I went to see Wonder Woman and it was superb. I watched it with tears in my eyes, fingers gripping the armrests, completely oblivious to the loud-popcorn-munchers and candy-wrapper-rustlers of the theater.
Afterwards, I told my husband, “That was a start, but I’m not satisfied with one feminist superhero franchise. I want hundreds. I want years of movies full of women who fight crime and are strong, funny, and not just play-things in spandex.” Some might wonder why I couldn’t just bask in the glow of a movie that was both mainstream and feminist. Because of context. Years and years where society has refused to accept girls and women as anything other than sweet, sexy damsels in distress.
MTV’s Sweet/Vicious was canceled after one season, during which it garnered critical praise but lousy ratings. Such is the fate of a lot of other well-written shows, but when I heard the news about a show I’d loved, I suspected Sweet/Vicious’s heroine had something to do with its demise. Or more specifically, this tendency of society to reject girls who deviate from the role the patriarchy’s given them.
Sweet/Vicious followed a sorority girl who, after being sexually assaulted, put on a black hoodie and masqueraded as her college campus’s vigilante. She kicked predator butt. She avenged assaulted girls. The show was fresh, entertaining, and relevant. It managed to be funny, tender, serious, and well-acted.
These two things – the success of Wonder Woman and the failure of Sweet/Vicious happened in the same year and in the same cultural context. One is a phenomenon that I hope signals a shift from sexism in entertainment, and one is representative of the status quo. Our society celebrates male vigilantes. There are hordes of boy swashbucklers, mutineers, rebels, revolutionaries, and vigilantes in fiction. We know them by name – Batman, the Punisher, Robin Hood, the Green Arrow, Daredevil, and Dexter, just to name a few. They dominate film, television, and comics. People aren’t squeamish about embracing boys and men who operate outside of the law.
But where are their girl counterparts? Girl rebels and vigilantes are out there. It’s the crowd cheering them on that isn’t quite as big and loud as the one cheering on the bad boys.
I have always wanted to put on a mask and hit the streets at night to play vigilante. I believe in due process and the courts and all that, but I feel more empowered by my vigilante fantasy than I do the promise of justice. I bet that most girls and women – or anyone who’s ever been afraid walking to their dorm at night – harbor this secret.
There are increasingly more fictional girls who are the heroines of their own stories, not just sexy props added in as love-interests or side-kicks. The YA lit community is leading the charge. Women and girls are celebrated across subgenres in YA. Girls make waves. Girls rebel, resist, fight, and spread revolutionary fire. Katniss Everdeen is probably almost as recognizable a name as Robin Hood, for younger generations. There are protagonists of wildly popular fantasy series that inspire fangirls and boys. Aelin Galathynius, aka Celaena Sardothien, of the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. Aelin is a rebel, spy, and revolutionary, plus assassin and queen fighting for her people. There’s Laia in An Ember in the Ashes and Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir. Laia joins the scholar resistance and becomes a spy to save her brother. She challenges the Martial empire and goes on the run.
But we can do better. We can do more. Wonder Woman isn’t the end – she’s the beginning.
Izzie and Viv, protagonists in my new YA thriller First We Were IV, are best friends, co-conspirators, inventors of a secret society, and vigilantes who take revenge on their small town for brushing aside a girl’s unsolved murder. Here are a couple more girls who won’t be silenced, intimidated, or sidelined.