Discussion: Feminism, YA, and the ‘strong female character’

katniss-everdeen-catching-fire-wallpaper-1050x656Everyone in the YA community has heard the phrase, and probably even used it at some point, ‘strong female character’. Typically used more often when describing female characters from the fantasy or dystopia genre. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with using this phrase, but I’ve grown to dislike it somewhat. To me, people often use it to describe female characters that are physically strong, who kick-ass, and often have more ‘masculine traits’, rather than ‘soft’ or ‘feminine traits’. I know many women around me who are physically strong, but who are also kind, compassionate, and affectionate. I know women who are not physically strong but are still brilliant women. Why is it only female characters who have ‘masculine’ traits – who are warriors or assassins – gain the title of being strong and admired for it?

I first noticed this trend when characters like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games become popular. Katniss Everdeen is a physically strong woman, but she’s also much more than that. She’s brave, intelligent, and willing to give her life for those she loves. She suffers from PTSD, she finds it hard to express her feelings. She’s a complex and real female character. But even characters like Katniss, get’s simplified into a ‘strong female character’, which I feel limits the perception of her character down to just her physical strength. Why is it that ‘strong’ is not used as a descriptor for male characters? Is it because it is already assumed that they are ‘strong’? Why is it that male characters are praised for their other traits besides being strong, but female characters are pigeon-holed?

More often than not, women that are not physically strong are deemed ‘weak’ by readers and reviewers. Female characters that are emotional are deemed to be annoying and whiny. Why are ‘strong’ female characters expected to ONLY be physically strong, emotionally cut off, and completely independent? We need more than just ‘strong female characters’. We need female characters with mental illness, especially in fantasy, with anxiety and depression, etc. We need more female characters that just use their minds and not their fists. We need more female characters who are compassionate and kind. We need more female characters who are messy and angry. We need more real and complex female characters – not just female characters who are written just to fit a pre-existing mould.

I recently read Ever the Hunted by Erin Summerhill. I went in expecting an amazing fantasy with a great female character because that is all I heard about it.  But ultimately, Britta was a ‘strong female character’ that apparently was an expert hunter but never really showed evidence of her skills, most of the time she actually missed tracks or just *guessed* where they would be. She wasn’t strong because she was intelligent or witty or compassionate or ambitious, she was simply a ‘strong female character’ because she could shoot an arrow and had magic running through her veins. The chosen one who has magic but doesn’t realise she’s got magic until over halfway through the book. A generic and simplified female character who got praised for being so strong. We deserve better female characters. We deserve more female characters like Tea from The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco. She’s the anti-hero female protagonist I’ve been waiting for and what we need more of in YA fantasy.

Sarah J Maas, the author of the Throne of Glass series and the Court of Thorns and Roses series, is often hailed as a feminist author writing feminist characters and books. These books do feature some white feminist qualities, such as a female character who is an assassin who also loves all things feminine. But, ultimately, Maas has a huge problem with killing off her female characters of colour. Here are some great discussions by bloggers (x) (x). Maas has a problem with writing ‘alpha male’ characters whose behaviour is actually bordering on abuse or is ACTUALLY abuse, such as behaviour seen in A Court of Thorns and Roses. *TW sexual assault and abuse* There was a scene where Tamlin assaults Feyre and stated he *might not be able to stop* and it’s her fault because she left her room when he told her not to. There was a scene where Rhysand covered Feyre in body paint so he could tell if anyone touched her but him and then proceeded to drug her against her will. Maas writes relationships which have huge power imbalances. Yet these books are hailed as great feminist reads because the female characters are ‘strong’ and ‘independent’.

I read and loved And I Darken by Kiersten White. Lada was excellent as she was ferocious, brutal, and blunt. She contrasted fantastically with her brother Radu who was calm, calculated, and charming. However, something that I saw often was Lada being described as a feminist and the book being held as a feminist read. There were lots of issues and I’d struggle to call it feminism. There were other female characters who were important to the story, women who worked through the patriarchal system and gained power through manipulation of the system. But Lada belittles these other women for gaining agency by working the system, and she disliked them for it. Just because she is angry and she bests men, doesn’t make it a feminist book or her a feminist character – not a truly intersectional one anyway. I enjoy the stoic fighting female, but there’s more to being a feminist and a complex female character than being that.

We see books and authors like these hailed loudly as feminist with ‘strong female characters’ and it’s honestly stunning how often these books feature harmful stereotypes and racism, are extremely heteronormative, and feature no positive female-female relationships; they’re just very strong independent women who physically kicks ass – but that isn’t good enough.

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What are your thoughts on ‘strong female characters’?

 

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3 thoughts on “Discussion: Feminism, YA, and the ‘strong female character’

  1. I like this post! It’s a really good thing to consider…why are “strong female characters” only strong if they have masculine traits? I’ll definitely be on the lookout now for strong female characters who are strong through their femininity. Thanks!

    1. Thank you! That’s also what I’ve been trying to do lately. I mean I still love a good kick-ass female warrior, but I also love my intelligent female characters, and witty female characters, etc. I’m definitely getting more picky 🙂

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