An Unintended Segue

Friday, April 2, 2010

First of all, for those of you with loved ones/friends on the autism spectrum, today is "National Autism Awareness Day". Celebrate the unique brilliance and perspective of someone who sees the world from a slightly different angle than the rest of the world.

Second, as promised, here's the "right-side-up" posting of the "Topsy-Turvey-Teaser-Thursday" post I did yesterday.

The defining moments of your life are supposed to be obvious. Birth, death, graduation - you know, those things there are entire shelves dedicated to in the card section of the grocery store.

Mine came with a set of keys.

I guess that's true in a way for most teenagers. The first time you get your own keys to your own car that you can drive all by yourself is big deal. It's freedom after sixteen years of being tethered to your parents and working on someone else's schedule.

But these weren't my keys; they were Elodie's. And she didn't hand them over for a joyride; she threw them at me in the middle of chaos.

"Hey Princess, grab the car," she said. It didn't even occur to me that she wasn't in my sphere or that "Princess" was an insult.

The keys arced in the air and landed in my palm like they were custom fit. They were solid and real in a moment where nothing else fit that description, and I was halfway to the door before I realized my feet were moving. Behind me, I left shouts and screams and a ton of people frozen without any idea what they should do next.

And finally, the source of this post's title.

It seems that some people out there are "tired" of strong female characters in YA books. Not just outliers, but insiders in the publishing industry. They seem to think it's time that girls exchanged their jeans for dresses and started shaping up into "wife material".

Better get to class girls, you'll need college to get that MRS. degree.

I spent the earlier part of this morning responding to a couple of other blogs equally as annoyed with this development, and I decided to bring it here, too. After all, I like writing strong characters - male and female. The two girls in the passage above are both strong females, but for very different reasons. Elodie, while the product of a light fantasy, is more overt with her strength. She's brash, maybe even a little reckless. The MC - the "princess" - has a different kind of strength, she just doesn't know it yet.

She has stubbornness and strength of character. She's loyal, and will defend her friends any way she can (and much to her surprise, she's willing to do this even though it means losing a bit of her social standing). Under her shell of pastel polish, she's strong enough to figure out who she is, and not lose that to the overwhelming personalities around her. She still likes her pink T-shirts and ponytails and manicures.

What I hate is the assumption that if the girl is the “strong” one, then the guy has to be a wimp, and if the guy’s strong, then the girl’s a wilting flower.

Strong girls can match up nicely with strong guys. Together they’re exceptionally strong, and hopefully each act as temper to the other’s steel. If you’ve got a teenage kid responsible for any sort of “saving” – be it of the world, or the family’s farm – they can’t afford to pair up with someone so inept they screw up the hero’s every advance.

If your hero gets his sword knocked out of his hand, there’s absolutely no reason his lady love can’t pick it up and take a swing while the villain is pre-occupied with his “monologue of impending victory” and gloating at the hero. (One of my female characters does this. The male MC gets knocked down by his nemesis and she picks up a weapon that has an adverse affect on her when she touches it, but she's defending someone she cares for. Once he finds his feet, the male MC takes the weapon back.)

And that's the other side of it - she's not weak because she has a weakness, and she's not tough because she "toughed it out". If your heroine meets a baddie who doesn’t mind hitting girls, then there’s no reason for her sweetie to stand back and watch her get pummeled. It’s not weakness to let someone who cares for the MC to step in and save them from a few bruises. (In this case, her hands are so badly burned she can barely use them.)

I've come to the conclusion that it's a bit like someone who's been exercising for a while, but finding it harder than they anticipated.

The people who are "tired" of these kinds of characters are finding that the majority of people still have those learned gender roles that have been subtly and not so subtly reinforced their whole lives as the default (or "norm"). It doesn't matter that it's an artificially created gulf, it's all they know - like an out of shape muscle.

Then along comes a strong girl character, and another, and another, and it seems like a good idea to work those muscles out. Get in shape! Woot!

But when those social norms don't change along with the characters, and people still look at them like oddities (or call them unrealistic! After all, moms still push their daughters to get hitched in that big production called a wedding. One of the top Halloween costumes of all time for munchkin's under 10.) those muscles want to go back to their inert state.

It's easier. It's familiar. It's comfortable. Why change an image when you can just "be happy" with the way you are already? Why swim against currents when you can float along the lazy river of convention?

And that's what it is - laziness - as well as a healthy dose of people confusing their mirrors for windows to the world. They think a certain way, and believe everyone else does the same. It's inconceivable that others might not share that view, and unthinkable that that view could be damaging to a young person on a different path in life.

The suggestion to hold such characters (agendas!!!) for adult literature only just means they want to get the "norms" anchored firmly in young minds before they have a change to be exposed to other ideas.

Having a character who doesn't want to get married, doesn't mean it's an anti-marriage agenda.
Having a character who doesn't want to follow the path set before her by society, doesn't mean it's a socially deviant manifesto.
Having a female rescue a male doesn't mean it's denigrating men. (Do you seriously expect me to believe that Mr. Macho would refuse a rescue from a burning building just because the fire fighter who reached him first doesn't have a Y-chromosome?)

And it seriously irks me that "strength" seems to always = physical ability. It's not.

Someone disease ravaged and so depressed from it that they don't want to live another day shows strength every day they don't down every pill in their medicine cabinet to end it.

Someone who works until their fingers bleed and they're so exhausted they see spots, but knows not working = starvation for their family shows strength with every shift they pick up.

Someone who stands beside the outcast because it's the right thing to do shows strength every time they don't laugh at an off color joke.

Maybe some of these people are tired of strong characters because they highlight a void in those people's lives. The way to fix that isn't to shove what makes you uncomfortable in a drawer and pretend it's passe. You deal with it.


4 Chiming In:

Matthew MacNish said...

Morning Josin, great post and good point(s) about gender and character strength.

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ChristaCarol Jones said...

Well said! (and great teaser!) I love how you define strength as something within a characters characteristic or personality.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I love the key line- that was great!

I've been reading a fair bit of YA lately and one thing that irks me is the fact that the female protagonists seem to need a boy to be happy. And they're often whiny or 2D. We need stronger women in YA!

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

As always, well written. Thanks for the post today.

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