Female characters are getting stronger, wiser, and braver in young adult literature and while many are picking up weapons and symbolically wearing pants to counter the male characters’ image, elements of femininity remain in these evolved female heroines. This is a shift from strong female characters cutting their hair, changing their wardrobe, or going by a less feminine name.
A female can maintain aspects of femininity and still be seen as a strong and important major character. This redefines the stereotypical “strong female character” by offering female characters that are fearless, intelligent, flawed, and courageous – all while wearing dresses and exhibiting female pride. Wardrobe may not seem an important literary element, but it is important for authors to show not only a range of femininity in characters, but to show the struggles and strength of the protagonists. The topic of the variety of ways to be a “strong” female characters has been discussed before here at The Hub, and it certainly is related to other topics such as gendered booklists. March is Women’s History Month – let’s celebrate the strong and diverse females in our literary world!
Strength sometimes comes after a struggle. The phrase “rising from the ashes” exists to show that after a fall or hardship, we can survive and rise, whether in pants, a dress, with special powers, scarred, or rising to simply get out of bed the next morning. Strength means something different to everyone and we should encourage teens to read about strong female characters just as they read about strong male characters. People vary in personalities and society is motley. Let’s support authors who portray a full range of strong characters, a variety of femininity, and encourage readers to look outside of their world. Let’s enjoy the freedoms reading allows to see past definitions, stereotypes, and expected character development. Female protagonists exhibit a variety of traits, such as authenticity, accepting responsibility, helpfulness, and courage. By showing honest emotions, these characters help portray empathy, that one can be brave, and that there is pride in all aspects of femininity.
A Variety of Strong Female Characters from Recent Young Adult Fiction
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas (series 2012-present) Celaena is a fighter who must battle for a King she knows to be evil. She does his bidding to earn her own freedom and must eventually decide what is more important: her life or doing what is right. She is a strong assassin who also loves to buy dresses – a killer fashionista with intense fighting skills!
The Rose Society by Marie Lu (2015)
In this second novel of the Young Elite series (2014-present), many different people are fighting for power and two of the strongest contenders are Adelina and Maeve who both try to survive as Malfettos (people with special powers who the Queen and Inquisitor are trying to assassinate) and claim power. Important topics like discrimination, disappointments in life, and heartache are addressed. Not a sappy teen romance, but more mature heartaches from being responsible for a friend’s death to overcoming such obvious hatred and abandonment from a parent. I often recommend this series for bold characters like Lady MacBeth (William Shakespeare) or power hungry characters like in Game of Thrones (R.R. Martin). Lu covers loss, greed, and power struggles very well with the added maturity of the negative side of love and how a sense of revenge can lead to isolation and possibly madness.
Though feminism has been around, arguably, since the Suffragette Movement, and though girls and young women have benefited hugely from the accomplishments of Second Wave Feminism, many teens are still hesitant to self identify as feminists or feminist allies. This may be due to a lack of understanding of what feminism actually means, or a false notion that sexism no longer exists and feminism’s work is done. However, just as Second Wave Feminists engaged in consciousness raising groups in order to make their fellow women aware of everyday patriarchal injustices, many young women, particularly on social media sites such as Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, are actively engaged in drawing attention to everyday sexism as well as the intersections of racism, classicism, cissexism, ableism, and the ways in which mainstream feminism has (and in many cases still does) excluded other marginalized groups.
The library can serve as an excellent place for consciousness raising whether through book clubs, service projects, or topic specific forums. Documentaries can serve as a jumping off point for these discussions. Here are a few to get you started.
Miss Representation (2011)
The recent release of female-centric films and television shows such as Suffragette, Grandma, andSupergirlmay spark young women’s thinking about why there isn’t more female representation in media. MissRepresentation, directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Kimberlee Acquaro addresses the lack of good representation of women in media and the implications it has for female leadership. This documentary makes a compelling case for teaching media literacy in schools. Available for streaming on Netflix. Visit the official website’s curriculum page.
Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day, a holiday born out of women protesting their work in garment factories, trying to get the right to vote, and later just celebrating and trying to better the roles of women in the world. In fact in the United States, the U.K. and Australia, the entire month of March is identified as a celebration of Women’s History.
For many people, celebrating women’s history and women in general goes hand in hand with being a feminist. In 2014, feminist – being a person who believes in gender equality – became a cultural concept very much in the spotlight. Reporters and bloggers asked celebrities if they identified as feminists; Beyonce performed at the MTV music awards in front of a giant “FEMINIST” sign; and Time magazine controversially added the word to a poll of words to be banned. Other serious issues such as campus rape and Gamergate harassment made the lives of women and their treatment take center stage.
I didn’t self-identify as a feminist until middle or high school because I didn’t know that there was a word for what I had felt my whole life: that women and girls were unquestioningly the equal to men and boys and that we had the right to exciting, meaningful, and amazing books. I feel so happy and privileged to go up in a house where my 8 year old intention to be a brain surgeon during the day and a concert pianist at night was met with a supportive, “Ok.” I didn’t quite reach those heights but my family never made me feel like I couldn’t do that because I was a girl. Sadly, this is not the norm throughout the whole world, and not even in the United States.
Tangibly, materially, and in terms of rights and freedoms, there is a lot to be done for women and girls throughout the world and our country. But one of the things libraries and bookstores and readers can do is to read about lives of women and girls. By reading and sharing stories of women and girls we can show others the amazing things women can do. We can also share the struggles of women and girls and help inspire change.
Here are just a handful of books I’ve read recently that have a strong, pro-women message. They present women and girls who are strong without being caricatures; emotional without being a harmful stereotype; and most of all, full realized characters with hopes, dreams, and struggles.
Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero (2015 Morris winner and Amelia Bloomer Project list): Gabi is a girl that I simultaneously wish I knew in high school or had been in high school. She doesn’t have all the answers but is still so confident in herself even when dealing with sexuality, her weight, family tragedies, her friends’ pregnancy and coming out, and more. She has a wonderful message of power and sense of self that speaks well to girls both struggling and not. This is also one of the few YA books I’ve read with abortion as a plot point.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman (2013 Alex Award): Rory Dawn has a hard life growing up in her Nevada trailer park and desperately wants to be a Girl Scout. This is a great meditation on the expectations of girlhood and poverty.
Definition and Background
I recently read The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton (2015 Morris Award Finalist), after having had the ARC on my shelf for months (I’m sorry!) and being begged to by a coworker and about five students. I was amazed by the beautiful writing and loved the story. It also got me thinking a lot about family sagas and how they are such a big part of literature in general, but they don’t seem to appear much in YA. That said, anything that spans generations, like Ava Lavender, should feature and engage adults and teens alike.
Another interesting thing about these stories is that family sagas tend to center around women or follow a woman’s line in a family, when we all know that in general, Serious Literature is about (white) men. And yet books like The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende or Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman get critical acclaim anyway. That is seriously feminist.
Did I mention that these books are also subversive when it comes to how they trick everyone into reading magical realism without complaining that they’re reading genre fiction? Genius, I tell you.
This is more of a subgenre than a genre, and this guide is something that could use fleshing out. Reading Ava Lavender whetted my appetite for stories of matriarchal families, but I can’t say that I’ve found many yet. That said, there are many adult authors who may satisfy teens, as well as some stories of young women going off on their own magical realism adventure, possibly to start the first branch of a matriarchal family tree.
As mentioned, these stories tend to employ magic realism elements, and they most commonly come out of traditions that support these notions as par for the course, such as folklore and history from Latin America, West Africa, and the American South. However, that’s not always true, as Ava Lavender itself shows. Often there is a sort of quest or journey involved. Rather than love stories, these tend to be about love lost or love cursed, with an element of destiny attached to that. Family, either born or created, is what ties characters together. Mother-daughter, grandmother-granddaughter, and sister relationships are key. There are some authors who accomplish this type of storytelling through book series, and I’ve noted a few below (you could even count Tamora Pierce’s entire Tortall universe as a big family epic), but in general, I think it’s most interesting when all of these relationships between family members and generations happen in one novel.
In celebration of Women’s History Month, I’m thrilled to share insights, as well as some fantastic titles with YA appeal from the 2014 Amelia Bloomer Project, which is part of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Roundtable of the American Library Association. Named after the intrepid 19th century women’s rights advocate and suffragist, The Amelia Bloomer Project creates an annual list of fiction and non-fiction books for readers, ages birth-18, containing significant feminist content.
From the sassy heroine in Kirby Larson’s Hattie Ever After to Lynn Povich’s vivid account of sexist practices at Newsweek during the late 1960s in The Good Girls Revolt, the 2014 list underscores the critical role of women in American mass media history. Our committee also noted how the legacy of underground punk feminism chronicled in Lisa Darm’s Riot Grrrl Collection is mirrored in the creative expression of a new generation of feminists including Tavi Gevinson and her band of Rookies.
I am currently serving my fourth term on the Amelia Bloomer Project, and each time our committee meets, I am heartened by the depth of our conversations, as well our intense dedication to highlighting feminist literature with teen appeal. In the few years I’ve served on ABP, I’ve come to value the diverse worldviews each Bloomer brings to the table. In addition to evaluating books that â€œshow women overcoming the obstacles of intersecting forces of race, gender, and classâ€ the committee also recognizes titles such as Malinda Lo’s Huntress (2012 Amelia Bloomer title), depicting fully-realized feminist worlds in which women are invested with agency from the get-go.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been forty years since Roe v. Wade– forty years of continuous discussion, dissension, and dramatic debate on both sides of the issue. And the conversation is hardly over; earlier this year Wendy Davis made filibustering history and just last month the Women’s Health Protection Act was introduced into Congress. Given the prominence of women’s reproductive rights in the news today, it is no wonder that YA literature is also tackling this highly controversial topic.
The books examined below can all trace their thematic heritage back to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke (2012 Amelia Bloomer List) is the most obvious successor to this seminal work on women’s reproductive rights. A reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, the book is set in a future theocratic American where abortion is illegal and women who are found guilty are charged with murder. Crimes are punished by a method called â€œchromingâ€ wherein one’s skin is genetically altered to become a color that correlatesto the crime committed. The novel follows the story of Hannah Prynne who becomes pregnant after a steamy affair with a celebrity preacher. Her decision to abort the fetus and keep her lover’s identity secret results in an engaging, albeit disquieting, tale of the limitations of love, the effects of criminalizing abortion, and ultimately one woman’s quest for independence.
The problem with writing about feminism is that first you have to know what it is. Ask a Men’s Rights Activist what feminism is and he’d probably say, “Feminism is the movement to kill all men and rule the world under matriarchy.” Ask an internet pop feminist what feminism is and she’d probably say, “Everything women do is feminist! Cupcakes are feminist! I can be a feminist and wear dresses!” I’m exaggerating these two perspectives, but only slightly.
You can certainly be a feminist and wear dresses, so please stop being so defensive about it (unless there is some sort of grumpy anti-dress feminist committee that I am unaware of). And I like a healthy dose of misandry as much as the next girl. But the problem with feminism is that every working definition of it is constantly undermined, criticized, or amended, for both good and bad reasons. “Feminism is about equality between men and women,” say third wave feminists, born of the 1990s and living in the wake of their 1970’s second-wave foremothers. “But equality is a nonsense word anyway, because binary concepts like male and female necessarily involve power dynamics. Feminism is about deconstructing these labels and liberating us once and for all,” say post modern/epistemological feminists. “Collaboration between women will never happen until most feminists realize how feminism has consistently ignored women of color, lesbians, disabled women, and other marginalized groups,” intersectional feminists rightly point out. And so on and so forth.
Why am I making your head spin when we’re here to talk about feminism and romance novels?
“It’s just so hard to find books for my teenage son,” lamented a woman in one of my library science classes. My friend and I eyed each other with identical faces of confusion, horror, and disappointment. Does this woman live under a rock? Has she ever actually seen a teen services department of a library, or even the “Youth” section of a Barnes and Noble?
After thinking about it, I realized that she was probably making one of two mistakes: She was either assuming anything published after the year 1995 lacked literary merit (we all know a parent like that, or else we are that parent) or she was exclusively looking for books for her son with male protagonists. Books for boys, about boys.
The New York Times published an article about this epidemic wherein there are just so many feminist characters (one might even say too many, am I right, ladies?) that the entire young adult market seems to have plum forgotten about the boys. I was confused by this article because, at the time, the teenage boys I worked with at a Connecticut library were devouring four, five books a week and happily discussing their thoughts at our teen book talks. And yet, the article was insistent: boys need Strong Male Characters They Can Relate To, and right now, there are apparently too few of those.
But what if the mistake we’re making isn’t about the works themselves? What if, instead, we’re doing teenage boys a disservice by assuming they won’t or can’t relate to female characters (or gay characters, or nonwhite characters, or disabled characters…)?