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Empowering Movie Characters Who Are the Only Child

by Katie Marchbank 4 years ago in movie review / list

Sometimes being an only child is absolutely epic in the cinematic universe.

People always talk about empowering movie characters, and how, when growing up, it's important to have a healthy diet of fictional role models to inspire one to greatness. They often talk about feminist role models in this frame of reference, talking about characters who can empower young girls.

But another demographic who often needs cheering up and inspiring are only children. Growing up alone without brothers or sisters to raise you up can be awful, and a lot of children grow up with a sense of loneliness as a result.

Unless they have a movie character to inspire them.

The power of cinema cannot be overstated. Film can have a huge impact on the way we perceive the world. And so many heroes have brothers and sisters to fall back on. But there are a few – a few major, actually – empowering movie characters who are the only child in their families, but still set out on a path of awesome that can inspire even the most cynical only child.

By the way, a spoiler alert for all the following films. You have been warned.

Ellen Ripley from the Alien series

Sigourney Weaver's star-making role is the epitome of empowering. Many feminist writers have written oodles of essays about how important Ripley's presence in the at-the-time male dominated science fiction genre proved to be. Thanks to her and Sarah Conner, two of most popular science fiction sagas ever were led by women.

But there's something else important about Ripley: she's an only child.

She may not be who you immediately think of when you think of empowering movie characters who are the only child in their families, but she is.

Ripley's whole thing throughout the films is that she is, in essence, alone.

In Alien, she always stands apart from the rest of the crew, being an authority even when everyone else makes stupid decisions. While certain members of the crew have a brotherly connection, Ripley always seems a little detached. When all these characters die, Ripley is left alone again.

This gets worse in Aliens when we learn she is a mother. She actually parents a daughter that, thanks to Ripley being trapped in cryostasis for a half-century, is dead by the time Ripley wakes up. She starts up a new family of sorts by the end of the movie, with her sort of adopting the young girl Newt, but, come Alien 3, Newt's dead, too.

A debate can be made that Ripley isn't an only child in Alien Resurrection where she's cloned a bunch of times, but the only time Ellen Ripley meets her clones, she mercy kills them.

And, despite it all, despite being the only one there, she persists. It's empowering, really, to anyone who feels alone in the world or without a companion to watch her strive throughout the four films.

Peter Parker from the Spider-Man series

With three actors playing Peter Parker across seven different films (with Spider-Man Homecoming being the seventh), audiences have had a chance to see many different interpretations of arguably the world's most famous superhero.

Peter Parker's thing is that, in a world full of billionaires in suits and WWII super-soldiers, he's just a normal kid. It's empowering to a younger audience – and even an older one – to watch a kid who really isn't much different than yourself go out and take on the world.

Oh, and he's an only child.

While two of the films spend a ton of time on Peter's parentage, the truth is that, more often than not, the tragedy of Peter Parker is that his family keeps shrinking. He can't love a person without them dying. His parents die, his uncle dies, his best friends die, his girlfriend dies. Spoiler alert for every Spider-Man movie: everyone dies. Especially father figures. From the looks of things, Tony Stark should really find an underground bunker from Spidey.

Despite being an only child, Peter still has family. Aunt May, throughout every film, is always on Peter's side. The death of Uncle Ben is always a huge factor in his life. These are people who love Peter, and he loves in return. But they aren't the only family Peter has.

In the original trilogy, Harry Osborn plays the role of Peter's best friend who is as close to a brother for the only child Peter. This is empowering for only children watching because it shows them that, despite having no brothers and sisters, you can find lifelong companionship in others.

But then Harry dies. Spoiler alert for a 10-year-old movie: he dies.

In the upcoming Spider-Man Homecoming, it looks as though Peter will find a mentor role in Tony Stark. Whether this is as a father figure or an older brother remains to be seen, but it continues the sense of family being beyond just blood and genetics. Which makes him a very empowering movie character who is also the only child.

Charlie Bucket from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

In this example, I am referring to the original starring the late-Gene Wilder. Not the Tim Burton remake. The only thing that movie empowers is the original film by proving how great that 1970s musical movie was all along. I know Tim Burton came closer to adapting the book, but that isn't inherently a good thing.

My reason for saying this is that Charlie Bucket in the Gene Wilder original film is far more of an empowering character for only children than either the Charlie Bucket of the remake or the Roald Dhal original. While the original is a great children's novel, it isn't Dhal's best work.

The original adaptation improves upon the book's characterization of Charlie Bucket by making him a complex, emotionally complicated child in a large family without any real brothers, sisters, or peers his age close to him. Sure, he goes to school, but you can always tell that he feels separate from everyone else.

Unlike the book and remake, where Charlie is the perfect child (according to Dhal), the 70s film presents Charlie as a kid. He has huge dreams, wants things, feels disappointment, and eventually feels a sense of triumph when the ticket comes. While he is an essentially good kid, he is also a kid. With real feelings and emotions.

One other thing that makes him incredibly empowering to young children: his relationship with his family. He is the only child in a family full of older adults – most significantly older. While many depictions of family present diverse families, most often the "family" is inspired by the nuclear family structure. But here, Charlie lives with his grandparents and (presumably) only mother. The father is adapted out of the film for some reason. We get a sense of Charlie's relationship with his grandparents throughout the film, especially Grandpa Joe. There is a strong sense of love throughout the film, through good times and bads. It makes the whole thing feel real, which only makes the scenes of triumph all the more rewarding and empowering.

It's just a sweet movie that I think every child should see, not just only children. Charlie Bucket, you are one of the most empowering movie characters who are also the only child.

Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series

Of the core three in the Harry Potter saga, Hermione is the single only child in the bunch. Ron has a ton of siblings, and Harry, though he is the only child born of James and Lily Potter, is raised along with his cousin Dudley, which, in many ways, would sort of make Dudley Harry's adoptive brother.

Hermione, however, is so much of an only child it's almost uncanny. Having grown up with few peers, Hermione, especially early on in the books and films, is a bit bratty and socially unaware of certain social cues. For only children growing up without brothers and sisters, this actually isn't too uncommon.

But, as she gains experience in the world, she grows as a character. This is far more evident in the books, which, are vastly superior to the films in every way. It also doesn't hurt that, while Hermione in the books is pretty, she is described as buck-toothed and frizzy haired, while in the films, Emma Watson plays her, who is incredibly pretty.

Hermione is fairly inspirational as a role model to young girls growing up, as she proves to be one of the most adept, capable, and strong-willed female characters in fantasy films. It reached a point where the filmmakers actually took things that other characters did in the books (especially Ron), and made Hermione do them, which made all the other characters look less capable by comparison.

Then again, there are other empowering movie characters who are the only child in the Harry Potter series. And no, I'm not talking about Draco Malfoy (unless you aspire to be a pompous racist crybaby). I'm talking about Luna Lovegood, a film character who is not only an only child, but also socially awkward and has a lot of odd beliefs.

There is an incredibly sweet scene from the books that, sadly, where you see Luna drew all her friends on the walls of her bedroom with the words "Friends" written all around them. It's a very poignant scene that's underplayed in the film adaptation. It shows that even only children can have extensive families of friends. You can love people like brothers and sisters even if they aren't related by blood. This is true for both Luna and Hermione (as seen especially when Hermione spends tons of time with Ron's family during the summer, living with them like a surrogate family).

John Connor from The Terminator series

Never in any other franchise is an only child so important to the plot of the movie. Except maybe Damien from The Omen, but I don't think many kids aspire to be the anti-Christ. In fact, if anything, John Conner is something of a Christ-figure in the various films.

Except maybe Terminator Genisys, but people don't care about that movie (learn how to spell, you idiots!).

John Connor's birth is essentially the whole plot of the original film, so, in a way, we really don't know John until the sequel, Judgement Day. But we meet a kid without direction. He has scrappy friends, hacks ATM machines, and just all around looks like what an adult thought a 90s and 80s kid would think is cool.

But, rather than just creating another only child movie character, he creates one of the few empowering movie characters who are the only child.

But he has no role models. His nature as an only child defines both his character and the arc of the movie as a whole. Oddly enough, the T-800 – a walking, killing death machine – proves to be an almost sobering role model on John. Like either a close friend, brother, or father figure.

Either way, John from that point onward is defined by his past experiences. Determined, die-hard, and indomitable. His experiences as an only child drives him onward, as well, of course, as surviving an apocalyptic war of mechanical monsters.

Look, the guy literally is a Jesus figure. In Salvation, he literally is killed and resurrected just to fight the good fight. Again, spoilers for a film almost a decade old. His being an only child informs all his actions throughout the saga.

Belle from Beauty and the Beast

An interesting change in the adaptation. Originally, Belle had three sisters, who were all vapid and sort of useless in the vast scheme of the narrative. However, when adapting the fairy tale into a film, Belle becomes the sole daughter of a crazy, loopy inventor.

Belle's strength comes from her strong sense of independence. She doesn't take no crap from anyone. She wants to read her book? She'll read her book, and no one is going to stop her. She's "odd" in that the rest of the town is anti-intellectual and macho, but she doesn't conform to their wishes.

This results in her interactions with the Beast – who, given his lack of blood relatives in the film, we can assume is also an only child – some potency. They are both fiercely independent characters. In Belle's case, she rejected society, while in the Beast's case, he just has no experience socializing. In that sense, the two characters help each other grow.

More the Beast growing, though. Belle is a firmly developed character.

Oh, and as for the pseudo-intellectuals who claim Belle can't be an empowering character because "she has Stockholm Syndrome" or something, consider this: she doesn't put up with any of the Beast's crap. She leaves the Beast twice – first because she's had enough, and second because her father is sick. She only falls in love with the Beast because he matures for her – and, even then, she prioritizes her family.

In this sense, she's a highly empowering movie character to both young girls and only children – bonus if the only child is a girl.

Oh, and Emma Watson also plays her in live-action. That's two out of this list who are both Emma Watson.

Bastian/Atreyu from The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story is arguably one of the best movies for kids made in the 80s. Part of this is due to the enchanting practical effects, magical story, and genuine sense of danger throughout the whole film.

And these two characters hold it all together.

Bastian is essentially a socially withdrawn kid with a dead mom, a withdrawn dad, and at least three or four bullies who want to make his life cruddy. This initially beats down our hero, the only child, to the point where he hides in a small room reading.

That does not sound very inspirational or empowering.

Bastian latches onto the character Atreyu in his book, who actually lives in another universe called Fantasia that Bastian has direct impact on. Atreyu is also an only child who goes on grand adventures, and has to save the world. Atreyu is who you typically would expect to be the empowering fictional character, but it is Bastian who ultimately saves the world of Fantasia.

This movie works two ways when it comes to creating empowering characters who are the only child in their families. Atreyu is the "hero" who goes around a fantasy world doing incredible things. On the other hand, Bastian is beaten-down. He is at his lowest when the movie starts. It is only through reading the book that he learns he has the power to bring salvation to the world.

This is unlike in the original book, where Bastian goes mad with power, and instigates a brutal war between himself and Atreyu. I honestly am not sure which version of the story I prefer, but the movie remains a family film classic, which fans love throughout the world.

Han Solo from Star Wars

I wanted to include Star Wars somewhere here, but I had trouble figuring out who to put on. Luke and Leia are siblings, Rey and Kylo Ren may be siblings if certain fan theories are right, and Anakin Skywalker is as far as an empowering figure as you can get.

But Han Solo?

Now, while Disney is re-writting his backstory and history with a brand new solo film (please be good), as of now, Han Solo is an only child. In fact, riding solo is sort of his whole gig.

While he has a best friend in Chewie, and a surrogate family ultimately with Luke and Leia, Han's early arc in the series is as a distant loner. He doesn't get attached to characters, keeps everyone at an arm's length away. He's basically a stranger to his own crew half the time.

Yet, over time, he learns to fly with others.

This solo attitude is typical of only children, who have their one goal in mind the whole way through because that's the way they were raised. Their way. Their path. Their solo trek.

But this shows that you can always rely on your friends for help, should the worst come to happen around you. It's an empowering story, starring one of the most empowering movie characters who is the only child.

Or... maybe the Solo child? Heehee.

I'll stop.

Bruce Wayne from the Batman movies

These last two are sort of a cheat, as they both are two of the most iconic fictional characters of all time. They also are only children.

Bruce Wayne (Batman) has appeared in total in 10 different live-action movies to date (Justice League looks like the eleventh). This isn't counting the animated movies, such as the two Lego films he appeared in, Batman Mask of the Phantasm, or any number of direct to DVD films released starring him.

But one defining trait of Batman is that Bruce Wayne is alone in the world. The only child to slain Thomas and Martha Wayne (insert Batman v Superman jokes about Martha here), Bruce has no family growing up. Except for Alfred, who is basically a father figure to Bruce.

Bruce's isolation defines his character, crafting a figure who is at once alone and trapped in the world of depression, and, using this sense of isolation, creates a symbol.

The Batman.

While Batman can be hard to relate to (he's super rich, super strong, etc), his solemn sense of loneliness is easily relatable, especially to an only child watching the films. Throughout the various movies, Bruce seeks companionship. Be it Robin, Rachel, Catwoman, or even Wonder Woman, Bruce is constantly reaching out to people in his own, removed sort of way. This is pretty similar to how many only children try to reach out to others, but, due to their upbringing, might not know how.

But how does Batman rank among empowering movie characters who are the only child in their families? Well, simple: it's because he's Batman. The man beat Superman with nothing but wit and brains in one movie.

Though, speaking of Kal-El...

Kal-El from the Superman movies

Superman has appeared in seven movies (soon to be eight with Justice League). He has always been seen as a figure of inspiration and hope the world over, but only in a few films is the understanding that Superman is the Last Son of Krypton really relayed.

In both Superman The Movie and Man of Steel, Kal-El is raised by his adoptive mom and dad in Kansas, the only son of an older couple. In both films, he feels like an outcast. An outsider. He stands apart from the other kids due to his special set of powers.

And his isolation is played up in both films.

However, it is presented differently in each one. In Superman The Movie, Superman's understanding of his true identity gives him a sense of purpose. He learns that, yes, he is the last child of a dead world, but that he is also a son of Earth who must offer his unique abilities and perspective to help the world.

Man of Steel veers toward a darker route (arguably, more realistic). Upon learning his real nature, Kal-El becomes conflicted. He realizes that his fate is in his own hands now, and, as a result, must choose between his blood link to Krypton or his bond to Earth, ultimately choosing Earth over the violent Kryptonians.

Both Kal-Els are empowering movie characters who are the only child left from a dying world, but the real difference is this family and love. Does your heritage define you, or are you more than that? These are tough questions.

But it is important to remember this: Christopher Reeves's Clark Kent is Superman's mask, while Henry Caville's Superman is Clark Kent's mask. Which is more inspiring? Is fitting into society despite your unique background more empowering to a child, or is being a hero despite all the adversity thrown at you more empowering? It really is a case of your mileage will vary.

movie reviewlist

Katie Marchbank

Just trying to take down the patriarchy while playing video games and eating too much pasta.

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Katie Marchbank
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