On Vampire Diaries, there are varying degrees of strong female characters, with the variation even occurring within the characters themselves, depending on the season and whether they grow or regress as people, both of which occur at different points.
Elena Gilbert (played by Nina Dobrev) starts off the show a little lost, trying to cope with the recent death of her parents, as well as the problem of her brother, Jeremy (played by Steven R. McQueen) doing drugs. Even the introduction of Stefan (played by Paul Wesley) as a love interest doesn’t follow the normal path of girl falls for boy and her entire life now revolves around boy that most television shows adhere to, often quite strictly. Instead, Stefan becomes someone that Elena can relate to and that she has an emotional connection with, but not someone she depends on for her very character (the internal kind), other than in obvious ways related to the plot, i.e. her lack of super strength and speed requires a certain dependence on Stefan when dealing with vampires and not-so-nice things. Instead, Stefan is presented as someone that is a complement to her, with both characters bringing out the better sides of the other. When Elena thinks he’s lying in season one (and he is), she avoids him for a while instead of going the traditional route most shows take where things become passive aggressive and the girl becomes needy and clingy. Instead, she doesn’t want to talk to him, she ignores his calls and goes on with her life until she gets an explanation. Basically, without him, she still wants to remain her own person.
After she finds out that Stefan and his brother, Damon (played by Ian Somerhalder) are vampires, she takes some time to adjust, again initially pushing Stefan away, and then, when she is ready, she insists on making the decision on whether to get involved with Stefan herself, and refuses to let him decide for her. Throughout the season, she continues to stand up for her opinion, and that continues into season two and three. It is well-established within the plot that Stefan always lets Elena make her own decisions, while Damon will do whatever he thinks is necessary to protect Elena, even when it goes against what Elena wants.
It is in season four, when Elena becomes a vampire, that she begins her regression. As soon as she becomes a vampire, she becomes emotionally and psychologically helpless, right at the time she is becoming physically stronger. We later find out that it’s because of the sire bond, but regardless of the cause, Elena spends the majority of season four as a helpless victim. At every point in the season, she needs someone to comfort her and make her feel better.
After the death of her brother, she has her rebellion phase, where she basically becomes a proverbial loose cannon. At that point, she is no longer feeling helpless. In fact, as she has turned her humanity off, she is no longer feeling anything. She kills people and just does whatever she feels like, including stalking her best friend to try to kill her. She also goes from not wanting to be a vampire, to reluctantly accepting that she is, to wanting it.
By the finale, she seems to have found her strength again, along with her humanity, but she isn’t done with her regression, which is apparent when she decides to pursue a relationship with Damon, saying it might be the biggest mistake she will ever make. That is not exactly the sentiment that healthy relationships are built upon. It seems to parallel the often-used idea of a bad boy phase, where a person is making poor decisions, and, at least on some level, aware they are making poor decisions, and yet they continue to make those same decisions regardless. By the end of the season four finale, it is clear that Elena is still in a pattern of self-destruction.
When we open season five, Elena and Damon are still dating after the departure of Stefan. Both characters are unaware that he didn’t actually get to leave, but it instead repeatedly drowning in a cement box after being locked in it and tossed off of a cliff.
Damon begins the premiere seeming to go more in the direction of being supportive rather than deciding what’s best for Elena, regardless of Elena’s own opinion when is encouraging about her going off (sort of –I don’t think the college is actually that far), but then after some events that she would really want to be informed about, such as the almost (fourth) death of her brother and the fact that Stefan didn’t leave town, but was kidnapped by Silas, he doesn’t tell her. His explanation to Jeremy is that it would make her leave college to come home seems like another instance of Damon deciding what is best for her on of his own accord.
While the lack of running her life (even if the writers do admittedly run the show) around her current boyfriend is part of Elena’s strength as a character, it does seem to be a metaphor for where she is on an emotional and personal level, with Stefan equaling well adjusted and Damon equaling spiraling mess. To that point, we see Elena hasn’t quite decided where she is, as she has a moment with her cell phone where she is having some definite thoughts about Stefan, something that she keeps from Damon.
She also may or may not be having some sort of dream connection to Stefan, so it will be interesting to see how season five progresses, and whether Elena will go with the proverbial angel or devil on her shoulder, or if she will choose to be independent of a boyfriend as she was during much of season three and four, and how that will play out with her character, who seems to have two main goals: live as normal a life as possible and take care of her brother, neither of which necessarily have to involve a love interest.
This post will be updated to reflect the events of recent episodes, including what seems to be a decrease in personal strength for Elena.