Why society disparages heroines and why women should not participate.
As a girl, I loved to read. I would read anything. As such, I grew up relating to characters who were not really like me, and that was fine. I got to live in new worlds, in different bodies, with different personalities. And I think that has made me empathetic.
Most of the bodies I lived in where not female. And that made me see men as heroes, as powerful as intelligent, as brave. Most of the females in the books I read were sidekicks, beautiful, sexy, love interests, pushy, annoying, petty. Some of them were smart, but they were usually secondary. Until my mother gave me Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic. Daine was powerful, if shy. She was brave, if humble. She was me, but in a way I didn't see me before reading her: clever and caring. She was flawed but wonderful. I fell in love with Pierce's books hard. I liked many books, enjoyed and even loved many books. But this was the first time I really related to the characters I'd read. I soon found myself clinging to her other characters: Alanna, Tris, Becca, Daja, and others.
Even characters who were not my skin color or religion. I felt my heart expand for people, not just fictional but real. Daja, for example, was the first black main character I was asked to relate to, and she is a lesbian. Both of these things were foreign to me, were things that people in my small town looked down upon. Black and lesbian were words that were used as negatives in my world. But Daja is anything but negative. She is amazing, loving and fierce. Different, yes, but her difference is not negative. It is just a part of her being. And I loved her being. Tris is chubby, which I loved. Growing up chubby with a bad temper was something I could relate to. I thought of myself in terms of ugly, unwanted, volatile. But Tris is loved, powerful, important, and she is like me. I started to see myself differently. I started to see the word differently than what I was trained to do. Heroines, authors, retrained my mind, expanded my world view.
There have been a lot of negative comments lately, offhand stabs at heroines. "Okay, we've had enough of the strong heroine." "Oh, good, another book about a tough girl who fights for everyone." "The strong heroine is becoming a cliche I despise." "Oh, that flawed heroine finds herself. That's new."
Here's the thing: it is pretty new that women are becoming heroes, that men and women are being asked to relate to female characters.
And the people throwing these comments around aren't just men, either, which astounded me, at first. Until it didn't. Because tearing down women subtly and overtly is not new. And to be accepted as right, women are asked to participate in the tearing down of other women. When we were considered property we were asked to compete with one another. To beguile men with our beauty, not our brains. To commend them and support them, the people with the power.
I believe this is still a thing, albeit less in-your-face. It is why we are asked to question whether J.K. Rowling's books can really be considered great literature. It is why Hunger Games is often referred to as chic lit, rather than the very smart, very well written prose of a talented author, who wove important issues into entertaining and sometimes frightening books.
It is why people (mostly men) say, "I just don't get how people think Austen is such a big deal. Let's read about marriages and match making. Blah." You don't get it because you were never expected to relate to a strong, clever woman who knows her strengths and expects respect. Having to reach for power in a situation where you have none. You might have never been asked to disrespect yourself to gain the attention and notice of those in power. Austen lived in that world. The subtle wordplay, the historical oppression, the commentary on the rights and expectations of women is both fascinating and still pertinent, but people make fun of me for thinking her one of the best writers of all time.
Because she writes about "female" things, I've been told. If by female you mean emotions, societal expectations and equality, okay? Those things are not important to everyone? I've read about wars, men's libido, building forts, bro relationships and basketball in various hero-led stories and I enjoyed the books. It was not a pre-requisite that the hero talk about my interests. My gender has little to do with my hobbies or my ability to relate to others. Or maybe it does. Maybe, as a woman, I am expected to relate and so I perform that function better.
And I am expected to backtrack and expound upon how Shakespeare did this or that better than my favorite authors. Even during my Master's degree, feminist theory was met with eye rolls by many of the upper division faculty, and I was expected to roll my eyes, too. When I didn't, men would often explain to me why I should. Sometimes I held Jane Eyre, Austen and Alcott close and just felt like crying. Because the characters I loved were clearly the trashier forms of literature. But they weren't. And they aren't. And your favorite characters are valid. The women you love are worthy of your respect, whether they are fictional or real.
In searching for pictures and art of my favorite heroines for this blog, I was often confronted by the sexualization of my favorite female heroines. They were put in degrading positions, enhanced to be more appealing. Their power became contingent upon the size of their breasts and the ways in which they could be dominated. And I remain not surprised.
Because when we allow ourselves to think of the strong heroine as boring, as unoriginal, as silly, we are allowing the society at large to degrade our own worth. We are more than the gendered holes that men must fill. We fulfill our own destinies. We have fought against gender slavery. We create lives and have carved out power.
Just think for a moment about how many strong heroes are in our literature. Do a google search and compare. Believe it or not, it's very difficult to come up with a top 50 list of lead heroines in books. Men regain power by telling us that what we think is silly or flawed. And we are used to bowing our heads and consenting to what has been traditionally right. We are used to it, but we don't have to stay silent. And we certainly don't have to participate in a dialogue that disparages women, our heroes, our writers, our role models.
None of this means that we cannot also like Milton, Melville and Malory. It just means that we don't have to compare our heroines against man-made masters. We don't have to be told what to like. We can appreciate our strengths, our strong women writers, our heroines unabashedly. We can love being represented and can demand to be heard.
Believe what they say about reading liberal books: It is a dangerous thing to indulge in them. Reading strong women characters will eventually kill ignorance. If you hold your ignorance dear, do not proceed.
As for me, I will not wait for others to speak the power of women. I am writing my share of fierce females. Abigail, Adela Darken, and Gina are just a start. It is my hope that I can do what Tamora Pierce, Rowling, Satrapi, Roth, Halse-Anderson, Professors Foglio, Dahl, Austen, Eyre, Snickett and others did for me: I can open people's hearts by creating characters who are diverse and relateable. It is my hope for my readers that they will be able to appreciate my work without it being disparaged by others as chick lit. In my mind, there is nothing better than a good book with a great heroine. I don't care for the word chick. I am a woman and I like good literature. I don't feel the need to label toys, clothing, colors or good books with genders. They are inanimate objects, so they don't really have genders, now, do they?
H.M Jones is the author of B.R.A.G Medallion Honor and NIEA finalist book Monochrome, its prequel Fade to Blue, the Adela Darken Graphic Novellas, Al Ravien's Night, The Immortals series, and several short stories.