Thursday, January 5, 2012

Heroine Tournament: Some Questions and Concerns

I'm sure some of you YA readers and book bloggers have likely come across the Twitter hashtag #HeroineTourney sometime in the past few weeks. The reason for it: the blog YA Sisterhood began a Heroine Tournament in November, and blog feedback led to the choosing of thirty-two heroines from various MG and YA series to "fight" against each other in a tournament to determine the strongest female character in the MG/YA market today. The successive weeks led to a narrowing of the field...and tomorrow marks the finale of the tournament. (For a full list of the heroines and the breakdown of the tournament rounds, visit this page.)

Now, I've been lazily following the Heroine Tournament over the past few weeks (through Twitter, the YA Sisterhood blog, and even some comments from friends), but I won't say that some things haven't bothered me ever since I first saw the main nominees for the tournament. (Here's some quick info: out of the thirty-two heroines, I've read or sampled the books in which twenty-seven of the thirty-two heroines are a part, so I'm not coming from a place of "I loved one book/two books/a handful of these books, so the rest of these heroines can suck it." I know many of these books and their heroines, so this post isn't from the view of someone with a lack of knowledge.) Here's one thing I noticed about many of these heroines: at least twenty-five of them are from YA series which feature a prominent romance as one of the main focuses of the story. (Examples: Bella Swan from Twilight, Rose Hathaway from the Vampire Academy series, Meghan Chase from The Iron Fey series, etc.) Coincidence? I wondered.

My suspicions, of course, blew up a bit yesterday when I saw that Tessa Gray of The Infernal Devices series won out against Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games trilogy. I'll be honest in saying that the outcome left me scratching my head a bit. When I read various opinions of Katniss, I hear many passionate things: people either love her prickly, distant characterization or hate her for the exact same reason. But when I read reader opinions about Tessa Gray, what often comes up first? Do I hear about her quiet strength or her sensibility? Do I hear these readers passionately speak of their love for her as a character? No. Sure, the readers will be passionate...but not about Tessa. I often first hear about Will and Jem and how lucky she is to have two such great guys in love with her.

Er. Right. Why should boys (or, in this case, male love interests) figure at all into a heroine tournament? Men should never define women, but I also find it disheartening when romance defines a woman. I can't say it doesn't bother me that talk of many of these Heroine Tournament girls often doesn't lead to praise about their characterization or strength...but their significant others.

Thus, I must ask this question: did this tournament advocate strong female characters? Or did it, at the end of the day, only succeed in pushing heroines whose romances were often deemed "most important" to their individual journeys?

Keep in mind: the outcome of this tournament was reader/voter-determined. So where is the problem? Is this the problem of the authors who write heroines whose love lives figure so greatly into their characterization and stories, or the readers for endorsing females whose greatest trait is often which boy is on her arm? There's nothing wrong with romance or its place in novels...but, when a heroine's most defining characteristic to many readers is a relationship or her romantic entanglements, something is very, very wrong.

These are just some things I think YA readers should consider when it comes to "strong" female characters and the representations of feminism (or, perhaps in this case, "pseudo-feminism") within the books they read.

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