Undergraduate Honors Theses

Thesis Defended

Spring 2017

Document Type


Type of Thesis

Departmental Honors


Film Studies

First Advisor

Melinda Barlow

Second Advisor

Suranjan Ganguly

Third Advisor

Stephen Graham Jones


For my undergraduate honors thesis, I propose a study into the idea of the strong female character as exemplified by girl heroes in modern cinematic fantasy through the exploration of two different films: Henry Selick’s Coraline (2009) and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001).

Though the industry is constantly evolving, cinema has consistently painted a rigid picture of how women and girls should see themselves. From near infancy, female children are fed images of passive princesses in desperate need of a male savior, and are constantly taught that deviating from the acceptably feminine will only cause them trouble. Young girls find their heroes in the media they consume, and when the media they consume is about weak women needing saving, they emulate these women. In fact, psychologists have studied “princess syndrome,” the name for the phenomenon where little girls develop insecurities and petty obsessions after being bombarded with the media targeted at them. Representation matters, and the portrayal of strong young heroines on-screen is imperative to the development of not only real-life female children, but their adult counterparts as well. Children are naturally curious, inquisitive, and imaginative; and the fantastic settings of Coraline and Spirited Away weave childhood imagination with heroic female strength. When ordinary girls without magical powers are able to defeat supernatural antagonists, female audience members are shown that they too can exhibit courage, hope, bravery, and love in the face of adversity.

When little girls grow into women, they continue to consume mainstream representations of women in cinema. The female protagonists of today’s most popular movies are often either hopelessly boy-crazy or tough, rugged, stoics who are strong only because they emulate traditionally male characteristics. The latter of these two is often referred to as the ‘strong female character.’ Through my thesis, I plan on turning this trope on its head by overturning notions of masculinity as the pinnacle of heroism and showing that the strongest of heroes is the young girl in fantasy who is creative, brave, and completely capable of rescuing herself. This version of the ultimate heroine is important for not only female children, but for grown women as well.

I plan on beginning my study with Coraline, a coming of age story about an imaginative young girl who embarks on a life-changing adventure and insists of being in charge of her own fate. Unhappy with the reality she’s presented with, Coraline enters the flawlessly crafted world created for her by the other mother, an evil entity bent on consuming Coraline’s soul. Coraline uses her intelligence, wit, and bravery to save not only herself, but the souls of the children that came before her and the lives of the parents she formally regarded as boring and inattentive. Coraline is undoubtedly the hero of her own world, and her incredible displays of strength are the result of her intuition and capacity for personal growth.

Like Coraline, Spirited Away is about an ordinary girl without any superhuman abilities who is suddenly thrust into a dangerous, fantastic world. The film’s protagonist, Chihiro, is forced to quickly adapt to life in the spirit realm after her parents are turned into pigs by Yubaba, the evil witch who rules the bathhouse. Throughout the course of the film, Chihiro’s capacity for compassion and courage constantly push her to overcome tasks that seem nearly impossible. For example, when none of the powerful spirits who work in the bath house will deal with a difficult guest, ten-year-old Chihiro musters up all of her strength pacify him herself. Chihiro can’t use magic or brute force, so she uses her politeness and compassion to reason with a man-eating monster and rescue a powerful river spirit. At the end of the film, Chihiro is able to save the lives of not only her parents, but the film’s male protagonist as well.

Women are not passive figures, and strong women are shaped not by their ability to suppress their femininity, but by their displays of courage, kindness, and character growth in the face of adversity. This study will delve into the idea that strongest of cinema’s female characters are the young heroines who become the masters of the fantastic worlds around them.