him. It hurts her, it frightens her and she doesn’t want to do it.

The worst part is, Christian knows all this, and he carries on anyway.

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

In the spanking scene I described above, Ana tries to get away. She’s sprawled across Christian’s lap, so there’s no way he couldn’t notice this. But he carries on spanking her anyway. A responsible Dom (especially one with an inexperienced partner) would stop at the sight of this, because it’s quite clearly a sign that the sub doesn’t want to be there and isn’t enjoying themselves. But Christian doesn’t do this. He can see that Ana is actively trying to get away from him while he’s hitting her, and he keeps on doing it.

This is abuse.

The whole trilogy is full of moments like this. Ana outright says that Christian uses sex as a weapon, and this is actually a really accurate description of his behaviour. When she does something he doesn’t like, he uses sex to punish her. In Fifty Shades of Grey she ‘jokingly’ breaks things off with him – so he shows up at her house, unannounced, and tells her that he’s going to have sex with her. After she’s just told him that it was ‘nice knowing him’. He then pins her down on the bed and starts undressing her, and when he tries taking off her shoes she kicks at him and tells him no. He doesn’t stop. She tells him that she sent him the break-up email as a joke. He asks her if she’s laughing now, spanks her, and has sex with her – all without stopping to ask if this is what she actually wants.

This is rape.

In any other series this would be the behaviour of someone we’re meant to despise. But in Fifty Shades this is the behaviour of our romantic hero. This is someone who we’re supposed to want for ourselves. This is a relationship we’re supposed to idealise – and it’s a relationship where the hero can rape the heroine and she’ll end up enjoying it. Fans of the series often say that this scene doesn’t count as rape because Ana wanted it, but that doesn’t excuse Christian’s actions. He still came to her apartment – broke in, actually, because her roommate says later that she thought Ana had let him in when she didn’t – thinking that she’d broken things off with him and intending to punish her for it. He doesn’t know if Ana wants it because he doesn’t ask – and frankly, he doesn’t care. He never stops to ask her if she meant what she said. He never asks her if this is what she wants. He doesn’t get her consent. Instead, he pins her down so she can’t escape, gets her naked and vulnerable and forces her to take back what she said.

THIS MAN IS A PSYCHOPATH.

And this isn’t the only time something like this happens in the series. Christian spanks Ana so hard it leaves her in tears – and while she does ask him to show her how ‘intense’ his relationships can get, he straight-up tells her that he’s doing it because she ran off from him when they were playing around in the kitchen. This is the exact opposite of how BDSM is supposed to work – a Dom isn’t supposed to actually take out real anger on a sub, and especially not for things that happen outside the bedroom. But Christian isn’t a Dom, he’s an abuser. He gets angry at her for using safe words, when they’re there to make sure she doesn’t get hurt. When she tells him she doesn’t want to have sex, he tells her not to ‘overthink this’, and has sex with her anyway.

AND THAT’S NOT EVEN HALF OF THE STUFF HE DOES.

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It’s safe to come out now. (image: tumblr.com)

Let’s take the bedroom stuff out of the equation and look at his behaviour without it. He finds out where she works and where she lives, and shows up there uninvited. He tracks her phone. He follows her halfway across the country after she explicitly tells him she needs some time away from him. When she leaves him, he showers her with gives and turns up at an event he knows she’ll be at, so she can’t ignore him. He forbids her from seeing her friends because he thinks it’s too dangerous. He frequently gets angry enough to scare her. He distrusts all of Ana’s friends. He sells her stuff without permission and doesn’t give her the money until it’s convenient for him. He refuses to listen to Ana when she tells him she doesn’t want him to do something, blames her for stuff that isn’t her fault, and does stuff he knows she’ll hate as a way of punishing her – like going out drinking with the woman who abused him as a child.

There’s no way that Ana could ever pass this round while Fifty Shades portrays this dumpster fire of a relationship as a positive thing. This is not romance. This is the textbook definition of an abuser. This isn’t BDSM either; Christian quite clearly doesn’t care whether Ana is enjoying herself or not. This is a man who wants to hit women, who uses his wealth, power and sexual appeal to get away with it. And this is held up as a modern fairy tale, the type of relationship we should all aspire to, and a modern, feminist romance.

This is a lie. In real life, relationships like this don’t end happily ever after. They end in bruises, blood and broken bones – if you’re lucky enough to survive them.

Some women aren’t that lucky.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Even a casual flick through the Fifty Shades trilogy will show you that most of Ana’s interactions with other women are largely the same. She’s often jealous, keeps up a catty internal monologue, and lives in a state of constant terror that one of them will try and ‘steal her man’. The result of all this is that she doesn’t really have relationships with these women, even though there are plenty of other female characters in the trilogy. Ana doesn’t see these women as individual people, but as cardboard cut-outs with boobs who might turn Christian’s head – because, y’know, boobs.

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…Yeah, I think this applies. (image: thedebutanteball.com)

The series has quite a few female characters, but when they’re all painted with the same brush you can’t really distinguish between the different relationships. This is particularly evident in Ana’s relationships with background characters. Instead of just buying a dress, or accepting a meal from a waitress, Ana can easily spend a whole paragraph complaining about how the sales girl is wearing too much lip gloss, or about how the waitress is pouting at Christian. She doesn’t even bother to learn these women’s names – although we know she knows what their names are, she gives them disparaging little nicknames, like ‘Ms. Lip Gloss’, or ‘Little Miss European Pigtails’.

These kinds of comments are spread all through the book, and no female character is immune. In some cases, this is a bit more understandable – such as when Ana’s interacting with the woman who abused Christian as a child, Mrs Lincoln. Christian doesn’t see Mrs Lincoln as an abuser, as he was a teenager when it happened, and keeps going to see her for advice. Often, her advice isn’t good, and he goes to see her when Ana and Christian are going through a rough patch. It’s completely understandable that Ana wouldn’t like her and would see her as a threat – particularly after she tells Christian that she considers Mrs Lincoln a child molester and doesn’t want him to see her any more.

But the thing is, this doesn’t just happen with characters like Mrs Lincoln – it happens with all of them. When Christian first meets Ana’s mother, Carla, Ana spends their interaction scowling, complaining that her mother is staring at him, and says that her mother’s “lower jaw practically hits the table” at the mere sight of him. At her graduation, when Kate is giving a speech, all Ana can think about is that it could’ve been Kate who interviewed Christian. Kate and Christian don’t like each other for most of the series, but that doesn’t stop Ana from spending a good paragraph thinking about “beautiful Kate and beautiful Christian, together” – a relationship that doesn’t exist. This is taken to ridiculous extents when Ana confronts the architect who’s working on her and Christian’s new house. All this poor woman has done is touch Christian’s arm and look at him a couple of times, but apparently that’s enough for Ana to take her aside and threaten to have her fired.

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God, I hate this series. (image: ricochet.com)

This is pretty unstable behaviour by anybody’s standards. It’s made very clear that Ana sees every other woman in the world through the same prism: as someone who might steal Christian away from her. It doesn’t matter if they’re a stranger, or her best friend, or her own mother – they’re all attracted to Christian, and therefore she can’t trust any of them. This severely undermines any kind of relationship with another female character by making them all the same. It also reinforces some of the tired old gender stereotypes I talked about last question – namely the ideas that a man is all a woman really wants, and that women can’t really have real friendships because they’re all competing for male attention. With this kind of mindset running through all Ana’s relationships, it’s hard to take her seriously when she says she likes another female character. For example, she’ll tell the reader that she adores her best friend, Kate, but the things she does – like complain about Kate getting sick, borrowing her stuff and not giving it back, living rent-free off her parents’ generosity and constantly making disparaging comments about Kate’s hook-ups and appearance – don’t exactly reinforce their friendship.

But there’s another side of the coin I haven’t talked about yet. When you look at Ana’s interactions with other women, it’s clear that looks are what she’s focussing on. When she’s making these disparaging comments against other women, it’s often right next to a description of their figures, or their outfits, or their make-up, or the way they’re flirting. These are the things Ana notices, and these are the things that she hates about other women: the things that make up their sexual appeal.

I don’t think that Ana is quite as straight as she thinks she is.

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I don’t think I’ve ever found a more appropriate gif. (image: tumblr.com)

Think about it. When she meets Mia, Christian’s sister, for the first time it’s her looks that she focuses on – describing her as “curvaceous” and “raven-haired” – and all her hugging, hand-holding and kissing on the cheek. When she’s being spiteful about Gia, the architect, she still stops to talk about how “well-groomed” she is, and even makes a point of dressing all sexy before Gia’s appointment. Ana spends half the series talking about how beautiful Kate is, describing her as “gorgeous” and “gamine” even while she’s complaining about her. You have to wonder if Ana’s running commentary against other women isn’t because she’s suppressing her own sexuality. It isn’t completely unheard of for people struggling with homosexual desires to channel them into homophobia, and perhaps that’s what’s happening here.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that’s all speculation on my part. It certainly isn’t acknowledged in the text – despite Ana being introduced to a whole new world of kink, the idea of a same-sex relationship never crosses her mind. But that is in itself the problem with all Ana’s relationships in Fifty Shades – they’re so inconsistent that it’s near-impossible to define any of them. Furthermore, they’re constantly undercut by the same litany of spiteful comments, so much so that they all start to blur into one. Ana may interact with many different female characters, but she treats them all in exactly the same way – with contempt, whether it’s her boyfriend’s former abuser, her best friend/possible crush, or her own mother. It’s impossible for her to pass this round when her relationships are all cast in the same mould – she may as well interact with only one other female character, ‘Potential Boyfriend Thief’.

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Well said. (image: giphy.com)

FINAL SCORE: 0/10

 

Thank God that’s over. In a completely shocking turn of events, Anastasia Steele has completely failed my test.

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Here’s to a spectacular failure. (image: pinterest.com)

It’s easy to see why. Ana isn’t really a proper character. She’s a blank space for the reader to step into. The vague attempts at a personality she exhibits are quite clearly picked at random from the Generic Female Character catalogue and draw on the worst kind of stereotypes. She has no value outside her role as ‘interestingly pale romantic heroine’, and doesn’t do anything that would put her outside this box. Frankly, she’s the most lazily-written character I’ve ever come across – and that’s including Bella Swan.

That is really the heart of all her problems as a character. As I’ve said before, Bella Swan was not the most well-written character – in fact, she’s the only other character I’ve looked at to completely fail my test. When you start with a character that’s already shaky and don’t put much effort into changing it, you’re never going to end up with something better. That’s exactly what’s happened here. Ana is essentially an even lazier version of Bella – which makes her so insubstantial that she may as well just blow away on the wind. They’re so similar that when I was writing this, I actually found myself typing Bella instead of Ana more times than I can count.

As you’d expect, Ana suffers from a lot of the same problems Bella does. She’s so inconsistent that she’s impossible to pin down. She’s passive and co-dependent to a dangerous extreme. She has a terrible, awful boyfriend who I would quite happily push off a cliff. All of these things have been dialled up to eleven because of Fifty Shades’ laser focus on Ana and Christian’s relationship. As much as I dislike Twilight, there was more to it that Edward and Bella mooning over each other. There was all the stuff with Jacob, the Volturi, and Bella’s introduction to the world of the supernatural – it was poorly done, but it was there. E.L. James cut all that so that Ana and Christian could focus on what’s really important: themselves. No wonder Ana doesn’t have anything in her life but Christian – it’s all been removed in favour of talking about Christian’s pants “hanging off his hips in that way”.

But Ana adds a whole other layer of depressingly awful nonsense that’s all her own, and that’s largely thanks to E.L. James’s hatchet job on BDSM relationships. For me, this is really where Twilight and Fifty Shades start to diverge. You could wave away some of the difficulties in Twilight by pointing to the power imbalance between a supernatural being and a human. You can’t do that in Fifty Shades. All you have is a rich man exploiting his power and wealth over a naïve young woman – and that’s a real-life story of abuse that is still playing out today.

Twilight made me angry. Fifty Shades just makes me sad. It’s an inside look at an abusive relationship that’s been packaged up as romance. No matter how much I dislike Ana as a character – and it’s a lot – I pity her. She tries to keep up with her controlling boyfriend, but can’t. She tries to have a life of her own, but can’t. She tries to stand up for the things she wants, but she’s ignored, and she soon finds it’s easier not to want those things at all than try and get them past her boyfriend. Reading about a relationship where a young woman is beaten and raped and told it’s BDSM is something that I can’t do without feeling incredibly sad.

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

And on that incredibly depressing note, I draw this post to a close. And not just this post; this is actually going to be the last entry in the Strong Female Characters series. Don’t worry, it’s not that Fifty Shades has broken me. I’ve been struggling to keep up this series alongside a full-time job and everything else I want to do for a long time now. The one hundredth post seems like a good place to bring things to an end.

So what’s next for Jo Writes Stuff? I don’t know. I guess I’ll write stuff. I might do a post or two to round off the series, but they won’t be looking at individual characters and they definitely won’t be until the New Year at the earliest. I’m thinking about experimenting with a new series, but that’ll be something for 2017, and I haven’t really narrowed it down yet.

All that remains for me to say is Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and thanks for all the fish.

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Sookie Stackhouse

For those of you that don’t know, Sookie is the main character of Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries – or as it’s more widely known thanks to the HBO adaptation, True Blood. Set in a world where vampires have “come out of the coffin”, the plot follows Sookie, a telepathic half-fairy waitress who gets into a series of supernatural scrapes with a selection of hot, shirtless men. Unsurprisingly the show was a hit – largely thanks to the post-Twilight vampire boom, catapulting Harris’s novels – and Sookie’s – into the spotlight.

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?

Sookie isn’t really in control of her own destiny. What tends to happen is that this season’s villain will kick-start their plot, Sookie will investigate, and get drawn into the plot whether she likes it or not. It’s a pretty standard interpretation of my Universal Monster Law – all the weird vampires/shapeshifters/werepanthers (no, I’m not kidding) are the ones that are calling the shots.

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Seriously. (image: tumblr.com)

This is confusing because from the beginning of the series, Sookie is set up as a strong female lead – she runs off to investigate things, gets herself into trouble, and yells at people who try and tell her what to do. But if you look at Sookie’s decisions it becomes clear that she’s not as independent as she’s set up to be. The various supernatural goings-on usually end up presenting her with a range of options, from which she has to pick. She never really considers making a choice that isn’t on that list, or acting before someone or something else has a chance to force her hand.

I will say that within this range, Sookie can have a certain amount of control over her own life – the choices she makes do have an impact on her life, with consequences that can stretch out over her ‘destiny’ as a larger whole. But it’s constrained to the options that someone else has given her, so she never really acts without something else hemming her in. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help but feel I’m being a bit too generous.

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 hear a lot about Sookie’s hobbies, but we know that she enjoys sunbathing. Her beliefs are much more well-founded: she has a vague and non-specific belief in God, she believes in being kind and accepting to outcasts, and she firmly believes that she can take care of herself, even when going up against centuries-old bloodthirsty vampires who want to eat her.

Unusually, it’s her goals that aren’t so well-defined. When the series begins, Sookie doesn’t really want anything from her life – not a better job, not a new boyfriend, not even to leave Bon Temps, the small Southern town she grew up in. It’s only when she starts meeting her sexy supernatural boyfriends that she starts wanting things – and it’s usually related to a) who she’s dating or b) what undead menace is harassing them all this week. Her goals are very circumstantial, and as such she forgets about them pretty quickly. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Sookie is consistently shown to be kind, accepting, brave and loyal – as well as more than a little impulsive. She remains this way throughout the series, but her skills are another matter. Sookie is part-fairy, which in the True Blood universe means that she is telepathic, is really attractive, smells great to vampires and has the power to shoot light out of her hands.

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…all right then. (image: tumblr.com)

Sookie’s powers are a little bit patchy. Her telepathy is well-established – she can’t switch it off, and this has a real impact on her life. She has to concentrate all the time if she wants to block out other people’s thoughts, and finds it difficult to form relationships with people when she can hear what they’re really thinking. Shooting light from her hands is another matter: it often only turns up when it’s convenient to the plot, rarely fails her even though it’s supposed to be difficult to master, and it also comes with convenient extras, like the ability to break spells. Sookie’s powers tend to be used as a way of solving a dilemma in the plot, so once again she’s only getting half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

A kind, tolerant young waitress must survive in a world of the supernatural using her secret fairy powers.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

A lot of Sookie’s decisions are influenced by her love life. As she doesn’t really have a clear, overarching goal that motivates her through the series, the people she’s dating do end up providing her with a lot of her motivation.

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Presented here without comment. (image: themortonreport.com)

In fact, most of the time she’s dealing with a supernatural entity that wants to rip her head off, it’s either a) someone who her current boyfriend has to deal with, and she’s insisting on helping him or b) one of her ex-boyfriends who’s still holding a torch for her. She does have other motivations – usually protecting her friends and family – but there’s no denying that her love life is what propels her through the plot. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

Sookie doesn’t really develop much over the course of the story. When True Blood ends, she’s much the same character as she was when it began. Part of this is due to her lack of something she wants to achieve – she has no impetus to go out and change things, so she’s less likely to change herself. When you consider all that she goes through in the series – which includes the violent deaths of several friends and family members, people trying to kill her and the discovery that she’s not even fully human – this is all pretty unrealistic.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Sookie’s biggest weakness is that she can be very impulsive, particularly when she’s angry, and this often gets her into trouble. She’ll decide to investigate something or snap at a supernatural creature without thinking of the consequences – and usually these involve Sookie getting beaten up.

I will say that she doesn’t really get much of an opportunity to learn from her mistakes. When her impulsiveness gets her into trouble, there’s usually a hot shirtless supernatural creature around to stop things from getting too bad. Other people always step in to save her, so she never really has to deal with the full consequences of her own actions. I don’t think that’s enough to stop her from passing this round – she does have a flaw, and it does affect her – but I think it’s worth noting.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

Sookie is another one of those characters who influences the plot just by being in it. Her part-fairy heritage means she’s naturally attractive to vampires, so theoretically the plot could bob along nicely if she did nothing more than stand in front of a wind machine.

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But when has that ever been used as a plot device? (image: blogspot.com)

She does make decisions, and they do have an impact, but unfortunately a huge part of True Blood’s plot is also made up of Sookie needing to be rescued from various kinds of peril. She’s one of those characters that insists she can take care of herself, and then promptly gets captured at least once every season and has to wait for someone to come and rescue her. When you add that to her lack of real control over her own destiny, it doesn’t look good for her.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Sookie is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to gender stereotypes. Sometimes, she can be quite subversive. She’s an attractive blonde waitress who everyone assumes is stupid, but it’s revealed that Sookie plays this up deliberately in order to deal with hiding her telepathy. She’s a sexually active woman who doesn’t restrict her sex life to committed relationships, and she’s never condemned for this. She’s a relatively ordinary woman in a supernatural world but she soon finds she can hold her own against the best of them.

However, at the same time she can also stumble into some really old-fashioned gender stereotypes, some of which are deeply cringey. She gets rescued by a man so many times I’ve lost count. The majority of her decisions are heavily influenced by whatever her current boyfriend happens to be doing at the time. And, perhaps worst of all, she grieves when her boyfriends die, but when her friends and family members die she forgets them pretty quickly. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Sookie has plenty of relationships with other female characters. There’s her best friend, Tara, with whom she has a very rocky relationship after she saves Tara’s life by turning her into a vampire. There’s her grandmother, who pretty much raised her after the death of her parents. There’s the vampire Pam, who she’s mostly just polite to as the two of them really don’t get on. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – Sookie has different relationships with several female characters.

FINAL SCORE: 5/10

 

Sookie is a relatively consistent character with a range of relationships with other female characters, who isn’t completely defined by her appearance or love life, but that’s nowhere near enough for her to pass my test. Her biggest problem is that a lot of elements of her character aren’t really followed through – her agency, development and goals aren’t really a part of her character, as they’re much more dependent on the plot.

Personally, I think most of this stem’s from Sookie’s ultimate role: wish fulfilment. She’s not really a fully fleshed-out character because the focus is not on her as a person – it’s on what she experiences and who she meets. She’s not quite a blank slate, but she is something of a placeholder: her lack of a more well-defined character makes it much easier for the reader or viewer to imagine themselves in her shoes. It’s something that many writers are guilty of and Charlaine Harris certainly isn’t the first – or, for that matter, the worst.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

And that brings me nicely onto what I’ll be looking at next week. The next post is going to be the one hundredth blog post on Strong Female Characters, and the last before the new year. And, judging by last year’s essay, I’ve got a hell of a lot to live up to.

And I’m going to hate every minute of it.

Next week, I’ll be looking at some of the absolute worst books in the English language and talking about the character at the centre of it all. Brace yourselves, because this is going to be a real punishment.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Anastasia

BLOODY

Steele.

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

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

 

Strong Female Characters: Ogino Chihiro

For those of you that don’t know, Chihiro is the main character of the 2001 film, Spirited Away. The plot starts when Chihiro and her family move to a new town and get lost on the way there. They take a quick detour into what looks like an abandoned theme park, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and it just gets weirder from there. The film was a smash hit, winning several awards as well as becoming the highest-grossing film in Japanese history. It’s one of Miyazaki’s most famous works – and Chihiro is at the centre of all this.

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

 

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

Chihiro starts the film being led along by other people: whether that’s her parents wanting to explore the theme park or Haku telling her how she can survive it. She’s on unfamiliar territory and has to do what other people tell her to in order to survive.

However, as the film goes on she quickly finds her feet. She soon realises that doing what she’s told won’t get her what she really wants – which is to rescue her parents and go home. She saves Haku from the paper birds (which is more difficult than it sounds), draws No-Face away from the bathhouse that turns him into a greedy monster, and sets off to return a magic talisman to a witch. By the time the film is over, she’s not only in control of her own destiny but of a few other people’s – such as her parents, who she’s rescued, and Haku, who she’s freed from the witch’s control. She definitely passes 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?

We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies but Chihiro’s goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to turn her parents back into people and bring them home, free Haku from the witch Yubaba’s control, and not get eaten. As far as her beliefs go, she clearly doesn’t think much of material things as she doesn’t take No-Face’s gold, she wants to do the right thing as she returns the witch’s talisman, and quite clearly doesn’t want to mess with things she doesn’t understand.

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It’s all fun and game until your parents TURN INTO PIGS. (image: makeagif.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Chihiro is a pretty consistent character. She’s kind, cautious, polite and occasionally boisterous, but also capable of being very brave and is well in touch with her instincts. Her personality does change over the course of the film – she gets a lot braver – but this is more the result of her experiences than to meet the demands of the plot. 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 cautious young girl must learn to survive in a magical world while she tries to rescue her parents.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Chihiro does have something of a love life – she has a very sweet, innocent crush on Haku. Most of the time Haku is a boy her age, but sometimes he’s a dragon and he’s actually the spirit of a river she fell into as a child. Love is complicated.

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It’s cute, don’t question it. (image: myanimelist.com)

Chihiro’s feelings for Haku do certainly affect her decisions, but not all of them. She goes to return the talisman so she can save him from the witch’s wrath, and sets him free because she cares for him, but most of her decisions are influenced by her desire to turn her parents human again and see them safely home. This is what really motivates her and propels her through the story, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Chihiro goes through an incredible amount of development over the course of the story. She goes from being a very cautious, almost cowardly young girl to a much more mature, brave and self-sufficient character. As the film progresses she becomes less phased by strange appearances, more independent and much more clear-headed in a crisis.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Chihiro’s biggest weakness is how overly cautious she can be. She gets so easily scared that she goes completely to pieces. This is something that she manages to overcome as the film progresses, and it quite clearly takes some work.

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Yeah, I can see why. (image: tumblr.com)

By the time the film ends, she still gets scared, but she’s learned to deal with her fears when she has something more important to deal with.

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

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

Chihiro drives the plot forward at every turn. Whether she’s bargaining to save her parents, letting No-Face into the bathhouse, or returning the witch’s talisman, Chihiro’s actions and decisions have a real and tangible impact on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Chihiro’s character doesn’t depend on gender stereotypes. She’s allowed to be a little bratty, she’s at the centre of the action, and she saves the people she cares about using her own wits. In fact, Chihiro’s story draws on the idea of the hero’s journey – a plotline which is more usually reserved for male characters.

The result of all this is that she just feels like her own person. She’s got a nice mix of traditionally feminine traits (such as her kindness, good manners and devotion to her family) and more masculine elements (such as her bravery, resourcefulness and the very ‘epic’ nature of her storyline). These are always the most believable kinds of characters – whether male or female.

SCORE SO FAR: 9

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Chihiro has plenty of relationships with other female characters, and what’s nice is that these relationships develop as the film progresses. She’s initially a little scared of Lin, a bathhouse worker, but the two eventually become close and have a relationship that’s something like one between sisters.

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Well, almost like sisters. (image: popbuzz.com)

She starts off afraid of the witch Yubaba, but eventually stands up to her. She also starts out afraid of the witch Zeniba, but when she actually gets to know her they become friendly, and work together to help Chihiro get her family away from Yubaba. Even her relationship with her mother changes – she starts out frustrated and very much in a childlike role; as the film progresses their roles reverse, and Chihiro is forced to take care of both her parents in a much more adult way. She definitely passes this round!

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

 

Congratulations, Miyazaki! Chihiro is a well-rounded character with a range of strengths, weaknesses, goals and beliefs. She is neither defined by her love life nor by gender stereotypes, she develops over the course of the story, and her actions and decisions have a real impact – both on the plot and on her own life. She is just great.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a show credited with reviving interest in vampire stories, so get your fangs out for True Blood. Sookie, I’m coming for you.

 

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