Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Sleeping Beauty

For those of you that don’t know, Sleeping Beauty is the story of a beautiful princess who, when cursed by an evil fairy, pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and falls into what is basically a magical coma. She lies around snoozing for a little bit – some say for a few months, some say for a hundred years – she is woken by a kiss from a prince, who conveniently happens to be her one true love, and they live happily ever after.

Much like Snow White, the story seems to have popped up in the early Medieval period, when making out with unconscious women was less of a red flag. Rather than being based on a real person, the story seems to have come out of an old Arthurian legend – but that’s a blog post for another time. The story spread across Europe like nobody’s business, and before long multiple versions popped up in pretty much every country on the continent.

The story has gone on to become hugely influential. The most popular version of the story is the one made known by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, but the story has gone on to be one of the most well-known in the world. Sleeping Beauty has been adapted into films, poems, operas, musicals, a ballet, edgy YA re-tellings, TV shows, satire, anime and computer games – and, bizarrely, for Anne Rice’s brief jaunt into erotica.

There’s thousands of versions of the Sleeping Beauty story – but I’m only going to look at six. I’ll be looking at each variation of the story and seeing how it measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.

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

 

 

image: pinterest.com

This version of the fairy tale is widely accepted as the basis for Perrault and the brothers Grimm’s child-friendly re-telling. The ‘sleeping beauty’ in this story is called Talia, and when she’s born her horoscope says she’ll die from a splinter, and because horoscopes are always completely and utterly infallible, this is exactly what happens. She falls into a deep sleep and is left in her house – only for a passing king to break in, rape her, and leave her to give birth to twins nine months later. The twins wake her up and she ends up trying to marry the king – but he already has a wife, who tries to feed Talia and her children to a BUCKET FULL OF SNAKES. Of course this doesn’t work, the wife is executed, and Talia and King Rapist live happily ever after (for want of a better term).

Talia has absolutely no control over her life in this version, doing absolutely nothing for herself. No hobbies, goals or beliefs she has are even mentioned and in fact, her personality is never discussed either – she’s a completely empty vessel. Her entire trajectory through the story depends on her beauty and her relationship to the king, and don’t even get me started on him. Talia doesn’t get to make any decisions about her love life because her ‘Prince Charming’ just flat out rapes her while she’s unconscious, and then brings her back to his castle to be his live-in side piece.

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

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t have any weaknesses – but that’s because she doesn’t have a personality to begin with. The most she manages to do to influence the blog is get a splinter and drag out the bucket-full-of-snakes incident long enough for the king to rescue her but frankly, that’s scraping the bottom of the barrel. The only other female character she relates to is the king’s wife, who’s jealous of her beauty – we don’t see any other relationship with a female character, even though she has a daughter. She’s also an incredible step backwards for gender stereotypes because her entire story rests on the poisonous belief that rape was not a crime, and that it could lead to a strong and loving relationship between the rapist and their victim. She’s a woman-shaped receptacle in the story, filled with outdated stereotypes and frankly disgusting ideas, rather than a character with any kind of agency or personality.

FINAL SCORE: 0.5/10

 

 

image: wikimedia.org

The version by Charles Perrault is much more child-friendly, as it thankfully doesn’t include any rape. The story travels along broadly similar lines, although this time the young princess is cursed by a jealous fairy who wasn’t invited to her christening. Death is scaled back to a really long sleep, and when she pricks her finger, the castle is covered in thorns and everyone else falls asleep along with her. One hundred years later, along comes a handsome prince who thankfully just gives her a kiss instead of going full Game of Thrones, she wakes up and they get married. The jealous wife of the previous version is now an Ogress and a jealous mother-in-law, who tries to feed her own grandchildren to her son, but thankfully the prince puts a stop to that and everyone lives happily ever after.

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And at that point, their faces are permanently stuck like this. (image: pinterest.com)

The princess in this version still doesn’t have much agency, as everything depends on curses, princes and a jealous mother-in-law, but we do get a sense of her personality. She’s generically kind, good and innocent all through the story, but goals, hobbies and beliefs are never mentioned. You can’t talk about her without describing her physical appearance or kiss from the prince, she barely makes any decisions at all and those she does are mostly to do with her love life, and she neither develops nor exhibits a weakness.

She doesn’t really do a lot in the story at all – she’s rescued from the snake bucket by a kindly cook, and her pricking her finger is attributed to Fate rather than her own curiousity. Like Basile’s version, we only see her interact with the jealous Ogress/mother-in-law, and while this Sleeping Beauty doesn’t fall in love with her rapist she’s so passive and generic that she’s still a massive step backwards. All in all, she’s a pretty flat character.

FINAL SCORE: 1/10

 

 

image: dettoldisney.wordpress.com

The Disney version is probably the one that modern audiences are most familiar with. Drawing on the Grimm and Perrault versions but thankfully removing the part with the snake, this is pretty straightforward re-telling. The fairy Maleficent isn’t invited to the Princess Aurora’s christening and curses her to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. When the spell is softened to a sleep broken by true love’s kiss, she’s spirited away by three fairies to be raised in secret in the woods. She grows up and falls in love with the prince she’s supposed to marry, but when she’s taken back to the castle she pricks her finger anyway and falls asleep. The prince kills Maleficent, wakes up Aurora and they all live happily ever after.

Much like the original fairy tale, Aurora isn’t really in control of her own life – she’s led through the story by the curse and other characters. We don’t hear an awful lot about her goals, hobbies and beliefs, but we know she enjoys singing and wants to marry Prince Philip.

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No, not that one. (image: express.co.uk; Getty)

She’s consistently good, kind, sweet and innocent but can’t really be described without referencing her appearance or storyline with the prince. Her love life is actually the only thing she really wants for herself – she doesn’t appear to have any other goals or ambitions. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have a weakness, and she doesn’t influence the plot either. You could make a case that her falling in love with Philip is a force on the story, but it isn’t really – when she first meets him she doesn’t know she’s engaged to him, and when the fairies tell her she has to marry a prince (not realising she’s already met him) she instantly accepts that she has to marry him, even though she thinks she’ll be giving up her true love and making herself miserable.

She interacts a lot more with female characters – such as her mother, the three fairies and Maleficent – but these interactions aren’t given any detail. For example, even though they raised her, she barely differentiates between the three fairies. She doesn’t do much better in terms of gender stereotypes – she’s not much more than the stereotypical beautiful, kind and graceful princess. Long story short, she does a bit better than the original but she’s still an incredibly passive character.

FINAL SCORE: 2/10

 

 

image: harpercollins.com

Let’s fast forward to the nineties. This retelling of the traditional Sleeping Beauty story keeps a lot of the classic elements, but in a slightly different way. When Princess Sonora is cursed, she’s given other fairy blessings too – like the gift of intelligence. Already an insufferable know-it-all at six months old, she starts planning to use her curse to her advantage; she’ll only prick her finger and fall asleep when she’s good and ready for it. Unfortunately, her plan to use the curse to back out of an unwanted engagement backfires and it’s not until a hundred years later that a different prince wakes her up with a kiss.

From the very beginning Sonora is in control – she decides that since she’s been cursed, she may as well use it to her advantage, and hides away a spindle in case she needs it. She loves reading, believes that she doesn’t need sleep (what with that curse hanging over her) and her long-term goal is to get out of marrying an incredibly boring prince. She’s consistently logical, intelligent, creative and an insufferable know-it-all, and her lack of enthusiasm for her engagement means it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life.

Her love life is a pretty big feature of the story, but it isn’t the focus of all her decisions – she decides to plan ahead for her own future, to learn as much as she can and to avoid sleeping. She doesn’t really develop over the course of the story but she does have a weakness – her endless fount of knowledge makes her absolutely insufferable, she isn’t always respectful of other people and she can be very dispassionate, all of which stop her from making friends.

Hermione-Granger-Hermione-Cry-Harry-Potter-Sad-Awww-Emma-Watson-Submission-GIF
#SmartGirlProblems. (image: gif sec.com)

She comes up with a plan to subvert the curse and avoid marriage on her own, completely disregards the traditional passivity associated with the Sleeping Beauty story and proves herself to be a clever and manipulative young woman – not exactly typical Disney Princess behaviour. She also has a wide range of relationships with different female characters including her mother, the fairies and people in the palace, although most of these take the same slightly condescending tone. All in all, this is a very refreshing look at Sleeping Beauty that manages to keep a lot of the traditional elements – it’s definitely worth a read!

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

 

image: fanpop.com

This recent adaptation of Sleeping Beauty doesn’t focus on the princess, but the wicked witch at the centre of it all – the titular Maleficent. A retelling of the Disney animated film, this version makes Maleficent the central character, spending a significant amount of time on the relationship she had with the princess’s father. After he steals Maleficent’s wings, she curses his daughter in revenge, prompting him to send her out into the forest for her own safety. Maleficent, however, soon finds herself bonding with the child, and ends up trying to lift the curse. When true love’s kiss doesn’t work, Maleficent kisses the princess herself, all the maternal love she has breaks the spell, and the two go on to overthrow the princess’s father and rule in peace.

Aurora isn’t the central character in this film and spends a substantial amount of it as a very young child, but as she grows older she gets a lot more agency, going back to the castle of her own accord and giving Maleficent back her wings. Later in the story she wants to find out about the curse and help Maleficent, we don’t see a lot of her hobbies but she seems fascinated by fairyland, and she believes a lot of generic stuff about kindness, goodness etc. so I’ll allow her the point. She’s consistently cheerful, sweet, kind and good, and it is possible to describe her without mentioning her love life or appearance as both are played down to an absolute minimum.  Throughout the film, her decisions are motivated more by the desire to find out about herself and her environment rather than Prince One Direction Knockoff.

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Tell me you don’t see it. (image: pinterest.com)

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story and she doesn’t really have a weakness – she’s naïve, but anyone would be if they’d been raised out in the woods by three idiots who don’t know that it takes a while to get babies onto solid food. She only really starts to influence the plot in the last half hour or so – before that she does very little. As far as gender stereotypes go she’s in the middle – she’s generically kind, sweet and good but rejecting familial bonds and siding with Maleficent (not to mention saying that maternal trumps romantic love) is very subversive. When it comes to other female characters, she has a few different relationships – namely with Maleficent and the three fairies – but these don’t really change, even after she finds out that Maleficent cursed her. All in all it’s a pretty solid effort, but I think if they’d spent less time on Maleficent’s backstory and more on her relationship with Aurora, this version of Sleeping Beauty would have been a much stronger character.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

 

image: youtube.com

This is a very different retelling of Sleeping Beauty – but it’s Neil Gaiman, so what did you expect? This version follows a grown up (and non-vampiric) Snow White investigate a mysterious sleeping sickness on the borders of her kingdom and find a castle covered in thorns with a sleeping princess in the tallest tower. She kisses her awake, only to find that the sleeper is the creature who cast the curse, and the mysterious old woman hobbling around the castle is the real princess with all her youth and beauty stolen from her.

This version of Sleeping Beauty is a different kettle of fish. She’s very much in control, as it’s implied that she cast the spell on the princess to steal her youth, beauty and social standing. We don’t hear a lot about her hobbies, goals or beliefs either – apart from that she’s a creature that wants to stay young and in power – which is pretty similar to Gaiman’s other retelling of Snow White (Snow, Glass, Apples). She’s consistently portrayed as intelligent, ruthless and cruel with strong magical powers, but you can’t describe her without talking about her appearance as the desire to look young and beautiful is what motivates her.

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Young, beautiful and chilling on a bed full of skulls, that is. (image: goodreads.com)

She doesn’t appear to have any genuine feelings for anyone, so her love life isn’t really an issue. She doesn’t develop over the story but she does have a weakness – she’s over-confident, which does set her back. She’s the driving force behind the whole story and relates to other female characters in different ways, manipulating and taunting the real princess while trying to seduce Snow White. As far as gender stereotypes go, she’s on the fence – progressive in that she’s ruthless, cruel and manipulative (traits not always seen in female characters) but less so in that her main goal in love is to stay young and pretty forever. All in all I really enjoyed this retelling, but I felt that this particular version of Sleeping Beauty could have been fleshed out a little more.

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

And there you have it – that’s my analysis of Sleeping Beauty! Long story short, most of these adaptations’ problems stem from the fact that the main character’s most significant contribution to the plot is her falling asleep – I can tell you from experience that it’s difficult to subvert the patriarchy when you’re unconscious. The traditional versions of the tale didn’t expand her role beyond token pretty lady, and while some modern adaptations have gone to great lengths to change this, it doesn’t always work.

Next week, I’ll be back with my original ten question test and looking at one of my all-time favourite books. Rebecca, I’m coming for you.

 

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

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Princess Tiana

For those of you that don’t know, Tiana is the main character of Disney’s 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog. Loosely based on the original fairy tale, the plot follows the adventures of Tiana, a hard-working waitress in 1920s New Orleans who kisses a prince who’s been turned into a frog – only to catch amphibian-itis and turn into a frog herself. While not the smash hit that Disney was hoping for, the film was still well-received by critics and did very well at the box office – and most importantly of all, introduced Disney’s first African-American princess. Tiana herself was certainly the main draw of the film, and has been hailed by critics and audiences alike as a role model for young girls everywhere.

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

 

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

Tiana begins and ends the movie actively trying to take control of her own destiny, which is unusual among Disney Princesses.

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But they’ve been working on that. (image: frozen.disney.co.uk)

Instead of waiting around for something to happen to her, it’s made very clear that she’s been trying to change her circumstances from the second we meet her. When she’s turned into a frog, she immediately sets about trying to turn herself human again, but even before that she’s working two jobs to save up the money for her restaurant. There’s a lot stacked against her – not least of which is the racism that Disney only vaguely alludes to – but she doesn’t let that stop her from living the life she wants to lead.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Tiana’s goals are very clear and consistent: she wants to be a world-class chef and open up her own restaurant (and to also not be a frog any more, ta very much). Her beliefs and hobbies all revolve around this goal: she believes in the value of hard work and is sceptical that ‘wishing’ will get her what she wants, and she loves to cook. They all inform each other as well: her goal to open a restaurant came from her love of cooking, her belief in hard work came from her desire to open a restaurant, and her love of cooking is what gives her the motivation to keep working towards her goal. The three are all very closely interlinked, but I’m not going to let that stop me from giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Tiana is a very consistent character. As well as the fairly stereotypical Disney Princess traits of being good, kind and sweet, she’s also hard-working, realistic, ambitious and incredibly focused, with a very strong sense of right and wrong. As far as skills go, she’s a great cook, a very good waitress, and seems to have the capacity to make the best of every situation and get something out of nothing.

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 hard-working young waitress wants to open up a restaurant, but gets turned into a frog in the process.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Tiana’s love life is a pretty big part of her story, but it isn’t the only part. At the beginning of the film all her decisions are influenced by her desire to get her restaurant and get turned back into a human – it’s only as the film progresses and she falls in love with Prince Naveen that it actually starts to influence her.

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Look at his shiny teeth. (image: teen.com)

But even then, it isn’t the only factor in her decision-making. When she’s convinced that Naveen doesn’t love her and has chosen to marry Charlotte, it’s not just her love life that motivates her to run away but the realisation that she’ll be stuck as a frog forever. When she defeats Dr Facilier, the top-hat-wearing voodoo villain, it isn’t just thoughts of Naveen that motivate her but also respect for her father and a realisation about what she really values in life. When she stops Naveen from kissing Charlotte, it’s not just because she loves him, but because she knows he won’t be happy if he marries her.

Tiana’s love life is simply one motivation out of many when it comes to her decision-making. Yes, a love story is central to her development, but it’s not the only thing. Crucially, Tiana’s love life doesn’t make her forget everything she wanted before she met Naveen – the only difference is that now, she wants to share those things with him. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

Tiana does develop over the course of the story, largely thanks to the influence of Naveen. She learns to loosen up and enjoy herself, and that there are more important things in life than just work. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Tiana’s biggest weakness is the fact that she’s a terrible workaholic and can be pretty uptight. While this does affect her during the course of the film – she’s always tired, she turns down invitations from friends, she doesn’t know how to relax and she is so tightly focused on her goals that she can’t see what else is important – it isn’t really portrayed as a bad part of her personality.

Tiana is a workaholic, but by and large the film shows this as a positive thing. We never see Tiana regret the fact that she doesn’t have as much free time as others, because the film makes it clear that she’s very happy to pursue her goal at every opportunity. Her ability to work hard is shown as a good thing, especially when compared to Naveen, who starts the film as a reckless and irresponsible prince. Tiana’s workaholic nature is, more often than not, used as evidence of how much she values her dream rather than evidence of the fact that she’s probably crazy stressed 24/7.

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In real life she’d be like this ALL THE TIME. (image: giphy.com)

Long story short, the film is kind of on the fence about whether Tiana’s hard-working nature is a weakness or a strength, and does its best to show both sides of the argument. I’ll do the same and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

Tiana is a real influence on the plot. Her plans and decisions propel the story forward at every turn, whether she’s finding her way through the bayou or taking down an evil voodoo witch doctor with an excellent song.

 

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Tiana is a very interesting character when it comes to gender stereotypes. When discussing how gender stereotypes affect her character, you also have to look into how racial stereotypes affect her character too, as the two are often quite closely linked. The film is unusual in that these stereotypes are directly referenced in the plot, albeit in a pretty oblique way.

On the whole, I think Tiana is a pretty progressive character. She’s a hard-working young woman whose lifelong dream is to start and manage her own business. She works multiple jobs to achieve her goal, and even when she gets knocked back she doesn’t let that stop her. This goes against the commonly held belief that women in general aren’t motivated by their careers, but also goes against a lot of racial stereotypes about black people having a poor work ethic. Portraying Tiana as a hard-working, intelligent young black woman who wants to break into a male-dominated profession (because almost all professional chefs were dudes in the 1920s) is a double whammy, hitting back against gender and racial stereotypes. Ten points for Disney.

However, Tiana isn’t completely off the hook. The film’s central message is about getting what you want vs. getting what you need, and in Tiana’s case, what she wants is her restaurant, but what she really needs is shown to be settling down with a man. The film goes a long way to portraying their relationship as one between equals – they both help each other change as people and are prepared to make sacrifices for each other before they fall in love – but this central theme kind of undermines this. Tiana’s big character growth is deciding to give up on her dream and live as a frog in a swamp with her boyfriend – turning back into a human and getting her restaurant is treated like an optional extra. This actually plays into a really common gender stereotype that a woman’s ultimate goal is to settle down and start having babies. It isn’t really a huge setback for her character, as once she marries her prince and turns back into a human she goes after her restaurant again, but the change in her priorities has important implications that shouldn’t be ignored.

This sums up a lot of the problems with The Princess and the Frog – a lot of effort has been put into updating the story, but it’s still squashed into some fairly conventional Disney Princess boxes. Tiana is a hard-working young black woman motivated by her career, but ultimately she still settles down with a handsome prince. She gets the restaurant she’s always wanted, but she’s made it clear she’d put her relationship before that if push came to shove. Tiana and Naveen change each other into better people through their love, but ultimately it’s still his money and status that ends up giving her what she wants. The film is trying to tell two stories at once – one very traditional, one much more modern – and smushing them together throws up some really unfortunate implications (and that’s saying nothing of the fact that Disney’s first black princess spends most of the film as a frog).

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I couldn’t find a more appropriate gif if I tried. (image: giphy.com)

I’ll give her half a point. I get where the film is coming from, and it has a lot of really positive things going for it, but trying to squeeze it into the traditional Disney Princess formula really takes the shine off.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tiana has a few interesting relationships with other female characters. She’s very close to her mother, but they have their differences: Tiana wants to build her restaurant, but her mother thinks she works too hard and would rather she met a nice boy and started producing grandkids. She’s best friends with the spoiled society darling Charlotte, but despite their different personalities the two get along well and Charlotte gives up on her plan to marry Naveen for Tiana. She’s respectfully wary of Mama Odie, and takes a little while to understand her advice, but gets there in the end. I’m not counting Evangeline, because she’s, you know, a star.

She doesn’t have many other relationships with other female characters that are explored in much detail, and personally, I think that’s a real shame. All the relationships we see her engage in are overwhelmingly positive, and I would’ve liked to have seen how she dealt with a little more conflict and tension with another female character. I’ll give her half a point.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Tiana is a well-rounded and consistent character with a range of goals, beliefs and hobbies. She takes control of her own destiny, doesn’t let her love life rule every decision she makes and grows throughout the story. Her weaknesses are a little patchy, her relationships all run along fairly similar lines and she throws up both positive and negative gender stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped her from passing my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a new favourite of mine. Kimmy Schmidt, I’m coming for you.

 

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

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Snow White

For those of you that don’t know, Snow White is the story of a beleaguered young girl forced into servitude by her stepfamily whose stepmother is criminally jealous of her beauty. Obsessed with being the No.1 hottie, when Snow White finally comes of age and is deemed more beautiful, her wicked stepmother tries to have her killed. Snow White gets away and stays with some dwarves for a bit, but when her stepmother finds out she’s alive she gives her a poisoned apple that puts her into an enchanted sleep. Everybody’s miserable about poor old Snow being basically dead, but then a handsome prince trots along, gives her a kiss and she wakes up again. He marries her, they live happily ever after and the stepmother drops down dead – from jealousy or red-hot metal shoes being forced onto her feet, depending on which version you read.

What’s interesting about this particular fairy tale – aside from all the teenage runaways, attempted murder and step-matricide – is that unlike many of its counterparts, Snow White appears to have pretty recent origins. Unlike Cinderella, which can trace its origins back to Ancient Greece, Snow White doesn’t seem to have been around much before the Middle Ages. In fact, some scholars believe that Snow White may have been based on a real person – a German countess called Margaretha von Waldeck, or a young Bavarian noblewoman called Maria Sophia von Erthal. Both young women had difficult relationships with their stepmothers and one of them was poisoned, but beyond that, there’s not much evidence for their lives being used as inspiration for the fairy tale.

Regardless of whether Snow White is the medieval equivalent of a Lifetime movie, there’s no denying that the fairy tale has had a huge impact on the popular consciousness. The most popular version of the story is the one made known by the Brothers Grimm, but there are versions of the tale found all over the world. New versions are still popping up in the form of adaptations – whether that’s movies, TV shows, poems, video games, musicals or animes. It’s very easy to view Snow White the character as a combination of all of these different adaptations – she’s been the star of literally thousands of different stories.

But I’m not going to look at all of them. I’ve chosen six variations of the Snow White story and I’ll be seeing how each measures up to my Strong Female Characters test.

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

 

 

image: wikimedia.orgThis version of the story is the basis of most modern adaptations, although it does tend to get toned down quite a bit. Snow White is a pretty passive character whose fate is decided by other people wanting to murder or marry her. She doesn’t have any goals, beliefs or hobbies and much of her characterisation revolves around how good, sweet, innocent and kind she is – but this is, at least, consistent.

You can’t tell her story without referencing her physical appearance – there’s just no getting away from the fact that her entire story revolves around the fact that she’s a total hottie. Interestingly, this doesn’t mean that her love life affects many of her decisions. Snow White’s decisions revolve around staying alive or finding a few nice things for herself. It’s the Prince who dictates her love life when he comes across her unconscious/possibly dead body and decides to MAKE OUT WITH AND MARRY HER.

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

She doesn’t develop over the course of the story, she doesn’t have a weakness and while she does influence the story in some way, she plays a very passive role. She’s reacting to other people’s actions or letting the plot revolve around her. As far as her relationships with other female characters go, we only really see her interact with her stepmother (or mother, in the original story), and while their relationship raises all sorts of interesting questions about jealousy and female competition it isn’t explored in any real depth. And when it comes to gender stereotypes, she’s practically a cliché with legs. She’s a lesson on the dangers of female vanity and jealousy in red lipstick, not a character with any real development, agency or personality of her own.

FINAL SCORE: 3/10

 

 

image: youtube.comWhile the Brothers Grimm interpretation is the version of the tale most commonly used as inspiration, the one that most people actually know is the 1937 Walt Disney film. Unfortunately, this version doesn’t do much for her character, either. Her fate as a larger whole is still decided by other people playing a real life game of Screw, Marry, Kill. She does have a bit more to her in this version – we know she’s fond of cooking, cleaning, dancing and singing, and she believes in a lot of vague, wishy-washy stuff about true love and following your star and the power of dreams, etc. Her personality is pretty similar to the original fairy tale – we don’t see much different to the original kind, sweet, innocent heroine.

You still can’t describe her story without referencing her physical appearance. Thankfully her love life starts featuring in the story BEFORE she slips into a coma rather than during, but it actually doesn’t affect a lot of her decisions – once again, she focuses on staying alive while the Prince is the one actively pursuing her. She doesn’t develop, she doesn’t have any weaknesses aside from being just too kind, and she’s even less of an influence on the plot than in the original fairy tale. Her relationship with the Evil Queen isn’t given any more depth – if anything, we see less of it in this version – and when it comes to gender stereotypes she’s another walking morality tale. Much like Cinderella, her story is used to sell the idea that goodness, kindness and innocence will see a girl through all her troubles – never mind things like self-reliance, being proactive, taking your fate into your own hands and having more than a spoonful of common sense.

OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)
OOOOHHHHHHHH (image: giphy.com)

FINAL SCORE: 3.5/10

 

 

image: shortstorystation.wordpress.comThis is probably one of the most radically different interpretations of the Snow White fairytale, and certainly one of the versions I most enjoy. Told from the perspective of the ‘evil’ queen, in this version Snow White is an unholy vampire, Prince Charming is a necrophiliac, and the long-suffering step-queen is trying her best to conquer evil, govern the kingdom and just not get eaten. Snow White has a bit more control over her own fate, as she’s trying to take down her stepmother, but ultimately her ‘Destiny’ is decided by what she is rather than what she does. She has a pretty clear goal – get back at her stepmother – but she’s such a mysterious character that we don’t actually know a lot about her hobbies and beliefs.

Apart from MURDER. (image: giphy.com)
Apart from MURDER. (image: giphy.com)

She’s consistently portrayed as a cold, manipulative, ruthless character with the ability to hold people in her sway. It’s very easy to describe her without referencing her love life, appearance or the words ‘strong female character’, too: “a terrifying vampire princess determined to get revenge on the stepmother who cast her out”. Her love life features in the story quite a bit, but Snow White uses it as a means to an end – she uses her sexuality to lure in her victims and nom on their tasty, tasty necks. She doesn’t appear to feel any actual love at all, and so most of her decisions are motivated by a desire to feed herself or get back into power rather than real emotions.

She does suffer from the classic ‘mysterious character’ syndrome – she’s so mysterious that we don’t actually know all that much about her, which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly how her personality develops. She does have a tendency to underestimate people and isn’t very good at spotting when people are trying to kill her, but other than that she’s something of a superhuman. Because she’s so determined to eat some people she drives the plot forward all through the story, but when it comes to gender stereotypes it’s not so clear-cut. In some ways she’s quite progressive, in that she’s a young woman who has no boundaries, will do anything to stay alive and is stone cold evil, ruthless and (literally) bloodthirsty. In other ways she really isn’t – she falls right into the bracket of the Femme Fatale, who uses her womanly wiles to lure men to their doom. Much like the original fairy tale, we only really see her interact with her stepmother, but this relationship is given a lot more depth and detail as the two see each other as adversaries on the same level.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

 

image: youtube.comAnd now we come to the more recent adaptations of the Snow White fairy tale. Once Upon A Time doesn’t set out to tell Snow White’s story alone – it draws on several other fairy tale characters, but Snow White is one of the principal ones. Set in the little American town of Storybrooke, the plot revolves around several fairy tale characters who find themselves stuff in the real world – and the ‘Saviour’ who’s supposed to lead them home.

In this version, Snow White’s destiny is largely in her own hands – she does still react to stuff the bad guys set in motion, but she’s more than capable of trying to improve her life under her own steam. She has some pretty clearly defined goals and beliefs – she believes in doing what’s right, trusting in herself and the importance of family and true love, and she’s always looking to secure a safe life for her family. Her personality is pretty consistent – she’s kind, brave, determined and generally well-meaning – but her skills are another matter, as she’s pretty much perfect at everything without having to put much effort in.

It’s possible to describe her story and character if you focus on her goals to take back her kingdom and secure a good life for her family – and this is also what motivates most of her decisions (rather than her love life). She also develops over the course of her own story, as she buries the hatchet with the Evil Queen and learns to see the world in less black and white terms. However, she doesn’t really have much of a weakness as she’s just so perfect.

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

She’s another one of those characters who can stand still and let the plot generate itself around her, and most of the time she’s reacting to the actions of other characters rather than acting of her own accord. However, she’s actually pretty decent in terms of gender stereotype as she’s a character who wants to settle down and raise a family, while also taking her rightful place as queen, organising military campaigns, and governing a kingdom. As far as her relationships with other female characters go, she has plenty to choose from, and over the course of the series these are allowed to develop in their own distinct ways. I don’t particularly like Once Upon A Time (or Snow’s character in the show, for that matter) but I have to say that I think she’s done a pretty good job.

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

 

image: all4desktop.comThis retelling is one of those modern takes on fairy tales where the screenwriters are desperate to stick to the original story while trying to get around the fact that their protagonist is a bit of a wet blanket. Mirror Mirror is a formulaic retelling of the fairy tale except this time, Snow White is actively trying to bring down the Evil Queen. She joins a group of dwarves who happen to be bandits and plots to overthrow the queen – all while never raising her voice above a demure whisper.

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

Snow White has a stab at taking control of her own destiny – she does spend the movie trying to overthrow the queen – but a lot of her actions are the result of her own physical attractiveness or the actions of other characters driving the plot. She believes in fairness, equality and being a responsible ruler, and works towards getting the queen out of power and saving the prince. Her personality is consistently kind, sweet, innocent and well-meaning, and even though she does go from sheltered little princess to sword-wielding bandit we do actually see her train for this.

You can describe her without referencing her love life, appearance or the words ‘Strong Female Character’ – a kind, well-meaning young princess trying to take back her kingdom. However, her love life still motivates a lot of her actions, as she’s only trying to save the Prince because she fancies him. She develops confidence and self-reliance over the course of the story, but doesn’t really have any weaknesses that hold her back, and she’s another one of those characters whose influence on the plot is mainly reacting to other characters. Usually it’s Julia Roberts hammily ruining her life, a generically good-looking Prince pursuing her and swooning a bit, or even the disappearance of her father, the king, who is inexplicably played by Sean Bean.

It's like a good actor just wandered onto the set and they shot the film around him. (image: pastemagazine.com)
It’s like a good actor just wandered onto the set and they shot the film around him. (image: pastemagazine.com)

In terms of gender stereotypes, she’s quite deceptive. She’s set up as a character who breaks down gender stereotypes by running away, stealing things and overthrowing a kingdom but if you really look at her, she’s very much on the back foot. Most of her moments of empowerment are things other characters cajole her into doing, which really takes away from any positive stuff she might have had. When it comes to her relationships with other female characters, she really only has two – the evil queen, who is nasty, and the cook, who is nice. That isn’t really good enough – and to be frank, the same can be said for the rest of the film.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

 

image: studenthandouts.comThis last retelling is probably the one which got the most attention in recent years. Released in 2012, Snow White and the Huntsman desperately attempts to re-cast Snow White as a ‘Strong Female Character’ by putting her in some armour, having her fight off the evil Queen Ravenna, and giving her an emergency spine transplant. However, it doesn’t quite hold up. Snow White isn’t really in control of her own destiny, as her entire fate revolves around her royal blood and the fact that she is the only one who can grant the queen immortality. The Queen spends most of the story trying to kill her, so she has no real option but to take her out if she wants to stay alive.

We don’t see any of her hobbies, and her beliefs aren’t explored much beyond the typical goodness, justice and kindness, but throughout the film she strives to get away from, and then defeat, Queen Ravenna. She’s consistently good, sweet, kind and determined but her skills are all over the place. She’s got unexplained magical powers coming out of her ears, and after spending half of her life locked up in a tower she’s suddenly strong enough to put on full plate armour, wield a sword, lead an army into battle and single-handedly defeat the evil Queen. You can, however, describe her character without referencing her love life, appearance or the words Strong Female Character: a kind, fair-minded young princess attempting to take back her kingdom.

This Snow White doesn’t really have much of a love life at all, as most of it seems to take place when she’s unconscious (which is something of a red flag). But she doesn’t really make many decisions under her own steam – rather, she’s presented with a series of choices where her only other option is death. She does change over the course of the story, but it’s poorly handled – she changes so rapidly it’s as if a switch has been flipped – and she doesn’t really have any weaknesses. In fact, she doesn’t really influence the plot at all – she has so much help from outside forces (such as the Huntsman rescuing her, her own innate magical powers and her royal blood) that she doesn’t really need to do anything. To be perfectly frank, a limp dishcloth could drive the plot forward if it received all the help Kristen Stewart did.

DAMN RIGHT I DID (image: memegenerator.com)
DAMN RIGHT I DID (image: memegenerator.com)

When it comes to gender stereotypes she’s slightly better off, but not by much. On the one hand, she becomes a strong leader who leads her army into battle and takes back her kingdom, but on the other hand, the plot makes so much of her goodness, sweetness and purity – and gives her so much help – that we never actually see her make any of the choices a leader has to make. This makes her seem like much more of a pretty figurehead than an actual warrior. We don’t see a lot more from her relationships with other female characters, either. She bonds with the nice ones, and is clearly set up as a contrast to the evil queen, but these relationships aren’t explored in any kind of depth. In short, this version of Snow White isn’t anywhere near as strong as she’s set up to be.

FINAL SCORE: 4/10

 

So that’s my analysis of Snow White! Long story short, much like Cinderella, the problems that most of these adaptations have often stems from the original fairy tale – namely, that it was so tied up with the morality of things like vanity, appearances and ‘goodness’ as a virtue that the characters don’t go much beyond set pieces. Modern adaptations have tried to work around this, and some have succeeded, but only when they stop treating Snow White like the pinnacle of feminine virtue and like an actual human being.

Next week, I’ll be returning to my original format and looking at Gravity Falls. Mabel, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here. Also, I have an FAQ now!

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Emma Swan

For those of you that don’t know, Emma Swan is the main character of ABC’s hit show, Once Upon a Time. The show revolves around a series of fairy tale characters are affected when a curse transports them into the human world with no idea about who they once were. Emma – the prophesised saviour, dragon-slayer and sexy-pirate-kisser – is the only one who can restore their memories and get them back home. The series has been very successful – and this has nothing to do with Disney’s involvement in ABC, God you guys, stop asking – receiving rave reviews for its fresh spin on familiar fairy-tale characters. Emma herself has been widely presented as a ‘Strong Female Character’: a departure from the traditional weak-willed princesses we’ve come to expect from fairy tales.

But does she live up to her reputation? 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?

To a certain extent, Emma’s destiny is mapped out from before she’s even born. When her mother, Snow White, is pregnant with her, she is told that if she sends her child to another realm to escape an oncoming curse, Emma will come back and break the curse on her twenty-eighth birthday. From that moment on, Emma is marked out as ‘the Saviour’: she’s destined to break the curse on her fairy-tale friends and send them home, and this pretty much dictates her role in the story. To a certain extent, it even affects her personality, as in a later episode, Snow White and Prince Charming decide to magically remove all the ‘evil’ from their unborn child because apparently that’s how that works.

This means that it’s often difficult to take Emma’s control over her own destiny at face value. She’s been marked out for a higher calling, and it’s well established that other characters have been trying to shape her for their own ends since before she was even born. She often gets moved through the plot like a pawn across a chessboard: we see her being clearly manipulated by many other characters and for most of the story, she’s carrying out plans that she didn’t make and don’t always benefit her. Much like Clara, she’s a character that’s sold to us as ‘feisty’ but actually ends up doing what she’s told most of the time.

Part of this can be chalked up to the tropes surrounding the traditional ‘Chosen One’ storylines. I touched on this in my Buffy post, but basically the idea that you can be marked out as a super-special saviour often comes with all sorts of limitations on free will and raises questions about the inevitability of fate. However, where Buffy managed to still have some control over other aspects of her life – such as going to college – Emma doesn’t really have a lot of control. A lot of the opportunities she takes are handed to her by other characters – such as her job at the Sheriff’s office, which was initially given to her by Abs Dornan –

Seen here rehearsing for his role in Fifty Shades of Grey. (image: giphy.com)
Seen here rehearsing for his role in Fifty Shades of Grey. (image: giphy.com)

– and when you really analyse her actions, most of the time she’s not the one pulling the strings.

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

As far as hobbies go, Emma doesn’t really have many to speak of. We see her try her hand at many different things in the show, but these are usually one-off activities that are very much dependent on the plot of whatever episode they happen to appear in. We don’t really see Emma engaging in any recurring pastimes aside from spending time with family and friends, which doesn’t really count.

Her beliefs and goals are a little more clearly defined. Emma feels very strongly about families getting separated – a direct result of her childhood in foster care. Her goals are pretty clear, too – she wants to get the fairy-tale characters back to their world, defeat the various baddies, and build a proper relationship with the son she gave up for adoption. Some of these aren’t always goals she came up with on her own – her quest to get the characters back to their own world is something I touched on in the previous question – but some of them are, particularly the desire to have a strong relationship with her son. It’s a pretty patchy spread, so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

Emma’s personality is largely consistent. She’s always first into the fray, determined to take care of herself, and can be quite aggressive at times. She does have a softer side – particularly when she’s interacting with her son – but it isn’t shown very often, and is usually displayed in small, subtle ways.

Her skills, however, are completely different. Emma is seen mastering pretty much anything she tries her hand at within the first few attempts. She uses a gun very easily, which I can buy, considering America’s attitude to gun control and the fact that we hardly ever see her use anything heavier than a hand gun. But she uses a sword very easily too, despite the fact that sword-fighting is much more difficult than it looks and she hasn’t had any training.

Yes, thank you, Jon. (image: tumblr.com)
Yes, thank you, Jon. (image: tumblr.com)

It’s the same thing with her use of magic. We don’t see her actively using her magic powers until about halfway through the series. Before then, she has no control over them – often seeming to activate without any input from her, usually when she’s in danger. When she finally decides to start to learn how to use them, it takes her all of thirty seconds to master her abilities, and she’s pretty much a pro from there on out. Part of this can be chalked up to her ‘Chosen One’ destiny, but I think it’s much more likely to be the fault of lazy writing. I’ll be generous and give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

A determined, independent young woman destined to break a curse and restore fairy tale characters to their true home.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Most of Emma’s decisions aren’t influenced by her love life. Throughout the story as a larger whole, the one thing that motivates her the most is her desire to build a relationship with her estranged son and reconnect with her long lost parents. She has several relationships with various different characters, and some of them do have a real impact on her actions, but never to the extent where they eclipse her other goals.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

Emma’s development over the course of the story is a bit patchy. Over the course of the first season, she eventually comes to accept her role in the ‘fairy tale’ and starts working towards becoming a more responsible parent, building relationships with her family and friends and eventually coming to terms with her role as ‘the Saviour’.

This would be all fine in terms of character development if she didn’t keep doing it. Throughout the various seasons, Emma’s story goes through an extremely similar arc: instead of taking her character in a new direction, she almost always ends up learning the same thing over and over again. She’s constantly re-affirming her role as ‘the Saviour’ and always coming to terms with her abilities even when they aren’t changing. I can believe that becoming a responsible parent is something that she would continually want to work on because parenting is difficult and as your child grows older you’re going to have to deal with a bunch of new issues, most of which are caused by all the endless hormones. But I have real trouble buying into her character development in the other areas of her character. Sailor Moon had the same problem: if she’s learning the same lesson over and over again, it doesn’t really feel like she’s learnt that lesson at all.

I've been told I make this face a lot. (image: tumblr.com)
I’ve been told I make this face a lot. (image: tumblr.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Emma does actually have some pretty well-established weaknesses. She often rushes into things blindly without thinking through the consequences, which winds up putting her in dangerous situations pretty often. She also has real trouble letting people get close to her – a direct result of her troubled past, where many different people ended up letting her down in many different ways. Again, this brings up problems for her in the narrative, as it makes it very difficult for her to form a happy, healthy relationship. These are both well-written weaknesses that have a consistent impact on how she travels through the story, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Emma is another one of those characters who can effectively stand still and allow the plot to generate itself around her. Because she’s the prophesised ‘Saviour’, even if she decided to stay in bed and eat pizza and ice cream for the entire series, other characters would still be seeking her out and getting her involved in the story.

I don't know who this woman is, but I thoroughly approve of her actions. (image: reasonswhyimstillsingle.wordpress.com)
I don’t know who this woman is, but I thoroughly approve of her actions. (image: reasonswhyimstillsingle.wordpress.com)

Although the aforementioned pizza/ice cream extravaganza is an excellent way to spend a television series, this isn’t what Emma does. In most of the episodes, she’s at the forefront of the action, and in her role as Sheriff she’s always the first on the scene for the many crimes she ends up investigating. However, just because she’s first into the fray doesn’t mean she’s actively influencing the plot. The fact that she is the Sheriff means she has to be the first one on the scene – and it isn’t even a role she really wanted in the first place. She may be the first one rushing into danger, but it’s always a danger she’s reacting to. The situations she finds herself in are usually engineered by the show’s villains, who are by far the most proactive characters on the show. More often than not, Emma spends most of the story being placed into situations that she didn’t create and that she has absolutely no control over.

The one area of her life where this isn’t the case is her relationships with her family. Emma actively tries to build relationships with her son and her parents, and when they are in danger, she will take drastic steps to protect them. Most notably is the moment in the series four finale, when to stop evil magic consuming everyone she cares about, she voluntarily absorbs it. She becomes ‘the Dark One’ – Once Upon A Time’s personification of evil – even though it goes against everything she believes in to do so. This is partially undermined by the incredibly simplistic way the show handles good and evil – come on guys, you can’t just syringe all the evil out of someone’s personality – but it is still nevertheless a huge impact on the plot that will hopefully allow her a little more agency. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Emma is a character designed to deconstruct a lot of preconceived ideas about gender. Whereas the traditional fairy-tale heroines were meek, good, innocent and passive, Emma is loud, brash, aggressive, has a criminal past and fights her way out of trouble on more than one occasion. She insists that she doesn’t need anyone else to save her – despite how many times she ends up almost dying – and the marketing makes a point of showing how she’s not like all those other princesses.

There’s a few areas where this doesn’t really hold water. The first I’ve already touched on: Emma may be a strong presence in the story, but she isn’t an active participant in her own story. Most of the time she’s reacting to other characters’ actions, rather than acting for herself. The second is that this characterisation is actually incredibly typical for women in media: as a way of ‘proving’ that their female characters are strong, writers will often give them exactly these kinds of traits. Emma Swan is a pretty generic Action Girl – just like the rest of them, she’s brave, a capable fighter, and rarely engages in feminine pastimes. This would be fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that if you describe Emma’s story leaving out the specific details, you could be describing pretty much any female character from the past thirty years. This has become a new cliché in the way that women are written, and it often comes at the cost of proper character development in exactly the same way as the old ones do.

"Would you like some more cliches with your casserole, honey?" (image: blog4yourlife.com)
“Would you like some more cliches with your casserole, honey?” (image: blog4yourlife.com)

The other area that gender stereotypes affect Emma’s character is her attitude to family. Emma gives birth to a son, Henry, and decides to give him up for adoption – mainly because she has him while she’s in jail. Ten years later, when he comes to visit her, she decides that she wants to build a relationship with him. This is all pretty understandable: it gets tricky when you look at the way the show compares her with her son’s adoptive mother, Regina.

Emma is consistently portrayed as the better parent – even though she showed absolutely no interest in her son until he turned up on her doorstep. Even when she’s living out of a car, hasn’t seen her son in ten years and lies to him about his father, the show is always keen to stress that she is a better parent than Regina. Henry thinks so too – he runs away to try and find her, and continually rebuffs all the attempts that Regina makes to take care of him. Regina, on the other hand, has raised Henry since he was a baby, buys him books and toys to keep him entertained, is continually checking in with his doctors and teachers. Regina’s relationship with her son is far from perfect – in the first series, in order to keep the curse a secret she tries to convince everyone that Henry is mentally ill. But even though some of her methods are frankly disturbing, Regina is always shown making a lot more effort in her relationship with Henry than Emma does.

The show consistently portrays the relationship between Henry and his birth family as more important than Henry and his adopted family, despite the fact that we see Regina acting a lot more like a responsible parent than Emma does. The idea of a mother’s love is a constant theme on the show, but in this particular instant it has a nasty twist. Frequently, Emma is seen as the mother and Regina is seen as an interloper, and all that she has done for her adopted son is completely set aside. In casting Emma as the better parent and actively ignoring Regina’s efforts, the show is sweeping adoptive relationships under the rug and implying that the bond between birth mothers and their children will always be stronger. This just isn’t the case. It takes a lot more than having the right biological equipment to actually be a mother. It implies that just seeing a child can make long-buried maternal instincts re-surface in just about anyone with a uterus, and more importantly, it does a real disservice to people who do choose to adopt children in order to give them a happier, more stable environment.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Emma has a lot of really interesting relationships with a range of different female characters. She becomes friends with Snow White, and then later finds out that she’s actually her long-lost mother. She becomes friends with Red Riding Hood – who it turns out, is a werewolf – and must help her control her condition. She takes an instant dislike to Regina, the Evil Queen, which eventually evolves into an uneasy respect and ultimately friendship. What’s really great about all these relationships is that they’re given the time to develop, so she passes this round with flying colours.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Emma is a bit of a tricky character. She’s presented to the audience as a ‘Strong Female Character’: as someone who can take care of herself, doesn’t need someone else to come and rescue her, and isn’t completely dependent on her boyfriend.

Eeeeeexactly. (image: memecrunch.com)
Eeeeeexactly. (image: memecrunch.com)

This is all true, but it isn’t enough to make her a truly strong character. While she may have a range of relationships with other female characters, have some very well-developed weaknesses, and is never defined by her romantic relationships, she doesn’t change much over the course of the story and when you really examine it, she doesn’t have much of an impact on the plot. She’s consistently sold as a ‘Strong Female Character’ – just look at the marketing – but when you get right down to it, she’s nowhere near as strong as the posters make her out to be.

Next week, I’ll be looking at a more recent work – Jurassic World. Claire, I’m coming for you.

 

 

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

 

Strong Female Characters

Strong Female Characters: Belle

For those of you that don’t know, Belle is the main character of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Released in 1991, the film is an animated re-telling of the traditional French fairy tale, which tells the story of a young girl who agrees to be the prisoner of a beast in a castle in exchange for her father’s life. Disney’s version was a smash hit, winning a couple of Oscars, and Belle herself was hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? 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?

When Belle is given a chance to take control of her own life, she takes it. She offers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner (with absolutely no coercion from any other characters), stops him from dying of hypothermia in that terrifying wolf scene, and braves a mob to go back to his castle and save him. What’s more, she actively resists any other characters’ attempts to take that control away from her: when both Gaston and the Beast try to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do, she won’t have any of it.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

Belle’s hobbies are very well-established from the beginning of the film – it’s shown straight away that she enjoys reading, even though it ostracises her from the rest of the town. Her goals are a little more difficult to pin down. She sings a song about wanting more from her life and feeling trapped in her provincial hometown, but the song doesn’t go into any specific detail: she just wants “more”.

And presumably, not to turn into Nigel Thornberry. (image: giphy.com)
And presumably, not to turn into Nigel Thornberry. (image: giphy.com)

Her beliefs are much easier to identify. She believes in doing the right thing even when it’s difficult and not hiding her true self – but these are all fairly typical Disney princess credos. Crucially, one of her main beliefs is not judging a book by its cover, and this goes on to have a real impact on the way she interacts with other characters (namely, Gaston and the Beast). Two out of three ain’t bad – I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

Belle’s character is pretty consistent throughout the plot. She remains kind, curious and intelligent all throughout the film. Her skills are a little more difficult to account for – where she learned ballroom dancing in a French peasant village, I’ll never know – but it’s established early on that she doesn’t act like a typical French peasant, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

A young woman who trades her freedom in exchange for her father’s life is compelled to break a powerful spell.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

Beauty and the Beast is a love story, so it follows that the bulk of the main characters’ decisions are going to be influenced by their love lives. Belle is no exception – once she starts falling for the Beast, her feelings do influence a lot of her decisions.

However, they do not influence all of her decisions. In the first half of the film, she is actively avoiding having a love life at all, repeatedly turning down Gaston’s advances. Her two most important decisions – to stay with the Beast, and then to leave him – are influenced by her love for her father, and her concern for his well-being. With that in mind, I’m giving it a half-point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Actually, Belle doesn’t really develop over the course of the movie at all. At the beginning of the film, it’s established that she knows not to judge a book by its cover and that she’s not afraid to go against popular opinion: both of these beliefs are fully-formed by the time she rejects Gaston. While she teaches other characters a lot about themselves, she doesn’t really learn anything new at all.

It's hard work being that perfect. (image: giphy.com)
It’s hard work being that perfect. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

It’s pretty difficult to pin down weaknesses for any of the older Disney princesses, as so many of them were designed without flaws at all. It’s only in the more recent Disney movies that any real character flaws get established, and they are rarely ones that hold the character back for long.

Belle fits into this pattern pretty well. She’s basically perfect. She’s endlessly patient, never goes too far when she’s calling people out, and even the bad decisions she makes (such as snooping around the West Wing) rarely stem from a negative character trait – they are frequently the products of too much of a positive character trait, usually curiosity. You could make a case that she’s given to making impulsive decisions (such as running away, or showing the mob the Beast in the magic mirror) but once again, these rarely stem from a negative character trait: they are either the product of an instinctive response (such as fear) or a desire to protect her loved ones. Neither of these can really be called a flaw.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

Belle’s decisions drive the plot forward, and actually end up providing the motivation for much of the supporting cast. She decides to reject Gaston, which makes pursuing her his primary goal. She decides to take her father’s place as the Beast’s prisoner, and he spends a large part of the film trying to rescue her. She decides to come back to the Beast’s castle, giving him the will to keep fighting. She drives the plot in almost every scene – and she doesn’t have to get captured or killed to do it.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways Belle resists a lot of gender stereotypes. She’s very intelligent, she wants to see the world, and at the start of the film, she doesn’t have any real desire to settle down and start a family – all traits that are rarely associated with young women.

But when you get down to it, she is one of the older Disney princesses, and she’s always going to be hemmed in by those limitations. She’s always graceful, she’s always ladylike, and what’s more, her entire storyline is geared around her love life. Her story ends when she marries her prince, and it’s clear that her previous desire to have adventures has long been forgotten. This ties into a lot of stereotypes about women – namely, that all women want is to find a good man. Furthermore, she’s pretty much responsible for the Beast’s personality transformation – through her love and patience, he goes from being aggressive and frightening to gentle and kind. This carries a whole bunch of unfortunate implications: namely, that women can “fix” a man just by loving him enough, giving them a degree of responsibility for their partner’s more aggressive behaviour. Obviously, this stereotype is hugely detrimental to everyone involved, as some people use beliefs like this to blame abusive relationships on the victim’s behaviour, rather than the abuser’s.

And that's without even touching on the weird 'Stockholm Syndrome' dynamic that these two have got going on. (image: feministfiction.com)
And that’s without even touching on the weird ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ dynamic that these two have got going on. (image: feministfiction.com)

This is a real shame, because in some ways she’s a very progressive character, but she’s trapped in a storyline with much more traditional values, and this has its roots in the original fairy tale. With that in mind, I’m giving her half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Belle really only has any kind of relationship with two female characters, both of whom spend most of the film as pieces of furniture: Mrs Potts and the wardrobe. These are very generic relationships: the characters are there to comfort her when she is sad, and to shepherd her towards the Beast – there’s no real substance to them. The fact that one of these characters doesn’t even have a name should give you a clue: she’s not going to pass this round.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite films, but Belle hasn’t passed my test. While she is firmly in control of her own destiny and is a pretty consistent character, she falls into the typical Disney princess pitfalls. She doesn’t have a weakness, she’s hemmed in by traditional gender roles in story-telling (and all the unfortunate implications about gender relations that accompany them), and she’s so perfect that she doesn’t learn a thing.

But I have to say, this doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie. While I can’t honestly say that I stand behind everything this movie endorses – particularly some of the more Stockholm Syndrome-y elements – I still find it very engaging. I’m perfectly happy to say that I can still enjoy something while acknowledging its flaws.

Next week, I’ll be looking at Doctor Who. Clara Oswald, I’m coming for you.