The Either/Or Heroine


We’ve seen a rise in popularity of the ass-kicking YA heroine. Bella Swan has given way to Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Katsa of Graceling, and recently, Kira of Prophecy.

These three characters have many things in common beyond their alliterative names. They’re all warrior types, physically strong. They’re all outsiders. They’re all baffled by how male characters could possibly be attracted to them, and they reject those connections. They’re the kind of Strong Female Character TM that Carina Chocano complained about over two years ago. See my response to her here.

I wrote that response as a consumer of media. I do believe that most female characters have depth, if we allow ourselves the imaginative room to see it. Today, though, I’m coming from a writer’s perspective to critique the deliberate choice we as writers make to ostracize our heroines.

Consider a hypothetical teenage girl, say, sixteen. Assume a second-world fantasy like Graceling or Prophecy where war is still dominated by men. Our girl showed athletic aptitude as a child, perhaps grew up in a family of boys or was particularly close to a warrior father. By some twist, perhaps prodigious talent for martial arts, she is allowed to join the army with her brothers and she rises through the ranks. In a community where skill becomes more important than society’s rules, she’s accepted by her comrades because they know they can depend on her in a fight.

Now, let’s assume that she is also heterosexual. How many heterosexual ladies out there can honestly say that they never felt any sexual stirrings during their teen years? So back to our young heroine. Let’s assume she’s very fond of a few of her comrades, perhaps one in particular. Perhaps he’s fond of her too, also heterosexual. Both being warriors, they’re very in tune with their bodies.

If we could manage kissing boys in a modern high school with bodies we hardly understood, I find it very hard to believe that these heroines never once gave it a try.

Here’s a disclaimer: I understand that it does happen for some females–note that I’m still talking about heterosexual females, not those who are asexual. That’s a whole different conversation. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with having sexual stirrings or NOT having sexual stirrings. It’s all good.

BUT: Consider now the big message we get when we mash all our media together. There’s a prevailing attitude that young girls do not experience sexual feelings and therefore the ones who do are bad. They are sluts. There’s the idea that girls must manage the sexuality of boys, because boys can’t do it themselves, and so girls who allow boys in have failed. Sex for boys is a demonstration of power. Sex for girls is a demonstration of weakness.

It saddens me to see this coming through in our YA heroines. It saddens me to see physical strength and interest in love and sex treated as mutually exclusive. I’m tired of seeing plots about heroines learning to balance strength and love. Why has no one taught Katsa that she can marry Po without losing her sense of self? Why has no one taught Kira that she can be a warrior and find Jaewon attractive at the same time? When we write these characters, we are their parents. We are the ones responsible for teaching them these things. 

There will always be a place for these kinds of characters, I’m not saying we should stop writing them. What I’m saying is that it would be nice for a heroine to show my thirteen-year-old sister that she doesn’t have to fall in love reluctantly or begrudgingly, kicking and screaming, in order to stay strong. I want books that will show her and girls like her from the start that love and strength go hand in hand. I don’t want that to be a lesson. I want it to be a given.

I realize that the books I’ve mentioned have added plot layers that contribute to all this. We can talk about each of these characters individually, and I invite people to do so in the comments.

Tweetables 

Writer and editor @CaitSpivey critiques the Either/Or Heroine in YA fiction #amwriting http://wp.me/p2ePeA-eO Click to tweet!

Love and strength go together. That shouldn’t be a lesson, it should be a given. @CaitSpivey on the Either/Or Heroine http://wp.me/p2ePeA-eO Click to tweet!

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4 thoughts on “The Either/Or Heroine

  1. I’ve only read about Katniss as a heroine, but I think the way it worked for her fit in well with the dystopian world she grew up in as well as with her personality. She just didn’t feel she could focus on love until after the battles were fought, and the battles had taken up so much of her energy she’d never had a chance to learn how to love a man. That’s how I always viewed it. She never really had downtime to daydream, and when she did, in her defense, she usually ended up kissing one of them. 😉

    1. I agree about Katniss! I actually wrote another post a long time ago about how Katniss is bad at abstract thought, including emotions, haha.

      Out of the characters I mentioned, the least justified one is Kira. She grew up in a functional family with two loving parents and two loving older brothers, and became personal body guard to her young cousin the prince who looks up to her as an older sister. Yet, she’s still “never had a friend”? Maybe not one outside her family, but that seems like splitting hairs to me, you know? She’s still thinking that her warrior lifestyle means she can’t have love (despite her father being a general and still having a wife). She’s definitely had loving, supportive relationships and seen her parents’ romantic love. So I don’t get her.

  2. I can’t help but agree with everything your saying – and the funny part is I never noticed it till you posted about it. I just finished reading Being Jamie Baker – it’s about a girl that is portray as an ‘ice queen’ because she wants to be a loner..(I’m sorry if this is spoiling it for you you can stop reading)…cause well she has super powers and has to hide them. While she’s still learning about her powers and mastering them she falls in love. She battles with herself and with the guy she’s in love with like a roller coaster – one minute she’s mad at him the next she’s kissing him. Because she can’t figure out what is worse having super powers and maybe hurting the guy she likes or being mad at the world because she can’t have both. I was not a fan of the roller coaster – I get that as teenagers we go through this… but as a reader, I hated it.

    I’m going to re-tweet this cause I love the points you’ve made!

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