'Strong female' in YA fantasy... yeah, right
The jury’s out on who to blame. A lot of people blame Katniss. Me? I blame Katsa of Graceling.
Strong females in Fantasy, especially YA Fantasy, seem to only be strong when they’re armed and/or dangerous.
Sad, but true.
Let’s round up the usual suspects, shall we? Think of all the YA fantasy novels with heroines you know and love. They are either a) physically bad-ass like Katsa, Tris and Katniss with or without weapons or b) have some magical power (or lunar power in Cinder’s case) that makes them dangerous with that that instead of a sword like Vinn, our unnamed heroine in A Thousand Nights and Alina Starkov.
“A strong female lead,” reviewers gush as yet another sixteen-year-old girl drives something through some villain’s throat. “A role model for the girls of today!”
Well, it seems that ‘strength’ for the girls of today is defined by killing things, then – not other arguably amazing acts of courage like vulnerability, compassion or hope in dark times. No one ever calls Prim ‘strong’ that I’ve ever heard, or Hermione. Or what about Clary before she becomes all magical and runed and stuff?
My own first book, Ash Rising, has a typical ‘strong female lead’ as you would describe it about. She’s tough as nails, awesome wit a homemade crossbow and risks her life facing monsters so her family can eat. And man was I pissed. I hadn’t intended on making ‘medieval Xena Warrior Princess’ or ‘Katniss with giant birds’, but it was what the story called for and sometimes the characters just tell you what they want and you have to deal. In the dystopian world she lived in Ash, like Katniss, had to be a hunter and good with a weapon to survive. It was just practical when the world was ending all around.
But you know what else? Ash is also not great with expressing or even acknowledging her feelings, can be gruff with the people she loves and keeps things all bottled up to the point where she has a panic attack on the floor. Is that badass? Meanwhile her sister Vanita is physically frail and weak, yet brimming with kindness, facing a really hard life with humour and hope, keeps Ash sane and suffers terrible loss and trauma at one point in the book, yet she maintains her sweetness.
I’ll tell you what – I don’t want to grow up to be like Ash, though she’s entertaining as hell to read about. I want to be Vanita. And I didn’t exactly relate to Ash’s daily near-death experiences and systematic murdering of stuff, but I sure did relate to Vanita.
So which one’s the ‘strong role model’, then?