One of the things I often see writers and readers say they want to see more of is strong female leads. Strong heroines. The kinds of characters who are going to influence the younger generation of young women in the right way.
And when I see these comments, I always wonder what IS a strong heroine? It’s a tricky concept for me to wrap my mind around. Some people believe that sass = strength, but I don’t think that it does.
Still more people confuse strength with kickassery. Usually, when strong female protagonists are discussed in YA, the first person mentioned is Katniss Everdeen. Now, I’m not saying that Katniss is not both strong and badass. Because she is. It’s not like strength and kickassery are mutually exclusive concepts.
What I am saying is that maybe we need to look beyond the obvious when it comes to finding strong heroines. Katniss is strong because she’s the ultimate Survivor, yes, but strength manifests itself in such a variety of ways.
Strength doesn’t always have to be badass. It can be quiet and subtle, but there nonetheless (I’m thinking a lot of Sarah Dessen’s protags). Strength can be unshakeable but can exist in a way that is not entirely positive (E Lockhart’s fantasticbrilliantamazing The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks) and strength can be tatooed all over a character with a tragic past, who is coming apart at the seams, just because they hold themselves together (hello, Courtney Summers. Your protags rock my world. Regina Afton in particular).
And then there are the fish out of water stories. The stories where it’s Girl vs World (Tamora Pierce’s novels, for instance. HELL YES, women can be knights. For a contemporary example, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta deals with girls in an all boys’ school setting).
I could go on like this for a while, because there are A LOT of different types of strength. And yet, everywhere I turn I see this conflation between kickassery and strength.
I think this is dangerous, because I think it’s going to lead us to create a kind of mould/model of what a strong girl should be. I worry Strong Heroine could become an archetypal character. That Strong Heroine could come to be a flat character, wielding a sword. A kind of Action Girl, who is not as well developed as a truly strong character should be, who has no substance. Katniss wasn’t strong JUST because she survived the Arena a couple of times. Who was looking after Prim all that time? Who was supporting the household?
At the same time, I think it’s important that we don’t discount the importance of the archetypal Action Girl. The Action Girl is a vast improvement on the insipid ciphers a lot of female characters can tend to be. Having agency and guts in abundance is never a bad thing—I’m just asking for some nuance as well, I guess.
The bottom line, in my opinion, is that we can’t typify female strength, fit it into a tidy little box, define it as X or Y or Z, because it is so many different things. And while kickassery and strength do go hand in hand, there are many kinds of strengths beyond being a badass.
What do you guys think? Feel free to pick a fight with me in the comments—we are having a Pub Brawl, after all.