Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

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Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Mira » 15 Sep 2010, 17:57

So, last week Nathan posted a link to an article comparing Bella from Twilight and Katriss from Hunger Games.

This post isn't addressing what that author had to say but something that is bothering me in alot of the YA books I've read lately: Heroines who are so vulnerable to their emotions that they become comatose when life throws them a curve ball.

This is a plea to those folks who write YA.

I'm using the two heroines above as an example, but this is not about them per se. I just think it's likely folks will have read the books. And I'm not dissing the books, just the gender role thingy.

(spoilers - don't read if you don't want anything spoiled.)

So, Bella - I read half of the second book, and she goes into such a deep depression because her vampire breaks up with her, that she can't function for weeks and comes close to committing suicide. And Katniss - all through the third book, she's ending up in the hospital, etc. for months - not weeks, but MONTHS - because she's upset about something. Granted, I'd be upset, too, but MONTHS.

(End spoilers)

GIVE ME A BREAK. This is my heartfelt plea for those who are writing YA: Please, please, please write heroines that have some type of a backbone. Young girls need role models, and they need role models who can deal with life's curve balls and come back swinging. Who have some sense of proportion, and are not emotional basket cases. Inner strength. That's the ticket.

Thank you.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Heather B » 15 Sep 2010, 20:20

No Mira, thank you. And don't even get me started on Clary from the Mortal Instrument series... Sheesh.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby cheekychook » 15 Sep 2010, 20:28

I can't comment on female characters in recent YA fiction with any authority whatsoever, since it's not a genre I've read since I was a young adult (and how long ago was that? Let's just say "a while".). I have, however, read the Twilight series. It's not a book or series I would typically read---as I said, I haven't read YA in a long time, and I don't read vampire/werewolf/paranormal stuff of any kind---I was talked into reading Twilight by a 30 year old male friend who said, "If I read it, you can read it---just do it." So I did it.

They're not my favorite books, but I enjoyed them. The thing that bothered me most about them was that I couldn't help thinking "Yeah, I enjoy this, but wow, this is not a message I would want to send to my daughter, if I had a daughter." I have two sons, and they are about as likely to read Twilight as they are to beg me for broccoli and lima beans for dessert---it's not gonna happen.

I do have tons of friends with daughters of varying ages, all of whom read Twilight---the whole series. I didn't actually have any problem at all with the (spoiler alert) part where Bella falls into a depression when Edward leaves---I thought that very accurately portrayed the angst and heartache of losing a first love, where you feel like you can't breathe and life goes on without you, and you barely remember doing the day to day things that somehow just seem to take care of themselves (getting back and forth to school, taking tests, etc---it's all just a blur because you're too consumed with what's upsetting you to even notice you're doing it).

And I actually think that portion of the book DID show inner strength, because in spite of the fact that she was dying (from grief/sadness/etc) she DID NOT kill herself (whereas many teens in that situation will or will make serious attempts---more serious than clumsy cliff diving).

What I DID take issue with were things in the later books where I felt that aggression towards women was being romanticized. While I think adult women know the difference between hot sex that may consensually get a little rough, or may know that anger can lead to a passionate encounter, I think a young girl may very well not realize that it's not okay to romanticize sex that leaves you bruised from head to toe, or to fantasize that some guy kisses you against your will and continues doing so till you relent. I found it particularly odd that a book that advocates abstinence and fades to black for sex scenes still managed to glorify the more violent/damaging things that happen to Bella.

I'm tempted to say that those things are okay in the book because it's so clear that neither Edward nor Jacob wants to harm Bella in any way, and they both love her....but in reality those would not be good excuses. "I didn't mean to hurt you, honey" is not a viable real-world excuse to teach to young women, or young men. Again, an adult reader can (hopefully) make the distinction and realize these are fictional characters, Edward did nothing intentional to harm her it's just his super-strength and marble-hard weight---he's a vampire, not a realistic threat and certainly not an abuser....and Jacob is literally part animal and couldn't control his animal urges....but I'm sure there are some young women reading those book and thinking "Oh, it's ok that my boyfriend does (whatever that is painful) because I love him and he loves me and it's just like Bella and Edward...."---and that's not cool.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby steve » 15 Sep 2010, 20:30

I agree with everything Mira said.

Weak writers who default to damsel in distress scenarios are awful.

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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby AMSchilling » 16 Sep 2010, 05:35

Agree! Emotional comas that cripple the female protagonist, and needing to be constantly saved, bugs me. I read the fairytales and happy endings growing up and it didn't warp me forever, but I also read books where women kicked butt or were shown to be stronger emotionally then the men. I had balance. Plus I had very strong female role models in my real life. Let me tell you, my mom is a trip. For girls that don't have that, all these heroines that are ultimately weak or can be incapacitated by emotions concern me. I *did* have an issue with Twlight. Yes, there are parts where Bella has inner strength, but she basically shuts down without Edward. She can't function without him. That, to me, took it beyond normal heartbreak and into a kind of sick dependency.

Mind, I'm not talking about eliminating the occassional vulnerability from stories. I'm talking about wanting the protag. to function and push through it when they are vulnerable. Which is more my experience with women and their strength.

As a YA urban fantasy writer, I promise to never make my heroines crumple up in a heap. So far they haven't fought me on this. They tend to keep pushing on, and end up saving themself and their friends. :-)
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Sommer Leigh » 16 Sep 2010, 05:45

I don't think the problem lies with the heroines shutting down when the going gets heartbreakingly hard to deal with. I get that part, sometimes regular life is so much to bear that you just need a day or two in bed with ice cream and a few 80s teen comedy movies to keep you company. (The Breakfast Club is my comfort food.) Throw in supernatural mayhem and life rending, apocalypse inducing destruction and I can see why some of the heroines fold up and put up an "Out to lunch" sign.

The problem is that they never bounce back. I don't know why this is the case, but they seem to lose something after they are broken and they never, ever recover. Someone else has to spend the rest of the book (or series) propping them up and protecting them from everything.

I write YA and I read YA constantly. This is my area, and I am constantly frustrated with the lack of growth and determination and strength in heroines after they have been broken. Almost to the point where the story feels like it is flowing through their transparency, not unraveling because of their choices and actions.

I recently finished the second book of a series that was really amazing from beginning to end. The main character is a very strong girl (although flawed, her courage and attitude are sometimes fronts she uses to lie to others and herself about the way she is really feeling) whose supernatural battle ends up with her mother dead at the end and the day is definitely not won against the bad guys. This event should have broken her entirely. Within a few hours of the big battle though, she's not all that broken up and has stomped off to claim her romantic subplot prize. It felt a little off to me. Sometimes characters need to be broken and need to suffer under the weight of depression and hopelessness in order to come back that much stronger.

It is tough though, to get it right. I do terrible things to my heroine, and figuring out a good balance between going comatose and not being able to deal with what has happened and then getting her back on her feet to attack the rest of the plot is no easy thing. When it works, it works well. When it doesn't...you end up with 9 chapters about a girl who does nothing but stare out the window and pine after her lost boyfriend. And no one wants to read that.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby jkmcdonnell » 16 Sep 2010, 06:42

I read the article you're referring to, Mira, and I found it really interesting - I haven't read THE HUNGER GAMES, but it gave me a lot to think about in my own WiP.

I feel like there's a really difficult balance when it comes to YA heroines, between independence and vulnerability - because (in my opinion) a truly strong and realistic MC has both. This was problem with the VAMPIRE ACADEMY novels, whose MC, Rose, a lot of people have offered as an example of such a heroine. Sure, she's no Bella, but her bravado-and-brawn mix never sold for me. I don't know, I can't really explain it, but the character to me comes off as a try-hard attempt to craft a 'strong heroine' without any authenticity. What do you guys think?
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Margo » 16 Sep 2010, 08:08

Both Mira and cheekychook really nailed my thoughts on this. I've had this conversation with friends.

The flip side I'm finding in adult fiction is the 'strong female protagonist' whose only expression of 'strength' seems to be verbally abusing the nice people she meets and beating up everyone else because they looked at her sideways. I'm looking at you, urban fantasy. I like a kick-ass heroine as much as the next reader, but there's a difference between being tough and being a flat out bully. Maybe that's what happens when a Bella grows up and someone gives her a gun.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby jkmcdonnell » 16 Sep 2010, 08:19

Margo wrote:The flip side I'm finding in adult fiction is the 'strong female protagonist' whose only expression of 'strength' seems to be verbally abusing the nice people she meets and beating up everyone else because they looked at her sideways. I'm looking at you, urban fantasy. I like a kick-ass heroine as much as the next reader, but there's a difference between being tough and being a flat out bully. Maybe that's what happens when a Bella grows up and someone gives her a gun.


Yes! This is exactly what I meant by the female MC Rose from VAMPIRE ACADEMY. Thank you for verbalising (typing?) what I couldn't... clearly, needing others to do this is the mark of a good writer...
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Margo » 16 Sep 2010, 08:23

jkmcdonnell wrote:Yes! This is exactly what I meant by the female MC Rose from VAMPIRE ACADEMY. Thank you for verbalising (typing) what I couldn't... clearly, needing others to do this is the mark of a good writer...


LOL. I'm sorry; I didn't realize that's what you were saying, probably only because I have not read that series yet. Others probably knew what you were talking about. :)
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Mira » 16 Sep 2010, 08:55

Thanks for weighing in, guys. Good to know I'm not the only one who noticed this!

I completely agree with those who are saying that the middle ground is the target. Vunerable and emotional, but able to work through those emotions to become stronger. This is something I think teen girls need role modeled.

Yes, when a guy breaks up with you, you think you can't live without him. And you feel terrible and depressed......but then...you re-evaluate, you grow, learn and move on, stronger for the experience! You don't become a shell of your fomer self, or try to drive off a cliff.

Women's supposed "over-emotionality" is not a new topic. Jane Austen took this one on in Sense and Sensibility, for example. But why it's rearing it's head now, I don't know. I don't know if this is just a popular dramatic plot twist or if it reflects something in the culture, but I think it's worth pointing out (and complaining about). I agree with Steve - If Lewis Carrol were writing today, Alice would fall down the rabbit hole, and just lay there, a frightened puddle on the floor, until she eventually starved to death.

Bleh.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Heather B » 16 Sep 2010, 14:49

Jkmcdonnell, I completely disagree with you about VA. Rose, in my opinion, is the perfect example of a strong (flawed) heroine. Sure, the first half of book one she is pretty full of herself but she learns and grows to become a better person. I barely recognized the character in the most recent book because she was actually starting to think about her decisions as opposed to just acting out.

She is one heroine that goes trough hell and manages to bounce back convincingly. Richelle Mead had done an awesome job of balancing her bravado with raw vulnerability.

Jk, I can see where youre coming from with the first book, but have you read the entire series? Just curious.

Another good one is the Tomorrow series by John Marsden. They've just made a movie out of the first book.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby Leonidas » 16 Sep 2010, 15:26

Twilight is probably one of my least-favorite books. With that said, it accomplished what it meant to do; it's a love story between Edward and Bella. That's why people read it. They love the scenes where Bella and Edward are close. They don't read it for it to be the next Pulitzer prize winner, or even for character depth. I did and still do think that Bella is an incredibly weak female protagonist. Coming from a rather elite private girls' school where feminism is shoved down our throats from preschool, I want to beat some sense into her and tell her to get over it because he abandoned her. However, plot is based on conflict, and when Edward left Bella it provided the conflict Stephanie Meyer needed to continue the series.

Not to say that the Twilight books were well-plotted at all

Bella is the character that fit the conflict.

Annabeth from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordian would never get herself into that situation. She's not that type of character. Neither would Max from James Patterson's Maximum Ride series. Savannah from Dear John is in almost the same situation as Bella. John leaves her to go to war, they remain in touch through letters, until she marries her childhood best friend Tim because he was dying of cancer and needed someone to take care of his younger brother. She broke up with John and they both moved on with life, though they were never the same. Stephanie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks had two totally different messages to tell, but chose to tell their stories through the same medium: a romance. Characters define plot and plot defines character. Ultimately, it's up to the writer to decide what type of character they want to write, but the characters always have to match the plot.

If the plot calls for a strong female MC, the author will have to write one otherwise the book won't do anything other than sit on their computer, and it won't be believable.

If it doesn't call for a strong protagonist, we get books like Twilight.
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby jkmcdonnell » 16 Sep 2010, 19:05

Heather B wrote:Jkmcdonnell, I completely disagree with you about VA. Rose, in my opinion, is the perfect example of a strong (flawed) heroine. Sure, the first half of book one she is pretty full of herself but she learns and grows to become a better person. I barely recognized the character in the most recent book because she was actually starting to think about her decisions as opposed to just acting out.


Heather B - I think I read the first two books (quickly), but couldn't get past those. There were other problems with the series/writing that also put me off, and I'm not a huge vampire fan to begin with. It's good to hear that Rose metamorphosed a little in those later books, though.

Leonidas wrote:Annabeth from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordian would never get herself into that situation. She's not that type of character.


This is a great point - I'd forgotten about Annabeth, who is well-rounded for a MG character - and not to mention written by a male author. Interesting...

One more thing - what is it exactly that makes a good (teenage) heroine? Are there any specific traits or instincts you like to see in a modern female MC?
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Re: Gender roles: Emotionally weak heroines

Postby maggie » 16 Sep 2010, 22:17

This drives me nuts. And another weak-heroine thing that drives me nuts? Equating stalkerish creepiness with love.

**slight SPOILERS ahead!!**

I'm reading Hush, Hush right now, and while I like some things about it and am not at all trying to bash the book, I keep smacking my forehead in frustration with Nora. So you are super creeped out by this guy, you think he might be stalking you and could have attacked your best friend, and yet you still want to make out with him? Hello!! I think most people would have reported him to the police, not gone on a date with him. Way to teach teenagers that abusive relationships are cool.

**end spoilers**

On the other end of the spectrum, I think Gemma Doyle is a cool chick. She's not always waiting around to be saved by a hot guy, but is able to appreciate the saving when it does happen. ;)
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