In a brilliant post from the New Statesman, “I Hate Strong Female Characters,” Sophia McDougall analyzes the sexist implications of all the “strong” female protagonists inhabiting contemporary fantasy literature and film. Her argument--that confining women to “strength” (typically measured by their ability to kick some serious ass) deprives them of their full humanity--strikes me as convincing.
Being YA Guy, I’d like to extend her analysis to some of the “strong” female protagonists in current YA literature.
We have to start, of course, with the one who started it all: Suzanne Collins’s Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. She’s strong, no doubt, both physically and emotionally: she holds her family together through her mother’s depression, sacrifices herself for her younger sister, fights for her life and the lives of others (particularly Peeta and Rue) during the Games. Eventually, if unwittingly, she starts a revolution.
And it’s that “unwittingly” part that bothers me.
Strong as she is, Katniss both relies on and is manipulated by the male characters who surround her: Haymitch, Peeta, Cinna, Seneca Crane, President Snow. While she’s running around kicking butt, acting mostly on impulse (as in her deservedly famous William Tell moment), it’s the men who are plotting behind the scenes, whether they’re coaching her through her televised interview, figuring out a strategy to survive the Games, or attempting to double-cross her.
She’s strong. But they’re smart.
If Collins’s novel inspired a trend in YA dystopian literature, those who've followed her have tended to reproduce the dichotomy between physically active women and mentally active men. Consider, for example, C. J. Redwine’s Deception. The book boasts twin narrators: Rachel and Logan. She wields a sword. He builds machines.
Or look at Veronica Roth’s wildly popular Divergent series. In the first book, the narrator Beatrice (Tris) jumps off roofs, fights in the ring, and faces down a government-inspired revolution. But it’s her boyfriend, Tobias (Four), who calculates, figures, plans. They’re both Dauntless--but Tris is the only one who’s basically Clueless.
I’m exaggerating somewhat to make a point, of course. Still, I think this is worth noting: that while the authors of these books may believe they’re bucking convention by attributing physical strength to young women, ultimately they may be reinforcing the association of women with physicality, men with intellect. Even the notion (adopted from Collins's book) that female impulse can defeat male scheming seems to me to fall into problematic sexual stereotypes.
Why couldn’t it be the female protagonist Pia from Jessica Khoury’s Origin who’s the brilliant (if misguided) scientist? Why does the hybrid narrator Addie/Eva from Kat Zhang’s What’s Left of Me require the services of a male technophile to begin the process of liberation? Why can’t female narrator Zoe from Heather Anastasiu’s Glitch go to the surface, uncover the true history of her world, or foresee the future on her own, without needing her boyfriend, Adrien, to do much of the thinking for her?
Why, for that matter, did I feel the need to craft the female narrator of my own work-in-progress as a kick-butt action hero, while her male companion is the scientific, reflective type?
I hasten to add that I like all of these books (including my own!). Unlike McDougall, I don’t unanimously hate strong female characters. But as the father of a teenage daughter, I do hate the message the barrage of SFCs may be sending her.
And as YA Guy, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this issue, and your suggestions for books that fight against the trend.