The modern heroine comes in many different shapes and sizes. In Sophie’s case, it’s an old woman. Sophie is the main character of the animated film Howl’s Moving Castle by Studio Ghibli, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. Sophie is a young milliner without any real ambitions when a curse is placed on her that turns her into an old woman. She ventures out to the wastes to find a cure when she comes across the moving castle of the great wizard Howl and winds up working for him as a maid. In doing so, she finds that she’s not the only one with a curse and everyone is struggling with their own demons.
Sophie is quite different than a lot of the more popular female heroines we see today — characters like Katniss, Tris, or Black Widow embody traits that are considered “badass” and historically, more conventionally masculine. They are strong and they kick ass against enemies of any gender. Sophie spends most of the film as a frail old woman (and is consequently completely unsexualized) whose skills are cooking, cleaning, and sewing — conventionally feminine household roles. Sophie’s strength is not at all physical and instead completely mental. A girl who has never left the safety of her own hat shop winds up venturing out into the unknown in the middle of a war-torn nation to break her own curse and because of her own compassion and resilience, she does not stop until she is also able to save all her friends and end the war that is ravaging her country. Sophie is brave, but without using her fists. She is still a strong female character, despite feminist criticisms that make her a more unconventional heroine.
As Peter Barry quoted in Beginning Theory, Toril Moi explained that being feminine was based off of political position, biology, and culturally defined characteristics (117), but the representation of women in literature was none of these things at the time Moi was writing. Essentially, the main role of women was “the heroine’s choice of marriage partner, which will decide her ultimate social position” (117). Looking back at criticism from the 1970s, I do not think that Sophie would have been accepted as a feminist figure, despite being feminine. She does nothing to expose the patriarchy or overturn it, and in general, she accepts her role as a milliner and then a cleaning lady, and in the end, she finds happiness in creating a family for herself (despite the fact that they are unconventional and none of them are actually related or even of the same species, the sentiment is the same).
However, based on psychoanalysis, Sophie’s value is clear. Barry writes about the notion of “penis envy”, which in this context is when the writer portrays female characters as more masculine and consequently giving them “social power and advantages that go with it” (125). Sophie may seem to conform to more feminine roles and because of her frail and aging body, she is unable to complete tasks that other characters can. There is a scene in the film that is a montage of just Sophie cleaning. The young boy who lives in the house, Markl, tells the other characters to watch out because “there’s a witch on a rampage in there”. He is referring to the ferocity of her cleaning and her dedication to taking care of the house. She assumes the role of a nurturing mother for the boys in the house that cannot take care of themselves and her story does not provide any examples of “penis envy” — Sophie is her own character, separate from these literary stereotypes.
In Toril Moi’s essay Feminist, Female, Feminine, she examines the idea that a work that is feminine or written by a female might not be inherently feminist. After all, “being female does not guarantee a feminist approach” (120). The movie was adapted from an original text by author Diana Wynne Jones, who claimed she had difficulty writing female heroes at first, since she wanted her stories to be universal and worried boys might not like them (Karlson). However, Jones was a huge fan of more feminine heroes and “introduced strong feminine heroes, sometimes wiser or more powerful than the masculine hero” (Karlson). Jones created heroes like Sophie with a feminist purpose in mind — that a hero could display traditionally feminine traits and have feminine interests. Jones wrote in the Reflections of the Magic of writing that “the tactile sense of being female stopped bothering [her]” (Karlson). Even though Sophie’s purpose is more about embracing and being proud of feminine traits, her role is still feminist because her character is still intended to empower women. She has many feminine qualities, but throughout the story it does not make her any less tough, resilient, or brave.
Throughout the story, Sophie undergoes a massive change — she changes from a young girl to an old woman through the aid of magic, but still manages to retain qualities that are human and inherently herself despite the supernatural effects. Howl, the owner of the castle she comes across, is more ambiguously human. He gives away his heart in order to have stronger magic powers and he often transforms into a giant bird in order to go into war or fight larger battles. It is implied that if he continues to do that, one day he won’t be able to return to his human form, like the other wizards on the battlefield. They have been fighting in the wars for so long and been so consumed by the despair and bloodlust that they will never be able to return to their human forms. All of these elements lead up to a conversation about what it means to be a human being in general, which is the core thing that posthuman criticism explores. It looks at human nature itself and how literature explores that.
Barry wrote that human nature is “essentially unchanging” and that the “same passions, emotions, and even situations are seen again and again throughout” (17). This, of course, relates to how we tell similar stories again and again over time, which relates closely to Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey. Sophie herself follows this, starting with the Call to Adventure when she has to head out to the wastelands to find a cure for her curse and ending with the Freedom to Live, which takes place after Sophie has broken her curse and ended the war and is flying through the sky on the castle with Howl and the rest of their family and friends. However, we also see Barry’s comments apply to the actual story itself when characters in it repeat the same mistakes and make the same choices multiple times. The witch of the waste gives up her soul to a demon of greed, directly paralleling when Howl gives up his heart to a fire demon in order to gain more power. Other wizards also give up their humanity in order to join the war and receive riches from the king. Over and over, humans give up pieces of themselves in exchange for power and money and lose part of what makes them human because of it. Finally, Sophie gives up her hair to the fire demon in order to power the castle, but because it is a selfless act and she wants nothing out of it except to save her friends, she is actually able to break her curse and regain her humanity and sense of self, unlike the other characters who gave up parts of their humanity for wealth and power. This parallelism allows the author to make points about the “essentially unchanging” nature of humans.
A posthuman subject has been described as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” by Katherine Hayles in her novel How We Became Posthuman. Essentially, Hayles is saying that humans are made of so many different things and have so many different parts and they are constantly undergoing changes. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to define the human experience because that is something that is continuously changing. Sophie’s human experience is even more varied, but under Hayles definition, her experience is still completely valid, despite the fact that her body defies the natural conventions of aging. At the beginning of the story, her body transforms from its natural form into the body of an old lady, essentially rearranging every molecule of her being. However, Sophie still maintains her same personality and sense of self. As she changes physically, Sophie also changes mentally. Her elderly body acts as a sort of mask that gives her courage to speak more freely and it gives her a purpose outside of her small hometown, encouraging her to go out and open up to people in order to solve her problem. In doing so, she forms strong relationships that give her strength and ignite a passion in her that forces her to become involved with the bigger war-related conflict in order to protect her friends. Essentially, Sophie undergoes many changes both physical and mental throughout the course of the story, but these are the things that make her human and make her story compelling to the viewer — this is her transformation.
Transformation is essential to our humanity and is a common theme in heroic journeys (i.e. Campbell’s Apotheosis stage). However, “transformations happen all the time without being climaxes” (Wright 91). After all, transformation can occur when things are falling apart for the hero or gradually throughout the story. Sophie’s transformation in her story is happening both physically and mentally throughout the story at a gradual rate. We can actually see her mental transformation manifest physically on her body in the film. As she begins to more care about others and accept herself, she also begins to look younger. This is most clear in Madame Sulliman’s castle when she goes to convince her that Howl shouldn’t fight in the war. When she stands up for herself and Howl, her body starts to appear younger again. As Wright writes, “the cultural values embedded in new heroism imply change is an everyday part of life, and how a person adapts to those changes is what makes her heroic” (91). This is especially prevalent in Sophie’s journey because what incites her journey is a physical change that she must adapt to and that physical change incites her mental journey, changing her from a solitary homebody to an adventurous and brave spirit with a great love for her friends.
Looking at Sophie’s heroic journey through these lenses proves her to be a developed character with many dimensions. Her journey takes place on several layers, both mental and physical, and after analyzing them through posthuman and feminist lenses, it is clear that she faces the challenges before her in unconventional ways, but that is why it is even more valuable to our culture that she emerges victorious. This says powerful things about womanhood, but also about humanity itself and it is why she is a character that many relate to.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester University Press, 2017. Print.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. N.p.: U of Chicago, 2010. Print.
Karlson, Henry. “Diana Wynne Jones.” New Feminism. N.p., 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 17 Apr. 2017. <http://www.newfeminism.co/2012/10/diana-wynne-jones/>.
Moi, Toril. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” The Feminist Reader (1997): n. pag. 1989. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.
Wright, Katheryn. The New Heroines: Female Embodiment and Technology in 21st-Century Popular Culture. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, ABC-Clio, 2016. Print.