Saturday, August 17, 2013

YA Guy Weighs in on "Strong Female Characters"

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.


  1. I don't necessarily agree that "strong female character" always denotes a girl who physically kicks butt. For example, in Tamora Pierce's Trickster duet, the main character Alianne is definitely a strong female character. She can use knives pretty well, but many other characters outclass her in that department; her main strengths are her leadership skills, spy skills, and cunning.

    On the other hand, you're absolutely right about male characters usually being the smart ones. Take the TV series Doctor Who. The Doctor (always male so far) is a super-genius, but he travels with a usually female companion who provides the "emotional" component. It's pretty much the same thing.

    This is so entrenched in our popular culture that I'd planned a series of my own where the main female character was a kick-ass, gun-wielding chick, and the main male character was the computer expert. I didn't even realized I was following a trend until now. And I'd never thought of The Hunger Games in the terms you do here.

    Like you said, it doesn't have to be bad, though. After all, a few decades ago girls didn't get to do any butt-kicking at all.

  2. By the way, sorry about the loooong comment :P

    1. I like long comments! Shows you're paying attention! :)

      And thanks for the recommendation--I'll have to check out Tamora Pierce's books.

    2. I really recommend them! They're awesome. ;)

    3. I second the recommendation of Tamora Pierce's books. Complex (and, yes, sometimes kick-ass) heroines.

  3. "Strong as she is, Katniss both relies on and is manipulated by the male characters who surround her."

    Good point. I've been complaining about these kinds of characters for a while, too. (You can read my thoughts here:

    But you know what, I hadn't thought that the males in these types of stories are the ones manipulating them. (In other words, the brains.) I've noticed some male characters tend to be (physically) weaker (like in The Croods, for example). This bothers me. Not only because it's unrealistic, but also because it's become a cliche (particularly in children's fiction).

    Excellent analysis, Josh.

    1. Read your analysis--loved it--tweeted it! It's brilliant how you delve into history to analyze the "strong heroine" archetype (or cliche).

  4. Thanks for the detailed analysis. As both a writer and a female engineer I should be more aware of that particular trap. I have to admit, though, even I have fallen into the trap of that particular archetype on occasion.

    After thinking about it, I intend to do a bit of tweaking to the novel I am currently working on.

    1. Hi Leoma! Thanks for the comment. It's funny that I never thought about this in my own work-in-progress either; I've written about the misrepresentation of women in literature, but I guess it's different with one's own writing. Glad to hear the post gave you some ideas for revision!

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    1. Thanks for the comment and suggestions! To clarify, I believe that THE HUNGER GAMES initiated the present image of the "kick-ass" heroine in YA fiction--not the broader tradition of strong young females in literature. I too was born in the sixties, and (as an English professor) I know that there are plenty of strong female characters in literature, going back to Penelope in THE ODYSSEY. But the weapons-wielding hunter of Collins's book is the stereotype I find so prominent in today's YA fiction.

    2. Sorry, Just found the exact error you're referring to in my initial comment (I'm like a Mogwai and shouldn't post after midnight) and didn't have the option to edit. So here it is, revised :)

      I feel you're doing a lot of authors a disservice by saying that Suzanne Collins was the one who started it all. (Yes, that's where I misread you - sorry! The Hunger Games was certainly one of the first books I read that were widely acclaimed as having a strong female lead - I was ready to strangle Katniss by book 3. Again, apologies for misreading!) I was born in the late sixties, and I grew up with the following strong, intelligent female characters (in order of my discovery the authors)...
      Pippi Longstocking & Ronja the Robber's Daughter (Astrid Lindgren)
      Mathilda (Roald Dahl)
      Dido Twite (Joan Aiken)
      Alanna, Daine, Keladry, Alianne (Tamora Pierce)
      Tanaqui (Diana Wynne Jones)
      Angharad & Aerin (Robin McKinley)

      ...and I'm still discovering more through the wonderful world of independent publishing.

      I think that maybe the problem is that every hero needs a weakness, and that a lot of heroines are so very kick-ass (Marvel style) that the author is trying for a mental or emotional weakness rather than a physical one? I haven't even heard of most of the books you mention, so it's a bit difficult to say.

      Anyway, I can heartily recommend all the above authors, as well as the Girl Genius online comic by the wonderful Phil and Kaja Foglio! (

  6. Great conversation. I realized Katniss unwittingly started a revolution, but I didn't make the strong female/smart male connection. Thanks for opening my eyes. Will consider for future female MCs... ;)

  7. articulated an aspect of Katniss and The Hunger Games that has always intrinsically bothered me, but I've never quite been able to put words to.

    I've been contemplating many of these issues about female characters. I even have an ongoing blog series going called Females in YA. Mostly I started it to open up a discussion (even if only among my own blog readers, who are mostly YA and MG writers) about what kinds of females characters are out there and what kinds of female characters should be out there.

    One thing I've come across in reader reviews of my own book is the main character being called selfish. I refrain from responding to these remarks publicly (as the good, meek writer I am), but inside I cringe when I read that and wonder, "Would a male character who made her choices be called selfish?"

    Thank you for an insightful post about a topic that has been occupying my mind a lot lately. I am bookmarking this post and will definitely be linking to it in my next Females in YA post!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Katie! I'll have to check out your "Females in YA" posts. I just signed on to blog at YA Stands, and my first post (due out this Thursday, I think) has to do w/ female characters (mothers, in this case) in YA.

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  9. On the other side of things, it does bother me that female protagonists are held to a standard where they must be all things - strong and smart and kick-ass and emotionally mature, and while they're at it, likable. Also, pretty doesn't hurt.

    Something Collins does with Katniss that I like is that she's allowed to be an imperfect person. There are some aspects of leading a revolution that she is spectacularly bad at. And sometimes, she's really not likable.

    While I totally get a reading of the series that views Katniss as manipulated, I wonder if readers would subject a male character to that kind of "good role model" criteria.

    1. Excellent points, especially about female characters' right to be imperfect. My concern is that the "kick-butt" female action hero threatens to crowd out other kinds of female characters in YA fantasy/sci-fi. If it were Katniss alone, I wouldn't worry about it. But when so many female characters in so many wildly popular books model the same, limited image of what it means for a young woman to be "strong," I begin to worry that we're resorting to old stereotypes in the guise of exploding them.

      But you're also totally right that we tend to hold female characters to a higher standard--to expect them to be role models instead of just people.