Rebel or role model? The scrutiny facing female YA characters
When we wrote The Witch’s Kiss, we tried hard to make our protagonist Merry realistic: to make her a strong character with an agenda, yes; but more importantly, to make her a believable teenage girl.
Sadly, we’ve realised (through reading, and talking, and talking about reading) that real, tangible female characters are so often scrutinised and judged. And, even worse, they’re judged so much more harshly than male characters of the same age.
YA readers themselves don’t seem to care about this too much. As readers ourselves, we very rarely attach a label to a character (‘good girl’, ‘bad girl’, ‘rebel’, ‘Mary Sue’) whilst we’re in the middle of her story. It’s critics, reviewers and, unfortunately, some parents, who perpetuate this idea that every young female character has to represent...something, as opposed to just being. Is the heroine ‘good’ for teens to read about, is she a worthwhile role-model, are the personal qualities she displays sufficiently admirable? And so on.
For example: you might see, on an online forum, a mother asking whether a YA book is “appropriate” for her younger teenager.
I’m not sure, somebody might comment. ‘The protagonist drinks’, or ‘she’s too bland’, ‘she’s too submissive’, ‘she’s not the best role model’.
But books which are supposedly more appropriate for boys (and gendered reading is a whole other thing we could rant about) seem to provoke far fewer concerns about whether the (male) main character is ‘aspirational’ enough for young people to read about. Are we suggesting that girls are inherently more impressionable than boys? That they’ll ‘pick up’ bad habits or not be sufficiently motivated to do their best in life, all because of a character from a novel? That girls, and women, are far more easily affected than male readers would be?
On a side note, we might point out any number of adult books intended for women where the protagonist does so-called ‘bad’ things. “Chick-lit” is so often about women struggling to cope with boyfriends, jobs and babies, and yet we have no scruples about reading this ourselves, no concerns about the potential adverse effect on our personality, on our ability to have a normal relationship, to hold down a job or raise a family. We instead identify with these often very flawed heroines. Who doesn’t love Bridget Jones, for instance, with all her quirks and shortcomings? Who doesn’t love Becky Bloomwood? No one dismisses her for being a spendthrift, obsessed with material things. Yes, the girl comes good and matures at the end of the novel, but we love her for her flaws, not in-spite of them.
Unfortunately, YA heroines seem to be held to a different standard. Sure, one might argue that younger girls are more impressionable than older women, and this is probably true, to a degree – they are still growing up, still coming to terms with the world around them and, more importantly, with themselves. But then, so are boys. Yet nobody worries that a 15-year-old boy will take up smoking because the guy in the book he’s reading had a cigarette. Nobody looks down on a male protagonist having sex because, well, isn’t that just what boys do?
The modern education system is designed to teach young adults to be discerning and objective. A compulsory Literature GCSE means that all 16-year-olds have to develop that skill of looking at a text’s purpose – what is the writer trying to say? why has this character been presented like that? – so they can all distinguish fiction from real-life, and know not to mimic everything that they read in a book. If we really think that teenage girls (or boys) are influenced that easily, we are underestimating them and their intelligence.
But in our still-sexist society, female YA characters are too often described as either fantastic role models or people never to be copied. There is always some moral lesson to be learned from them. Why can they not just be people? Why is Hermione so often viewed through the prism of being a role model, but Harry is just Harry?
Yes, there are the stereotypical male heroes that YA authors try to avoid – the brooding love interest, the jock who falls for the new girl. But these characters are avoided because their inclusion would be detrimental to the author, not the reader.
A YA girl can’t just be a ‘girl’: she has to be role model, and if she’s not, she’s criticised. Tragically, this is something of a reflection of the difficulties real girls face in our society. We live by double-standards, and we are perpetuating them in the way we judge YA fiction.
So, from a couple of authors who passionately want to create a Real Girl with Real Flaws, it’s time to stop judging characters because of their imperfections, and trust that our teenage girls – the next generation of leaders – are brave and clever enough to understand that that is how people are.
Girls don’t need to read novels primarily to find role models – there are plenty of those in the real world, for young men and young women.
Instead, they need escapism and adventure and just a really incredible story.