Women’s Lib, Strong Female Characters, and YA Lit

Standard

Does it seem to anyone else that feminism, which was meant to be freeing for women, somehow instead became restrictive, limiting our idea of what makes a strong woman?

I feel as though I lack a complete perspective, since I was born after the movement for women’s rights, but I have read The Feminist Mystique and I have read plenty of contemporary literature. It seems to me that somewhere along the way feminism adopted the attitude that we needed to reverse the old hegemony and actually have women be stronger than men and almost hostile toward them. It seems like feminism expected women to reject femininity, because it’s a “weakness,” and also to reject traditionally female pursuits, because they’re “less worthy.”

Similarly, it seems like feminism suggested that wanting to marry or have children made you less of a woman. To really show the world women are equal, we all have to be top executives or top scholars and the female equivalent of confirmed bachelors.

Really?

I haven’t actually met any feminists of this degree in real life, but where I do meet them far too often is in the “strong female characters” of YA lit.

Too often, these strong females don’t seem at all female. They seem like what we once criticized men as being: obtuse. They seem emotionally disconnected, leaving the more “pathetic” role of relying on feelings and intuition to the supporting male characters in the book. They seem driven by a single purpose without regard for those around them, because being caring and nurturing are weak feminine traits. They reject the idea of allowing others to help them because a strong woman, apparently, doesn’t believe in team work. And too often, in the end they reject romance and men altogether in favor of careers and independence.

And when a female character in YA lit isn’t written that way, it seems like the character (and by extension, the author) gets criticized.

It frustrates me. I didn’t participate in the movements for Women’s Rights, but if I had, I would have been fighting for all my rights — including the right to be both strong and feminine, to choose both career and children, to have feminine pursuits considered just as worthwhile as traditionally male pursuits. I would have been fighting for the right to be considered an equal partner with my spouse/love — not better than him or stronger than him or more capable than him.

It’s a battle of ideology, and if our characters in literature didn’t win, I worry for our whole sex.

I’m not saying that all female characters are this way. I do read plenty that find ways to overcome the stereotypes. I just worry when the accolades seem to side with the excesses of feminism.

I don’t want to list negative examples here, and I do admit that I still find merit in “feminist” books. I’ve enjoyed many of them; I simply worry about the message it sends when those are the only female characters worth our praise.

Let me instead give an example of the kind of character traits I wish would receive more attention. Last week I finished Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely, so it happens to be fresh in my mind, and I think that at least in this area it’s a useful book to consider, regardless of the fantasy elements.  [UPDATE: A comment alerted me to how unclear I was in this paragraph. I would rewrite it without the critical-sounding words “at least” or “regardless” — I simply meant that I don’t intend for the fantasy elements to matter for this discussion except as details of the story. :)]

I want to discuss it without creating spoilers for those who haven’t read it, but I also want to discuss a key element that will definitely spoil it, so watch for the spoiler alert to follow.

Wicked Lovely hinges on the conflicting desires of the two main characters.

Keenan is the Summer King of the fey, but he cannot come into his full power as king until he finds the mortal girl who is meant to rule next to him as Summer Queen. (Right there, you have to love it already, right? They have to share the responsibility, and it will take both of them — a guy and a girl working together — to have full power.)

Aislinn, as it quickly becomes obvious, is the one who is meant to be the Summer Queen. But she is in love with Seth — her mortal boyfriend — and Seth is in love with her. Aislinn is a strong character: she’s been enduring the awful struggle of dealing with Fairy Sight her entire life, able to see all the cruel things faeries do but having to pretend that she doesn’t see them. The last thing she wants is to be their queen. She wants to stay with Seth and go to college.

Still without spoiling too much, here’s what else I love about the setup. Seth and Aislinn help each other. They rely on each other for strength and support. They treat each other as equal partners. Similarly, Keenan has Donia, who is also strong but still feminine and who also helps and supports him. No one is made lesser by being in love. Love actually makes them stronger.

*SPOILER ALERT*

My favorite aspect, though, and where the women’s lib ideas really won me over in this book, is where Aislinn makes the choice we never expect: she chooses to view her role as Queen as a job and continue to love and be with Seth, continue to pursue college. She doesn’t let herself get boxed in by traditional expectations.

I cheered so hard: Yes! Yes! Yes! She stands up for herself and what she wants. She understands that she is the Summer Queen, that it feels right — that it’s her calling, her career — but she doesn’t let that dictate what else she can and can’t have. She chooses also to keep what is most important to her: Seth. And Seth stands by her, because regardless of what feminism may tell us, loyalty in relationships still counts.

*END SPOILER ALERT*

To me, the heroines of literature need to be more like that. They need to help us see that relationships are important, that team work is important, that there are always compromises.

I still credit a literature professor of mine for helping me see outside the box as far as career-and-family compromises. He simply mentioned an example of somebody he knew where the husband worked Monday through Thursday and the wife worked on Fridays, so that way they shared the responsibility of being home with the kids. Before then, I had seen the choice as either/or: either I work full time and put my kids in day care, or I stay home full time and sacrifice my own career until they get to school. Because of a literature professor (and I suspect, though I can’t remember for sure, that his comment arose from whatever text we were reading and studying), I looked at my life choices differently, and now I teach two evenings a week while my husband’s home with the kids. We found our compromise.

I don’t believe literature needs to be purposely didactic. I don’t believe it should set out to teach young adults certain lessons about life. But I do appreciate the literature that happens to show out-of-the-box thinking — that reinforces good things, relationships being one of the top good things.

And I certainly don’t think we as a book community should be lauding only the “strong” female characters who shun men and all things feminine.

Just a thought.

What do you think? Is there a perspective I’m missing here? I’d love to hear more thoughts on the subject and more examples of strong heroines that you think get it right. [UPDATE: Here’s a link I just stumbled across to a discussion with Maggie Stiefvater and others about strong characters, if you’re interested. Love what Maggie says about resilience and how real strength is doing what needs to be done, no matter how hard it is.]

Leave a comment!

Advertisements

23 responses »

  1. I love this post! I haven’t read Wicked Lovely, but I’ve read several books lately that I couldn’t get into because the female character’s attitude really turned me off. I love what Nancy Werlin does in Impossible.

    Like

    • Yes! I loved Impossible for the same reason: the guy and girl watching out for each other, caring about each other, treating each other as equals, and ultimately making a choice that might seem anti-feminist but was the best compromise for THEM.

      And I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets turned off by the opposite. 🙂

      Like

  2. Depends on your definition of feminism. I personally don’t think feminism means that you have to be “like a man,” to use the shortcut. I think that the problem with “strong” girl characters is often that the shortcut to making them strong is to follow the example of the kick-butt heroine stereotype without exploring character, which is a lot different. Sure, there may be some writers who are definitely 2nd-wave feminists (and no, you weren’t born after the feminist revolution; you’re living in the 3rd wave of it right now), but for the most part, I think it’s just that we need to challenge ourselves and writers to move beyond the 2nd-wave attitude that girls are “as good as” boys.

    (By the way, I’m not clear on why you’re using Wicked Lovely “despite” its fantasy elements. Some of the best female characters in YA right now are in fantasy.)

    As an editor, I have talked about this issue a lot with writers, because I’m tired of the “girl hates to do embroidery or any other slightly domestic thing” stereotype. I really don’t see what’s wrong with a girl knowing martial arts and doing them well, for example, and also liking to cook, and being good at it. That makes her a multifaceted character, just like any woman today. (Hey, I love martial arts and knitting.) It’s when characters do the same old thing as the old ironic fractured fairy tales (which were proving a point) that I find the character to be flat, and too much like every feminist character who has gone before.

    The problem isn’t that the characters are feminist. It’s that they’re stereotypes.

    Like

    • Great points! Thanks so much for these comments. In college I remember learning about feminism vs. womanism. From what I remember, womanism was a movement mostly among African American women fighting for the idea of the worthiness of femininity and domestic arts because they didn’t like feminism’s rejection of those things. And I really like your distinctions about 2nd wave and 3rd wave and so on. Thanks for the insight.

      And the only reason I said “despite the fantasy elements” is because I didn’t want anybody to think that I was making some strange point about the faeries. I agree with you that fantasy books have some awesome characters.

      Like

  3. I was directed to your blog by a friend because we frequently discuss this subject. This has long been an issue I’ve had with the so-called riot grrl or kickass grrl heroines of YA lit, particularly fantasy or psuedo-historical fiction. (Psuedo because they are contemporary girls dropped into a historical setting where they behave nothing like a girl of that period would behave.)

    The emotional disconnect you mention is one of the most troubling aspects of the riot grrl achetype. Couple of things get me about her:

    1) That she is so embraced by generally liberal-minded types who otherwise abhor war and violence. Yet what makes her a “strong role model for girls” is very often not only a willingness but a fervent desire to put on pants, pick up a sword and go to war where she can maim, dismember and kill people. At what point did “strong female role model” translate into “physically aggressive murderer”?

    2) This physically aggressive girl who is able to heft a sword for long periods of time and use it to cut down hulking men twice her size is almost never described as the substantially beefy woman she’d have to be to achieve these physical feats. It is a simple fact of biology that women are built differently than men, as any woman who lives with a man who puts the lid of the pickle jar back on a little more energetically than necessary can tell you.

    In this sense, this archetype is a lie to young girls. And what does lauding her above all others say to girls who are not so physically or aggressively inclined?

    Like

    • Thank you so much for adding to the discussion! And what a great line: “In this sense, this archetype is a lie to young girls.” The praise of these stereotypes is definitely what troubles me most, because what it says to me is that the world does not value sensitivity.

      In my opinion, a lack of sensitivity is wrong in EITHER gender, and so swapping roles and having male characters be sensitive while the females are aggressive in this very physical, warlike sense you mention seems ridiculous. Sensitivity shows an inner strength that I think is far more important than brute strength, yet that’s not the message readers probably get from these books and from the awards with which we shower them.

      Like

  4. Someone at my publishing house sent me a link to this, so I thought I’d pop in and say thank you. I’m very glad to see my novel discussed in this context.

    You pretty much encapsulated what I believe as a woman, as a mother, and as a writer. I don’t think that being s feminist means becoming a man (or that men have to be feminized either). There are beautiful things abt being female OR male.

    Incidentally, your solution(the teaching/working structure) was what my spouse & I did when the kids were little. I taught a lot of nights; he worked days. It meant we saw each other less during those years, but our children had the benefit of two devoted parents who demonstrated that one CAN have career & family. We also tried the shift on/off. I taught part time for a while to be home more; he worked FT. These days, he’s retired and the primary parent, & I’m the FT worker. It works if both parties believe in equality & make compromises for the bigger goals (being a good parent AND having a career).

    Like

    • Wow! Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a comment. I completely agree with you on all of this. And I love hearing other stories of parents who found similar compromises with young kids.

      Life is about balance, isn’t it? Balancing masculinity and femininity (whether you’re male or female), balancing family and career, balancing independence and relationships, balancing between your goals and the sacrifices it takes to attain them, balancing between your own wants/needs and those of the people around you. And I appreciate books that show the complexities of those compromises.

      Thanks for a great read! I’m looking forward to picking up the sequels soon. 🙂

      Like

  5. Early on the extreme position of feminism was required to shake things up and cause the sexism bus to drive off the road. Once the passengers were properly shaken and had to crawl back up the hill then we were able to look at the issue more rationally. A lot has changed but I continue to see young women not actively involved in their own lives – not understanding the strength of confidence over power. Culturally I believe we often accept only the women who are “all that” meaning beautiful, charming, smart, competent, non-threatening, etc. I do see hope with young families where the children see men and women in roles that are both strong and nurturing. Men and women bring different strengths to the family. When children see that successfully modeled it is to their benefit and society’s.

    Like

    • Thanks for this great perspective! I completely agree that the important thing is for both men and women to be both strong and nurturing and for strength to be defined in positive ways, and that is definitely happening more with each generation.

      In real life, I see plenty of hope; I’m just confused about why awards and honors continue to go to the novels that end up rejecting relationships in favor of independence. Not everybody has the chance to see those different strengths of men and women in their family, so it would be nice if more awards went to books that show readers those true strengths of men and women supporting each other. 🙂

      Like

      • Not really on top of the literary world and its awards but many people do not have successful relationships. Until individuals can find their own strength they may have little to bring to a relationship. Maybe these books are for the forlorn and forgotten who need encouragement. Perhaps the ideal literary scenario features an individual who is in some way dysfunctional, then grows and finally has the epiphany that together we are stronger. I have not read much YA fiction recently but my recollection of it is that it is full of extremes and broad brush strokes.

        Like

        • I think you’re absolutely right. Thanks for the follow-up. Your ideal literary scenario sounds fantastic, and thankfully there are lots of books out there that make use of it. 🙂

          Like

  6. Nikki I love your discussion, both in the original text and the interaction with the comments.
    I feel so blessed to have a spouse who believes in the importance of womanhood and – despite the challenges of raising a family – has dedicated herself to raising our children and teaching them good principles. I knew a wonderful sister missionary in my mission district who struggled with this principle. It pained her to try and reconcile the need for worldly achievement and the doctrines of the [LDS] Church on womanhood. Nothing I read nor thought of helped her in this struggle. As I read your words I felt the truthfulness of them and wished I’d had them years ago to help her.
    I look forward to your novels and other works of literature as I know they will convey messages of hope and peace, even if not directly intending to do so. Keep writing Nikki!

    Like

    • Thanks, little brother! It’s always so hard to see others struggling with gender roles and having a difficult time reconciling their own desires with the expectations they feel bound to by society, family, religion, etc. My personal view of God is that he wants us to be happy and that he wants men and women to work together in raising a family in the way that best suits both of them. If someone feels smothered by a gender role that’s imposed on them, that doesn’t seem right. There are always compromises possible. Often those compromises require some sacrifice, but that usually results in greater happiness overall, I think. 🙂

      Like

  7. Great post, Nikki. Gives me a lot to think about. Your blog is kickin’ it up as far as evoking meaningful discussions. Well done! I might have to use this post as an example tonight, if you don’t mine.

    Like

  8. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  9. Pingback: Six Months, Six Thank Yous, and Six Favorite Posts « All About the Words

  10. Pingback: Satisfying Endings: Leaping Past “This” or “That” to Find “The Other” « All About the Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s