International Women’s Day 2021

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, I thought I’d share fifteen awesome fictional women that have inspired me or empowered me or made me feel seen in a world where I often feel invisible. Originally I thought I’d do a list of awesome women from real life but with everything I’ve got on my plate right now, I didn’t feel that I could do a good enough job in time. And given that these would be real people who just might see what I’d written (unlikely, yes, but still possible), I’d hate to do a rush job; I’d want to be able to dedicate some serious time to it to make sure I did these women justice.

This post will involve spoilers for the characters and the books or TV shows they’re a part of so if you don’t want to have a story spoiled, please skip the character and move on to the next character!


1. Sephy Hadley (Nought & Crosses, Knife Edge, and Checkmate by Malorie Blackman) – The story of the Noughts & Crosses trilogy (now a series) takes place in a world where the dark skinned Crosses are revered and the light skinned Noughts are reviled. Sephy is the younger daughter in a prominent, privileged Cross family and, naïve to the racism she’s been largely sheltered from, she’s confused and frustrated when her childhood friend, Callum – a Nought whose family lives on the poverty line – starts pulling away and taking his frustration with the way he and all Noughts are treated out on her. As much as she loves him, their conflict and her difficult home life result in her escape to a boarding school, where she becomes involved in politics and the fight for equality, becoming a Noughts Right activist. But all of her plans are destroyed when she is kidnapped by the Liberation Militia, a terrorist organisation that Callum joined after she left for boarding school. Despite (and sometimes due to) her privilege, she suffers deeply, both due to her own destructive decisions and the destructive decisions of others. She struggles with her mental health, with the guilt over certain choices she makes and the resulting consequences, and how to prevent past mistakes from irreparably damaging the future. Forced to grow up fast and face some major challenges, she does deal with a lot of insecurity but it all comes from a place of such deep, unconditional love: for Callum and for their daughter, Callie Rose. Pretty much everything she does is due to her desire to protect Callie Rose but past trauma causes her to make mistakes, often making their relationship a contentious one. It’s been a long time since I read the books but I always felt for Sephy, admired just how vast her love for Callum and Callie Rose was even when she wasn’t good at showing it and I empathised with how she was constantly trying only to make things worse. The conversation where she finally manages to make things right feels just as special and cathartic as if you, the reader, are experiencing that redemption yourself.

2. Ros Myers (Spooks) – Ros was one of the first TV characters that I fell in love with and whose storyline I found myself seriously invested in. After playing a vital role in foiling a coup against the Prime Minister led by her boss and funded by her father, a prominent figure in the government, she transfers from MI6 to Section D of MI5 (the unit the show follows). Given that she makes no effort to connect with the rest of the team (earning her the reputation of ‘the ice queen’), it takes a while for her to find her place there but eventually her impressive skills and unwavering loyalty (especially to Harry, the head of the unit) win her the trust of the team and eventually the position of Section Chief. She’s not a straightforward character and that was something I always found fascinating about her. Her willingness to sacrifice anything and everything to protect her country is beyond admirable but it did, on several occasions, conflict with her other most dominant trait: her loyalty. At one point, she betrays the team because she thinks she sees a better solution to the problem they’re facing and at another, she is forced to sacrifice the life of a teammate to protect a room full of people the world probably couldn’t function without, even though many of them are pretty awful human beings. Plus she frequently puts herself in serious danger without a hint of fear or doubt. Her dedication, her loyalty, and her strength… they’re all traits I hold in the highest regard. She also has this unshakable sense of purpose, this absolute certainty in what she does; that’s definitely something I’d like to find (or build, if that’s the way it works) at some point in my life.

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3. Emily Prentiss (Criminal Minds) – Criminal Minds follows the BAU, the Behavioural Analysis Unit, a team that use psychological profiling to track down and catch criminals, most commonly serial killers. Despite arriving under somewhat of a cloud, Emily becomes an integral, irreplaceable part of the team (one of the things that’s really nice about the show is that each of the team have slightly different relationships with one another and Emily is no different in that regard; each of her relationships with the team is unique and I could delve into the details of each one and why they are the way they are because I find that really interesting but I won’t – otherwise we’ll be here forever). She’s tough and stubborn and positively allergic to bullshit, willing and definitely able to defy those in power or positions of authority when necessary; she’s a force to be reckoned with. Bonus points for being hilariously sarcastic. She’s incredibly intelligent and a brilliant profiler, but she also cares as deeply as she thinks. She’s compassionate, both with her team members and the victims they work with, and she clearly feels things very intensely, from long ago traumas to the haunting outcomes of many of their cases; while she prides herself on her professionalism and her ability to compartmentalise, she isn’t afraid to be vulnerable with the people she trusts. Despite some fairly wonky writing at times, she’s an interesting and multifaceted character, one that we see grow a hell of a lot over her time on the show: we see her go from an awkward and insecure new agent to a highly respected agent and eventually to Unit Chief, something that, for me at least, felt particularly satisfying given her loyalty to the team and her commitment to what they do. And as much as I love her for all of these things, I think what I love and admire most about her is her absolute, unwavering loyalty to her team. For example, one of my favourite storylines involves an enemy from her past reappearing and threatening the team to punish her for her part in what happened to him. Instead of telling the team and putting them in even more danger, she goes rogue and attempts to take him down herself with dire consequences.

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4. Helen Magnus (Sanctuary) – I’m honestly not quite sure how to sum up Helen Magnus (played by Amanda Tapping) in one paragraph. At the beginning of the show, we know that she was born in England during the Victorian Era and is 157 years old due to a dangerous biological experiment she and her Oxford colleagues conducted on themselves (while they were in their thirties). As well as being an M.D., she has doctorates in Teratology, Cryptozoology, Xenobiology, and Biology, and is the Head of the Global Sanctuary Network, a series of facilities that tracks down, protects, and learns from the unknown and extraordinary creatures and people that inhabit the world, described in the show as Abnormals. She heads the Sanctuary in Old City which, in addition to its scientific functions, both serves as a permanent and temporary residence for many Abnormals. Despite being born in an era where women were at a distinct disadvantage, Magnus was always strong-willed and forthright. She’s beautiful, enigmatic, and incredibly intelligent (an expert on multiple subjects, fluent in several languages, and the foremost authority on Abnormals, just for starters); she’s also an excellent diplomat and commands the attention of every room she walks into. She is or was personally acquainted with multiple famous historic figures, including multiple world leaders, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and Dr Martin Luther Kind Jr. Louis Pasteur was a close friend of her father and was her godfather. She’s at ease and confident in high pressure social situations, comfortable taking charge with a no-nonsense approach that most likely stems from her Victorian upbringing. She’s also well trained when out in the field, extremely competent at multiple forms of hand to hand combat, comfortable with a wide variety of weaponry, a skilled pilot, and technologically savvy. While she stays true (and proudly so) to her traditional English heritage (a dedicated tea drinker with great distain for coffee, her preference for staying busy, and so on), she is driven by her desire to learn, about anything and everything, in order to help and protect Abnormals. Her longevity has been a real asset in that regard, not that she ever takes a break; she frequently works through the night, entirely dedicated to the task at hand. But despite the advantages of her longevity, she has long considered it a curse as it ultimately means she will outlive everyone she knows, everyone she loves. This has caused her immeasurable pain and explains her guardedness (although that likely originated from her Victorian upbringing). But she never gives up; she never stops fighting or looking for a solution. She was one of the first television characters that I saw as a role model: I deeply admire her, her passion for knowledge, her drive to help people… She makes me want to be the best possible version of myself and to help and give the most I can. (I have actually met Amanda Tapping briefly and I did try to thank her the impact Magnus has had on my life but I was so overwhelmed that I don’t think I did a very good job; all being well, I do have another opportunity coming up, pandemic permitting, so hopefully I’ll be able to make actual, eloquent sentences this time.)

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5. Alexandra Udinov (Nikita) – As hard as it was to choose between Alex and Nikita herself (if I included every awesome female character I love, this list would’ve had us all running for the hills due to it’s length so, at the very least, I tried to stick to one character per show/book/etc), Alex just won. I love them both but I think I connected to Alex in a way that I never quite did with Nikita, even when I didn’t agree with her actions. Anyway, context… After the murder of her prominent Russian family when she’s only thirteen, Alex ends up a victim of human trafficking and a drug addict in the US where Nikita tracks her down and gets her clean. In an attempt to give Alex a reason to live, Nikita reveals that the rogue Black Ops division that trained her were behind Alex’s parents’ death and together they attempt to bring the unit down. But it’s obviously far more complicated than that. Alex is a really interesting character because she’s gone through so much and yet she’s still so young; she’s always been defined by others and never been able to figure out who she is on her own terms. Hiding all of her vulnerability behind a tough exterior as both a coping mechanism and a form of protection, she comes to define herself by her pain (of which there is a significant amount) but the more she learns about her parents and her childhood as well as the best and worst of the people around her, the more she starts to realise that that isn’t a sustainable way to live and how it’s preventing her from moving forward in her life. And so she has to learn how to fight through and process her trauma, learn to let go of the parts that are damaging and how to use her experience to find her place in the world.

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6. Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1) – A member of SG-1, the front line team for the US Air Force classified organisation Stargate Command, Samantha Carter (also played by Amanda Tapping; this was pre Sanctuary and Helen Magnus) is the resident genius, an astrophysicist and Air Force Officer who progresses from Captain to Colonel during the timeline of the franchise. Stargate Command has multiple SG teams travelling to other planets using a device known as a Stargate, which creates a wormhole that connects to the Stargates on other planets, to form alliances and attain whatever technology they can to defend themselves against the dominant, malicious species in the galaxy, determined to control as many planets as possible. Carter is usually the one to save them – the team, the SGC, the planet – whenever they get into trouble, something that happens to them relatively often as the flagship team. She’s often forced to choose between the two sides of herself: she’s incredibly intelligent, curious and keen to explore and learn, but she’s also an impressive soldier and pilot, more than competent with weapons and in hand to hand combat. This combination quickly earns her great respect among those involved in the Stargate project, although it does cause conflict on occasion. She’s also intensely compassionate – her first instinct to be kind and to help. She very close to her three teammates and would do anything for them. One of the ongoing storylines revolves around her relationship with her commanding officer, Col. Jack O’Neill: they slowly develop feelings for each other but when they’re eventually confronted about them, they agree to ignore them to keep the team together (the Air Force would never allow them to have a relationship and remain on the same team) and continue doing the jobs they do so well. However, that’s easier said than done, especially when they repeatedly meet parallel universe versions of themselves who are together, who didn’t have the Air Force regulations standing in their way. Sam Carter has always meant a lot to me, with her core drives to learn and to help being the same as mine. She’s also always inspired me, inspired me to be the absolute best that I can be (she actually inspired me to study Physics when, until then, it had just been a hobby) and to remember that there’s a solution to every problem, even if it’s not always easy to find.

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7. Ellie Linton (Tomorrow Series by John Marsden) – The series begins when a group of teenagers go on a camping trip in the Australian bush and come home to find that their country has been invaded. Everyone they know and love has been captured and the only safe place for them is their camping hideaway, locally known as ‘Hell.’ It has the potential to be a bit of a cliché – kids forced to be heroes – but with such a focus on how emotionally complicated and morally complex the situation is, it never feels predictable or stale. The story is narrated by Ellie as she writes down everything that happens to them, an idea they quickly adopt so that, maybe, what they go through and sacrifice won’t be forgotten or lost in the chaos of it all. She documents everything from her emotional turmoil, and the conflicts within the group to their attacks on the enemy, the losses of people they love, and the devastation over what’s happening. She feels everything incredibly deeply and although there are, of course, periods of time where she has to shove her emotions aside, she is profoundly affected by what she is forced to do and what happens to her throughout the war. It’s never explicitly stated but it’s clear that she’s dealing with a serious amount of trauma. Fortunately for her, she’s strong willed and determined despite the often overwhelming fear and uncertainty; she never, ever gives up, even when it seems that there is nothing left to do. Regardless of the almost inconceivable odds against them, she still believes (or forces herself to believe) that she and her friends can make a difference and that’s more than a little inspiring to me.

8. Olivia Dunham (Fringe) – FBI Agent Olivia Dunham begins working in a new, highly classified unit after a series of strange, science or technology based events start happening, many of them fatal for the people involved. She works with Agent Astrid Farnsworth, Dr Walter Bishop (a genius but mentally unstable scientist specialising in fringe science who, until ‘the pattern’ started, had been institutionalised for nearly two decades), and Peter Bishop, Walter’s estranged son, who is brought in as a civilian consultant by Olivia to essentially look after his father, although he proves his intelligence and wide range of skills, making him just as valuable to the team as his father. Olivia is driven by a strong sense of justice, working relentlessly to solve every case and while she keeps her own emotions tightly under wraps, she is compassionate with victims and loving with her sister and young niece. Throughout the seasons, we learn about her traumatic childhood and how that has informed who she is and through alternate timelines and parallel universes, we see how things might’ve been different. This also gives Olivia a chance to re-evaluate her life and what she really wants. This show is so complicated that it would take thousands of words to properly explore her character but I loved Olivia from the start because of her strong sense of right and wrong and because of how unbelievably hard she worked because getting justice for the victims of the fringe events mattered, even if no one would ever know the truth due to the classified nature of the work. It was never about credit; it was always about the people and how every single one mattered, regardless of who they were or how important society believed them to be. They were all important to her. But beyond that, I loved watching her evolve over the course of the show. Fundamentally, she was the same person with the same core values but slowly, she became more open, more trusting, more loving. Having been pretty much alone and self reliant up to becoming part of the Fringe team, it was actually quite emotional to see her lower her guard and let people be a real part of her life, even if there were some (serious) bumps in the road. At the beginning of the show, she didn’t really have anyone and by the end, she had so much more than I think she ever thought possible. There was something really beautiful about that, about how much life can change and change you, often for the better.

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9. Olivia Benson (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) – After twenty two seasons of Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay), it’s hard to know how to sum her up. From a Detective in the Manhattan Special Victims Unit (that primarily investigates sexual offences), she rises through the ranks to where she is now, the Captain and Commanding Officer of the unit. Watching her become Captain was incredibly satisfying and emotional because she gone through so much and worked so damn hard; she’s come so far and she’s earned it beyond a shadow of a doubt. She’s grown so much and become so self assured, so confident in her abilities. It’s been an amazing journey to watch. She’s incredibly strong, determined, and resourceful, probably a combination of a painful childhood and everything that’s happened to her while she’s been on the job; she’s been in more dangerous, traumatising situations than one can count. Having said that, the show and Mariska’s performances do a good job of normalising therapy and showing the positive effects it can have. Olivia is also very intelligent (for example, she speaks multiple languages including Italian, Russian, as well some French and Spanish) and has become very skilled at dealing with people within the Justice system, has the respect and reputation and knows how to wield them to get the best outcome for the people they’re trying to help. She’s deeply empathetic and she’s always been good with the victims of their cases, gentle but empowering, helping them to regain their confidence and agency. At her very core, she’s driven to help people – I’m not sure what she’d do if she couldn’t help people – and I think that’s why she’s lasted so long in a job that often burns people out in just a few years. She’s been a big inspiration to me ever since I started following the show, for all the characteristics I’ve just mentioned. If I can be half as good a person as she is and do half the good that she does, then I’ll be happy.

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10. Daisy Johnson (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D) – As I said in my post about Daisy, I could write a thesis on her and her character arc (if you want to read my mini-thesis, head to that post). I loved her right from the beginning. She’s funny and smart and tough but she also feels her emotions deeply and is incredibly driven, often by those deep emotions and her sense of what’s right and wrong. From a hacktivist living in a van to a loyal, dedicated agent and superpowered hero (she’s able to manipulate vibrations, to the extent that she’s caused earthquakes as a result of losing control of her emotions), she grows up and goes through a lot but in the end, she finds family in her team and a place to belong in SHIELD, two things she’s spent her whole life searching for. To quote myself from my previous post: “She’s not perfect, of course – she makes her fair share of mistakes and bad decisions. Sometimes she hurts the people she loves. But while every blunder becomes a part of her, she doesn’t allow them to define her. She’s defined by the future, by what she does next. She inspires me to be the same. And above all else, her motivation is to help people and that’s something that’s never changed; it’s something that’s at the very core of her and I find that really inspiring too.”

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11. Cassie Stuart (Unforgotten) – I’ve loved Nicola Walker for years, loved the various characters I’ve seen her play, but I think DCI Cassie Stuart is my favourite. She heads a team within the Metropolitan Police Service that we’ve now watched investigate multiple cold cases (although this seems to be more of a coincidence than by design, i.e. they’re not a cold case unit but the cases featured have involved crimes committed decades previously). These cases are not only difficult due to the loss of evidence over time, the deaths of people involved, and so on, but also because they’re often interviewing family and friends who have been grieving (or, maybe worse, hoping) for years, which is obviously a lot of emotion to be on the receiving end of. Cassie is a fantastic detective, smart and experienced, but she’s also extremely compassionate: she feels it all and that makes these cases unbearable at times. There’s so much more I could say about her but that’s the thing I admire most about her, how compassionate she remains in the face of such pain and distress, both because that’s what the other person needs and because that’s just who she is. She cares about people and while that makes her who she is, it isn’t an easy burden to carry. I relate to that on a visceral level, as a person who has always cared deeply about others, sometimes to my detriment. But having said that, I wouldn’t change it. Nor, I think, would Cassie, not really. It takes a lot of strength but caring that much, it makes the world so much bigger and so much more vivid and real in a way it could never be if you didn’t.

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12. Aza Holmes (Turtles All The Way Down by John Green) – I was so excited when I learned that John Green was writing a book with a main character struggling with OCD and I absolutely loved it, loved Aza and really related to her, to how she thinks and how she processes the world. Aza is sixteen years old, trying to manage school, friends, and life in general, while desperately struggling with constant anxiety about bacteria, infection, and dying from Clostridium Difficile Infection (also known as C. diff). She describes the anxiety as ‘thought spirals’ or ‘invasive thoughts,’ over which she has no control. The only way she’s able to manage it is to check and clean a permanently open cut on her finger, proving to herself that she doesn’t have C. diff. We struggle with a lot of the same things, from the littlest things to the biggest things: with ‘thought spirals’; with her sense of identity (she describes her search for her self as opening Russian dolls, looking for the final solid one but never finding it; with relationships (“I can’t have a normal life if I can’t kiss someone without freaking out.”), which is actually pretty comforting since there are so many stories where a relationship is the thing that makes a person’s mental health better; with the loss of her father and how much it affects her, even years later (“And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone,” “I remember after my Dad died, for a while, it was both true and not true in my mind… My father died suddenly, but also across the years. He was still dying really – which meant, I guess, that he was still living too,” and how she imagines the moments they should’ve had, so clearly that sometimes she forgets that they didn’t happen), which is so painfully real for me. I was deeply affected by the breakdown of Aza’s mental health, having experienced similar downward spirals myself, where my mental illness has me doing things I would never rationally do. And the climb back up was similarly moving because it was so agonisingly relatable: “Everyone wanted me to feed them that story – darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it too.” She feels so fragile after everything she’s been through and her thought spirals are still there, her life suffocated by her anxiety. At one point, she says, “I could never become a functioning grown up like this; it was inconceivable that I’d ever have a career,” and that is one of the hardest and scariest parts for me when it comes to managing mental illness and disability. But over time, Ava starts to accept the reality of her mental health (“I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life,”) and slowly, things start to improve, which we notice in the way she thinks about herself and her life: “You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.” Real progress is often slow and subtle and we don’t even necessarily notice it at the time but it is progress. And seeing the progress she makes gives me hope. I’m pretty sure this paragraph is a bit more chaotic than the others but that is just because I relate to Aza and her experiences so strongly, even if the actual events aren’t that similar. But it was like my thoughts and feelings were being put into words and that was such a profound experience. I don’t think you can really know how important it is to have a character you relate to until you can’t find one. Reading the book made me feel less alone. It made me feel seen. It made me feel understood. And I’m so, so grateful for that.

13. Ginny Weasley (The Changeling by Annerb, a Harry Potter series fanfiction) – In the original books, I preferred Hermione to Ginny but then we obviously saw a lot more of the former. While rereading old favourites from my fanfiction days (I both read and wrote it during my teenage years but revisited it a few years ago as a relaxation strategy), I discovered this story, where Ginny is sorted into Slytherin instead of Gryffindor. The story creates real depth around the houses and the traits that define those within them: for example, we learn about what ambition, loyalty, conflict, and rules mean to Slytherins, from both positive and negative perspectives. This life-altering moment, this complete change in how she’d expected her life to pan out, obviously has a dramatic effect on her development as a person and how she experiences the events described in the series. She’s strong willed and reserved: she knows the value of secrets, knows it so well that she becomes an incredibly skilled Occlumens and Legilimens. But she’s also deeply loyal and takes her responsibility for others very seriously, sometimes to her own detriment: that’s one of her consistent qualities, that she always puts others ahead of herself. She can think twenty steps ahead in every direction so she’s prepared for any possible circumstance and outcome, a skill that saves multiple lives throughout the story. She’s also beyond passionate about quidditch, the one thing that seems to make her feel completely in sync with the world and with herself. That’s another one of her consistent qualities: she gives her all to everything she does. This, I think, is what I admire most in her and something that I try to emulate whenever and wherever possible.

14. Marisa Coulter (His Dark Materials) – It’s been years since I read the books and if I’m honest, I don’t remember them well (I mean, I did read all three in four days). And when the TV show was announced, I wanted to give it a fair chance where I wasn’t constantly comparing between the show and the books so I didn’t reread them beforehand. Set in a world world where all humans’ souls manifest as animal companions called daemons, Lyra, an orphan living at Jordan College in Oxford, sets serious change in motion when she goes in search of her missing friend. Given the complicated nature of the His Dark Materials trilogy, there is so much more context that I could include here but, for the sake of brevity, I’ll leave it there as this post is about characters more than the fictional worlds they live in (unless it’s absolutely necessary to include extra context for my thoughts to make sense). As much as I love Lyra in the TV adaptation, there is just something (many somethings) about Mrs Coulter (Lyra’s absent mother) that are just utterly fascinating, that have completely captivated me from the beginning. I swear, I finish every episode and say, “Ruth Wilson should’ve won an award for that episode.” She might be a villain but to call her something so commonplace is almost insulting for she is far more nuanced than that. She’s exceedingly intelligent, beautiful, and enigmatic, effortlessly commanding the attention of every room she enters. To anyone watching, she seems utterly composed and yet, under the surface, she is, without a doubt seethingly dangerous. She is ruthless in her pursuit of power, whether that be political or over a single person. Control is everything. She retains fierce control over her emotions and on the few occasions her control has slipped, the explosions of repressed emotion are almost painful to witness (something I think we can put down to Ruth Wilson’s incredible acting skills). She has even managed to exercise all but complete control over her daemon, a golden monkey, which is to say that she has all but complete control over her own soul, something no other human seems capable of without unbearable pain and distress. In the present, she presents as unconcerned by the separation from her daemon but, with such a tight grip on her emotions, who knows what she truly feels and one has to wonder what she experiences every time she punishes her daemon for offering affection. Why does she do it? What does it say about how she feels about herself? Is she punishing herself for giving into the temptation and sin that result in Lyra and her own ruined reputation or is she doing all that she can to suppress any expression of emotion in order to succeed in their brutally patriarchal society? Is it both? How did she even manage it? There are so many questions and so few answers. We know she had an awful childhood, we know her affair with Lord Asriel (Lyra’s father) damaged her reputation possibly beyond repair, we know she’s had to fight for everything she has, even the things that people think they’ve given her… This obviously doesn’t excuse the terrible things she’s done but make for a fascinating character and for fascinating discussions around what makes people who they are and do what they do. Clearly, she’s not a role model but she is a pretty incredible example of the complexity of human beings, of the damage sexism, discrimination, guilt, and self hatred can do, of how people choose to wield the power they have (and if we didn’t know she was powerful before, her display of controlling the soul consuming spectres – something that was previously unheard of and yet something she seems to do effortlessly – has proven that), and how far someone will go to get what they want. She’s a character I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, one so complex that she may be impossible to completely unravel. I think her self control is what I think most about, what that must be like – not that I’d ever want to emulate it. If she can control her emotions so fully – control her soul so fully – what does that make her? What does she feel? Does she feel at all, apart from those rare moments where her emotions seems to erupt out of her like lethal molten lava? What does that do to a person? Are they even a person anymore? I would’ve thought it would make a person feel powerful, would feel satisfying to have that much power over yourself, but I’m pretty sure that’s not a safe road to head down. For how long can you follow it before you can’t turn back? As I said, a complex character and so, so many questions. But I think that’s good. We need characters that challenge us and challenge our thinking. That’s one of the great gifts of art, in whatever form it comes.

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I just had to include this quote because I think it sums up Mrs Coulter so well: “She’s also a deeply intelligent complex woman in her own right, and her suppressed rage and cruelty clearly stem, in large part, from her own history and experiences. Her hard exterior is clearly a necessary result of a life lived in a deeply patriarchal society—the only way she gains any modicum of respect and power for herself is to behave, at all times, as though she were a man. Her iron-like self-control and vicious repression of her emotions are all clearly a means to an end, and the few moments when her icy veneer breaks are all the more terrifying for both their violence and their rarity. Even her relationship with her daemon is different. Mrs. Coulter’s golden monkey is the one daemon in His Dark Materials that doesn’t speak or have a name, and often functions as the id that reveals the hidden cost of her iron control over her own demeanor. (And its loving interaction with Lord Asriel’s leopard Stelmaria in the first season’s final episode is an admission of an entirely different type.) It’s the constant visual evidence that she’s not as removed or in control as she seems. Externally, she knows the façade she needs to present to the Magisterium, Asriel and everyone else around her. Internally, she’s often barely hanging on, as evidenced by her violence toward her monkey—and by extension herself. Mrs. Coulter has even trained herself and her daemon (after what must have been years of nightmarish experimentation) to push through the pain of separation, so much so that they can now both function at great distances from one another. Since HBO’s His Dark Materials has largely underplayed the primacy of the human-daemon connection in the name of budgetary restrictions, this ability (and the constant suffering it entails) perhaps does not seem as big of a deal as it ought to. But it really is. This is a woman willing to put herself and her very soul through tremendous torment in the name of getting what she wants.” (x)

15. Emily Byrne (Absentia) – The TV show, Absentia, was one of my 2020 discoveries and I instantly found myself invested in Emily and her story. An FBI Agent with a husband (also FBI) and young son, she goes missing while tracking a serial killer and is eventually declared dead in absentia. However, six years later, she’s found alive, having been tortured but with almost no memory of who abducted her or what happened to her. She’s deeply traumatised and reuniting with her family is emotional and painful: her husband has remarried, her son has no memory of her, and she and her brother had serious issues between them that aren’t magically solved by his relief that she’s alive. The FBI relaunch their investigation into her abduction while she struggles to regain some sense of normality (side note: it’s one of the only shows I’ve seen that is truly invested in representing a character’s mental health, showing the effects of her trauma, the triggers both expected and unexpected, the steps forward, the slips back). When the investigation starts to suggest that Emily kidnapped herself and was the accomplice of the serial killer she’d been chasing when she disappeared, she goes on the run in an attempt to find out the truth and consequently prove her innocence. Stana Katic is incredible in the role: Emily is tough and determined and doesn’t give up for anything; she’s relentless. She’s stubborn and more than a little reckless, a trait I wouldn’t be surprised to learn she possessed before she was abducted but one that I’m sure was heightened by what she went through. She’s also incredibly resourceful, sometimes unbelievably so. But despite the fierceness she presents to the world, she’s still a gentle person at heart. She loves Flynn, her son, more than anything and would do anything for him; as they reconnect, you can see how much pure joy she gets just from seeing him. On a related note, we see such a range of emotions from Emily: most likely due to her trauma still being so fresh, her emotions are unbearably raw and right on the surface all the time. She ricochets between them with alarming speed. But despite said emotions, she’s still strong enough to fight her way through it all, face her triggers, evade the FBI manhunt, and begin to unravel the mystery of what happened to her. I can’t say that I relate to her because I’ve never been through that sort of trauma but I have been through some shit and her strength really inspires me. Her ability to balance being tough and being gentle, her willingness to do anything for the people she loves, the willpower she possesses to move forward with her life despite everything that’s happened to her… I just really respect the hell out of her.

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So that turned out far longer than I’d expected or intended it to be but I hope it was interesting. There are many more amazing female characters that I could’ve included but given how long this post became, I thought I’d stop at fifteen. But it’s awesome that there are so many great women in the media for us to look up to, to inspire us and motivate us and make us feel seen. There’s a way to go – marginalised groups are still very much underrepresented in fiction, especially mainstream fiction – but things are improving and I’m hopeful. And I’m grateful for the wonderful characters we currently have.

Books, Films, and TV of 2018

So the year is drawing to a close and I wanted to do a round up of the media I have consumed and enjoyed. Last year, I wrote a post called 2017 in Songs and I’m working on the 2018 edition but I also wanted to do something more because I read and saw a lot of good stuff this year. So let’s go…

BOOKS

It was one of my new years resolutions to read more books this year and I set a very achievable goal of five. I didn’t want to end up stressing about it and I’ve actually managed to read about double that. So I’m very proud of myself. Most of them I enjoyed but here are the ones that really stood out:

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

The first book I read this year was Turtles All The Way Down by John Green. I could write pages and pages about this book (and I did) but I’ll keep it short. It follows sixteen-year-old Aza who struggles with OCD and anxiety as she juggles school and friends and investigating the disappearance of the local billionaire. I fell in love with this book from the first page; I loved the way Aza described her experience and I related to it so strongly. There’s something about the way John Green writes that really speaks to me and the story doesn’t rest on Aza’s mental health for the plot: it’s intertwined with several different storylines. I really liked that; it felt very true to life. Having felt very alienated by the books I had been reading previously, this was the total opposite. One of my favourite books ever.

“In some ways, pain is the opposite of language… And we’re such language based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify.”

What We Buried by Caitlyn Siehl

I read several poetry books this year but this was easily my favourite. I loved it from the first poem. I love the way she writes – the language she uses and the way she punctuates the words – and the empowered feeling you get from reading the poems. I highlight my favourite passages in books and this one has a lot of highlighting!

“This is where we heal. This is where we hide. This is where we are found.”

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

I’ve really struggled to read fiction this year (Turtles All The Way Down was the exception) so I delved into the world of non-fiction and ended up reading and loving this book. Henry Marsh is a neurosurgeon and the book is a collection of his patients and his experiences. He has a very gentle way of writing that I loved and when I finished it, I had this odd feeling that I understood my own brain a little bit better.

“…More than that, the operation involved the brain, the mysterious substrate of all thought and feeling, of all that was important in human life – a mystery, it seemed to me, as great as the stars at night and the universe around us. The operation was elegant, delicate, dangerous and full of profound meaning. What could be finer, I thought? I had the strange feeling that this was what I had wanted to do all my life, even though it was only now that I had realised it. It was love at first sight.”

FILM

I’m not much of a film watcher – for some reason, watching a film feels like more of a commitment than starting a TV show. But I made an effort this year to watch more films and watch more than just the things that I naturally gravitate towards. Having said that, my favourite films of the year are all pretty representative of my taste in films…

Wonder Woman

I grew up watching Justice League on television with my Dad and with my brother so those superhero stories are very important to me. I wasn’t ready to watch it right away but when I did, I loved it. And I feel like my Dad would’ve loved it as well. It looked beautiful and the acting was beautiful and I loved every second of it.

Edge of Tomorrow

In a dystopian future, humans are fighting an alien race called Mimics. When one man starts to experience the same day over and over again, it gives him an unforeseen advantage in battle. I am a sucker for this kind of film (and a strong female character!) and I’ve watched it multiple times since my first viewing.

Love, Simon

I read the book that this film was based on (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli) and loved it so I was really looking forward to the film. It follows Simon Spier, who is keeping a secret from everyone he knows: he’s gay. But when a classmate threatens to out him, everything changes and he is forced to choose between his friends and the anonymous classmate he’s fallen in love with over email.

TV

It’s one of my favourite things to curl up with a good TV show and binge watch the whole thing in one day.

Queer Eye

Is there anyone who doesn’t love Queer Eye? It wasn’t something I expected to love but the overflowing positivity just captured my heart. While the physical makeovers in these men might be the most obvious changes made, the emotional one is the most powerful. There is little (if any) media that encourages men to take care of themselves and be kind to themselves and so this show is a big deal. I have to admit that I haven’t finished it yet but that’s only because I don’t want to have no new episodes to watch.

Frequency

If you love sci fi and police dramas (like me), then this is the show for you. After a freak lightning storm, police detective Raimy Sullivan is able to communicate with her father in the past via an old radio. An attempt to save his life causes devastating changes in the present and between them, they have to try and fix the timeline. It’s addictive and intense and I loved every second of it.

Episodes

During some downtime (and some much needed rest time) in Nashville, my friend Richard introduced me to this show and I am so, so grateful. It’s a comedy about two English television writers – a married couple – going to the US to recreate their hit show. As you can imagine, it doesn’t go exactly as planned. Because of the blend of British humour and American humour, I feel like there’s something for everyone: it’s dry, it’s direct, it’s subtle, it’s not subtle, all at the same time. I love it so much that I’m in the process of watching again, with multiple different people because I know they’ll love it too.

Burden of Truth

So I watched all ten episodes in one day because it’s that good. A successful lawyer returns to her hometown to uncover the truth behind a group of teenage girls getting sick. It’s full of twists and turns, family secrets, and some great LGBT representation. I’d write more but I don’t want to give anything away!

The Split

Another legal drama, this one about a family firm that begins when the eldest daughter, Hannah, leaves to work for a rival firm. The six part series follows their cases and their relationships and the return of the father who has been absent for thirty years. It stars Nicola Walker who I have loved ever since I first saw her in Spooks (as Ruth Evershed) as well as Stephen Mangan, who stars in Episodes.

Unforgotten

More Nicola Walker! I loved the first two series of Unforgotten so I was very excited to see the third and it absolutely lived up to my expectations. Each series features a handful of different characters and their lives are weaved together until we understand a historic crime and despite this format, each series has been different and surprising and heart wrenching. Nicola Walker in particular was fantastic and I really, really loved that they explored the toll that such a difficult job can take.

Agents of Shield Season 5

I have mentioned my love of Agents of Shield before and that was only strengthened by this latest season. Daisy Johnson is my hero and it was awesome to see her be even more interesting and amazing in this season. And it’s been renewed for a sixth and seventh season!

Lucifer

Another awesome recommendation from Richard. The devil decides to take a holiday from hell and takes over a nightclub in LA (and it turns out he’s hilarious). He teams up with a police detective and shenanigans ensue. I love it. It’s funny and smart and thought provoking: there are some great questions about god and religion and faith in there. All of the characters are interesting and complex and I don’t want to get to the end. Fortunately there’s a new season on the way.

So there you go. My books, films, and TV of 2018. Hopefully there’s something in here that appeals. What have you been reading and watching this year?

Of Stars and Spirals

Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Turtles All The Way Down by John Green. This is not so much a book review as it is a collection of my thoughts about a particular book so I will be talking about the characters and the storyline in some detail. Hopefully it will make sense. If you’ve read the book or don’t mind spoilers, read on but if you want to read the book (which I highly suggest you do) and watch the events unfold, go and do that first. And then maybe you can come back and read this…

As I said in my post about New Years Resolutions, I really want to get back into reading. When I was a kid, I inhaled book after book after book and I have so many memories of forgoing sleep, just so that I could finish whatever story I was in the middle of. I really loved to read. It was my favourite thing. But somehow, with university and my mental health and the rollercoaster that has been my life for the last few years, reading sort of fell off my radar and I really miss it so one of my New Years Resolutions is to try and get back into reading. I want to rediscover what I loved about it. This was the perfect book to start with, even though it hit me with a tidal wave of emotions and I’m still recovering a couple of weeks later. But I think that’s how reading is for me, at least for the moment.

From the moment I heard that John Green’s new book was about a girl with OCD, I knew I wanted to read it and knowing that he has very personal experience with OCD made me even more excited about it. I’ve read several of his books (I especially loved The Fault in Our Stars) and I’ve always really connected to the voices of the main characters. And that was what made reading Turtles All The Way Down such an emotional experience. I read it in one sitting (apart from the first chapter – I realised I was going to read it in one sitting and so I needed to plan for that). I don’t think I’ve ever related so strongly to a book, which is a really big deal since I’ve been struggling to find a book I relate to at all. I found it to be a really true, really full account of dealing with a mental health problem. I’ve always struggled to work out where OCD fits into the mosaic of my mental health so I found this book really helpful in that sense. It shifted a few things in my brain and helped me understand myself a bit better. I’m very grateful for that.

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The story is narrated by sixteen-year-old Aza. She’s quiet and thoughtful, trying to manage friends, school, and planning a future, all while struggling with constant anxiety about bacteria, infection, and dying from Clostridium Difficile Infection (also known as C. diff). She describes the anxiety as ‘thought spirals’ or ‘invasive thoughts’. She feels like she has no control over her thoughts, describing them as “not a choice but a destiny,” and often the only way to control them is to check and clean a permanently open cut on her finger, proving to herself that she doesn’t have C. diff.

I love Aza and I really, really related to her, to how she thinks, how she navigates the world. I’ve always thought of my thought spirals as black holes but the descriptions match up pretty closely. And I swear, some of the things she says could’ve been pulled from my own thoughts:

  • “Worrying is the correct worldview. Life is worrisome.”
  • “I was so good at being a kid, and so terrible at being whatever I was now.”
  • “I knew what it was like to be in a feeling, to be not just surrounded by it but also permeated by it, the way my grandmother talked about God being everywhere. When my thoughts spiralled, I was in the spiral, and of it.”

We struggle with a lot of the same things, from the littlest things to the biggest things. Like me, she struggles with her sense of identity; she talks about her “irreconcilable selves” and describes her search for her self as opening Russian dolls, looking for the final solid one but never finding it (I can definitely relate to that, although my current metaphor is a house of mirrors). Like me, she’s untidy, something that flies in the face of a huge OCD stereotype. And like me, she struggles with her body, with having a body: “I disgusted myself. I was revolting, but I couldn’t recoil from my self because I was stuck inside of it.” Finding all of these things in a character feels like such a big deal. I don’t think you can really know how important it is to have a character you relate to until you can’t find one.

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The book could easily fall into the cliché of ‘girl with mental health problem meets boy and suddenly everything is better’ but fortunately, it doesn’t. I was so, so relieved. Aza and her best friend, Daisy, find themselves investigating the disappearance of Russell Pickett, the father of Aza’s childhood friend, Davis. Aza and Davis become very close very quickly but that only makes things more difficult for Aza. He means a lot to her but, as she says, the “actual mechanics of it” are really hard for her. Touching and kissing send her into a panic, a spiral that tightens and tightens. And that’s really hard for her: “I can’t have a normal life if I can’t kiss someone without freaking out.” As much as she wants to be with him, as hard as they try to make it work, her mental illness is just too much. It might sound strange but that is incredibly comforting. Despite the fact that we all know a relationship can’t magically reset your mental health, there still seem to be so many stories where that is exactly what happens. Maybe it’s because the writers want to believe that, for themselves or for someone they care about. But it’s not the truth. To know that there is one story – one more story – out in the world that demonstrates that is a relief to me. I know that my mental health prevents me from being in a relationship regardless of all other factors; seeing someone else experience the same thing helps me, even if that person is fictional. Whether it’s just for now or forever (“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to.”), that makes me feel a little bit less alone.

The real love story is in Aza and Daisy’s friendship. I fell in love with Daisy and their friendship from the first mention. I loved that she knew when Aza was struggling and just how to help her: “She’d straightened something inside me.” I was almost giddy with excitement to find such a supportive friendship. But then they both get into relationships and they start to drift. Aza’s mental health also starts to drop. The ritual of cleaning her finger becomes less and less effective. The spirals tighten, the voice of her OCD gets stronger, and her desperation increases, leading her to drink hand sanitizer in the hope that it will prevent her from getting sick. Driving home from school one day, she and Daisy get into a vicious argument during which Daisy calls her “extremely self-centred”. I found all of this really upsetting; my stomach kept twisting, so much that it hurt. I was so attached to their friendship that seeing it crumble was really painful. It results in Aza hitting the car in front and at the hospital later that night, the feeling of being surrounded by bacteria is just too much for her and the thought spirals overwhelm her. I don’t want to go into too much detail because you should really just read it. It’s so well written and I related to it so strongly.

After that, Aza has to spend a lot of time and energy on recovering from that. It’s scary and difficult and she feels very fragile but slowly, things do change. She and Daisy rebuild their friendship and while it’s so similar, it’s also very different to how it was before. They talk and they talk properly; those conversations are some of the best in the book.

But as wonderful as that is, it doesn’t solve Aza’s struggles. “Everyone wanted me to feed them that story – darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it too.” She still has thought spirals; she’s still so terrified that she can barely talk about it. Her life – and her future – feel suffocated by her anxiety: “I could never become a functioning grown up like this; it was inconceivable that I’d ever have a career.” This process feels so real to me. I’ve hit breaking point after breaking point and I always expect to feel better, or lightened, afterwards but then all the problems are still there and that can feel devastating. Accepting the reality of her mental health is one of the biggest and most difficult struggles: “I would always be like this, always have this within me. There was no beating it. I would never slay the dragon, because the dragon was also me. My self and the disease were knotted together for life.” But, despite all of that, you can see the evolution in her thinking. She manages to say yes to things that scare her, she has good days, and her relationships get stronger. It’s subtle but her self worth improves too: “You’re the storyteller and the story told. You are somebody’s something, but you are also your you.” That is so much more important than if she’d made massive strides because it’s so real. That progress is slow and subtle and sometimes we don’t even see it happening. But when it’s written out on paper, you can see it and it’s a really good reminder that it’s there. It gives me hope.

Her relationship with her Mum is another thing I really liked in the book. They have a close relationship (“I could always feel my mother’s vibrating strings.”) and she’s a good mother but she says the wrong things sometimes and her concern can just feel like another layer of pressure for Aza. Over the course of the story, they get better at communicating and she learns what helps and what doesn’t, and Aza gets better at telling her. That’s such an important process and I think it sets a really good example: mental health problems can be really hard to understand, on all sides, and we don’t always get it right. Getting it wrong doesn’t make you a bad person; you just have to learn from the mistakes. And communicate. Towards the end, they have a really important conversation where Aza says, “I can’t stay sane for you…” and I really want to highlight that moment. I had a very similar conversation with my Mum. I think that people in our lives ask us to do things for them, thinking that they’re helping you, motivating you, giving you something to live for, when in fact they’re just adding more pressure to an already difficult situation. It’s not their fault – they’re just trying to help – but it can make things worse and they won’t know that unless it’s explained to them. So I think that was really good to have in this book.

Something else I related to was the fact that Aza’s father died several years earlier. When it comes to the events in the story, it’s not particularly relevant but at the same time, it’s very relevant (bear with me). It’s a massive part of who Aza is (it’s interesting that, from an outside perspective, we have a stronger sense of her identity than she does). She keeps her Dad close, driving his car, holding onto his phone to look through his pictures, talking to him… “I thought about how everyone always seemed slightly uncomfortable when discussing their fathers in front of me. They always seemed worried I’d be reminded of my fatherlessness, as if I could somehow forget.” My god, I relate to that. I can’t forget, not for a second. It’s painful but at the same time, I treasure it. I don’t want to forget. It’s part of who I am: “To be alive is to be missing.” It’s one of those before and after moments in your life; it changes you. It was comforting to see my experience (“And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone.”) reflected back to me in someone else. As I’ve already said, it means so much to me to find a character I relate to so strongly. It makes me feel less alone. It makes me feel more real. “I remember after my Dad died, for a while, it was both true and not true in my mind… My father died suddenly, but also across the years. He was still dying really – which meant, I guess, that he was still living too.” Words like these are such a comfort to me. Aza imagines the moments they should’ve – or could’ve – had and they’re so clear that sometimes she forgets they didn’t happen. I can definitely relate to that.

Something I love about John Green’s writing is how he brings attention to things that are often overlooked or taken for granted: “It’s a weird phrase in English, in love, like it’s a sea you drown in or a town you live in. You don’t get to be in anything else – in friendship or in anger or in hope. All you can be in is love.” He weaves little things – or the little links between little things – into his stories that make the world more intricate, more real. The characters talk about the stars and Kurt Gödel. They have revelations about turtles and intersecting tree branches. Those things, for me at least, mean as much to me as they do to the characters. I mean, I am a space nerd and at least seventy percent of my thoughts are about metaphors but these things, these connections create so many layers to the story. As Aza says, “The world is also the stories we tell about it.”

After seeing what a huge impact this book had on me, my Mum read it, also in the space of a couple of days:

This story has also given me so much. It has helped me to better understand the feelings and anxieties my daughter lives with, and more importantly, another context to talk with her about them. (After reading this I realised that all the quotes she has chosen to include, are ones I have found particularly helpful too). I feel indebted to John Green for this story, for the hope I see it bring to her, and hopefully others too, for the understanding it can give parents and others supporting those with mental health issues, and for giving her a reason to read again. The way he closes the story also give me hope, for the future I wish for her.

It surprised me, how much she loved the ending since I’m still not sure how I feel about it. But I’m so glad she loved the book and that she got so much out of it.

This book means so much to me and I’m really glad it’s the book I chose to get back into reading. It’s definitely one that I’ll hang on to, carry around… It was always have a place on my bookshelf. There’s so much in it, multiple storylines that blend into each other. There’s elements of mystery, elements of romance, family and friendship, identity, loss… And it shows how everything affects everything else. The language is beautiful and brutal and real. I related to so much of it and it put so many of my thoughts into words. I love how he describes everything: he uses phrases like ‘swimming up from the depths’ and ‘sensorial planes’ when talking about thoughts spirals which is just so true, in my experience at least. There will be criticisms – there always are – but this is the book I needed exactly when I needed it and I will always love it for that.

There is so much more I could say – there’s so much I haven’t even mentioned – but I’ll stop there. So I’ll leave you with a quote from Aza’s therapist, who reminds me a lot of my own therapist. She says a lot of good and important things throughout the book but this is my favourite, and my favourite of the book:

“In some ways, pain is the opposite of language… And we’re such language based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracize and minimize. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with. Nor do either of those terms connote the courage people in such pains exemplify.”

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“It often dwells in cliche, but only as pop songs and epic poems do, mining the universal to create something that speaks to the familiar rhythms of the heart. At one point Aza thinks about how the string from one musical instrument can cause the string of another to vibrate, if it’s the same note. That’s what this novel does. It will pluck the strings of those in tune with it. It will resonate with, and comfort, anxious young minds everywhere. It might just be a new modern classic.” – Matt Haig, excerpt from his review of Turtles All The Way Down for The Guardian (x)