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Writing Around the Kickass Damsel

fozmeadows over on a blog called Shattersnipe has written a really great, thought provoking post about the problematic “kickass damsel” trope. I was really excited to find it because it articulates pretty well a lot of the issues I’ve had with many of the female characters populating in the literary landscape these days, particularly in young adult fiction. You should really go read the whole thing, but here are some highlights:

Picture the scene: our competent, clever, kickass heroine has just undergone a significant emotional change. […] She goes alone into a dangerous situation, bites off more than she can chew, and promptly finds herself so overwhelmed that the next thing you know, she’s captured, bleeding, unconscious, imperiled and generally up shit creek. While a male character in similarly dire straits will likely James Bond his way out of things via a sequence of improbable badassery … our heroine will, instead, be rescued by her handsome, protective male love interest, with whom she will then have some soulful eye contact and cuddling at the very least. And instead of feeling irked by this, the audience is meant to feel vindicated.

…the Damsel is now a Kickass Damsel, endowed with just enough agency, power and awesomeness to fool the casual observer into thinking that she, too, could potentially have her own James Bond moment. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she won’t: the odds are stacked against her, not so she can show her strength by overcoming them solo, but as justification for her forthcoming rescue. Crucially, her decision to go alone into danger is always praised as bravery or self-sacrifice – a species of gendered martyrdom – or else couched in a language designed to give the impression that, however foolish her actions might seem in retrospect, they were wholly justified at the time. 

In other words, the Kickass Damsel requires rescue, not because she’s inherently weak, but because her strength and independence are only sufficient for getting her nobly into trouble, not awesomely out of it. …. Over and over again, we limit the competence of our female characters by placing them in perilous scenarios, not to test their skills, but to show how thoroughly they still need to be rescued; to make them vulnerable enough to fall in love, because if we wrote them as being emotionally well-adjusted and romantically inclined from the outset, they’d be deemed too feminine (whereas if we wrote them aromantically, they wouldn’t be seen as feminine enough). And the thing is, none of these tropes are inherently toxic; it’s just that, overwhelmingly, we don’t seem to realise that the Kickass Damsel is a loophole character, designed to blind us to her patriarchal base by disguising her as a feminist icon, and so we end up lauding her as though she were something else.

Great stuff, right?

The problem is that it’s true. The Kickass Damsel shows up in varying degrees in a lot of popular stories. They can’t handle every aspect of what’s thrown at them. Katniss is so emotionally dense that Peeta and Haymitch have to basically hold her hand through the politics of the Hunger Games, otherwise she ends up dead. Thor has to save Black Widow from the Hulk. Batman saves Catwoman. I don’t actually pay that much attention to pop culture these days.

We want our strong female characters, but we want our beautiful romances too. YA readers are suckers for love stories bound up in action-packed plotlines. Or even not so action-packed. Any love story, really. But we have this assumption, for some reason, that in order to have that storied romance, one partner has to be saved by the other. One of them has to almost die. Sure, it’s dramatic. I fall for it myself. However, it’s just not balanced. Overwhelmingly, it’s still the woman who gets saved, even when she’s the protagonist/heroine of the story.

But the literary side of it is a discussion for another day. Because I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo and focusing a lot on my writing for the last couple of months, when I read fozmeadows’ post it immediately struck a chord with me as an author. The struggle that writers go through when they create characters is serious business–or at least, it is for me. That’s because I try to be mindful of my characters’ race, gender, sexuality, and how all of that contributes to their personalities, behavior, and actions.

And that’s where avoiding the Kickass Damsel trope gets difficult. Katniss, for example, is a wonderfully developed character. Even her emotional denseness is crucial to her character arc. So is it okay that she needs to be saved by the more aware characters from time to time? Yeah, in that case I suppose it is. But finding that balance between what’s realistic (Katniss being assisted by people way better at politics than her) and what’s just patriarchal pandering is definitely a problem.

We mustn’t forget about the men, either. Many of the criticisms leveled against all-around strong female characters is that they emasculate their male counterparts. Personally, I think the whole concept of emasculation is bullshit and those who think it’s a problem need to reevaluate their priorities, but it is true that as a writer you want your male characters to feel realistic too. For some of them that means they’ll be behind-the-scenes, out-of-the-action kinds of guys, and others will be your typical hero types.

The key is to give your male hero and your female heroine skills and abilities that make sense based on who they are and where they’ve been, and then if you must have a situation where one has been captured/overwhelmed/beaten up and the other one has to come help, make it a situation that utilizes them both equally. If your captured hero has been grievously injured by their captors, maybe they’ve already thoroughly scoped out the exits so that they’re able to weakly point their partner in the right direction. If the captured hero is still in good shape, maybe the partner sneaks in and they both launch an attack at the same time to increase their chances. That kind of thing.

And here’s another thing: don’t be afraid to make your female character totally competent. Don’t be afraid to let her be on her own. If it’s in your male hero’s character to run in and try to save her even if she doesn’t need it, so be it–but don’t be afraid to let her roll her eyes and tell him to get out of her way. If this concept is confusing to you, please go watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 

She will kick the shit out of your ass.