"She didn’t like to be alone. Even more, she didn’t like being with people,” writes Elizabeth Strout of her titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in her novel, Olive.
Kitteridge is a notoriously difficult and contrary character. Even Strout admits her protagonist can’t be at the centre of too many scenes: “Olive is a lot to take. If she’s on every single page people are going to get tired of her.”
Fictional Olives have occupied a special place in the past century, often endearing themselves to readers and viewers alike with their defiant and complex characters. Olive Oyl is perhaps the most famous, created by E.C. Segar for his comic strip, Thimble Theatre. Soon, we’d know her better for her relationship with Popeye, after a great audience reception led Segar to name his comic after him.
Either side of our introduction to Kitteridge, we met Olive Hoover in the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, and Olive Prendergast in the 2010 film, Easy A. Like Kitteridge and Oyl, Hoover and Prendergast are complicated and appear contradictory. Hoover—played by Abigail Breslin—is a seven-year-old aspiring beauty queen coached by her foul-mouthed grandfather Edwin. Emma Stone’s Prendergast is picked on at school for a lie that spirals out of control, but she leans into her newfound identity and owns it.
Our fictional Olives humanize the olive’s flavours—salty, tangy, bitter and occasionally sweet—and its historic symbolism, which has endured for millennia across diverse cultures and religions. The olive tree is an established symbol of peace; extending an olive branch is a common metaphor for ending a conflict, or reaching out to opponents. The olive is associated with success and victory; winners at the Olympics in Ancient Greece received an olive wreath. Religious and cultural associations since time immemorial have rendered the olive synonymous with resilience, renewal and purity.
Olive Oyl is set for a rebrand in 2022, but the roots of her name are more than a century old. When E.C. Segar would work long evenings perfecting his art, he’d work by lamp light. Powered by olive oil, it is believed that this inspired the name for the character we know so well.
When he incorporated Olive Oyl into his Popeye comics, she often appeared as a damsel in distress in need of saving. (Much like the olive today, as it fights to survive the climate emergency and a fast-spreading disease that’s wiping out crops across Europe.) The spinach-loving sailor becomes obsessed with Olive Oyl after she kisses him on the cheek. Many storylines focus on Popeye saving her or winning her affection in love triangles. Oyl was often a character constrained and defined by circumstance and by other people, a feeling with which each of our Olives can sympathize.
When Hoover qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant, worries about money and her suicidal uncle, and the family’s faulty vehicle look set to stop her from competing. When they eventually get there, Hoover’s family try to dissuade her from performing when they see the other girls she’s up against.
But like the stone pit at the centre of an olive, each fictional Olive is strong at their core. They remain steadfast in their own unique way of being in the world, evoking the olive’s symbolic qualities of purity and resilience.
Kitteridge is unashamedly herself and she speaks her mind, even when she should probably hold her tongue, often seeming ‘salty’ like the fruit she’s named after. And while she may leave a sour taste in some characters’ mouths, readers and viewers grow to love her. In the sequel Olive, Again, an aging Olive faces adversity as she copes with the loss of her husband, and tries to mend her strained relationship with her son.
In Easy A, Prendergast’s resilience and renewal is on full display. She doesn’t just resist or retaliate against the church group’s bullying, but she embraces it. She begins dressing provocatively. Inspired by The Scarlet Letter, which she’s reading in literature class, Prendergast sews a red letter A into her dress. And she continues lying: she lies to elevate the status of unpopular children, and to protect her friend, who is yet to come out as gay, from homophobic bullying.
Hoover resists her family’s pleas and overcomes the death of her grandfather on the 800-mile trip to California (where 95% of olives in the United States are grown) in order to perform. She commits to being her authentic self, regardless of the consequences. Seven-year-old Hoover causes an outcry when she performs a raunchy striptease to ‘Super Freak’; Olive may not win the coveted title of Little Miss Sunshine, but her victory is in being completely and fully herself.
Each of our Olives needs to be judged on their own terms, so much so that Olive Oyl’s coming character rebrand will completely move away from the damsel-in-distress image imposed on her. The new storylines will focus on Oyl’s strength, humour and adventurous nature rather than viewing her as just a love interest in need of saving. Like olive oil she is versatile, which is why her distinctive style has endured so long. Her long lanky frame and quirky mannerisms will remain unchanged despite calls to make her more traditionally beautiful. The artwork for the rebrand celebrates her individuality.
Nobody quite offers an olive branch, but Olive Hoover’s family certainly takes one. In a far from peaceful end to the film, Hoover is heckled by the audience for her raunchy display, and the host attempts to remove her from the stage. Despite their recent efforts to dissuade her, the Hoover family rally behind her and join her on stage. After so many family conflicts on the trip, they take the olive branch that Hoover’s defiant display affords them, to build family peace.
While Strout may have said Kitteridge can be too much to take, Frances McDormand—who plays Olive in the TV adaptation—said the character was a dream to play: “Heaven. Delicious. Full-feast.” She was excited by the prospect of exploring her hidden depths. In doing so, her Olive, just like our other Olives, reveals the many layers that comprise our idea of this bitter fruit. They remind us that, just as the olive is more than its tastes, so too are these characters.
So perhaps when the next Olive appears on our screens or pages, she won’t seem so difficult and contrary— we won’t get so ‘tired’ of their presence.