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Holistic Female Characters

2012 January 13

The conversations over the past week or so on feminine identity and image have sparked a number of discussions of what movies do portray women holistically. The trend these days in films is to make women appear strong by either stripping them of everything that is traditionally considered to be feminine and/or by making them attractive yet kick-ass action heroes. While I admit that there is a place for such portrayals, they often don’t allow women to be their full selves. So while I think it is wrong to portray women as just weak, it is equally wrong to go to the other extreme and remove all vulnerability from women as well. We’re human, let us be who we are. Let us be in love, but not be defined solely by being in love. Let us be smart, but also love our kids. Let us be strong without always having to hurt others.

So here is a (very) short list of movies and books that I think present women holistically. They are smart, strong, and kick-ass at times, but also fall in love, admit to weaknesses, and deal with pain – without being solely defined by any one of those things. I’ve started the list, I would love for readers to add to it in the comments (and yes feel free to add examples of men presented holistically as well!)

I have to start the list off with Eowyn. The quote in my blog header is from her, an image I may or may not have a version of tattooed somewhere on my body. We also named our daughter Emmaline Eowyn. So, yes, she ranks up there as my all-time favorite female character. The Lord of the Rings movies did a fair job presenting her as the strong shieldmaiden, defeating the Witchking with her declaration “I am no man.” But they only briefly showed (in the Extended Editions at that), her greatest strengths. Through all the stories she knows that she is called to do great things and fears the cages that will hold her back. In the limits of her world she assumes this means either becoming like a man in battle or marrying the future King Aragorn. He reminds her though that she is a daughter of Kings; a cage will not be her fate. But it is in the houses of healing that she discovers her true calling as a healer. Rulers in Middle Earth are healers – Aragorn is recognized as the true king because he has the ability to heal. The elves name him Elessar (my son’s middle name) because it means one who can heal. Eowyn discovers that greatness inside her once she learns to serve and heal others – that is what it means to be a ruler. I love that. I love Eowyn. And I love that it takes her a journey to discover that.

Katniss Everdeen. I love the Hunger Games. I love Katniss. She is deeply vulnerable and has a long slow journey to figure out how to cope with all the pain in her life. She cares, self-sacrificially for others and yet knows what it takes to survive. From a place of utter brokenness after the death of her father, she pulled her family together and helped them survive by learning to hunt and forage. In the shadow of a totalitarian government that wants to use her as their pawn, she through trial and error figure out how to stay true to herself and yet protect those she loves. She succeeds spectacularly and fails tragically in the books and yet manages to figure out how to survive both. She isn’t cocky and she has more questions than answers. She feels pain deeply and gives tremendously. She is my hero.

President Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica. Okay she could be annoying at times, but her balance of taking charge in a crisis (the end of the world) and living in the vulnerable space of dealing with breast cancer at the same time is hard not to respect. When robots of our own creation return to annihilate the human race, I want her as my President.

Robin McKinley’s treasured The Hero and the Crown (Newberry winner) and The Blue Sword (Newberry Honor book) set the standard for strong female protagonists in beautifully written stories. The first book tells of the legendary Lady Aerin the dragon-slayer who saves her Kingdom despite her family’s assumption that she was just a worthless girl. The Blue Sword takes place centuries later as the orphaned, unladylike and socially awkward Harry discovers that she is heir to Lady Aerin’s mythical blue sword. These books have just the right amount of girls overcoming stereotyped roles without reducing them to simply being glass-ceiling smashers. Their stories are mesmerizing as you fall into them completely and find in Aerin and Harry heroes any reader can love. (On a side note, McKinley’s Sunshine is in my opinion the best vampire book ever written and it has an amazingly strong female protagonist as well).

Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. So there are some major gender issues in this play, the whole denounce Hero at the altar for being unvirtuous thing is just plain creepy in today’s world. But the development of Beatrice and Benedick and their witty brilliance are worth the weirdness. She is as independent of a woman as she can be in her world and is astute enough to point out her constraints. She is smart and understands that she does not need a man to fulfill her which of course makes the relationship she stumbles upon with Benedick all the more meaningful. Emma Thompson defines this role for me (she is great at playing real, vulnerable, and yet strong women). Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more…

I love the movie Away We Go and Maya Rudolph’s character Verona in it. She is funny, smart, and creative and trying to come to terms with being pregnant. After losing family and her home young, she is trying to understand what it will mean for her to start a family. She and her husband travel the country in search of a home and in the process define for themselves what family does not mean to them. The extreme stereotypes of women (the domineering wife, the hippie attachment-parenting mom) are humorously depicted as limiting women. In short, the film is the holistic woman’s hero’s journey as she seeks a way of being in the world that allows her to be herself – intelligence, scars, humor and all.

So now it’s your turn – who would you add?

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  1. January 13, 2012

    Bella from Twilight (jk).

    You nailed many, many of my female heroes.

    I would probably add Peggy Olsen from Mad Men. Within her context, she works toward success without having to directly be a part of the women’s movement in the sixties. For that matter, Joan does as well, even if she uses some questionable means to get her way. In her culture, she is doing what she must to get what she needs. It may not look pretty to us today, but back then, it was what one had to do.

    Princess Leia would fall into that category for me as well. She was very aggressively active in the “doing” part of the rebellion. She fought for those she loved.

    Temperence Brennan from Bones also comes to mind. She is all, “Screw your social mores and expectations. I’m gonna rock this out, and I don’t even care about the social skills of it all.”

  2. Sarah Kelley permalink
    January 13, 2012

    I just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago (because the Doctor Who tumblr posted your paragraph in which you mentioned the Christmas special’s fantastic Madge Arwell, so I wanted to read the whole post), and I LOVE it.
    As far as who I would add to this list, well, I’d have to start with Tolkien’s Lúthien (I assume you’ve read The Silmarillion), because she manages to be kick-ass without having to resort to masculine assumptions of what that means: she brings Morgoth to his knees with a song of enchantment, using her own inner strength rather than weapons. Not only that, but Tolkien clearly portrays the tragic aspects of her choice to become mortal and be with Beren, while at the same time reminding us that it is through this choice that all of Middle-Earth is ultimately saved.
    Then I would have to say that pretty much all of Robin McKinley’s characters, men and women. (And add a thank you, thank you, thank you! for not only knowing who she is and about her fabulous books, but for the plug for Sunshine, which for many years now has been my comfort book.) I especially love how she makes flat, stereotypical characters strong, believable, and developed in her retellings of fairy tales (Beauty, Rose Daughter, and Spindles End).
    I could go on a while, because as an avid reader and lover of (quality) movies and TV, this is something I pay a lot of attention to, but I think I will limit myself to one movie mention: the title character of Penelope, a modern fairy tale in which Penelope is saved from the curse by accepting herself and rejecting the boxes her family tries to put her in. She has some fantastically quirky friends who are a big part of helping her accept herself, and it isn’t until after she does so that she ends up with the guy (though part of what makes him worthy is his role in planting seeds that pushed her to leave her sheltered life and get out in the world).
    Thanks again for your fantastic blog!

  3. Stacie permalink
    January 13, 2012

    Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With The Wind. Not necessarily a good person, but real. She’s a brat, she’s vain, selfish, and pathetically love sick…but she’s determined, defies societal norms, and the back bone of the characters survival through the war. She’s kick ass in a completely new way. Maybe not a role model, but one of the best (in my opinion) characters in literature.

    On another note…This is an issue which hits home for me. Growing up, I was such a tom boy, and I got pretty competitive. To this day I still climb trees, compete in sports, take adventures (my honeymoon destination was specifically chosen for adventure, not romance). And, I also have an studious and opinionated side to me. I love reading, I love arguing and debating…it’s who I am, and I am grateful that I live in a society that supports that, at least for the most part.

    But while I’m grateful for that, there is the extremely traditional side to me. I’m also domesticated. I like cooking and cleaning, and in all honesty, I don’t care how young I am…I will give up all opportunities in the world to be a mother. I don’t want to have a career. I want to be a housewife, and I’ve had a serious struggle telling people this. A lot of people see my decision to not pursue a bachelors (and instead an associates in Early Childhood EDU), as a form of quitting. I’ve had people told me I need to be more independent, or take more opportunities with my life. I understand women have the ability to do that, and some should, but I want to be the housewife. Still climbing trees. Still reading books. Still debating and arguing my little head off. But a traditional housewife.

    And I wish that when people talk about women’s rights, they would discuss the difference between a woman having a choice, and a women being expected to fulfill certain roles. In my opinion, I can’t stand the independent and kick ass female characters. They’re (usually) bland, and I hate how that’s turning into what defines a girl as “strong”.

  4. Travis Greene permalink
    January 13, 2012

    I wonder if there’s something to the fact that these are largely from scifi/fantasy sources. In that vein, Kira from Star Trek DS9, no?

    • January 13, 2012

      There’s probably something to that observation Travis… though in this case I would say it largely has to do with Julie’s own reading and entertainment proclivities. :)

    • Cara permalink
      January 15, 2012

      Janeway from Voyager as well. One thing I love about Star Trek in general is how often women play random characters that would often be played by men in other series. Scientists, doctors, admirals, etc are just as often women as men.

  5. January 13, 2012

    Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs

  6. PLTK permalink
    January 13, 2012

    A new one that I have just been reading: September in “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.”

    Love Robin McKinley. Have both of those books!

  7. January 13, 2012

    About all of the girl characters from A League of Their Own! I especially love the sisterly relationship between Kit and Dottie- competitive yet ultimately loving. And it’s such a fascinating historical context.

  8. January 15, 2012

    Katsa from GRACELING by Kristin Cashore. One of my favorite heroes ever. She’s a professional assassin (so strong, brutal, kick-ass), but her job has isolated her from everyone who might love her, so inside she’s incredibly fragile and lonely.

  9. Cara permalink
    January 15, 2012

    Ellie Arroway from Contact comes to mind.

  10. Karl permalink
    January 24, 2012

    Meg Murry, from Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction

    Tenar and Tehanu, from Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels

    Devi, from Patrick Rothfuss’ “Kingkiller Chronicles”

    Queen Kettricken and the Narcheska Elliania, from Robin Hobb’s “Farseer” and “Tawny Man” trilogies (Elliania in the latter 2 books of “Tawny Man” only) – Kettricken may be the best character in the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies.

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