Strong Female Characters™

I was asked a question on Tumblr today, and I thought I'd post my answer here, too. The portrayal of female characters, and the response to them by readers and critics, is something I've felt strongly about for a while.

Anonymous asked: What do you think about the portrayal 
of girls in YA fiction? Good, bad or just right?

"YA fiction" is a blanket term for an enormous wealth of writing, and it’s impossible to generalise, just as it’s impossible to generalise about adult or children’s fiction. If I really had to make an overall judgement, though: 

I believe that we’re moving towards more complex and interesting female characters who have lives and goals outside the pursuit of a love interest, which is fantastic. There are so many brilliant female characters in YA – possibly more so, in fact, than in adult fiction. Most of the big YA franchises are about, and written by, women. It’s amazing, and one of the reasons I love YA so much. 

 Having said that, I can’t shake the feeling that female characters are judged in a slightly different manner to their male counterparts, because they are now expected to be STRONG FEMALE CHARACTERS™, rather than characters who happen to be female. What I call the Katniss/Bella dichotomy has emerged, where a girl is either labelled as a Katniss (SHE’S SO KICKASS AND DEFIES GENDER STEREOTYPES) or a Bella (SHE’S SO WEAK AND MARRIES SOMEONE UGH). This has – harmfully, in my opinion – caused many of the former sort of female character to be persistently compared to Katniss, presumably to tempt readers with the prospect of another Strong, Independent Female Lead Who Kicks Loads of Ass All the Time™. 

 I’ve spoken about this before, but I want to reiterate it: I adore Katniss Everdeen. She is an emotionally complex, fascinating character, and it’s right that she and Suzanne Collins should be praised for that. But to reduce her to a 2D blueprint for Strong Female Characters™ is to do her a disservice. She is more than a blueprint. If you’ve read Mockingjay in particular, you’ll know that Katniss has moments of great vulnerability, passivity, and weakness, as we all do. She is used as a puppet by District 13. She hurts. She panics. She falls in love with the safety and kindness offered by Peeta. She cares about her little sister and her mother. Yes, she’s brilliant with a bow, intelligent and resourceful, but she is not an emotionless cardboard cut-out that coolly steamrolls her enemies by Kicking Loads of Ass All the Time. She is unique. She is complicated. That’s what makes her human. 

 It’s also doing a disservice to many other female characters in YA to compare them solely to Katniss. As I’ve said, Katniss Everdeen is unique. So is Tris Prior. So is Hermione Granger. So are Karou and Celaena Sardothien and Clary Fray and yes, so is Paige Mahoney. We need to celebrate what makes these women different from one another; to treat them as unique human beings, rather than replicas of Katniss. Katniss should not be the touchstone for the worth of a female character. Focusing purely on the similarities inevitably leads to bandwagon thinking (i.e. “Oh, not another Strong Female Character™, these damned female authors are ripping off The Hunger Games again!”). Do you see all male characters regularly compared to Sherlock Holmes, or Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson? No, you don’t, because it would sound ridiculous. Male characters are examined as individuals, and we need to do that with our ladies, too. It’s time for female characters to be defined by what they are – not by the female characters around them, or that came before them. 

There also has to be room for characters who are feminine: who wear dresses, who love makeup and doing their hair, who are masterful cooks, who adore the colour pink and would really like a boyfriend or a baby. Those characters musn’t be snootily dismissed as “Bellas” or “anti-Katnisses”. There should be room for the portrayal of all sorts of girls. YA is a wonderful place, with some of the most daring and inventive books in the industry, and everyone should feel welcome to join in.