Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Exactly Makes a "Strong" Female Character?

I have noticed over the past few years that the current YA fiction establishment has been dictating to writers and authors that, in order to sell books in today's teen market, they need to create "strong, independent female characters." To be honest with you, I personally am fed up with self-proclaimed book critics blasting YA books left and right simply because they supposedly don't have the quintessential kick-butt young woman in the driver's seat of their novel.

Now, before you get yourself in a tizzy and start tossing girl-power rants at me, please hear me out.

Although it would be impossible to know with any certainty exactly where this push to generate Wonder Woman protagonists originated, it would be my guess that it probably arose from somewhere deep within the feminist publishing movement. I must first state off the bat that I am totally pro-women's equality in nearly everything, but I am by no means a die-hard feminist. Women are strange, mysterious and beautifully complex characters, but we are also unique in our own diversity. One size does not fit all. While some people complain that women are still regarded as inferior members of society (and in some countries we most certainly are) I am constantly being amazed at the power and influence that women enjoy in today's society, just not in the ways you would probably imagine.

While I enjoy reading YA and NA stories about strong female characters who can kick-butt just as well or even better than their male counterparts, I am also a realist who gets the fact that not every woman contains an assassin streak within her. In fact, I would assert that your average young woman reading these books has not yet acquired the mandatory skills and traits that today's YA climate declares a woman must have in order to be a "strong, independent young woman."

And that's totally okay.

Why? Because, unlike today's mouthpieces of the feminist movement that are constantly shouting at us on what makes a "real" woman, the true strength of the female is not defined by her ability to command and lead those around her. I would openly challenge that notion by declaring that a woman's strength and power lies in her ability to influence. This is a swift departure from the I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME ROAR mentality, lending more credibility to the saying ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. (Sorry for shouting!)

Don't know what I'm talking about? Think of a woman of influence in your own life--the one you respect above all others--the one you would do almost anything to please. She could be your mother, your grand-mother, your aunt, your cousin, boss, etc. No matter who she is, I am willing to bet you a bag of candy corn that she is not an assassin or Shadowhunter. I am also guessing that you don't consider her strong because of her take-no-prisoners attitude, but rather, her sphere of influence over you and others. Your sense of respect for this woman probably took months or years to forge; it didn't magically appear overnight after she was exposed to a barrel of toxic sludge. And her strength was probably acquired through trial by fire. Real fire.

But what does all this have to do with YA fiction?

I'm glad you asked. Young adult fiction is about teenagers going through some kind of trial, be it first love, coming-of-age, or any number of topics that have challenged youth since the dawn of time. It is, by it's very nature, fiction about inexperienced young adults who are (generally) still trying to figure life out. For those of us who are well advanced in years, we realize that we STILL don't have it all figured out yet but are much more stable (and much wiser!) than we were in our teenage years. I would argue that women (and men) are not born strong--it is something that is acquired along the way. I see a baby being pretty much a blank slate, and although he/she is made up of genes and characteristics that will make him/her prone to developing various strengths and weaknesses, I believe it is primarily the experiences along life's path that develop a person into a "strong" personality.
So - why should we expect YA characters to have everything figured out by the time they hit the magic age of 18? Why is it that snarky girls who mouth off to their parents and other figures of authority in YA books are considered "strong, independent young women" while those young women who are quietly trying to work through their issues of insecurity and unrequited love are considered "weak" characters? The character who overcomes suicidal tendencies and matures into a woman of integrity is, in my opinion, far more interesting, admirable and rewarding to read about than some orphaned superhuman girl who goes through life knocking out one perfectly-timed zinger after the other.

But fiction isn't about reality -- it's a means of escapism!

True. But there is only so much suspension of disbelief that the reader can take, and it must be handled with respect in order for a book to be considered within the realm of reason. One of the biggest criticisms that has been leveled against the character Bella in the Twilight books is the fact that many consider her a "weak" character because she allows a MAN (God forbid!) to rule her life. Critics of the books contend that she isn't a "strong, independent young woman." But isn't that purely subjective? After all, Bella did manage to snag the hot young vampire that all the other girls in Forks wanted and had been chasing for years. Edward fell for her like a ton of bricks, and she fell in love with him, and the two of them married and lived happily ever after. Bella Swan got her happily ever after through perseverance and by using her sphere of influence. How is that not a strength?
In my own series, The Carnelian Legacy, we follow the story through the eyes of the insecure protagonist, Marisa MacCallum. When we first meet her, she is searching for her own identity at a time when her life has gone into a tailspin after the death of her father. She behaves and reacts as a typical seventeen-year-old who is just trying to find her own way while trying to deal with her own mourning. Some readers who are quick to judge her as being immature and a brat will never enjoy the satisfaction of watching her mature and grow as a character (watch out for the spoiler here!) in the way she eventually becomes the wisest and fairest queen the Carnelian world has ever known. It isn't about instant gratification -- poof! -- and in 36 pages, she's a strong character.

But in all honesty, would you rather read another story about a girl who starts out as a picture-perfect Mary Jane, or would you rather be captivated by the story of a broken young woman's journey to conquer her own self-doubt? It doesn't matter how you answer because it's all subjective anyway. You may like the kick-butt assassin or the self-loathing teen, either one is fine. But don't try to tell others that one story is more important than the other; that one is strong and the other is weak.
Because what you might consider a strength is what others might consider a weakness.
How would you define a "strong female character?" I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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