Feminism’s third wave has made a considerable mark on literature in recent years, particularly within the YA age bracket. Heroines like Katniss from The Hunger Games and Divergent’s Tris Prior have been hailed as ideal role models for young girls growing up in a society which seems more interested in their appearance than achievements. After all, these are girls who are taking the bad guys head on, doing the fighting by themselves, leading rebellions – and isn’t that what a strong woman is meant to do?
Well, maybe not.
Too often have I only heard the term ‘strong female character’ thrown around when dealing with dystopian or action novels – when our girl has picked up a weapon of her choice, pulled on a pair of old boots, and rolled her eyes at typically feminine characters as she blasts through the opposition. Cue the explosions. Cue the wind machine. Not convinced? Check out any list of strong female characters in YA on Goodreads. You can almost guarantee that the ‘strength’ they are referring to is physical.
This consistent association between the strength of a female character and her ability to adapt to stereotypically masculine activities (mainly physical) and characteristics is unsettling at best. Not because it’s wrong for a girl to be more stereotypically masculine, or because it’s better for girls to be girly, but because it sends out the message that girls are only ‘strong’ when they can act like boys. Fight as well, run as fast, command teams and armies just as well – girls are ‘better’, ‘more feminist’ when they can be one of the boys.
In no way do I want to undermine the characterisation of action heroines. I think both Katniss and Tris are great, complex characters who each have an important story to tell, but my point is that I’m tired of hearing about how ‘strong’ these female characters are because they can be soldiers and rebels. I’m tired of a girl’s strength being measured by how well she fits in with the boys. I’m tired of standardly feminine traits and strength not being readily linked.
Masculinity doesn’t make a heroine anymore than it does a hero – and it’s time we started exploring the emotional and mental strengths of those underappreciated literary ladies.