February 22, 2012

All Kinds of Strong

I grew up loving fairy tales (still do in fact), in particular The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen and The Twelve Dancing Princesses by the Brothers Grimm. I also loved Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and all of those fun princess fairy tales. I hope I have daughters so I actually have an excuse to have tea parties and watch Disney Princess movies on a regular basis (like, more than I already do).

I was reading a guest interview with Jessica Grey about her novel Awake: A Fairytale, and in it she referred to a post she had written on how some Disney Princesses get a bad rap for needing a prince to save them. Her point (one that I agree wholeheartedly with) is that these girls are strong in their own ways, and if anything it's the princes who have been "short-changed" (read her post, it covers this better than I do here).

While on Google images I stumbled across a picture of the princesses labelled with the respective bad messages their stories supposedly put forth (here), to which I say [insert raspberry sound]. I'm not here to debate feminist ideals or to dissect fairy tales. I am here to say that there are positive messages to teach your children in these tales just as in many other stories despite what some would say. Like I said before, I grew up on fairy tales and I have never felt like I needed a man to save or complete me. I am woman, hear me roar (not).

Maybe to counteract these years of 'bad messages' (*eye roll*) or even to avoid popularizing other helpless and hapless characters like Bella Swan (Sarah Belliston, however, raises some interesting points about this here) we've moved toward the:

Strong Female Protagonist
(aka the Anti-Bella*)

The strong female protag (SFP) is a great idea with loads of good messages to direct at girls. BUT it's equally important for girls to know that there are many different kinds of strong, and not just kickass strong à la Katniss and Tris (though both are characters that I love to bits). 

**Caution: Potential for Mild Spoilerage Ahead. You've Been Warned.** 

Strong does not necessarily mean leading a rebellion and I-can-whoop-yer-arse physical ability. While that might be nice, even handy sometimes, most of us find our strength in other far less dangerous areas. I love reading about these characters that do things I will never do (I can't even punch and have always referred to myself as a 'wiener arm'), but I also like to read about SFPs who demonstrate more relatable forms of fortitude (not that these ladies aren't relatable**). For the sake of argument, let's look at some other types of SFPs in YA:

The Hermiones (Harry Potter)
While Hermione does kick butt in a few instances, her strength lays in her wits, her intelligence, and her refusal to let others define her. Hermione frequently saves the day with her compendium of hard-earned knowledge. Harry is the hero, but Hermione saves this hero's butt more than once.

The Arias (Under the Never Sky)
Aria is neither a fighter nor an in-your-face kind of gal and that is something that I can relate to. Her brand of strength is in bravery, perseverance, and continually pushing onward despite the odds or the pain. I think one of my favourite paragraphs in this story is the following (not a spoiler): 
"She had no illusions of becoming a master knife fighter...But she also knew she'd given herself a better chance. And in life, at least in her new life, chances were the best she could hope for. They were like her rocks. Imperfect and surprising and maybe better in the long run than certainties. Chances, she thought, were life." (p. 294)
While Aria is forced to toughen up, she doesn't become ultra skilled at fighting all of a sudden. Her approach is practical and she knows that it's her best shot even if she'll never be the greatest at it.

The Cats (Shine)
Strength for Cat means never backing down from uncovering the identity of the person who assaulted her friend Patrick. Despite the many subtle and not-so-subtle warnings/threats to step back and stop prying, she pushes on seeking justice for Patrick because she knows no one else will. Cat's dealing with her own stuff that makes this especially difficult, but she forges on nonetheless.

The Cassias (Matched)
I haven't yet read Crossed (I know, I'm silly) but the Cassia I see in Matched shows her strength by refusing to accept the life that has been forced on her, by bucking the status quo. Her rebellion is quiet and non-physical (at least it is in Matched, not sure about Crossed) but means standing up to the powers that be to follow her heart and to choose the life she wants despite the consequences.

Lola is all about not letting others define her. Her wacky fashion sense might draw stares, but it's part of who she is and she embraces it. Despite self-confidence issues brought on by a personal setback, ultimately Lola refuses to let this crush her. She also doesn't fall into the arms of the first guy to come along, who's ready and willing to put the pieces back together, much as she wants to. Lola doesn't need him to save her, she needs to save herself, and to find strength and worth within.

I don't know about you, but I'm glad that there are many different types of strength in YA fiction, despite all of the attention cast on the Katnisses and Trises** in stories. With this push towards strong female protagonists, I hope that everyone remembers this. I'd like to see more kick butt girls, but more than that I'd like to see more examples of girls kicking butt with other forms of strength. Whether it's relying on her wits, showing bravery in adversity, or refusing to let people define her, I'd love to see more of that girl in YA. Why? She's all kinds of strong.



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*As far as I know, this isn't an actual thing. More like a subconscious aim that many writers have.
**All of the books I've mentioned are ones that I love, so no slight is intended in any way to them.

21 comments:

  1. I absolutely adore fairy tales...The Wild Swans story used to be one of my favorite one :D And don´t get me started on Disney movies, I need to get myself Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty.

    I agree with you that growing up with fairy tales does not make little girls less of strong women later (*joining you in your non-roaring*).

    Your examples are great. What all these characters have in common is that they forego expectations to find themselves, in one way or another, they power through when things gets tough and they show their inner strength in different situations.

    GREAT post, Jaime!

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    1. Thanks, Elodie! :-) When something keeps coming up on the blogs, and when it's something that I'm currently working through in my sci fi WiP, I feel like it's worth mentioning and tossing my two cents in. And as for fairy tales being bad examples to girls, I think there are far worse examples out there and that have far more influence.

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  2. My favourite female character is Lyra from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. She radiates strength but never once does she have to use physical strength to prove it.

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    1. I haven't read the whole series and I read the first one quite awhile ago, but yeah I can totally see that. It feels lately like strength has become synonymous with being tough/kickass. I hope that's not the message girls are receiving.

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  3. This is a great post! There are a lot of different kinds of strength, and the best thing we can do for our girls is to acknowledge what makes their different strengths so wonderful.

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    1. Exactly! That's kind of what I was going for in this post. Not all of us can (or should) be a Katniss (though wouldn't that be kind of awesome?) :-)

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  4. This is a fantastic post! All your examples are great (I skipped Aria since I haven't yet read Under The Never Sky - I'm sure I agree though!), and I love that there's such strength in female characters in such different ways. I do hope others can remember this among all the Katniss promo out there.

    Also? I too grew up with fairy tales but I like to think I'm a pretty badass, {non}roaring woman haha.

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    1. I love Katniss in so many ways, but girls should not feel any less strong because they aren't 'kickass' or 'tough'. I hope that message comes through loud and clear in what I'm writing. Oh, and fairy tales rock, don't they? :-)

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  5. Let's here it for Luna Lovegood! Talk about a girl who does her own thing and doesn't care what others think. She never seeks revenge against the many that mock her or write her off (remember the end of book 5--she knows people have hidden her things to annoy her, but she just looks for them, expecting they'll turn up eventually). Some might see this as being a doormat. I see it as showing a level of self-confidence and self-assurance that her detractors seriously lack. Yes, she can get into the fray with her wand blazing--but I think that's by no means the greatest show of her strength.

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    1. Yes! Luna is awesome :-) She definitely goes against the flow and that's all part of her charm and her strength. She too provided important information and support to the hero of the story. Yay for Luna! :-)

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  6. So, so true! A girl doesn't need to physically strong to be a strong female lead. I love female characters who are independent, who think for themselves and don't bow down to social pressures. And they're such great role models for teen readers! Love your examples.

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    1. I love strong female protags no matter how that strength is shown, but I can definitely relate more to the ones who are inwardly strong and not so much physically so :-)

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  7. This is such a great post! Although I'm definitely partial to Tris. :)

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    1. Thanks, Liz! I love Tris and can't wait for Insurgent (did you see the snippet from the link on Veronica Roth's blog?)! Such a great character, even if it seems like I'm saying the opposite above :-)

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  8. I'm walking away thoroughly educated and thoughtful. Thank you for this. I'll have to find a way to link to it for my readers.

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    1. Thank you! And thanks for considering linking to it :-)

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  9. Great list of truly strong YA heroines (though I've heard arguments for bella's strength which I can kind of see, she always infuriated me while reading the books, like GET A SPINE! but I digress) Your love of fairytales (which I share) makes me think of the best retelling of fairytales I've ever read- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter. While firmly not YA, those stories are incredible and gorgeously written. And the heroines are unabashedly feminists.

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    1. Yeah, I recently read an argument for Bella's strength as well, and I can give them some points, but mostly she just feels kind of 2D to me. It's really causing me to step back and look at my female protag and make sure she's better developed (and that people get why the love interest actually likes her). I'll have to check out The Bloody Chamber! I like fairy tales and it doesn't bother me if they are more 'adult'. I'd love to do my own retellings some day, but pick some of the more obscure ones, or tales from other cultures. We'll see :-)

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  10. Love this post. Lately, I'm all about the quiet strength (maybe it's because I've been on a realistic/contemporary kick). I think context is important, too--in the world of many fairy tales, only quieter forms strength were available to women. They were tough in terms of what was available to them. Emotional fortitude can be as badass as archery.

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    1. I think you're totally right about the world of fairy tales and the types of strength available to women. You also have to think about when a lot of these tales first cropped up (who knows when that was anyway?) and were recorded. Different time, different set of customs, etc. And I agree with you that mental and emotional strength can be every bit as badass as the physical kind :-)

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  11. Jaime, thanks so much for the mention! I'm glad you liked the post...I may occasionally go on rants :) I've seen that Disney Princess poster too and it makes me so annoyed, as in physically agitated and twitchy. I adore the title of this post, I think we need "all kinds of strong" t-shirts and merchandise! Yes!

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