When I was in elementary school, I considered myself a “tomboy.” I “wasn’t like other girls.” I loved playing outside, I loved science, and I loved to read. I didn’t like Barbie, I liked Harry Potter. Romance was gross. Pink was my least favorite color–green was much better. It wasn’t until later that I realized how harmful these ideas were to me and my peers, that “feminine” and “masculine” hobbies weren’t mutually exclusive. And it wasn’t until even later that I realized that YA novels continue to perpetuate ideas like these.
There has been a rise in the “strong female character.” She is the heroine who hates dresses and girly things. She loves fighting. She is often stubborn and grumpy. If she has a hobby other than weaponry, it’s almost always reading – but she rarely has a hobby. She ends up in a love triangle with two boys (which is a whole other issue entirely). She has one female friend, at best. She might be forced to dress up, and complain the whole time.
Let’s go with an example we all know and love: Katniss from The Hunger Games. There’s nothing wrong with Katniss being awkward and unfeminine. In fact, it creates a really interesting character, contrasting her with other people in her world. The problem comes when now, every major fantasy or dystopian heroine in a YA fiction novel is a wannabe Katniss. This stems from a failure to understand that Katniss’s strength didn’t come from her physical attributes, like her archery or survival skills. It came from something inside, an inner struggle that we got to see intimately in the trilogy. What came next was a trend that didn’t delve into this inner strength. Instead it assumed, probably not intentionally, that creating a “strong female character” meant creating a character that wasn’t feminine.
Another harmful side effect of this trope has been the sidelining of the female best friend. Often, feminine attributes get assigned to the best friend instead. The main character begins to feel resentment towards the best friend for being “pretty,” “outgoing,” and “popular.” This is meant to accentuate how much of an outsider the protagonist is, but it really just makes us think that femininity puts you on the sidelines of the narrative–if you’re girly, you don’t get to be anything but the supportive sidekick who makes flirty jokes and cries a lot.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with having a “strong female character” or two. There are women who don’t like dresses, who don’t like pink, who have an affinity for archery instead of fashion. That’s valid. The problem comes when that becomes the only type of heroine in YA – or, at least, mainstream YA fiction. What we’re instilling is the idea that women who are strong are not feminine, and women that are feminine are not strong. That’s just untrue.
A great example of a character who breaks this stereotype is Karou from the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series by Laini Taylor. Karou is an art student living in Prague. She’s sensitive, creative, and cares about her friends. When she returns to the magical world she came from, she doesn’t instantly adjust, or is suddenly a powerful, aggressive force. She struggles, she falters, she loses faith in herself. And she doesn’t need weapons to save herself – her talent for art is always at the forefront of her skills. Karou is interesting and fun to read about, and she doesn’t need to be masculinized for us to appreciate her.
There are plenty of women that fit “strong female character” stereotype, but the strong female character isn’t the only type of woman. Represent all types of women. We are a diverse, interesting, incredible group of people, and teens deserve to read books that acknowledge that every hero isn’t a “tomboy.” We learn from what we read. Teach your readers that it’s okay to be feminine. You don’t have to be one thing to be the main character of your own story.
Are you a teen who wants to contribute to the Teen Talk column? Email our editor Nicole for more details.