Pub Brawl: Strong Heroines?

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.


24 Responses to Pub Brawl: Strong Heroines?

  1. Julie May 11 2012 at 6:08 am #

    Great post, Vee! I worry a bit that we’ll see a lot of Katniss clones in the future, and I agree with you that her strength comes from a lot more than just her ability to kill. That’s why I think characters like Peeta and Prim are so important – they’re strong too, but in different ways from Katniss. Thanks for opening this up for discussion!

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 8:48 am #

      Thanks Julie! And hopefully we don’t wind up with a bunch of 2D Katniss clones 🙂

  2. Marc Vun Kannon May 11 2012 at 6:32 am #

    This is all so true. The Strong Heroine has something the Action Girl will never have, the ability to admit weakness, to accept love or other relationships on someone else’s terms. I’d rather see a heroine who can bend rather than break, even if it means she’s the beta and not the alpha of the pack.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 8:51 am #

      Hmm, I am all for strient individuality that is flexible enough to accommodate others’ needs — if two people love each other, there should be no need for either of them to accept the relationship on the other’s terms. They should simply mutually come together. I feel like there are all these ideas about sacrificing for love in our current culture that needn’t be there, or at least not to the extent that they are there. I guess I’m just a bit uncomfortable with the subsumption of any individual’s values, desires and agency.

      I completely agree with you when it comes to flexbility and being willing to read about female betas, though. Great points, interesting food for thought 🙂

  3. Linda Adams May 11 2012 at 6:44 am #

    I think the reason people keep longing for strong heroines is that what’s out there doesn’t always work. Many thrillers have female protagonists, and this is supposed to be pretty hot in that genre now. Yet, the character is often the only woman in the story, and she tends to work with a guy who does all the thinking and takes care of the situation. All it’s done is make the woman more important by making the story about her, but it doesn’t make her smarter.

    The kick-ass heroine is even worse, because she’s often characterized as stupid — though it doesn’t appear that way. She’s in the lead in the story — also often the only woman in the story (a trend here anyone?) — and she goes through the story insulting everyone. Usually she’s in a job where insulting everyone is going to close up the information gates really fast, and yet, everyone magically tells her what she wants to know, in spite of the fact she’s a jerk. Meanwhile, she has a male sidekick who is the voice of reason, which unfortunately starts to suggest a woman character can be kick-ass but she can’t think for herself. And the worst part is that women are writing these?

    Is it no wonder the kick-ass heroine is a little unsatisfying?

    A smart woman character is someone who has her own opinions, can think for herself, and when trouble comes, she does her best to participate in her own rescue. She may not be skilled, but that doesn’t mean she can’t pick up a rock and throw it or grab a cell phone and call for help. But here’s the catch: That’s very difficult to write.

    By the way, I’m not advocating that a woman character be over the top and be too much like men or better than men. Rather, I want the women to think for themselves. They can ask the men for help — I don’t have a problem with that. But they also have to be able to do something for themselves, within what is reasonable for woman and for that character. It sounds very simple, and yet, I keep seeing the same problems over and over again. Worse, it’s very subtle, and it’s everywhere, so it leaves us vaguely dissatisfied. We have a strong heroine, and yet, it doesn’t quite work, and it’s hard to pin down why.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 8:55 am #

      I completely agree with your list of attributes of strong heroines! I think knowing when to ask other people for help is a strength in and of itself 🙂

  4. jodimeadows May 11 2012 at 10:24 am #

    Love this post. And yes. Strong doesn’t necessarily mean actiony. It CAN, but strong can mean a lot of other things, as you said.

  5. Kris -Words That Fly May 11 2012 at 10:46 am #

    I think you make a great point. Strong can’t simply refer to those girls, who can get up and physical kick the antagonist’s ass. Where does that leave girls who know they could never be capable of such feats? Are we supposed to look at ourselves as perpetual weaklings and shut ourselves away and hope no one ever breaks down the door? Physical strength isn’t the only strength and books depicting girls who have the strength to tell someone ‘No’, or the strength to stop hurting themselves, or the strength to go against what society tells them because what they’re doing makes them feel right, are all the books that show us the different types of strength. Thank you for the great article.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 8:57 am #

      Haha, I think part of the reason why I’ve thought about this a lot is that I am not at all a physically strong girl. I’m reasonably fit and healthy, but I’m not strong and I’m a conscious pacifist. I don’t think that my lack of ability or interest in backhanding someone makes me a weak person, haha.

      Love all the different types of strength that can be demonstrated that you mentioned! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  6. Nicola May 11 2012 at 12:12 pm #

    Great post. I was actually just contemplating this the other day. I don’t like the idea that a ”strong” heroine must be someone who can get up and physically fight with a guy. And while I do think it’s important to have good strong role models, I don’t think it’s the be all and end all. There are PLENTY of real girls who are not good at handling situations, or speaking up for themselves or whatever, yet we don’t (or shouldn’t) shun them for it.

    • Julie May 11 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      I agree, Nicola! I think that we need to see every kind of girl represented. Reading about a girl who society might label as “weak” finding her own personal version of “strength” would be just as interesting to me.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 9:01 am #

      I completely agree with you on this, Nicola! Sometimes I think in our quest to portray strong females we often forget (esp as YA authors), that teenage girls are often NOT strong individuals, or are strong with a healthy dose of insecurity. Giving these girls something to identify with in fiction would be a great thing (although I think glamourizing weakness might also be a bad idea, a la a lot of PNR. A realistic character arc like what Julie’s suggested could be super awesome, though!).

      Really thought provoking comment! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Rowenna May 11 2012 at 12:27 pm #

    THANK you. I’ve begun to wish for *fewer* “strong” female protags because of the prototype I’ve seen “strong female protag” taking–an otherwise not very strong person who can kick butt or is mouthy. To me a strong character HAS character–has moral fortitude. But this is harder to convey and doesn’t fit an easy mold of “strong.”

    And while true strong protags like Katniss are great, they’re also a double edged sword (heh, strong female protags and swords…). They can inspire, sure, but they can also intimidate. Plenty of girls reading are shy, or quiet, or unsure of themselves. If we only present full-fledged strong women, how can we expect the shy or quiet reader to relate to them? Plenty of real-life women had to learn to be strong–more of our characters should show this, and should show different versions of strength. When we talk strong characters, we always talk Katniss–but what about Prim? By the end of the series, she was just as strong as Katniss, but in different ways.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 9:03 am #

      It’s a good question you raise about why we always talk about Katniss and never Prim. Perhaps part of it is because Prim was always a more peripheral, slightly idealized character, but it also likely highlights something about the way we’re drawn to obvious, physical strength. Or even more problematically defining strength in traditionally masculine terms (physicality etc). Also a fantastic point about readers being able to relate! 🙂

  8. Gretchen May 11 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I think my favorite type of female characters are the ones that learn to be strong. I think for me it’s more enjoyable, because then they’re more like me, they’re in the process of growing. If they just flash onto the scene as kickassery and full of badass smart comment giving girl, I have a problem relating to them. Mostly I have problems because the only way for them to grow or evolve is down. They become weak, they crawl into closets, let men become the center of the worlds, and when it all falls a part so do they. I want protags, especially female ones [although this really isn’t exclusive to gender because male protags suffer from this just the same], who continue to grow stronger and more confident, not the other way.

  9. Marina May 11 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    I think that the reason kickassery becomes confused with being strong is because violence is so glamorized in our society. The result can be seen in movies, books, tv-shows. To win you have to fight. I would go ahead and call this the effect of misogyny on society as well, because we are culturally told that violence is for men, because men are strong and brave and they’re usually only ones allowed to fight. So, when writers (both men and women) think, oh, I need a strong female character…the first thing that comes to mind is: I need to make her be able to kick-ass, make her an expert in martial arts, or archery, or whatever.
    This doesn’t just apply to female characters; I mean, how often does intelligence alone carry a character, especially a female character? I see it with male characters, take the Doctor, who despises weapons and uses a sonic screwdriver. Or even Artemis Fowl, who only uses his intelligence. But sadly, I can’t think of a character, wait… Veronica Mars (though I haven’t watched the show, I heard it on feministfrequency YouTube)… who uses intelligence and not violence, to solve her problems.

    • April Tucholke May 11 2012 at 9:57 pm #

      Veronica Mars is fully fleshed and brilliant. She’s reckless, and overly confident, and gets in over her head. She’s whip smart, with a sky high chip on her shoulder, and yet maintains vulnerability. I would love to see more characters like her. I definitely relate to this kind of strength, over the physical kickassery kind.

      • Vahini May 12 2012 at 9:08 am #

        Also, Veronica Mars is freaking awesome.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 9:07 am #

      Totally agreed on both the glamorization of violence and that having some of its roots in problematic ideas about masculinity, Marina. That’s a really good point, too, about intelligence alone rarely carrying a character although it makes me a bit sad to think that.

  10. Julie May 12 2012 at 2:52 am #

    I think Katniss Everdeen is a strong heroine for all the things you mentioned. There are strong heroines in every form of literature. There are characters who may not be a part of the action, but sit by and watch it happen. This doesn’t mean they aren’t strong. Maybe they’re fighting their inner demons. Maybe they’re fighting to be noticed or loved. I love a great kick-ass heroine who takes names, but I also like the ones who help those in need and change throughout the course of a novel. Heroines who take the high road when all hope is lost, but those who also known when to find middle ground are the ones who make want to continue turning the pages.

    • Vahini May 12 2012 at 9:08 am #

      That’s an interesting take on things. A heroine who takes the middle ground and is strong would be really interesting. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Julie! 🙂

  11. A. Barone May 13 2012 at 12:40 am #

    Diane Schwemm, author of the “Year I turned Sixteen” books presents the readers with four different protagonists who are all different in their own way, yet all strong females at the same time. They have their stumbling blocks and they whine a little, but they all go through a transformation which helps them to become better people in the end. Jane Austen’s female protagonists (at least the ones that I have read) are all equally strong women in their own right. They may be in a different age but they stick to what they believe in, they go through hardship and come out in a better place. Also, even though the stories were semi-somewhat based on her life, Laura Ingalls is an extremely strong character who spends her childhood growing up in all sorts of places and taking those experiences and shaping them into the woman that she became.

    All of these women are strong. They don’t “kick-ass” they don’t fight, they don’t have any particular skills which will make them useful in battle, but each of them are great role-models and are great pillars of strength within the worlds that they inhabit. I think where you see a tendency to move towards more action oriented novels you will get Katniss clones. If a story doesn’t have that sort of element to it then it is entirely possible for the author to give us a female character who we all can be proud of.

  12. Catherine Stine May 19 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    I agree. I don’t think a heroine has to have a dagger and a black belt in kick-as*ery to be a strong, fiery lead. You stated it well, so ’nuff said.

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