Sunday, May 1, 2011

Ethics in YA - Strength vs. Stupidity

If you're new to Seeking the Write Life, this is the third in a series of posts discussing the ethical challenges of writing for Children / Young Adults.  The first addresses violence and perceptions of romantic relationships, the second discusses language, racism and social rules.

A not entirely rhetorical question for you: 

When did stupidity and 'kick-assedness' become synonymous with strength?

I read a lot of bestselling YA - and the reviews / writer discussions of them.  

An overriding theme I see is that in order to be perceived as 'strong', a young woman must fight physically, take no prisoners, accept no slight and (as a blanket generality) act more like a testosterone fuelled gorilla than a girl.

Particularly in writer forums, I've seen teenage female protagonists described as:
- 'Independent' when they sneak out of their homes to break into someone else's.
- 'Kick-ass' when they're manipulated into fighting or killing people who have done nothing to them.
- 'Strong' when they engage in physical fighting - with men.

And believe me, the list goes on.

I don't have any trouble with young characters doing these things.  I have a huge problem with the apparent underlying belief that a woman must do these things to be strong.

There's always a hullabaloo and cry in writerly circles that a protagonist appears 'passive' if she allows an older or stronger male to engage in a physical fight on her behalf. 

But in my (albeit old, married, boring) mind, it isn't passive to pick your battles, it's smart.  And it shows patience, wisdom and a willingness to succeed that doesn't require pounding others into defeat. 

Whatever happened to strength of character?  Strength of will?  Strength to stand alone in the face of serious social pressure?  Strength of self-belief that flies in the face of social norms or trends and keeps the character moving towards a personal goal track despite opposition?

I know these characters are out there, but they aren't what we're holding up and lauding as 'strong'. 

In fact, the only conclusion I can come to is that we seem to believe that in order to be strong a woman must act like a man.

And that, my friends, I find incredibly sad.

Why not write young women who use their heads to get out of tricky situations instead of their fists?  Or who show the leadership and capability to surround themselves with people who's strengths play into her weaknesses? 

What about independent thinking that keeps a character moving forward despite ridicule, obstacle or contempt - rather than defiance in the face of parental rules or mature counsel?

Fantasy elements aside, I think most of our bestselling YA protagonists need a serious wake-up call.  Strength isn't achieved by shoving others down.  It's built by shoring yourself up, finding the truth and living in it, dealing with circumstances as they really are - not the way we want them to be.  And, always, taking measured risks.  Not flying blindly into the night against all adult advice and common-sense.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to stop seeing female characters in YA fiction stop fighting.  I just want to see them stop equating physical prowess (including illegal activity) with 'strength', and start seeing it for what it is: Stupid and reckless. 

In my opinion, it is much, much harder to write a character who outsmarts or outweighs her opponents than one who simply kicks them to the dust and keeps running. 

So maybe that's my challenge to myself and to you (if you're writing YA): 

Stop equating violence with strength.  Start equating strength with smarts. 

That is all.

Your Turn:  Do you agree?  Disagree?  How would you like to see strength portrayed in YA fiction? 


  1. Great post. I had noticed that as well, but didn't put it quite all together. I just chalked it up to 'Lara Croft' syndrome. I'm reading a really good book right now called Num8bers by Rachel Ward. I think you might enjoy it as the MC, a teenage girl living in the London slums, is a different kind of girl. Reclusive, to herself, not a fighter. I've really enjoyed this book and after reading your post now I think I know why.

  2. This is indeed a great post, especially when I have a new story idea that does involve a fighting woman. Her strength DOES come from elsewhere though - i.e. her mind!

  3. I can't agree with you more! I think that should have been said a long time ago.

  4. Such a fascinating post, I'll be sure to keep up with the comments, but for now I just had to say that as I was reading, I kept hearing Henry Higgins singing 'Why can't a woman be more like a man', from My Fair Lady! Not to make light of a serious issue, just a fun sidenote.

  5. Thanks ladies. And Jess: LOL! I hadn't thought of that, but your connection made me giggle.

  6. Great post Aimee, and an intriguing insight! (I've just spent ages reading your first post in this series and thinking about the comments made in the context of my own experience / opinions / WIP. Fascinating issue to think about!).



  7. I think all of that smoke about needing to have a kiss@ass heroine is really about building girls self esteem, which I agree with. =)

  8. I totally agree. And when I read about these characters, I can't relate. I'm a bit old-fashioned this way--men are men, women are women. We're different.

  9. It's funny because I totally came up against this issue in my latest work in progress. My MC isn't a fighter, at least not physically, and in the end she has to defeat a god, something which simply isn't possible for a human being. In the end she has to look inside herself for the wherewithal to beat him, because she certainly won't manage it with physical strength.

  10. Tana - I think it's SO important for all teens to have their value and loveability affirmed by the adults in their lives. But I'm concerned about the messages we're sending to girls about what will achieve that.

    Julie - I know! I just hope we aren't blurring the lines for the next generation.

  11. I agree with your post. We equate strength with violence. We equate the silly antitics of a YA character - say, rebelling against her parents -as independence. It's not. Let's call it what it is. Is this sending the message to our young readers that it's okay to do these things because they represent strength and independence. I'm not certain. But I do believe we need to be mindful of how heavily we use these devices in our writing. Using your brain in a YA story should count for something sometimes too. **I'm just saying**

  12. All I can say is, amen! This has been bothering me for quite some time as well.

  13. Aimee, I couldn't agree more. Mental and emotional strength, intelligence and strategic thinking - that's the way most real women win battles. My MS focuses on these areas much more than violence (actually my female MC doesn't engage in violence at all). A wonderful, thought-provoking post. :-)

  14. Thought-provoking post, Aimee. I had written a ridiculously long comment and realized that what I really need to do is write a blog post of my own rather than hijack yours. LOL. But this is definitely something that's been on my mind. I don't read much YA, but I do read and write urban fantasy, a genre wherein unrealistic physical strength and hardness are pretty much a requirement for female MCs. My heroines aren't fighters, and I worry they'll be dismissed as passive. But I need to write what feels true to me.

  15. "Laura Croft/Buffy Summers" Syndrome is a condition I have noticed in almost all female protagonists in the last twenty years in all forms of media not just in YA literature. LC/BS Syndrome has infiltrated movies and television as well, likely as a response to the previous hundreds of years of literature where women have been needing to be rescued to be viable in any kind of tale.

    I do not have a problem with LC/BS Syndrome in and of itself. Women can be physically nearly as strong like men, fight as well as men and be as viable as main protagonists as any man. Yes, I said nearly as strong physically because pound for pound they are not. Not withstanding, women have lots of other capabilities that men are often less capable of developing and as such I consider them to be abilities that compensate for the minor difference in raw physical strength.

    The problem lies in the way they have become these super-beings. They have done it by "becoming" men; solving problems the way men have done in literature. Women have different skills, different ways of thinking and solve problems in ways that men rarely do. I am saddened to see how things have turned out for women and finding this transition into "male archetypes" to be a lessening of the innate (and in my opinion, superior) capabilities of women's considerable intuitive intellect.

    I have seen this show up in the real world where women wear men's suits trying to compete with men in the workplace only to find out men resent women trying to become men because, well, they aren't men. Writers need to let female protagonist utilize ALL of the skills available to them, particularly those skills that are more suited to the female mindset. Women do not need to be men to be excellent protagonists. Women need to solve problems to be protagonists. Let them be the best women they can be, not second-class men.

    And don't get it twisted. I enjoyed Buffy, Serenity, Farscape, Battlestar Galactica, all with amazing women doing awesome stuff only men used to get to do. But almost all of these characters fell out of their true potential as female characters.

    To point at a character who has maintained some level of "female-ness" I show the character of Olivia from the TV show 'Fringe'. She is a strong FBI Agent who takes no prisoners, fights well, shoots well, and is not to be taken lightly with any physical confrontation. But she does not win them all. And I respect writers to recognize she shouldn't. Especially against much bigger physical opponents. But where Olivia shines is her very human, very female intuition which she uses to solve problems and arrive at solutions that the male characters may also arrive at using very linear-male problem-solving techniques. They do not underestimate her, they do not relegate her to a secondary position and often it is her intuitive, nurturing nature that brings a very different point of view to the Fringe Universe.

    What we need are writers who are able to appreciate men and women as distinct and interesting beings who can develop skills from both sides of the physical and mental spectrum. This takes some skill to develop and often my personal belief is that protagonists who are strongly one way or the other reflect their author's personal idiosyncracises more than any other single element of the character's development.

    Just my two bits. Your mileage may vary.


  16. I agree with you. I think some of the strongest female protagonists I've read were in Jane Austen's books. Those women had inner strength that we could learn from. Now to remember this for my next book, because yes, I'm guilty of having a female protagonist that went to war and fought. But it was for a good cause. :)

  17. Kathi - Don't apologize for sending a woman to war. My protag essentially goes to war also... but how she resolves that conflict is, I think, with more heart-muscle than bicep.

    I think Thaddeus hit the proverbial nail with his Fringe analogy (though I don't watch the show, so don't know how accurate that is). I don't think women shouldn't fight - or go to war. I just think that in the natural course of things most women would look for other ways to solve the problem first.

    Most women (in my opinion) demonstrate strengths that are no less potent to men's - only outlived differently. I'd just like to see some of the YA authors in particular give their characters strengths that don't just involve kicking someone's pelvis through their ears - or out running the daemon and slicing his head off.

    It might be harder to deliver a compelling story, but I think a successful attempt would be more compelling and a much richer example to teen readers.

  18. I gotta say: I *liked* when we first started seeing girls and women kick ass in movies and TV shows (Buffy, Alias, etc). Emma Peel from the 60s Brit series The Avengers is my all-time favorite screen heroine. But the pendulum has swung too far if strength can only be expressed physically. We need characters with unique strengths and weaknesses from both genders... because we all have some of each within us.

  19. AMEN!

    I think that your observations are also valid beyond YA.

  20. oooh i was just about to start my post AMEN, but Scooter Carlyle above beat me to it. (No hard feelings though...)

    so i shall day. DITTO. Instead.

    In my opinion (and it is controversial) modern feminism has turned women into needing to be like men to prove they are strong at all.

    Don't get me wrong, i certainly recognise the pain those women went through and thank them everyday. BUT.

    we must wear trousers, cut out hair, and act ruthless to be taken seriously. To prove we are equal we must act like men, which is counter productive as that recognises that women are still weaker.... honestly.

    Can we not be equal without being the same:-)

    What is wrong with wanting to wear pretty skirts and raise babies and be taken seriously as a boss if you are wearing a pretty skirt. Can we not wear a pretty skirt without being taken as either weak, or worse, slutty.

    anyway this is a serious topic of interest for me. So sorry about the comment length i just get annoyed at the 'need for women to appear like men to have strengh' line...

    Many thanks for a great post

    sarah ketley

  21. Awesome post! I agree with you so much.

    I love the idea of strong women and girls, but I don't like that strength seems to often translate into being viciously outgoing and snarky in a bullying way.

    And I don't like when male characters do it either, to be honest.

  22. Great post. Strength is one attribute when it is the sole focus that is worrying. I think most authors do try to balance the masculine trait they've ascribed to the female character with compassion.

  23. This post is win. That is all.

  24. Great topic! This was exactly what was on my mind when I was writing my book. I was so tired of reading female characters who were presented as admirable, only because they were like men. Women are fantastic people just the way we are!

    I purposely made my female protagonist small and not particularly physically gifted. In the end, she dominates, not through physical strength, but through use of her wits and, of all things, her natural feminine qualities of empathy, nurturing, and kindness. There is more than one way to kick some *ss!

    Thanks for writing it up so elonquently!

  25. My daughter is fourteen, and interestingly, she addressed this exact issue with me yesterday. She devours YA on her kindle, sometimes at the rate of two to three books a day! (yes she is bankrupting me) She told me that she has grown weary of what she described as authors who are so eager to make their female main characters seem tough and assertive that they no longer seem real, or sympathetic, or nice. She told me that she is starting to prefer to read books with boy protagonists, where she doesn't see that dynamic at work as much. Interesting.

  26. This is a very thoughtful post that has given me a number of things to think about as I revise my YA manuscript... I've been trying to figure out how to show strength in my female MC without going overboard, taking into account her background but also the fact that she's a WOMAN. Not a man. She has to be allowed to be a woman, regardless of her strength. Men and women are wired differently, and that's that.

  27. Ooooh... this is SO good. I agree, so many times in literature, we make women look like men to make them "strong" and (visa versa) we feminize men. I love what you have to say here.

  28. I completely understand what you're talking about and I've noticed it too. I'm constantly wondering how far to push my heroines when writing my own YA. I have a heroine who is normal and people call her weak. But it's the same in Adult Paranormal too. Readers want a kick-ass heroine. Personally I like characters who are more realistic, but I grew up reading romance novels in which heroines were kind and sweet and only a little fiesty, so this is def. new to me and something I have to get used to. But so glad someone finally brought this up!

  29. Well, I'd probably pick one of these heroines over the passive female character who doesn't drive the action and who is always being rescued. I can't stand those types.

    But, yeah, I don't really want to read about female (or male) characters like the ones you described. I like smart leads who get themselves out of trouble with their brains. And that's the way I write 'em. ;)

    As to what makes a person strong, I agree with the comments. One of the strongest ladies I know survived cancer, has run a marathon, and has built her own successful business in a male-dominated field. I always feel lazy next to her! I'm pretty sure she's never beaten anyone up, though she does have a wicked overhead smash (tennis).

  30. Why do you explicitly criticise female characters? Do you think if a boy sneaks out of his room to break and enter, or a guy acts like a "testosterone fuelled gorilla", that's all well and good?

    Maybe the problem is that violence is considered "male", and "male" is considered superior to "female". Having more male characters using their head and looking for compromises, without being labelled "effeminate" as if that were a bad thing would be nice, too.

    I find the whole concept of pigeonholing how people should behave based on their genitalia offensive. It is damaging to anyone who does not conform to stereotypes, including women in technical/scientific fields, men who'd like to be stay-at-home dads, and many more.

  31. Thank you for this post. I found it very encouraging and valuable in my WIP. During a re-read, I discovered that the main protagonist was the heroine, I sought to change things as I thought she was doing a lot of watching rather than being proactive. It has been difficult as I, like you, believe men and women are different in a lot of ways, but specifically how each gender approach and deal with conflict.

    At first I thought I couldn't write a heroine the way that would make her seem as a truly feminine hero without turning her into G.I. Jane.
    But I'm learning and this post really does help keep it in my mind to allow her to choose her way of solving conflict differently than my hero would whom admitidly is quick to use his proverbial fist.

    I do like my women/heroines with a little spice and not afraid to mix it up with the boys, but also maintain her femininty--without male bashing.

    I think that's important, especially in a adventure oreinted novel.

    I do tire of the heroines who try to be like men, not just because they're trying to be like men but also because I believe they are missing out on what is most attractive--physically, mentally, and spiritually.

    Thanks again for the post and the encouragement of letting heroines be who they are and not try to compete with being a hero--which allows a hero to be who he is and achieve the harmony especially in a dual protagonist novel.

  32. "using very linear-male problem-solving techniques..."

    euhh... can you explain please?

  33. Part of the problem may be that writers who are trying to appeal to a unisex audience usually end up writing action/adventure stories. If you want to have a female protagonist in that kind of story, you're kind of forced to make her physical, at least part of the time. An Emma wouldn't have very much to do.

    Also, there are a variety of archetypes available to male characters which often get retrofitted for female characters, but perhaps there aren't as many archetypes (at least positive ones) to draw from when it comes to women. Perhaps it's time to re-claim the disused or dismissed female archetypes? Maybe the princess in the tower is interesting after all. The Paper bag Princess and Rapunzel from Tangled were great characters, I thought.

    What do you think?

  34. In concept, I think you're right, Steve. But I suspect the bigger problem is actually that most authors aren't analyzing archetypes - or any 'types' at all. They're just told over and over again that their protagonist must be strong. Whether it's media or cultural, I don't know, but most women my age and younger seem to read 'strong' as physical strength and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

    Interestingly, I often read / watch female villains that use their wiles, brains, wits and manipulations to work things to their advantage. Perhaps what I want is more 'good' girls who are similarly clever.

  35. Awww, but cleverness is way harder to write than violence. :)

    Actually, you want a great woman character, check out Donna Noble from Doctor Who! The funny thing about her is that she isn't action or even career-oriented at all. She's just a temp in her mid-thirties whose main ambition is to meet a nice fellow and settle down. But she is such a funny, forceful, imperturbable sort of woman that she drives the story as much as the Doctor does. Catherine Tate, who plays her, is also a perfect foil for David Tennant's always-impressed-with-himself Doctor.

    Look for the episode called "The Runaway Bride" for the beginning of her appearances.