October is an exciting month for any YA lit fan, because it includes Teen Read Week! In honor of this annual celebration of young adult literature, YALSA invited book-loving teens all over the world to apply to share their enthusiasm for reading in a guest post for The Hub. Thirty-one talented young writers were chosen, and we’ll be featuring posts from these unique voices all month long. Here’s Rachel Carroll from California.
We see it all the time in young adult literature these days. Blue Sargent, Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior: girls who know how to stand up for themselves and do some serious damage. After spending so long watching Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and Percy Jackson do their thing – you know, overcoming all odds, saving the world, the usual – a lot of female readers are excited to see some more girl power in the books they pick up and love. This new wave of strong female protagonists is something that I’m really excited to see on account of how empowering it is for women. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Because sometimes, having a female main character isn’t enough.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to making sure that men and women are represented equally in literature and in all other kinds of media. The way that authors write about their female characters and the choices these writers make about how those characters interact with others says a lot about how society as a whole perceives women. So that begs the question: what is a “strong” female protagonist? When put side by side, there are a lot of overwhelming similarities between a lot of girls in recent young adult novels, particularly dystopian books, which are still experiencing a popularity surge. Since trends are always trends for a reason, I think it’s important to look at some of these patterns, as well as to think about why these women may not be as powerful as they’re meant to be.
PHYSICAL STRENGTH Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of a modern day heroine, someone I’ve already mentioned, is Katniss Everdeen. The driving focal point of The Hunger Games is the Games themselves, and the Games are very much a physical competition. Katniss’ strength is necessary for her survival. But when we see female characters over and over again who are only defined by their strength or other physical abilities – archery, for instance – it gives the impression that there are no other ways to be “strong.” (Counter example – Hazel Grace Lancaster, the main character in John Green’s wildly successful The Fault In Our Stars, is chronically ill throughout the entire novel, and is anything but physically fit in any sense of the word. However, this does not keep her from being intelligent, clever, and compassionate.) STRIPPING OF CLASSICALLY “FEMALE” TRAITS Along those same lines, all too often in YA novels, the female characters that we see are described as being “not like other girls”, as if being like a girl is inherently a bad thing. Most female protagonists we see in today’s novels try to distance themselves from things that are traditionally thought of as “feminine” or “girly”. While there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned tomboy, seeing too many characters who fit this mold suggests lazy and two dimensional character development. Why can’t we have female leads who love wearing dresses? (Counter example – Hermione Granger, though undoubtedly one of the most rational and logical characters in contemporary YA lit, doesn’t have to compromise her femininity to do so. She still enjoys getting dressed up for the Yule Ball and maintains a sort of emotional maturity that a lot of people associate with teenage girls far more so than boys.)
LOVE TRIANGLES Ah, love triangles. It’s almost impossible to find a novel without them, nowadays. Now, I love a well written, heartwarming romantic subplot as much as the next person, but love triangles have a tendency to get really predictable, really fast. More often than not, it’s our female protagonist caught between two guys: the male friend she’s had forever, and a new, dark, broody fellow. The problem with this is that it perpetuates the idea that girls need a boyfriend (no girlfriends, you’ll notice…), as well as reduces the female character to a sort of window through which we can examine the male characters and compare them. (Counter example – Violet Beaudelaire, the oldest of the three orphans in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, does end up having a romantic relationship with Quigley Quagmire. However, not only does said relationship not last until the end of the series, but there was never another boy competing for Violet’s affections. And ultimately, her most loving relationship is with her siblings, who she spends the entire series protecting and caring for.)
It’s awesome seeing so many more girls in young adult novels, especially when women are the ones doing the writing. For so many years, the only stories that anyone thought were worth telling were the stories of men, told by men. (Even J.K. Rowling was advised by her publicist to use her initials instead of her name – Joanne – because more they said boys would be more likely to buy her book if they didn’t immediately know the author was a woman.) But now that more and more authors are carving out a space that values the female narrative, it’s important that we’re careful when writing – and reading – about our favorite heroines.
~ Rachel R. Carroll, originally from right outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is double majoring in Creative Writing and Gender Studies with a minor in Dramatic Arts. The oldest of four siblings, she enjoys reading, contra dancing, competing in poetry slams, and playing with all the stray cats she finds in Los Angeles.