Women, men & minorities in geek culture and pop culture
Every time I turn around, there’s a new young adult novel with a female hero in the fantasy and adventure section at the bookstore I work in. It’s not a bad thing – except that many of these “heroes” aren’t exactly awesome role models for teenage girls.
I’m not a teenager anymore, but I still remember how badly I wanted role models in the books I read, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first or the last teenage girl who wanted someone to look up to when I read books.
I mentioned in an earlier post that young adult dystopian isn’t my thing. Apart from my love for Legend’s June Iparis, however, I have one other dystopian hero who speaks to me: Beatrice “Tris” Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy.
Tris lives in a dystopian world in which she must choose a “faction” based on a valued trait in which to live. At the beginning of the first novel, she expects to join her parents’ faction, Abnegation, where she grew up; when she learns she is Divergent and therefore doesn’t lean towards a particular faction, she leaves Abnegation, which values selflessness, and joins Dauntless, which values bravery.
What I find so wonderful about Tris, despite my difficulty with dystopian heroes, is that she isn’t a cold and emotionless character – as I so frequently find with dystopian heroes – and she’s not an unrealistically-written girl. She comes across as a typical teenage girl who chooses to do brave things in order to follow what she thinks is the best choice.
While Tris doesn’t always make great decisions, she makes the kinds of decisions that can only be expected from a teenage girl: imperfect ones, the kind all humans make. What’s more is that not only does she make imperfect decisions, she also wholeheartedly accepts the consequences of her decisions, particularly in Insurgent, the second book in the trilogy.
As far as teen readers are concerned, the conclusion of the Divergent trilogy should be highly anticipated – not only because it’s a popular series, but because its hero is a realistically brave young woman.
Cate Cahill of Jessica Spotswood’s Cahill Witch Chronicles is another recent addition to the YA fantasy and adventure scene: only the first book in the series, Born Wicked, has been published. Even so, I find Cate is one of the best role models in the latest crop of YA fantasy: she has a fantastic ability she must hide, but she protects others before herself.
Born Wicked, an alternative historic fantasy, is set in an alternative 1890s America where witches are hunted. Cate, a witch herself, hides her magic and protects her younger sisters to the best of her ability. While she could allow one of her sisters face the consequences of showing her magic in public, she takes the fall herself – and faces the consequences a witch must in her world.
Cate is the most likely girl on this list to inspire debate. “Why is she on the list when [X] isn’t?” or “Why does she place above Tris Prior?”
But here’s the thing: self-sacrifice is an incredible thing. While other female heroes are strong fighters and warrior women, it’s important that some demonstrate the sort of heroism real girls can emulate. The average female reader probably won’t need to shoot and kill someone, like Tris, but she may very well need to protect someone she cares about – whether it’s from fake friends or nasty remarks.
Cate Cahill is a hero – not because she’s physically strong, but because her heart and her love for her sisters are strong. And that’s something teenage girls need, too.
The most remarkable thing about Eona, protagonist of Alison Goodman’s novels Eon and Eona, is that unlike the rest of the ladies on this list, she isn’t white. She’s Asian, and Asian protagonists in young adult fantasy are extremely hard to find.
But breaking the race mold isn’t the only qualification for this list, and Eon/Eona is a hero by many definitions.
To train as a Dragoneye, a type of magic user who binds to and harnesses the power of one of the twelve dragons, Eona poses as a boy named Eon – because girls are never allowed to become Dragoneyes, despite Eona’s obvious talent for the magic. Without spoiling too much, I can reveal that yes, she does become a Dragoneye, and eventually she saves her kingdom from a terrible fate.
Eona is a good role model because she doesn’t get everything easily, despite her magical talents. When the story begins, she has essentially been purchased to train to become a Dragoneye. Her life isn’t comfortable, and her past is full of pain: her family sold her because she is female and therefore worthless.
Despite the darkness of her past, Eona still struggles to create a better life. Not all girls are born into comfortable or easy lives. Some girls struggle their way to adulthood – some with their weight or their health, others against discrimination or low expectations. Like Eona, they struggle to create a better life, and a hero like Eona can inspire them to aim for the sky.
When I started thinking of female heroes in books I’d read growing up, I knew Hermione would be near the top of my list. Since I started Harry Potter at age eight, I’d always related to Hermione: smart and bookish to the point of awkwardness. Yet there are other reasons Hermione deserves to make this list.
A few years back, author J. K. Rowling wrote a post on her personal website, now taken down, entitled “For Girls Only, Probably,” in which she discussed the puzzling cultural obsession with thinness and prettiness.
It’s never mentioned in the books whether or not Hermione is fat. It is mentioned, however, that she is intelligent and determined, loyal and brave. Sure, she’s also a know-it-all, she’s jealous and petty at times, and she can be really snotty and mean – but her prettiness is never really a qualification for her to be part of the trio, so what Hermione Granger looks like has little impact on how readers “see” her.
Though traits like intelligence and loyalty make Hermione a true hero, J. K. Rowling’s portrayal of her – essentially good because of her bravery, not her beauty – is the real reason she belongs on this list. She’s a role model not because she’s beautiful outside but because she’s beautiful inside – and the writer who created her intended readers to see things that way.
There are so many reasons Alanna of Trebond (heroine of Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness quartet) deserves to make this list. Alanna disguises herself as a boy in order to take her twin brother’s place in knight training, effectively becoming the first female knight in her country in over a hundred years. She is a master hunter and archer, later becoming the greatest swordfighter in the realm.
Yet as I mentioned above, physical prowess isn’t the only reason for a female hero to be admirable, and Alanna’s behavior over the course of all four novels – as well as her behavior in later books set in the same world – is a major reason Alanna should be considered a good role model.
One major point in the series is that Alanna and her brother Thom are the children of a noble scholar of the medieval Europe-like nation of Tortall – and their mother died when they were very young. Alanna grows up without female role models or, in fact, any women of her social status as peers: she and her brother rarely leave Trebond, their home, and Alanna’s interaction with adult women is limited to Maude, a healer in the nearby village.
However, Alanna intentionally seeks out not only male role models during her time training as a page – role models such as Myles of Olau, who eventually becomes a father figure – but also female companions and role models, as well.
She finds a female role model in Eleni Cooper, a former priestess who teaches Alanna many things about being a woman, from information about that dreaded, mysterious “monthly problem” to the way a woman dresses and carries herself.
All girls need role models in their lives, which is the very reason you’re reading this article right now. Yet it’s not only important for teens to look up to book characters – it’s also important to realize they need real women to look up to as well. Alanna the Lioness isn’t only a fierce fighter, but a human and a woman who enjoys not only a fulfilling career but also her own femininity.
Fulfillment and self-worth: two traits to which every girl should aspire in womanhood.
Do you agree with the ladies on this list? Tell us who would make up your Top 5 – or the next five you’d add to make it a Top 10 list.
Feliza is the founder and editor in chief of Girls in Capes. She writes for all sections of the web magazine.