In my reviews, I often note that I love the “strong female protagonist” in a story. After Twilight made me want to rip the pages of the novel and set them on fire, I felt a need to find the anti-Bella Swan in everything I read.
And I found them. Oh goodness, I found them. First came Katniss Everdeen, when I was a Hunger Games evangelist before Catching Fire even hit the shelves. Next I found Tris in Divergent, who annoys me but still manages to be a fearless ass-kicker on the regular. My love for YA dystopia brought on a slew of female characters who have physical strength, save both their romantic interests and their local communities, and erect massive walls around their softer emotions. Lena in Delirium, Cammie in the Gallagher Girls books, Juliette in Shatter Me, Amy in In The After, Cia in The Testing, Ismae in Grave Mercy, Juliet in The Madman’s Daughter … to name a few.
It’s easy to think about the physical strength of our female characters. But what about other characteristics? Do women always have to be strong? Can’t they be brilliant? Flawed? Narcissistic? Emotional? Open to love? Leaders? Calculating? I am guilty of using the word “strong” to cover these traits, but the fact is that “strong” is just a terrible adjective. Women are not just strong. What I really love and appreciate in a novel are women who are complex, flawed, and realistic. Women who are equal to male characters.
These thought all come from an article I read today from New Statesman called “I hate Strong Female Characters.“
Go ahead. Read it. I’ll be here when you get back.
In the article, Sophia McDougall makes the argument that we all love a strong, fiesty, kick-ass female character, but we never say this about male characters. Male characters get to have flaws and nuances that female characters aren’t allowed. And, more importantly, male characters exist in staggering proportions to female characters. Men are the lead characters, the superheroes, the side-kicks, the villains, the crew, and the entourage. Women get to be the token female, on the defensive to prove themselves as strong. They might have agency but they don’t have the spolight.
This, my friends, is why I LOVE young adult novels. Our world is dominated by female protagonists. They own the spotlight. The best books, trilogies, and series are dominated by female characters. Which is awesome. McDougall’ article focuses on movies and TV, including Sherlock, Captain America, The Lord of the Rings, and Shrek. Books seem to be ahead of the curve on the gender-equality front.
However, I would argue that our YA world is far from perfect. YA is quite progressive in the treatment of female literary characters, but think about who, overwhelmingly, consumes YA: women. Women of all ages, of course, but the primary readers of YA are women. Reading is viewed as a passive activity reserved for girls. I think this is why YA is often misunderstood, tossed aside, and under-appreciated by critics of “real” literature. Y’all know what I’m talking about — the haters who don’t understand the complexities of an interest level that has only come into its own in the past 15 years. The amazing female characters present in so many YA books are appreciated by a generation of female readers, but it is Hollywood and the movie scene that are really producing the characters seen by the bigger world. Hopefully films like The Hunger Games and Divergent can bring some of these characters into that world and start changing this crazy notion that a 1:1 male to female ratio just “doesn’t appeal to a coed audience.”
I call bullshit on that assumption. However, even YA doesn’t hit the 1:1 mark. For example, Juliette is the only female character in Shatter Me, a fact I angrily noted in my review of the novel. We’ve got a long way to go on all fronts.
YA has introduced me to so many amazing female characters, and I need to give them the justice of adjectives beyond “strong” in my reviews. In Requiem, Lena’s BFF, Hana, essentially saves the day by leaving her husband to die. The Sea of Tranquility‘s Nastya learns to love and trust again. Etiquette & Espionage‘s supporting cast of finishing school students will blossom into unique, smart, cunning ladies. YA also hosts gay superheroes, cross-dressing pirates, and a whole cast of characters exhibiting alternate forms of masculinity (try Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe or Where Things Come Back).
It’s not perfect, but YA has a lot to say on gender. I find it fascinating, and I’ve decided to make the study of gender in YA my life’s work. And I will try to stop using the words “strong” and “kick-ass” in my descriptions of female protagonists in my quest to accurately describe why these characters have so much to say to women about gender equality.
Ah! I’ve expressed myriad opinions here. What do you think? Who are your favorite lady characters in film? TV? Books?