Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Redefining Strong Women in YA Fiction

Last night I finished reading Kathy MacMillan's recent YA fantasy novel, Sword and Verse. While the novel itself was underwhelming, what's remarkable about the book is MacMillan's protagonist, Raisa. There's no denying that YA fantasy has now become synonymous with katana-wielding rebels and ass-kicking assassins. So of course, I assumed that Raisa would be another Celaena Sardothien or Kristin Cashore's Katsa. I couldn't have been more wrong. Raisa's weapon of choice is her ability to read, something that's forbidden to all except a chosen few in the kingdom of Qilara. And THAT I find is quite a refreshing change.

Katniss Everdeen revolutionized the way we viewed female heroines. Until 2012 mainstream pop culture saw very few heroines that could be defined as “strong”i.e., heroines who were more than just sidekicks, token love interests and sex symbols. Suzanne Collins hitting the bestseller lists brought on an onslaught of smart as well as tough as nails heroines. While previously female protagonists were seen as mere props to the plot or sex symbols, things now seem to be heading towards another extreme. There has been an influx of authors are building up on physical strength of a heroine while completely forgoing emotional strength. By trying to inject strong heroines into fiction, we seem to be forgetting that strength comes in many forms. We seem to be forgetting that strength comes from within and that a woman does not have to be like a man to be strong

The rise of YA fantasy books especially, has brought on a new breed of MCs who seem to be adopting traits that were seen as traditionally masculine. These heroines not only are well versed in sarcasm and archery but are also seem to be averse to tears and pesky human emotions like love and kindness (AIN'T NOBODY GOT TIME FO THAT SHIT, AMIRITE?). 

Don't get me wrong - I love your ass-kicking, pretty-dress-wearing heroine who saves the world by day and enchants boys by night. But I also want...

...heroines who are not just lauded for their skills with a cross-bow.
...heroines who are not defined by their drop-kicks.
...heroines who aren't defined by their stoic demeanor (WHEN DID NO SMILES AND SNARLS BECOME EQUAL TO STRENGTH?!)
...heroines who are unapologetically moody.
...heroines who makes questionable choices.

What we need is morally questionable, “unlikable” female characters who don't fit the current norm. The current norm being one which dictates that heroines aren't allowed to be complicated, selfish and vindictive, all of which are completely natural human emotions. YA fiction could use more morally complex heroines who often have to make those hard choices while second-guessing every move they make. We could use more heroines who aren't defined by their sexualities. We need women aren't sexualised or trivialized by romance. Heroines whose personal growths and characters development isn't fueled solely by the magical pretty boys who are queuing up to tell them how pretty and special they are. Heroines who are at times ruthless and cunning but also vulnerable and insecure. Heroines who aren't ALWAYS so goddamn likable.
Women in real life experience various challenges after all, life is hardly simple. We need to see these different challenges and struggles represented in fiction. We need to show the many facets of a woman's life. We need to represent women of different social stations, ethnic/religious identities, sexualities, moralities and interests. When you write heroines who equate strength to physical strength, you discount the fact that every woman is different. The strong women stereotype is not just reductive but also highly damaging. We need...

...heroines who are kind.
...heroines who swear by the power of the written word.
...heroines who are unapologetically 'girl-y'.
...heroines who are witty and hilarious.
...heroines who are sensitive.
...heroines who are not afraid to cry.
...heroines who are a little hopeless.
...heroines who are optimistic.
...heroines who'd do anything for the ones they love.
...heroines who are unabashed in their love for all things geek-ish.
...heroines who aren't all gorgeous bombshells.
...heroines who are ruthless revolutionaries but also second-guess every step they take.
...heroines who are unlikely to win popularity contests any time soon.
...heroines who get excited about quadratic equations and organic chemistry.
...heroines who loathe themselves.
...heroines who love themselves despite their insecurities.
...heroines who couldn't run to save their lives (like me!).
...heroines who are selfish but also selfless.
Under-representation and mis-representation of women is not just a problem in YA fiction but also in gaming, the big screen, TV, music, middle grade fiction, adult fiction, anime and manga. Women in literature are constantly oversimplified, sexualized, and objectified. This kind of writing devalues the struggles that women face in the world. Accepting individuality and understanding that women have complex personalities is important. You don't have to idealize women. All you have to do is write characters who are human and are able to grow from their experiences and inspire women to overcome their own struggles.

Further Reading:

How do you feel about “Strong” women in literature? Do you think that the recent YA releases represent women fairly? Do you have any recommendations of books that represent women in a realistic manner? 


  1. This post is perfect. I believe strong heroines come in many forms. It doesn't always mean physically strong. Mentally strong heroines are so much more important than the physically strong!

  2. I agree with a lot of the points you bring up about women's representation in literature, particularly young adult fantasy. I grew up reading Tamora Pierce's books, and, while some of her characters definitely center around the stereotypical sword-wielding heroine, I thought she did a good job of also writing female characters who were strong in different ways. Ali from her Trickster books isn't physically strong and instead must rely on her wits when she is kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave. Using the spy tactics she learned from her father, she leads a rebellion to free the slaves and place a rightful and just leader on the throne.

    More recently, I read the book Seraphina and was enamored with the fact that the female main character, Seraphina, is not skilled in combat. She's a musician who seeks to teach those around her tolerance and acceptance of differences. She's daring and brave. She lies but always has a good reason to do so.

  3. I love this! I hate the prevalence of the "strong" girl, which is why I love the whole debate that went down when Macmillan changed the cover for The Winner's Curse series, with people all arguing that Kestrel's strength was in her mind and not in her body. It was a very beautiful discussion. I honestly hated Celaena because she was this "perfect" type of girl, having both of the desired feminine and masculine traits, and I just want to find more shy heroines. More heroines who don't like the spotlight. More real people, to sum it up.

  4. I love everything about this post Nuz! I am glad that we have strong female kick ass characters in YA as they are nothing like me and I find them inspirational in lots of ways. BUT I'd hate for characters to get stuck in that box, I love when I find original authentic characters and the more diverse they are the better. So yes to everything on your wish lists.

  5. I LOVE this post! I feel like there are so many books nowadays where the female woman is physically strong, but emotionally, she isn't strong. But I think that this might be because of the genre it's in - Young Adult. Lots of young adult books feature emotional turbulence, which I don't mind, because by the end, there's usually a strong woman, in terms of her emotions. Personally, I'd like to see more strong women throughout books though!
    Geraldine @ Corralling Books

  6. THIS. I completely agree 100%. Don't get me wrong - I love fierce, kickass heroines (Katniss and Tris are two of my favorite protagonists), but I feel like they're becoming so common that we're losing sight of why they're so great in the first place.

    I think this is one of the reasons why I love characters like Annabeth Chase and Kestrel Trajan so much - they might not be fierce and keen fighters like Katniss & co, but they demonstrate a keen mind is as strong a weapon as a knife, and I wish we had more characters like that.

    Thanks for sharing Nuzaifa and, as always, fabulous discussion! ♥

  7. what a wonderful post! I agree with you on all of it :) In most literature I've read, I feel like I get cut out copies of all the same types of girls- bitchy strong girls. Stoic strong girls. Care free out casts. Insecure popular girls. These are our typical protagonists, and I'm getting tired of them. I want to hear another girls story! One of the reasons I liked the book First & Then is because the protagonist isn't a loser and she isn't popular. She's just a girl who likes to read. She's not strong. Not weak. Just kind of going nowhere in life. Some people read her as boring, but I absolutely loved her. I related to her. I AM boring, and sometimes it's nice to see myself in literature.

  8. I love this post, and totally agree. In the YA world, we've been led to believe that strong = physically capable. And that is SO not the case. Our physical strength does not define the strength of who we are as a person. And our ability to go through hell and have little to no reaction, or to bounce back ASAP also does not define our strength as women.

    I don't want those kinds of characters to be the only ones that are labelled as "strong heroines" because then it makes it practically impossible for anyone reading about those characters to think of THEMSELVES as strong. Because they have emotions (love the line about snarling, because since when does having emotions make someone weak?), and can't defend themselves in a battle?

    We need to redefine the way we use the word "strong" when it related to our female characters in the books we read. We need to redefine it so people can see themselves in the characters they admire and realise that THEY are strong, as well. There's no checklist that needs to be fulfilled to be a strong character, and having ace fighting skills and no emotional connection beyond romance does not a strong person make. It makes one KIND of strong person, but those characteristics don't have the monopoly on what strong can mean.

    We need heroines who are recognised as strong for the everyday things they do, for the little things that they push through, for the HUMAN things they encounter in their lives. We need to recognise that strong is a multifaceted notion.

  9. THIS IS MY FAVE THING EVER. LIKE. YOU GO GIRL. YOU ARE MY HERO. (Can you just be the next YA heroine?)
    (Also side note your blog header is goals that is all)
    I was just nodding and bobbing my head throughout this entire post. There is not a single word you uttered that I disagree with. Not only is the content of your arguement amazing—it was also so logically and flawlessly crafted and designed.
    The term "strong female character" has started to hurt me. It hurts me because it's only used to describe "the mold." The mold of : snarky, physically tough girls. That's cool! It is! But when did a female character stop being strong for being kind and girly and dorky and crazy and bookish? Why can we only ever stick to a mold in literature when it comes to female characters? Why can't we ever build depth and complexity? So not only do I want more diversity of ethnicity and sexuality and such in literature, I also want more diversity of personalities.
    Scrumptious post ❤️


Words are powerful - Please use yours wisely.

I read and appreciate all comments, so do feel free to leave some comment love! :)