Tag Archives: fiction

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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: Ellen Ripley

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

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

 

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

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

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How…adorable. (image: collider.com)

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 8.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

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

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

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

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

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – Spirited Away. Chihiro, I’m coming for you.

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Fa Mulan

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

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

Watch out for spoilers!

 

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

 

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

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

giphy-mulan
LIKE A BOSS. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 7

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

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

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

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

Next week, I’ll be looking at another American classic – Gone With the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara, I’m coming for you.

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Blanche DuBois

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 0

 

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

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

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

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

FINAL SCORE: 8/10

 

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

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

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Emily

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

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

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

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

 

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

Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche, I’m coming for you.

 

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

Strong Female Characters: Door

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

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 1.5

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

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

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

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

  1. Does she have a weakness?

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

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

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

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

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

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

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Sound familiar? (image: comicvine.com)

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

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

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

FINAL SCORE: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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