I’ve kept largely quiet on the commotion surrounding comedian Daniel Tosh and a woman in the audience who said he joked about how funny it would be if she were gang raped. The resulting debate is disturbing in many ways,* as the (largely male) negative response shows the pervading rape culture is going strong and perhaps even assimilating into some aspects of society where it hasn’t previously flourished. More than that, women are given the role of victim and forced to play the part. Any woman who doesn’t must be ostracized and shamed, or the foundations of society will fall.
As a woman, I find myself very aware—and frequently disturbed and angered—by how modern culture portrays women in general and teen/pre-teen girls in particular. We are treated as victims who need dominant men to protect us from everything—including ourselves. We are blamed for others’ behavior and threatened or mocked when we point out abuses and violations. We are told that we are foolish and don’t know enough to make vital decisions about our own lives or the lives of those who depend upon us. We are seen as weak and unworthy of being called equals.
I recently blogged about the problem of “bad boy” characters in young adult fiction. On the flip side of this is the dangerous portrayal of “innocent girls” who must rely upon men for their sense of worth. It’s a subject I’m passionate about, and something constantly at the back of my thoughts: What does this book/movie/article/conversation tell girls about themselves and their place in the world? If the answer is negative, then what can I do to counteract the degrading messages and possibly even change things for the better?
One way I’m doing so is through my work as an agent by seeking books with strong female characters, who can show teenage girls that their worth does not depend upon beauty or wealth or popularity. And most especially, that her merit does not depend upon the love or attention of a guy.
When I talk about wanting “strong” characters, I don’t mean butt-kicking girls who come into their own when they gain super powers, although I do enjoy those stories as well. I’ve noticed that in YA fiction those girls are often shown as outwardly strong but inwardly weak and reliant upon male protectors/guides/guardians for their happiness and security. The frequency with which I see this frustrates me to no end. Even though I love the idea of a knight in shining armor coming to my aid, I want it to be as an equal and not as me simply a damsel in distress.
Don’t mistake this as me saying that only be one type of female protagonist is allowed in YA lit. Nor am I saying that girls who have been victimized have to turn Carrie and destroy everything in their path. What I’m calling for is an accurate and realistic portrayal of how girls in powerless situations would fare. And that any strength they attain is not reliant upon the love interest.
An honest portrayal would not include a storyline where the guy does all the saving, controls nearly every aspect of the heroine’s life, and ends with them perfectly happy and in love for the rest of their lives. There is a break in logic inherent in those plots that could be potentially damaging to girls who don’t yet have real-world experience to temper what she’s told by the media about how love works. Nothing is ever that easy or perfect. And relying on a guy for happiness is pretty much doomed to failure.
While there are numerous flaws story-wise in Breaking Dawn (the final book in the Twilight series), I consider it the best of the four books for the simple fact that Bella finally gets a spine. Instead of her entire world and sense of worth revolving on her sparkly soulmate, she now has a daughter who means equally as much to her, albeit in a different way. I don’t think it’s Bella becoming a vampire that gives her strength; it’s the need to protect her child and the subsequent understanding that she doesn’t need to wait for Edward to figure it out. She is smart and determined enough to take care of it herself. She doesn’t need to rely on others to fix all her problems. While the physical aspects of the beauty and physical strength she gains as a vampire play some part in her initial increase in self-esteem, it is her continuing self-reliance that offers the most encouragement. She is now an equal with Edward, no longer just his puppy dog.
Sometimes the strongest characters start out the weakest. Consider Ani from The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Although a princess, she’s always lived in the shadow of her powerful queen mother. Wallflower would be the perfect way to describe Ani, always fading into the background and never making a fuss. On her way to a foreign kingdom and an arranged marriage, she is betrayed by her strong-spirited lady-in-waiting.
Ani is very tempted to give up and nearly does so, but as she is forced to struggle through her difficulties and self-doubt, she begins to find strength in the support of her friends, who show her that she’s always been an incredible person. The fact that she never becomes a warrior or expert statesman has no affect on the value she finds within herself. She becomes strong by learning to trust her own knowledge, talents, and abilities, which gives her the determination to fight back against her oppressors. While there is a dashing prince, he does not save her so much as lend his strength to what she has already accomplished herself.
So when I say that I want to find books with strong female characters, what I’m really looking for are girls who are becoming strong in their own way and in whatever situations that confront them. That includes girls who never attain a complete confidence or sense of self. Even after the battle is won, these girls might still be weak in many ways, but they are beginning to see themselves as valuable individuals and not just as pawns or victims. For some girls, making their own decisions and sticking to them makes them stronger than the toughest Buffy or Katniss could ever be.
These are the girls I want to find. These are the examples I want to show teens—that they can overcome, and they can do it themselves.
*Click here to see the article that triggered these thoughts. The body of the article is excellent, but the comments are frightening in the level of excuse for the comedian and blaming of the woman. Be advised, it could well be triggering. I’d suggest reading the article and avoiding the comments completely.