Author: Foz Meadows
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a strong female character in the realms of young adult fiction. This article by Laura Miller in particular caught my eye, not just for its (potentially inflammatory) comparison of Katniss Everdeen – the hunter-warrior protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy – with Twilight’s Bella Swann, but because it touches on what are, for me, the two main lynchpins of the debate. First is the question of agency: the extent to which a given heroine takes an active role in deciding her fate, whatever it might be, with preference being given to decision-making processes featuring a modicum of sense. Second is the matter of domesticity versus what in straight fiction reads as pluck or feistiness but which in SF/fantasy might be better known as kickarsity – that is to say, a separation between heroines who are content to fulfil non-aggressive roles, and those who are forever going into battle, whether verbally or physically.
While domestic heroines are both well-drawn and intelligently represented in adult literature, fictional and fantastic alike – Belinda Starling’s Dora Damage and George R. R. Martin’s Catelyn Stark both spring to mind – I find it harder (though far from impossible) to think of positive examples in the YA field. This could well be due to my own preference for reading about feisty/kickass women; and yet I can’t shake the feeling that, at least as far as the current crop of teen paranormal romance novels is concerned, the bias goes deeper than that. While I agree with Miller’s point that Bella Swann has perhaps been overly condemned in the public sphere, her actions are nonetheless those of a woman obsessed with the men in her life above all else, and defined by her romantic relationships to the exclusion of all else. Miller takes a stab at defending Bella’s (and by extension, Meyer’s) logic, saying that at least the character is honest in her passions, able to admit them freely and act accordingly, as opposed to Collins’s Katniss Everdeen, who is perennially driven by doubt. In abstract, I agree that it’s an interesting thought, but given the lengths to which Bella’s character goes, I would submit that there’s a crucial difference between being guided by love to discard convention and being so blinded by it (or poorly written) as to completely disregard common sense.
Here is my worry with regard to YA paranormal romance: that some adults writing retrospectively about teenagers are, either consciously or not, choosing to conflate the glorious certainty which often accompanies adolescent love with a cast-iron excuse to behave like a twit. Surely, this logic seems to run, it doesn’t matter if the boy is effectively a stalker or the girl defined solely by his attentions: if the pair are intended to be together for all time – and if the author deliberately signposts this affinity to the reader – then what might otherwise read as creepy, clumsy or cackhanded instead becomes sweet, both hinting at and affirming a bond which extends beyond the boundaries of the actual narrative. How does this relate to domestic heroines, I hear you cry? Simple: because Bella and her ilk, when written with depth, constitute the non-aggressive leading ladies of young adult fiction. I do not intend that as a derogatory comment – or at least, not derogatory of domestic heroines. What I’m trying to get at is that there is no inherent contradiction in the idea of a romantic, homebody-or-at-least-non-warrior-type of female protagonist who is still capable of acting with a modicum of rationality.
A good example is Bianca, the main character of Claudia Gray’s Evernight series. Though genuinely and powerfully in love with the troubled Lucas, a starcrossed lover’s scenario which generates a good portion of the plot, Bianca is nonetheless able to notice his failings and request, not unreasonably, that he try to improve – and more, to make similar efforts on her own behalf, at his urging. In a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been in a healthy relationship, each is willing to work towards bettering themselves for the sake of the other without sacrificing their principles or individuality. Neither does Bianca use her emotions as a crutch: if she trusts in Lucas, it’s because he’s earned it, and not because of some flimsy belief that Love Must Always Conquer All. This, ultimately, is my main qualification for a good domestic heroine: no matter how guided by love or idealism she may be, either intelligence or common sense with regard to those feelings must be present. Otherwise, her agency is only the illusion of such. Trusting that the hero will always rescue his princess is not a decision, especially where the heroine has never bothered to consider the hero in an objective light – rather, it is a passive lying-back, a waiting for the world to return to normal. Domesticity is one thing; damselishness is another.
Right now, my favourite YA heroine is far and away Caroline Hepworth, of Michael Pryor’s The Laws of Magic series. Set on an alternate Earth with magic and steampunk technology just before the dawn of WWI, the books present Caroline as the love interest, foil and companion of protagonist Aubrey Fitzwilliam, son of the former Albion Prime Minister. Aubrey is extremely clever, desperate to prove himself capable in his own right, and full of elaborate schemes. Caroline is self-composed, deeply intelligent, observant and – in a combination that cannot help but appeal to my feminist, geeky soul – both a suffragette and a ninja. The fact that said qualities are seamlessly worked into the story as opposed to standing out like a pair of splintered thumbs is a testament to Pryor’s skill as an author. More importantly for the purpose at hand, not once does Caroline roll over in the face of Aubrey’s machinations, either political or romantic. While still being a believable character, possessed of her own strengths and weaknesses, she nonetheless holds her own, walking away – and teaching him a lesson – whenever he attempts to win her by underhanded means, but still allowing him to learn from those errors and try again. Their romance reads as an exciting balance of two strong but complimentary personalities gradually learning to trust and love one another – and really, is that so much to ask on a regular basis?
Heroines in YA literature have come a long way in recent years, not least due to the tireless dedication of many excellent writers, and yet there’s still confusion in many instances as to whether it’s OK for a heroine to be domestic or romantic without sending teenage girls the wrong message. Setting aside the obvious fact that every reader, young or old, will take something different from the same story, my answer is: yes, of course it’s fine. Because the issue isn’t about passivity vs. aggression, or independence vs. reliance, or any such dichotomy: instead, it’s about characters who are real, whose actions are believable, and whose motives – while still open to influence, whim and other such human irrationalities – are nonetheless based in reality. Fulfil those criteria, I cannot help but think, and strength will follow.
Tags: Aubrey Fitzwilliam, Authors, Bella Swann, Caroline Hepworth, Claudia Gray, Domesticity, Evernight, Fantasy, feminism, George R. R. Martin, Girls, Heroines, Katniss Everdeen, Laura Miller, Michael Pryor, Romance, Stephenie Meyer, Strength, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, The Laws of Magic, Twilight, Women, YA, YA fiction, Young Adult