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Kickass women: Feminism and 'the strong female character' in fantasy & YA

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 19 March 2016, 18:44 IST

Finally, the era of tough heroines in the world of YA fiction is upon us.

Women characters are finally moving past the traditional supporting roles they have been frequently forced to play (think Hermione Granger).

Most of these new-age heroines are characterised by self-confidence, gumption, independence, and brazenness. The trend largely began with Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games series that allowed female protagonists to have motives other than just romance. The Divergent series by Veronica Roth followed it closely.

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And isn't it just the best feeling when you find an author who depicts female characters well? Robert Jordan's fantasy series Wheel of Time was particularly progressive for that reason. There may have been three male leads, but the women in the book are strong individuals with well-rounded personalities in every possible way - from Nynaeve and Aviendha to Moiraine and Min.

Fan art for Wheel of Time (depicting Moiraine Damodred)

George RR Martin too did not shy away from incorporating the strong woman in his books - you only have to look towards young Arya Stark, her mother Catelyn Stark, Brienne of Tarthn and even the evil, conniving Cersei Lannister to see that.

In fact, when asked how he dealt with female characters, George RR Martin once said in an interview, "I just write them as people."

The changing tides

The biggest advantage the YA genre has in offering new roles for female characters is the setting - which always necessitates that the heroine take action against an oppressive regime. A large-scale rebellion of sorts or a fight for survival is expected in the genre, which means female characters, almost by default, must have active roles in fighting for liberation.

All this, of course, comes with its own set of issues.

1. One-sided personality

One of the biggest trends is giving female characters masculine traits to make them heroes.instead of heroines. Don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with a girl swinging a sword or kicking ass. In fact, that's pretty awesome.

But when that same character cries or has a romantic moment, many readers reject the character because she's suddenly not "heroic" anymore.

This idea is damaging to female characters. It's the idea that heroines need to be unidimensional in order to be believable or respected.

As a woman, I have many aspects to my personality - both feminine traits and masculine traits. So a character does not have to be only one way in order to be believable.

Sarah J Mass' Throne of Glass series depicts the two sides well - the main character Celaena Sardothien is a feared assassin. A tough fighter. That being said, she has also been imprisoned for a couple of years leading up to the story, and this recent past makes her a bit weaker than her usual self. She even throws up a couple of times, and gets exposed to some light romance.

Credit: Bloomsbury

Many readers on Goodreads found this combination unbelievable or too girly. "She liked candy! Why would an assassin like candy?"

Maybe because she likes candy? Why do female characters have to be solely of one kind? Why can't they kick ass and like candy? Men like candy too (In fact, people around me with the most intense cases of sweet tooth are men!)

2. The 'strong female character trope'

She's expected to be strong, where "strong" means unflinching and undeveloped. There must be no hesitation, doubt or sadness - that would immediately make her look whiny and weak. All this only puts the heroine into a more restrictive narrative box instead of freeing her and being about "girl power".

The trope has become so ingrained that even critics are now quick to criticise female characters for not being "strong" enough, for being "weak", simply because they're affected by the dramatic events around them, or because they're not immediately or completely in control of their situation.

This is one of the main reasons why fans love Katniss Everdeen. Her story is among the few where female characters who are leaders are forced to make difficult decisions - and don't emerge from them unscathed.

Fan art

Katniss is a warrior and a leader, but one who is scarred by her experiences in the arena and by the destruction of District 12. She comes out of her first turn in the arena with PTSD, and she's left deaf in one ear. By the end of her second time in the arena, she's been deeply traumatised by the Capitol.

And that's what we need: a narrative that says you can be strong and vulnerable at the same time. You don't have to be 100% unaffected by things to be brave, strong and emotionally resilient.

3. Barely any positive female-female relationships

We see books and authors very loudly hailed as feminist and it's honestly stunning how often these books feature no positive female-female relationships; they're just very strong independent women.

But especially in YA, while describing teen years, when friendships (or the sadness/confusion of being unable to maintain friendships) are so vital, I can't stand how we completely erase the importance of such female-female equations.

Again, to beat this very stereotype, Mass wove in another female character in the Throne of Glass series. Better still, Celaena's friendship with Nehemiah is actually central to the plot. They make an awesome pair - full of fire and female empowerment. Otherwise, on average you get to see toxic friendships, the kind marred by gossip, jealousy and competition.

Which is why it would be great if more YA books featured strong female-female friendships - where the 'friend' is the kind who isn't simply reduced to only giving advice about relationships. The kind of 'friend' who fights monsters or evil governments right alongside the heroine.

4. The men get relegated to secondary characters

It's interesting how newer examples of feminist content are not just defined by how amazing their women are - that's a given. You've also got the added value or reversing the roles of men and women in some books.

For example, in The Half Life of Molly Pierce by Katrina Leno, it seems as though a typical love-triangle will emerge with Molly being the object of two brothers' attention. But by the end of it, you can clearly read between the lines and see that the book is not about the brothers - but solely about Molly and her struggles.

So instead of watching Molly be swept away by the emotional pulls of love and lust, Leno's male characters serve as a device to simply further Molly's own journey to find herself.

5. Almost no references to sexual assault and rape

Despite the importance of romance in young adult dystopias, few popular novels in the genre discuss the subject of sex.

Divergent, in both its book and movie forms, is among the few series that directly addresses sexuality, including sexual assault and rape. In the book, there is a brief instance when the narrator, Tris, is abducted and groped by a male initiate before Four, her love interest, rescues her.

This assault is used to drive the next scene, in which Four and Tris are drawn closer to each other as a result of her vulnerability and his worry for her.

But the attack serves to highlight one more thing: that Tris, as a strong woman, threatens several of the male initiates with her strength.


Now those who have a more discerning eye will happily use the Bechdel test - and require that feminist literature (in whatever form) must involve character growth, self-sufficiency, and a marked non-reliance on any male character in the book.

But what we have to continue hoping for are characters where there is a marked difference between a "strong female character" and a female character who is actually strong.

And before I forget, what we really need are five Katniss Everdeens and Hermione Grangers for every Bella Swann and Anastasia Steele.

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First published: 19 March 2016, 18:44 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.