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 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.
- Why I Hate Your Teenage Female Protagonist: Therin Knite
- Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women: Overthinking It
- We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome: The Disslove
- Strong Female Characters: The Book Chewers
- Strong Female Characters are Rarely Strong and Barely Characters: The Mary Sue
- The 100 Has Some of the Best Female Characters on TV. Yes, Really.: The Mary Sue
- Looking At Female Characters in Anime and Manga Through a Western Feminist Lens: The Mary Sue
- Your Heroine Doesn’t Have to “Kick Ass” to be Strong: Ink & Quills
- Embracing the Modern Female Heroine – In All Her Forms: CBC Diversity
- The Importance of the Unlikable Heroine: Claire Legrand
- Unlikeable heroines in YA: Reddit Discussion
- Faultless in Spite of All of Her Faults - The Unlikable Heroine: Writer of Wrongs
- Why I want more unlikeable female characters: New Statesman
- Characters – Love Them or Hate Them?: Word Contessa