A few days ago, I posted a tweet. Harmless enough. It’s something I do on a daily basis as part of my job as a young adult author. Sometimes, when I post something funny (I can totally be funny. Trust.), or something scandalous (I am nothing if not scandalous), I might get a few re-tweets. I think my best record to-date was maybe 75-100 re-tweets when I poked fun at my own negative reviews. Readers love them some self-depreciating humor.
But when I posted this tweet, I got a few more. Five hundred and thirty to be exact. And counting.
I posted this after reading a few comments about my upcoming release, Fire & Flood. It seemed a handful of readers didn’t like the main character, Tella Holloway, because she was too feminine. Fair enough. Every reader is entitled to their opinion without criticism. But I’d like to explain why I chose to give Tella the characteristics she has, and explore why we as readers judge feminine characters so harshly.
Tella Holloway is not the perfect person to tackle the Brimstone Bleed, a brutal race across jungle, desert, mountain, sea. She craves adventure and danger, but also admits she’d probably throw in the towel seconds after this hypothetical “adventure” began. But when she isn’t given a choice–when her brother’s life is on the line–she runs head-first into a perilous situation. Tella loves fashion, and getting pedicures, and having her hair highlighted. She craves cheesecake and sincere compliments and a cute boy to hold her hand. In short, she embraces her femininity.
What I wanted to accomplish with Tella’s character in Fire & Flood was three-fold. First, I wanted her to embrace her femininity. Second, I wanted her to triumph inside the Brimstone Bleed. Third, I wanted Tella to continue to embrace her femininity at the end of the book, even after she triumphed, so readers would connect the dots. This worked for many. For others, they enjoyed that Tella performed well, but wished she wasn’t so “weak.” I have to believe a part of that perceived weakness was her affinity for nail polish and such.
Thus the tweet.
The question I’d like to ask is this: When did femininity bashing begin? And what started it? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I think this subject is one that needs attention. Many readers will admit they want strong female characters, but what makes a female character strong? Someone who rejects fashion because they’re above such worries? Someone who puts on a fearless, emotionless face for battle? How about someone largely unconcerned with romantic relationships?
This woman is not a woman I know. It is not my mother, or sister, or friend. In fact, what I described sounds more like a man to me. Is that what we want? For all heroins in stories to actually be males in female clothing? Scratch that. Dresses are for weak female characters. Let’s make it a man in man’s clothing…and call it a female. Then she will be strong. Roar!
So, we have a problem, yeah? Female characters are not allowed to act, for lack of a better word, female. Otherwise, they are weak. How do we change our way of thinking? How do we separate small acts of femininity (painting your nails, shopping with friends, baking cupcakes) from weakness? First, I think we admit there’s a problem. And we discuss it.
That’s what I’d like to encourage you to do today. Consider this a post to kick off other posts. Share this with friends. Write a follow up telling me how wrong I am. Leave a comment. Do anything to keep the conversation going so that one day, somewhere down the road, we can read about a teen girl who loves to shop, and instead of thinking, “Weak. Maybe she’ll grow stronger throughout this book,” we’ll think, “Shopping, cool. I wonder what kick ass things this chick has up her cashmere, Chanel sleeve.”
And now for a few comments from authors and literary agents in the young adult industry!
“As authors, we want our heroines to stand out. To be strong. To be rebels in their communities. But when we do this by making our heroines “not like other girls,” what does it imply about the other girls — that they’re shallow or stupid or vain? If our heroines are strong only because they embrace characteristics / interests traditionally viewed as masculine, because they shun “girly” things — doesn’t that imply that girls – especially those who might like fashion or flirting or baking — are weak? I tried to deconstruct this in the Cahill Witch Chronicles. In BORN WICKED, Cate – influenced by the Brotherhood’s Victorian teachings – is downright judgy toward other girls, but over the course of the trilogy, she comes to love, admire, and deeply respect some of the women she originally dismisses as nothing but “cabbageheads.” -Jessica Spotswood, author of BORN WICKED
“I play video games and sports, and I love to shop and dance. I run my own business and can service my car, but I also love to cook and host parties. I’ve never been just one type of girl, and I don’t know any girls who are. I don’t buy characters who are either. Women (and men) are layered, deep and complex beings, and their fictional counterparts need to be as well. This is definitely something I take into account when I read, and strong-yet-feminine female leads are seen throughout the books I represent, from Anna finding her strength to defend herself in Jennifer Rush’s ALTERED, to Alina, an orphaned soldier who enjoys soft dresses and champagne in Leigh Bardugo’s SHADOW AND BONE, to Eleanor kicking ghostly tail while wearing petticoats in Susan Dennard’s SOMETHING STRANGE & DEADLY, and the list goes on. No matter what the adventure they’re on, these girls feel real. To me, they are real.” – Joanna Volpe, Literary Agent
“Girls don’t have to be boys to be “strong.” Too often, strength is depicted as big muscles. But that’s not strength. It’s what you do with what you have that’s strength–not just in the ability you have, but how you choose to use it. I have seen more strength in a woman choosing to stand up and face the day as herself after a personal disaster than I have ever seen in a muscle-clad superhero.” – Beth Revis, New York Times bestselling author of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
“One of my favorite movies of all time is Legally Blonde. And not because it’s about a sorority girl who goes to law school and wears pink. But because it’s about sorority girl who goes to law school, wears pink, and proves to everyone around her (including herself) that she doesn’t have to change to succeed. I tried to channel this same spirit and message to girls in my book, 52 REASONS TO HATE MY FATHER, about a spoiled teen heiress who is seemingly only good at one thing: spending her daddy’s money on designer clothes. In the end, the ultimate lesson she learns isn’t to completely change who she is and start wearing trash bags. It’s to embrace who she is and show the world she can be that…and more. Female characters don’t have to shed their feminine qualities to become story-worthy heroines. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They have to prove that the qualities that make them who they are were enough all along.” – Jessica Brody, author of 52 REASONS TO HATE MY FATHER and the UNREMEMBERED trilogy
“Growing up, it often felt like my friends and I didn’t easily fit into either of the two boxes that society/media insisted we choose between: girly-girl or tomboy. I loved makeup and fashion and Disney Princesses—but I also played sports, adored “boy”/“nerd” things like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and was more interested in being the one slaying the dragon than the damsel in distress. All of my friends were unique and multi-faceted, and none of us really understood the dismissal of traditionally feminine things—the notion that if you liked nail polish, then you were considered “weak”, or if you played sports, you couldn’t be into fashion. Then Buffy the Vampire Slayer came along—and it changed everything for me. Buffy was a traditional girly-girl, who loved clothes and boys and being feminine—and she also shouldered tremendous burdens, made hard choices, and saved the world again and again. She was a real, complex person, whose femininity made her stronger. (There was also Willow, who presented a whole other facet of strength and femininity.) I had never considered that there could be a heroine like Buffy, at least outside of my own daydreams. She laid the groundwork when it came to creating Celaena, the heroine of my Throne of Glass series. And more than that, Buffy made me realize I didn’t have to choose between those two sides of me—she made me ask why I even had to choose at all.” – Sarah J. Maas, New York Times bestselling author of the THRONE OF GLASS series
“I graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in feminism and women’s studies. I love talking about gender and politics and I agree with so many other writers here that girls don’t fit neatly into one category. For example, I’m tough and I’m sensitive, I’m kind and I’m selfish – these labels mosh up together in a big melting pot called Sara. Fundamentally, though, the title I respond most powerfully to is “mommy.” There is something uniquely womanly, to me, about being a mom. I feel like if someone were to cut me, I would bleed mommy. Of all the labels I’ve ever had, this one makes me the most proud. Call me Mommy-Woman.” – Sara Megibow, Literary Agent