Right now, having a strong female lead is all the rage in YA fiction. And don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an awesome trend. It’s empowering. It provides teen readers with powerful role models. It’s empowering for girls and women. Katniss is a bad ass character that reminds us that girls can kick ass and be stronger than their male counterparts.
I think it’s a healthy trend and I think there should be a large amount of fiction that gives readers great role models. But the job of fiction isn’t always to provide readers with role models, lessons, and positive messages or to feature only kick ass, loveable characters we all strive to be.
Since when does all YA fiction have to give us strong female characters? Since when is a character only a decent role model if she is a strong female character? Fiction should also imitate life and give us a perspective that is true rather than ideal. While reading about stronger characters is a great thing and gives us ideals and goals, it can also be discouraging to never pick up a book and find a character more like ourselves who are strong in their own ways. I’m not saying real girls aren’t strong or kick ass, I’m just saying it’s not always relatable when the characters are shooting bows, doing backflips, and never needing anyone. We shouldn’t be endorsing “strong female characters” only, we should embrace all types of characters and find strengths within them. Female characters should not have to kick ass all of the time in order to be praised.
Take one of the weaker female characters: Bella from Twilight
I am not the biggest Twilight fan. I don’t defend the books often, I don’t think they are examples of wonderful fiction, and my books are hiding behind other books on my shelf. However, I don’t think Twilight books are quite as harmful as others do. I think Bella’s character provides strengths and isn’t as weak as she seems. Bella was one of the most relatable characters (to me) that I’ve ever encountered. My parents were divorced, I was a good student, I parented my mom more than she parented me, and I’m clumsy. In many ways, Bella is SO me, it’s ridiculous. I know so many people that have formed a bond with Bella because of clumsiness alone. I did. That feeling that readers get when they see part of themselves in a character is second to none and Bella provided that for me and many other readers. As much as I love the stronger characters like Katniss, no amount of practice with my own bow will make her as relatable to me as Bella. I think there is a lot of value in characters that we can relate to. I don’t think relatable means weak. And I don't think weaker characters are never strong.
While Bella obviously isn’t the strongest character, I thought she showed a lot of strength in small moments. Those moments mirrored a lot of moments in average daily life and can be empowering in their own way. Most of us don’t see how great we can be in other people’s eyes. We compare ourselves to others and when we don’t stack up, we feel alone. Bella was like that. Was she supposed to walk into the school like she owned the place? Haven't we all felt like Bella on the first day of school in a strange place? Bella was unsure of herself until she met a group of people who built her up and pointed out her strengths, like Edward and Alice. And that's okay. Edward also didn’t just became infatuated with her for no reason. He picked her because she intrigued him, because she didn’t make the choices that other girls did, and he couldn’t figure her out. There’s something awesome about being noticed when you are sitting next to the girl that’s always used to getting noticed and you aren't anything like her. Being unsure of yourself is normal and I think most of go through that, especially as teens. Ignoring it or bashing a character for being unsure about herself is ridiculous. The lesson is that Bella finally figured out where she wanted to be and what place she wanted to fill in the end and that’s not a bad message. To me, there are many positive aspects of Bella's character.
A lot of readers and critics find Edward’s behavior abusive and unhealthy, and while I definitely understand that argument, I think it’s important to point out that Bella chose him over other suitors and forced him to compromise throughout the entire saga. Sure, he was a jerk when he refused to let her see Jacob, but she figured out a way to get what she wanted and ensure his cooperation by compromising and creating a system. She sent the message that he was not allowed to tell her who her friends were. That’s a battle a lot of people can relate to in new relationships and she won by NOT being a doormat. In fact, when it came to virtually every conflict of interest, the two always managed to come to some agreement and compromise, which sends a good message about relationships. At least that's what I saw.
Bella wasn’t kicking ass, but I don’t think she was all that weak in terms of will. She was strong in her own way. She had a great family and support network who helped her in tough times. She cared about her friends and family deeply. She wasn't afraid to admit when she needed someone. She forced cohesion among groups who would otherwise fight. She did her own thing when she thought she was right. She fiercely defended Edward in the only way she knew how. Bella certainly isn’t the greatest character and I do think she had some major flaws and she often drove me crazy. But ignoring her strengths and writing her off (and other characters like her) as weak and unimportant is a mistake.
Also, love triangles in YA fiction can be aggravating, but I do think they send one awesome message: Girls have the power to choose who they deserve and who they end up with. In real life, in movies, and in entertainment, I think we see women competing for male attention more often than not. Women, as we see them, have to snatch men, grab them, and snag them. We don’t see a whole lot of women choose between guys who care about her. We see girls fall all over themselves trying to gain a guy’s attention. Love triangles between a girl and two boys is empowering because we finally get to see a girl have choices between boys who care. And more often than not, those boys care about her for reasons other than her appearance. That’s a wonderful message, even if it is an overused trope. Teens have hormones and end up way too distracted by other teens, but I love seeing a YA romance give girls some power in that area.
I love the strong female character trend, but I hate the disdain for “regular” characters. Regular means weak and weak means not worth your time. I agree that having a girl be dependent on a boy is a problem and I’m glad more characters are independent. But it’s also OKAY for a girl to need a boy. Girls can fall in love and need their significant other. That’s not a bad message on it’s own. It’s only bad if the girl is incapable of making her own decisions and relies on a boy all of the time.
Real women can be independent, but we aren’t suddenly doormats when we need someone, even if that someone is a man. I often need my husband. Sometimes because I need his strength or knowledge (not because he is stronger or smarter, but has different strengths and knowledge than myself). Sometimes I need him there as support because I don’t want to be alone. And that’s OKAY.
I do love strong female characters and those types of characters are often my favorite. I am only arguing that not all characters have to be “strong female characters” and other female characters not deemed as "strong" aren’t necessarily bad, weak, or useless. I used Bella because she is the most hated “weak female character” and yet, she was not quite the doormat that she’s often perceived as. I’m seeing people sweep average characters aside all the time now. I’m seeing “strong female character” being used all over the place as reasons to read a book. Strong doesn’t mean better and average doesn’t mean weak. Female characters should just be allowed to BE without being endorsed as strong or swept aside as weak. Why can't a character just be well developed, relateable, and part of a good story?
Not every story is supposed to be about role models. Not every story has room for a heroine with a weapon and a score to settle. Just because a character isn’t a “strong female character” doesn’t mean she’s weak and has nothing to offer in terms of lessons or empowerment.
I am tired of literature having to adhere to some ridiculous standard. First, there weren't enough girl characters, then they weren't strong enough, and next they won't ever be allowed to love or need anyone and we will have created role model robotic characters and send the message that emotions are weakness and girls can't be human.
What do you think? Where do you weigh in on the issue of strong female characters in YA fiction?
Labels: Bella, characters, Discussion, Katniss, strong female character, Twilight, YA