Saturday, March 17, 2012

What’s in a Heroine…?

So last month, I read “The Fault In Our Stars”.

*audience gasps, squeals, or groans respectively*

Yeah. While my experience with it wasn’t entirely like that of others, it was a well-written book and it raised some interesting discussions, and most notably (for me), the question on what is heroism and what constitutes as a heroic action. Which got me thinking about ladies in YA – specifically, it made me wonder what makes a lady heroic. So I asked around GR, twitter and tumblr and got some very thought-provoking answers.

Please note – this is not a post about my feelings on TFIOS or Hazel because in order to do that, I would have to spoil the book for you (as, unfortunately, it’s one of those reads where the major spoilers are also the major centers of conversation).

There always seems to be a debate about female characters (in all media, but YA fiction especially) and what is the best way to portray them. One might say that it’s a subjective thing, as one person’s garbage is another’s gold mine, but there isn’t that much drama when discussing male characters (unless those characters were written by ladies). It seems like men get to have all the variation they want, while women must balance on the precarious point between extremes in order to be considered a realistic character.

We like to make fun of the perfect and perfectly clumsy girls that always get the hero (and several other boys), and we certainly don’t consider them very heroic since they never need to change, evolve, or take initiative throughout the novels, in spite of the fact that they’re technically at the centre of the action (we need no examples of that).

On the other hand, however, there are books like Graceling and Wildefire, with strong MC’s who kick a lot of butt and assert their independence from men… but they also look down on more passive female characters, who are more relaxed about their views on love. And while I liked both Katsa and Ashline, women are not all the same and being independent is not the same as acting masculine.

A really good example I got, when doing my research, was Deryn Sharp from Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan trilogy, a young girl who dresses up as a boy to sign up in the Royal Navy, in an Alternate Universe World War I Britain. True, cross-dressing narratives aren’t exactly new, but I loved Deryn from the get-go, because I could easily identify with her frustration at having unconventional interests at a time when gender roles were really strict, and her strong desire to pursue them. Moreover, nothing comes free to her – she works for everything, and her victories are well deserved.

Another really awesome lady is Penryn from Susan Ee’s Angelfall, a story about a girl trying to survive in a post-Apocalyptic world and her journey to save her sister from the angels that kidnapped her. Penryn is very similar to Katsa, in that she fights a lot and has survival skills above those of a regular Jane. She’s also very calculating, measuring the consequences of her actions and thinking ahead, rather than rushing blindly in battle (for the most part). But the thing about Penryn (and Deryn too) is that while she puts on a tough girl act, she’s also very insecure and very scared, and that makes her rare moments of vulnerability all the more genuine and sincere. In fact, those are the times that are most memorable to me.

I also asked the Interwebs why they thought their MC of choice was heroic, and the most common answer was that she carried her own story. That she existed apart from the hero, and that rings very true in both Deryn and Penryn’s cases. While both of them have their respective love interests, their romance is a subplot, one that doesn’t outshine the actual events of the novel. If you want more proof, I will only say that Sophie from “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Dianna Wynne Jones was a popular choice, and she spends the majority of the novel as an old woman.

I feel, in the end, that what really makes a heroine is not about the expectations of gender and how she meets them/defies them, but how she stands as her own character and if her arc is a satisfactory one. It’s not about acting like a man or saving the day in spite of being feminine – it’s about facing the challenges thrown in front of you and learning from them, and staying true to yourself. That, to me, is the marker of a true heroine.

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