Thursday, April 11, 2019

The YA Heroine: Why Empowered Women Empower Women

Lately, female characters in YA fantasy have been making their impact on modern culture . . . but are their steps worth following in?  ♦ 
It’s an ordinary day when you enter a bookstore and pick up a novel with a female protagonist. The genre is YA fantasy, occasionally science fiction. As you begin reading the inside of the jacket cover, you reflect on your recent cravings for these heroine-driven plots. They’re appealing, dynamic, and you’ve noticed a rising interest invested in strong female characters, both in film and in literature. And while discrimination against any book is not in your nature, the one in your hand is extremely attractive, so you go ahead and give the book a chance.
  The first three chapters are great. The author obviously seems to know what they’re doing...and then it happens again. Your wonderful female protagonist changes before your very eyes: she becomes a man. Without any warning, she starts dressing like one, acting like one, stomping on male hearts with her stiletto boots, and crushing any telltale signs that might depict her as weak. You realize that none of this would be a problem for you if this transformation was only a small part of who she was, one dimension of many. Instead, it envelopes the entirety of who she is as a character, and it just doesn’t sit right.
   This example reflects a glaring issue concerning the development of female characters in YA fantasy. The stereotypes between highly feminine and completely masculinized heroines have made little progress in dissolving. On one side of the spectrum, the character may render the portrait of romanticized grace and beauty and swoon at the very notion of conflict, and thus she’ll be seen as a soft, useless character. On the other hand, she might be a complete carbon-copy of a man: all swagger and violence, unable (or unwilling) to have a love interest because it would chip away at her façade, and thus is often seen as a real heroine for her “strength.” These are just simple depictions of the stereotypes, but they portray the common prejudices against vulnerable female characters. In the end, making her strong (via masculinity) just won’t cut it, because despite that strength, she’s underdeveloped, unrelatable, and ultimately disempowered.
   To better understand how to dismantle this stereotype, it’s important to understand first the difference between having a “strong” heroine and an “empowered” one. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, "strong" is defined as “having or marked by great physical power,” “not mild or weak,” and “not easily injured or disturbed,” all definitions, you’ll note, that seem to be coded not just along traditional gender lines but stereotypically-male ones. This male-centric conception of “strength” is clearly seen in the “strong heroine,” the one who stomps on hearts and is successful by denying (or hiding) her femininity, and the one who is most represented in YA fantasy. In multiple YA novels, this type of heroine easily gets caught up in the physicality of her character but lacks the ability to truly feel or empathize. For example, 18-year-old Eona, the protagonist in Alison Goodman’s novel, Eon, cultivates her ability to use Dragon Magic to become a Dragoneye, but she parades as a boy for many years to do it. Under the guise of a male name and a male appearance, Eona’s true identity, when revealed, forces her to walk the bridge between man and woman. Replicating her as more of a man is the simplest formula for coding her as “strong”—but it’s the most dangerous for her dimensionality as a female character.
   The "empowered" heroine, however, could be the remedy for this. The term “empowered” refers to “[giving] someone the authority or power to do something; to make someone stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.” Heroines are meant to represent real females, whether in fiction or not. Therefore, they shouldn’t just be physically represented, but psychologically “real” as well. They shouldn’t simply surpass the hardships in their story with ease but instead should reserve the ability to perceive, struggle, and learn from these hardships as well.
   So, why won’t “strong” cut it?

“Strong” heroines appear as one-dimensional archetypes, often of physical strength, but just because she has a sword in hand doesn’t mean she is more progressive.
“Strong” heroines lack multiple dynamics, particularly in terms of what it would mean to be a woman (and not just a hero) within the fictional world.
“Strong” heroines are granted no sense of vulnerability and often portray women who do not struggle, which is an unrealistic characteristic.

   Empowered heroines are much more realistic. They give young women the chance to explore their own strengths and weaknesses in real life. These heroines appear empowered because they own their sexuality and use it to their advantage, rather than being sexualized by those surrounding them. The “empowered” female can still be tough and stern yet show vulnerability and emotion without worry of losing her “macho” persona. She embodies both the strength of a young woman while also coping with real difficulties. She alone mends the gap between the extreme expectations of her character.
   One prime example of this type of character is Celaena Sardothien, the popular heroine of the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. An 18-year-old assassin, Celaena is sassy, kick-ass, and uses her wit and talents to put men down. However, despite dangerous aspects, she has an obsession for clothes and books and maintains two love interests without batting an eyelash. Celaena’s existence is a representation of a deeply multidimensional character. Even with a sword in hand, she still experiences moments of vulnerability and does not shy away from them.
   Katniss Everdeen, a fan favorite from The Hunger Games series, retains many similar aspects. Despite her deadly skill with a bow and arrow, Katniss experiences many emotions throughout her trials: fear, anger, revulsion, and love. She does not conform; she does not bend. With a fierce desire to protect her family and survive, she faces many desires and consequences and faces them alone. Despite being a physically powerful heroine, she embraces her weaknesses and uses them to defeat her enemies by the end. She claims the rights to her life and becomes a role model for other characters to do the same.
   In the bookstore, locating fantasy books with empowered heroines can be a tricky business. Nevertheless, they’re there – hidden nuggets of gold to find, if you know how to get past the bedrock. And when you do, you’ll notice your heroine’s strengths and her weaknesses. You’ll be able to explore her triggers and her curiosities, her deepest desires and her more obvious ones. You’ll cheer her on when she has a sword in hand and when she fights for what she wants with fierce wit, but only because she is developing into her own story, discarding the remnants of the masculine shell she’d once been cowering in.

  • About the Author
    Grace Nehls is a junior at Miami University in Ohio, majoring in Creative Writing and double-minoring in Anthropology and Management. In addition to her studies, Grace is an active member on Miami University’s Happy Captive Magazine, and a content contributor to Spoon University. In her free time, she can be found reading YA fantasy and enjoying great food. After graduation she would like to move to Florida and dive head-first into a professional writing career.

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