Are We Too Hard on Our Heroines?

Posted May 20, 2015 by Cristina (Girl in the Pages) in Discussions / 42 Comments

Heroines-1

For the first time in about a year, I opened a word document with my current work in progress, determined to get back into writing now that I’m a post-grad (for undergraduate, anyway). While rereading my 12,000 word draft, I realized that the character who I found hardest to write was my protagonist. While I knew her struggles and reasons behind her behavior and dialogue, I realized that her motivations may not be as transparent to readers, and that she could come off in less than ideal ways without the right context or background knowledge. This got me thinking about why readers tend to be so critical about female protagonists, and how readers tend to expect so much more from them (myself included).

There are so many double-standards imposed upon female protagonists: they can’t be boring but they can’t be too good at everything. Readers scoff at them if they’re weak but it’s unbelievable if they’re too skilled in all sorts of weaponry/marital arts/etc. God forbid if a protagonist is a Mary Sue, perfect in every way, a thinly veiled wish-fulfillment character who readers are supposed to like because, well, they’re the protagonist. While I’m definitely guilty of being annoyed by these traits, I also want to challenge myself and ask why such tropes annoy me so much as a reader. Is it because I’m a female and thus judge female characters more harshly? Is it because I’ve read so many female YA protagonist that I’ve developed higher standards? Do I hold them to the standards of behavior I believe I would exhibit in such a situation? (I’m not saying that I could survive more than 5 minutes in the Hunger Games arena, but I am quick to stand up for myself and wouldn’t be railroaded by some characters in contemporary novels, for example).

Here are some common tropes that I find tend to irk readers the most in female protagonists:

The perfectly average, brown haired, quiet girl who attracts the attention of the hot paranormal dude:

Why it’s annoying: These types of protagonists all tend to run together after a while. They’re never popular but have pretty features, always outwardly quiet with some snark that only takes the right vampire/angel/werewolf to unlock. It’s sort of unbelievable that someone of such superior skills and genetic differences would like plain old Jane from your science class.

Why we may be too critical: On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with writing about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. Perhaps readers don’t like reading about these ordinary, average protagonists because we want to spend our fictional time reading about the original and different. I get that, I’m usually that way too. Yet most people are somewhat average, and do spend their high school days doing homework and watching movies with their friends rather than battling demons/saving the world. While these characters can start off as boring and unmemorable, they can be a huge platform for character growth throughout a book or series. Perhaps readers don’t like reading about these ordinary, average protagonists because we want to spend our fictional time reading about the original and different.

The emotionless warrior:

Why it’s annoying: It’s hard to “connect” to such protagonists, as most of my peers aren’t top performers in archery or skilled with a crossbow. These characters come off as aloof and untouchable, and often leave a bitter taste in the reader’s mouth. I can personally vouch for feeling a disconnect with characters like Katniss because she was so emotionally walled off, almost like a machine going through the motions of the story and letting the plot move her along (especially in the movies).

Why we may be too critical: Often times these sort of protagonists are living (or surviving) in dystopian or fantasy worlds that have a lot of horrible, terrible, dangerous stuff going on. Maybe being emotionally closed off is a defense mechanism. I certainly don’t think I’d be able to survive as long as these gals in post-apocalyptic zombie/dystopian land, and I feel like their ability to persevere is overshadowed by a lack of feels. Emotionally connecting with a protagonist is often what will keep me coming back to a book or series, but in some situations that’s not always a realistic expectation given the setting or situation.

The indecisive girl in the middle of a love triangle:

Why it’s annoying: When the whole novel is a back and forth between “Do I love hot guy A or adorable guy B?” It gets really old, really fast. Especially when it’s angsty. Cannot you not just be happy that you have so many fantastic options and people who want to be with you?

Why we may be too critical: Being torn between liking two people is hard. It happens to a lot of people, whether with middle school crushes or when navigating adult relationships. It really can cause a lot of emotional turmoil, and I think readers are quick to dismiss the struggle of a fictional protagonist dealing with this same situation. Especially depending on the genre (like romance), this sort of plot-driven indecisiveness may be important. However, it needs to not overwhelm the entire story if the romance is second to a larger plot or genre.

The damsel in distress:

Why it’s annoying: We want progressive heroines! We don’t want to enforce rigid gender roles that place men in the constant position of power.

Why we may be too critical: This gets tricky when it comes to paranormal and fantasy, because yeah, if you’re dating a paranormal warrior dude he’s probably going to have the upper hand when you get kidnapped/held hostage/attacked. I think that if a heroine can hold her own intelligently and emotionally in this sort of situation, and demands respect, then I can’t criticize her for not being able to physically fight her own way out of a situation.

The obsessive compulsive protagonist:

Why it’s annoying: They tend to go on and on and on about their insecurities. It may convince the readers not to like them as well.

Why we may be too critical: I find this a lot with books featuring teenage protagonists (especially in the contemporary genre) and it helps to remember that being a teenage girl is often REALLY hard. Sure as an older reader such concerns may seem vapid and inconsequential, but it’s often very real to that age group. One of my favorite series is the Princess Diaries, and I often hear critiques that Mia is too insecure/immature/obsessive. Yet her story is told through her diary entries, a place where a character would confess their deeper inner thoughts and fears, so I embrace such content because I expect it from the format of the storytelling.

There are definitely more exhaustingly cliché and irritating female protagonist YA tropes than the ones I’ve mentioned, but by forcing myself to look at both the pros and cons of such tropes I feel myself having a more well-rounded perception of them. Will some of them still annoy me? Certainly. Yet I can acknowledge that writing a character who navigates around falling into these tropes is hard work. I’m not here to state a definitive yes or no answer as to whether a type of character is “good” or “bad,” but rather to point out that some of these standards may be a bit unfair or deserve a more critical evaluation.

I’d also argue that male protagonists in the YA genre tend to not be criticized as much for every nuance of their character. I think that this is largely due to their scarcity, and if there is a male main character people focus on how “different” and “original” it is. There’s nothing wrong with this, and male characters definitely can be refreshing to come across in YA, but I think that they’re not held to as high standards as female ones are and don’t take as much character-bashing because of their rarity (and, arguably, the different ways in which we perceive their situations. For example, Cass in Anna Dressed in Blood depended on Anna to even the score with the villain at the end, but he’s not pegged as weak because it’s a role reversal for typical gender roles. Which is great and I love seeing kick-butt females, but when you think about it it’s a double standard).

It’s also worth noting that there have been some very awesome leading ladies in YA lit lately that have set a higher standard for female protagonists to meet. Celaena from Throne of Glass, Kestrel from The Winner’s Curse, and Penryn from Angelfall are just a few examples of protagonists exemplify all of the tricky traits readers often demand from female characters: femininity balanced with warrior traits, intelligence coupled with vulnerability, romance along with self-sufficiency. Yet do these characters cause disdain and discredit characters who aren’t written with such nuance? Should we continue to push for more Kestrels and Penryns or focus on minimizing the hate toward characters who aren’t as multi-dimensional?

Now I want to hear from you! Do you think readers are too hard on YA female heroines? Do you think there’s a higher standard set for them than male ones? Why do you think we expect so much more from females? Do you think this could be a reflection of values our society places on gender roles? Are there any female protagonists who you initially disliked but have come to understand more when looking at them critically? What stereotypical protagonist tropes irritate you the most, and which don’t bother you as much? Do you think female protagonists get too much hate? Let me know in the comments!

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42 responses to “Are We Too Hard on Our Heroines?

  1. I like this post a lot. I find myself getting annoyed with a lot of the tropes you mentioned, but I do feel like I have a better understanding of them now that’ll carry over into my reading. I think the thing that bothers me the most is when the female protagonist is overly emotional or too emotionally dependent on her love interest. However, I think I need to maybe take a step back and try to put myself in her shoes every once in a while. I mean, if I was being attacked by random people all of the time, I might need to break down and cry every couple of chapters too. Great post!

    • You bring up a great trope. The over-reliance on a love interest can definitely send the wrong message, because obviously there is so much personal character growth that can happen in a novel that can be overshadowed by such a relationship. Realistically though, if I was constantly in danger I’d probably depend on my warrior significant other too when it came to needing physical force (I think what can set characters apart in this scenario is if they can make intelligent decisions and occasionally get out of bad situations with their mind/wit/logic.)

  2. I totally have a similar post scheduled for July that touches on this topic but you’ve taken it to the next level 😉

    I find it funny that you used a brunette as the example because I always read books with “reddish hair” or “red hair” heroines and as a red-head myself, it irks me. I suppose it’s jealous that these great things aren’t happening to me (lol) but I would prefer diversity. In the end, who cares? That description is given once and the person I picture in my head may or may not look like that. (In Touch of Frost I pictured Logan with blonde hair for the entire series despite the description his hair is “ink black”!) But that was a total tangent from your point haha 😛

    The two tropes I struggle with the most are the “I can’t live without him heroine” that Ashley touched on and the love triangle. With the dependent heroine I can work with it if their past influences the dependency; however, I hate when it comes from nowhere.

    My problem with love triangles is that I don’t find them overly realistic. I mean honestly: what are the odds that two guys are going to fall endlessly in love with me simultaneously? If that happened on an everyday basis I wouldn’t be a twenty-something spinster 😉 (Where can I sign up? Besides the Bachelor?) I guess the cynic in me struggles with the idea that you can love two people in such a consuming way simultaneously. Perhaps this is because I haven’t had a dramatic romantic life myself and I just can’t sympathize.

    SERIESous Book Reviews recently posted: Series Review: Alienated by Melissa Landers
    • First off, I’m super impressed by your organizational skills to have posts written already and scheduled out for two months from now!

      I definitely agree, there have been a LOT of recent redheaded protagonists in YA, I was thinking of the older stuff like Twilight, Hush Hush, etc. where there are a lot of brown-haired, brown-eyed pale girls (although I’m brunette myself so maybe I notice this tendency more!) If a book doesn’t mention things like hair color very early on I form my own image and it’s forever cemented in my mind for that character!

      You definitely make some valid points about the love triangle aspect. If it comes out of no where I can see where it’s highly unbelievable, but I think it’s semi-plausible when the character is torn between someone they’ve had longstanding feelings for or someone returning from their past and a new love interest coming in (I think some people do experience this, I know people who definitely have, where an ex comes back into their lives and it causes a sort of love-triangle situation).

      Thanks so much for joining in on the discussion 🙂

      Cristina (Girl in the Pages) recently posted: Are We Too Hard on Our Heroines?
      • You bring up a good point about returning exes or that BFF who has been there forever. I’ve known a few people who have found themselves in this situation over the years now that I think about it. I think because I’ve never found myself in that situation, it just rubs me the wrong way when I read about it. I would like to think that if I did find myself in that situation I would have a better handle on what my feelings are. BUT I know that that is totally harder than it is as feelings are a tricky-tricky thing.

        I just find it odd that most of these situations involve female characters with two males. Why are male leads never put in this situation? Or if they are, why can they (usually) make a clear cut decision between the two? Is it because of stereotypes regarding emotions (females analyze their emotions more)? Or is it simply because it’s more of a “romantic situation” and the “target audience” for these reads are female? I definitely think it is more of the last situation. I would be hard-pressed to find a young woman who wouldn’t want to attract the attention of two “hot” males.

        Lastly, you also bring up a great point in your post that sometimes this indecisiveness adds to the plot. I just finished reading a novel where the shape-shifting heroine was struggling between her connection with the shape-shifting male and the human male. Here a love triangle makes sense because it adds to the heroines character development and it was well done (ie I wasn’t annoyed by it too much). But at the same time it can get super annoying if not executed properly (ex. too much back and forth; angst).

  3. It is an unfortunate reality that men and women alike tend to be more critical of females in different entertainment mediums and also in real life. I’m of the personal opinion that misogynistic views have been a part of society for so long, they have wormed their way into our thought processes and whether we’re aware of it or not, we hold negative views of females. And those of us who crave strong roles for women aren’t satisfied with the same-old tropes, we want complexity and we want it now. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that complexity includes characteristics that are often thought of as “weak.” And for some reason we got it in our heads that a strong female character must be tough, must be secure in who she is, mustn’t show vulnerability. And you’re tight, having a protagonist with insecurities gives her room to grow. You just reminded me of the recent release of the trailer for Supergirl. It looks great, but I keep hearing all these people complaining about how light it is, how weak a character the protagonist seems because she’s insecure. Someone pointed out that the show The Flash is very similar, featuring a sort of awkward protagonist, who isn’t physically dominating. He’s a little dorky and the show itself is pretty light, but no one criticizes it for these things.

    I feel that female characters are more likely to be told what they can’t do or a risk of being called a Mary Sue or weak. Female characters in general are in a no-win situation. Can’t be too strong, can’t be too weak, can’t be too closed-off, can’t be too emotional, can’t talk too much, can’t talk too little. We, as women, are brought up to criticizes ourselves. Clothes, makeup, anti-wrinkle creams. We’re basically told we aren’t perfect the way we are. It’s no wonder we take such harsh analytical looks at females when everyone’s been taught to judge us.

    I do admit that I hate the girl-stuck-in-the-middle-of-two-guys trope. I find it predictable and a lot of times unnecessary to the plot or to the characters. I feel that authors think this is what readers want and so they write it. It often manifests itself through physical attraction and if I’m going to believe this girl or guy is caught between two people, it needs to be more than that, because it just feels shallow to me.

    Sorry this was so long. Great discussion, Cristina!

    • First of all, no need to apologize! I love long comments like this!

      I love love love that you point out that character complexity can often present itself in traits that are “weak.” “Strong” heroines that don’t have any sort of vulnerability are just as one-dimensional as a damsel-in-distress. I haven’t seen the Supergirl trailer yet but I really want to check it out now, as I know there’s been a lot of conversations about gender portrayal with the recent onslaught of super hero movies and revamped comics (on that note, I’m interested to see what they do with Wonder Woman).

      You’re point about women being brought up to be hyper critical of other women is also very on-point. I’ve heard the argument that, for example, beautiful and sexy women that are used for advertising purposes are really more geared toward female audiences than males, because the marketing pull is stronger toward a female audience who wants to emulate that look than it is for males who would desire such a female. I think female readers definitely have higher standards of comparison with female protagonists that males do with male ones. You’re right about male characters having less than desirable qualities getting less bashed- if anything it makes them funny or endearing (I don’t think this can really apply to females either because an awkward/insecure/etc. female character is only endearing/cute/etc if she’s a specific TYPE of awkward/quirky, which has manifested itself into the “manic pixie dream girl” trope).

      I also really like your comment that certain tropes may be put in because the authors think that’s what the audience wants (such as the love triangle) in a sort of wish-fullfillment move. Because that would say A LOT about society and the cyclical nature of how readers are influencing authors to produce certain content, and then that content gets read and reinforces those ideals back to the readers. It’d be interesting to look at sales statistics of such books and see if certain tropes are selling better (despite the fact, for instance, that many, many bloggers call out and dislike a lot of these sorts of trope in their reviews).

  4. i love this post! i hadn’t realized it, but i AM quite picky with my female protagonists. these were so fun to read and accurate. my least favorite trope would probably the love-triangle one because i already dislike love triangles in general. i do think the standards are higher than those that are male, but i feel like i create those standards because i’m a female myself. as if i’d like the protagonist to be the perfect version of myself *sigh* but i’m definitely trying to have lower expectations 😀 ahaha

    alexandra @ twirlingpages recently posted: ten books i want in my hands RIGHT NOW
    • I definitely am picky with my female protagonists too, and I’m not trying to claim that I won’t be in the future, I just think it’s important to be aware of our biases that we may not even realize we have! I think it’d be so interesting to do a study on the reception of love triangles in books when it’s a male protagonist with two females vs a female with two males (or even all same gendered) to see how critical/accepting people are depending on the gender of the protagonist and love interests!

  5. I am definitely tougher on female protagonists. I think the one that gets me is the super insecure female who everyone constantly tells how beautiful she is and what not and she cannot understand the complements. And you are right as a teenager/ young adult we have insecurities and are hard on ourselves about appearances and more but I hate reading about them. Really great post and points.

    Grace @ Rebel Mommy Book Blog recently posted: Break from Books ~ Do You Need to Break Up With That TV Show
    • I agree that it definitely IS annoying, but I try to take a step back and remember how rampant insecurity is at that age. I think though it’s interesting that while the protagonists are written as teenagers, the authors are often adults, which begs the question of how over-dramaticized may these instances of insecurity be.

  6. I love this topic! I certainly believe that we place a significantly high standard on our beloved female characters, and it is quite higher than that of male characters. I definitely believe this could be a reflection of the expectations and views of women in society in the past and even today! I believe that we shouldn’t be so harsh and when it comes to us pointing out a point of criticism about a character, we should stop and think – “Is this a trait that is realistic?” or “Is this something that would actually happen in life?” because sometimes it can get a bit out of hand: oh this character is too dependent; oh this character is so unrealistically independent and skilled.
    I really liked this topic and the analysis and discussion you brought with it!

    Josie recently posted: This Week In Books | 21st May 2015
    • Thank you Josie! I like your idea of taking a step back when reading and really asking yourself “Is this realistic?” I would go even further and ask “Is this believable for the context?” And I find that it often helps to either curb my annoyance or examine the text more critically. I find this especially helpful to do after finishing a book when I’m brainstorming my review, so I can try to evaluate the characters as fairly as possible based on my own perception! That’s another thing too, everyone’s evaluation of whether a trope or stereotype is too annoying/over the top will depend on their experiences. For instance, if you’ve had to make a hard choice between two people you feel for and who are both interested in you, you may have more sympathy for the character!

  7. Mm, yes, I do think we often tend to be harder on heroines. I think often consumers are harder on female characters in general anywhere in pop culture, but there’s something about female *teen* characters that definitely seem to invite extra scrutiny. I often wonder if with YA there’s the added scrutiny of how we think about these characters considering YA has a very high percentage of female authors, so it’s not just how these characters are portrayed but all the writing choices that go into that. For example, I often find myself eye-rolling at the “average plain brown-hair, brown-eye girl” getting the super attractive guy & the adventure. . . but not because of the character type. I actually love that *type* of character, but often it’s written in such a way that equates brown hair & brown eyes with being “average” and “not as attractive”. I love when main characters are more “plain” than the most beautiful person, but it’s just that sometimes it feels like every plain character is being described the same way, which is a writing choice bigger than just that character or story, and I do think after awhile I may slip into the habit of judging books with that character type in contrast to every book with the same trope that came before it. Analyzing female characters is often such a double-edged sword, though, because culturally I think we’re predisposed to be harder on female characters, but at the same time there’s this idea that since YA is meant for teenagers they need good characters portrayed for them(which is not a line of thought I necessarily agree with, but I see a lot), so then these characters get judged *again* to see if they’re good role models. . . but often we have a very strict definition of what that looks at. Take The Hunger Games–Katniss is held up as a role model all the time for young girls. I love Katniss, I think she’s fierce and brave. . . but at the same time, I don’t know if she’s a character I’d hold up as a good role model. She locks her emotions away and is out of touch with her feelings and has so many “masculine” qualities, which makes me think sometimes she’s held up as a role model because she doesn’t really portray femininity in any way. As a character, that’s fine, but when she’s culturally held up as a role model it makes me wonder if it’s another way we snub feminine qualities. As much as I love Katniss, I don’t want my young female nieces to be like her. Emotions are not the enemy, and being stoic is not the only way to be “strong”.

    • I love that you bring up the concept of role models, and how it puts this sort of not explicitly stated yet pressing expectation on authors to mold their protagonists into something that’s “acceptable”…and often boring. I really like flawed characters, and yeah I understand the role model aspect but I read books to get away from everyday life, and so the more varied the characters the better! I think it’s great you bring up Katniss (she falls into the “emotionless warrior” category for me) because I love that you question if she’s revered for her lack of “traditional” female qualities and she’s rewarded for her more traditionally “male” attributes (fighting, archery, strategizing, etc). I really like Sj Maas’ Celeana for the reason that she has a lot of “male” attributes being in the profession of an assassin, but Sarah’s very open about Celeana loving clothes, and reading fantasy, and can have a nurturing side too (like with her dog). It’s such a hard line to walk as a writer, because you want to bend gender roles and show that females can be as kick-ass as male heros, but give them too many of those elements and you are “rejecting” femininity.

      Thank you so much for the lovely and thought out comment!

  8. This is a really great post^^ well done for taking on such a complicated topic! I do think that as a society we tend to judge women more harshly than men. It’s hardwired in our brains after years and years of unfair standards and treatment. Personally, I like it when female protagonists aren’t the usual, aren’t always likeable, are flawed and sometimes behave the way we think only men can. I do tend to get annoyed with the usual ‘I’m nothing special’ girl that all the boys fall for but that’s just because I’ve know girls like that, who don’t think they’re pretty but all the boys want them. I feel like if all the boys had crowded around me in high school, I would have clued in that I was desireable at least to some LOL and not stayed oblivious to it all. But that comes from personal experiences with other girls like I said. It’s funny that you mentioned ‘brunette’ heroines because growing up, I always felt like there were too many perfect blonde protagonists out there and I simply could not relate to being so pretty, so perfect and so blonde O.O I do think the trend of cookie-cutter heroines is much more common in YA, which is why I tend to need breaks from YA in favor of adult or MG reads a lot of the time.

    Micheline @ Lunar Rainbows Reviews recently posted: Fandom Mashups #2
    • Thank you Micheline! I totally agree with you about the “I’m nothing special yet all these boys want me but I still don’t think I’m attractive” trope. I mean, on one hand I’m glad that those characters aren’t completely basing their value on what boys tell them, but on the other the fact that they keep deferring compliments and refusing to accept their desirability shows a real lack of self confidence and pretty deeply rooted self-hatred when you think about it, if they’re so in denial about being likeable. I wonder how much of that trope is based on the idea of keeping female protagonists from being too sexy or aware of their sexuality, something that society has for so many years tried to keep women from expressing and coming to terms with. If the heroine knows/realizes that she’s attractive and gains confidence from this, it gives her a level of control and the ability to use her attractiveness (God forbid the heroine should make a pass at the attractive paranormal dude first…I’m wondering if that’s EVER happened in ANYTHING I’ve read now that I think about it…)

  9. I’d look at perception as the basis of exhaustive questioning of gender roles (meaning, who the one commenting on the effectiveness of writing is). If you solely look at the YA age group, I’d say 85% of readership and reviews (unfounded stat) are females. So it’s only fitting, I think, if female characters get the brunt of the criticism. This isn’t to say that females can’t criticize how “guys are written” or even to say “guys don’t criticize male archetypes”—I’m sure they do—it’s just that it’s much easier to do so when you’ve found yourself in that position in life beforehand to be hard on X/Y gender. If the roles were reversed and the community was 85% men being vocal about characters, I think you’d have the opposite effect of what you see in criticism. Well, maybe.

    That being said, I’m overly critical on the circumstance versus motives to how each gender is portrayed in a situation. If something doesn’t ring a bell to me (given my lifespan so far or to those who I know), then yeah I’ll call it out. It goes both ways for either gender. This opinion to how characters should navigate through their world is actually pretty unfairly justified because I feel like many of us (myself included) do set standards based on the successes of other characters (or tropes there-in). It’s frankly unavoidable but certainly not wrong to read into books this way.

    Whenever I see a female blogger say “the male protagonist is well written” I question this statement really hard as inferences can only take you so far. Likewise, I’ve seen comments for a book that had a lot of sexual and masturbation jokes being written off as “yes, this sounds like a good representation of teenage boys” without much thought of the underlying message. Assumptions are great starting points of conversations but I don’t think they should merit the judgment of the entire gender. It’s these unwritten stereotypes that reside in each character that ultimately amplify the harshness we put towards criticizing a character for better or worse.

    But yeah, overall I think there’s more harsh criticisms to the Bellas, Anastasias, Hermiones, and Hazel Lancasters of the world because of the readership and what they strongly look for in their character—a sensible feeling to empathize with. Tropes and clichés will forever exist in our minds and there will be constant back-and-forth rationalizations toward whether this character is representative of what “I believe” this character ought to be; and a lot of that does come back to how we are as individuals and the societal values/norms we bring into our reading experiences.

    Ahhh brain. Rant. Hurts. Need. Carnitas. This probably doesn’t make much sense so I apologize (and it’s not edited soooo bear with me LOL.)
    Cheers,
    Joey

    Joey @ Thoughts and Afterthoughts recently posted: [Think Aloud] – #16 – Freedom of Speech in the Book Blogging Community
    • Hmmm I see what you’re saying but I think it depends. I’m not quite sure that if the readership was 85% male that males would spend just as much time criticizing male characters as females do criticizing female characters, because as Alicia said in an earlier comment, females are taught from a very young age by society to compare themselves to other girls and constantly strive to shift themselves to be more attractive, especially when it comes to matters such as beauty or holding a romantic interest (not that guys don’t struggle with this, but I think it’s at least a bit more prevalent with women. For example, it’s still much less acceptable in society to be a female who never marries than a male).

      That being said, I think there are definitely tropes and stereotypes that can be imposed on male characters that are unfair and one-dimensional, such as the often used trope of the placeholder jerk boyfriend who the MC eventually dumps for the book’s main love interest. It’s not really a fair message to send about males either and while we may not criticize males as much in YA we probably don’t spend enough time deconstructing their characters for biases and tropes either.

  10. This is such an incredible post. I don’t even think I can properly type out my thoughts right now, so I’m probably not making any sense. Oops.

    I’d say we’re definitely too hard on heroines. Sometimes. And other times, we put them up on a pedestal. I definitely get WAY too annoyed by a lot of things, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. This is fiction, and we’re all allowed to think what we want. I suppose I like specific sorts of protagonists, and if they do or say something that I would never do, then it’s hard for me to understand that and I might view it was irritating or annoying. I don’t think I’m like that in real life, (I hope not, at least) but because I’m reading and I’m supposed to be immersed in the story, in the character’s head, I want to be able to understand their actions. And sometimes I just can’t.

    And I definitely think the extra criticism has to do with how much we read. YA is obviously FULL of females, which is OBVIOUSLY GREAT, it just means we have a lot more to pick and choose from, you know? And you read so many, the same after the same, and maybe you just get a little tired and more critical. The same thing has happened to me with just books in general – the more I read, the picker and more critical I get.

    I don’t feel like I got my point across, AT ALL D:

    Zoey @ Uncreatively Zoey recently posted: Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses
    • You definitely got your point across! I think a LOT of it, especially for us bloggers, is that we read A LOT and the things that are supposed to be “unique” about protagonists start to get repetitive (for instance, for a while there were like no redheads in YA and then BAM like half of the YA protagonists I’ve read this year are). I think it’s definitely hard as a writer to find that nuanced balance of character depth with likeability, especially because we don’t KNOW them like the authors do (at least not until we’ve read the book/series). I like that you mentioned the flip side that we often hold up certain protagonists on a pedestal, because it creates this very polarized dynamic where a character is either really awesome or falls totally flat, where most people in real life have a blend of interesting and boring/normal/average qualities. I think in some ways these heroines who we hold up as perfect can do just as much damage to those that we complain about.

  11. A great post!! I had never really thought about this at this level of depth. I have acknowledged to myself, that I’m being a bit too harsh sometimes on main protagonists (whether female or male to be honest), but never really thought why I tend to have the double standards which you mentioned. This really made me think, and I hope that I’ll continue to keep this in mind while reading novels in the future 🙂

    Sofia recently posted: Uprooted by Naomi Novik
    • Thanks for joining the discussion! My goal with this post was to encourage readers to really look at the way the judge protagonists (because I do think we judge them more harshly, especially if they’re similar in age/gender to us). Obviously we’re all human and not every character is going to click for us (just like we don’t like everyone we meet) but I wanted to challenge myself to really think about why that happens with YA females. But sometimes a character just bugs you…and that’s ok!

  12. Now that I think about it, we are really hard on female protagonists. And, I never see any posts about the ‘typical’ guy character! Where are the John Doe posts! Why don’t we criticize the guy characters as much as the girls? That’s just really weird to me. This is such a great topic!

    Laura @BlueEyeBooks

    Laura W recently posted: Waiting on Wednesday (18)
    • Thank you! I know right, there’s hardly much criticism, or even analytical exploration in general, on male YA protagonists (to be fair, I think it’s mainly because they’re fewer and harder to find). Perhaps that should be my next challenge…to try to find more male YA protagonists and see what themes/tropes appear over and over again.

  13. I was actually thinking about this a few days ago! I find that oftentimes, people don’t like to read about a weak character, but then not everybody can be a strong person. There’s always going to be actual people that may act weak or are weak. And they deserve to be represented in YA writing as well.

    Kelly @ Dancing Through the Pages recently posted: Stacking The Shelves [8]
    • Yes, exactly! Granted, I understand why when people read they want “strong” characters, because as a work of fiction they want to read something that pleases them. But I find flawed characters so interesting and IMPORTANT, and “weaker” characters are important representations of how certain people (if not most) would react in some situations (especially paranormal/fantasy). Weak characters also have so much potential for an arc!

  14. What a great post! (Also, glad to find someone who writes SUPER long posts just like me, haha.) Even just reading your post title made me feel guilty, because I have picked apart a female MC on many an occasion. I love how much this post has made me think!

    I just finished a gender and women’s studies course last semester that made me think about a lot of these same ideas but I’ve yet to connect them to YA properly. I think it definitely has a lot to do with double standards. It seems that its nearly impossible for a female — even a female character — to live up to society’s expectations. Really, the influence that society has on how we view gender and gender roles is staggering, and sometimes it feels like we’re so bogged down by them we can’t see straight.

    The alternative, I guess, is that we become uber-sensative to the traits we feel we should see in a heroine and pick on every little thing that we feel is wrong. As for male characters/protagonists, I think that not only are they criticized less because of their rarity, but also because this reflects our society as a whole; men’s fault’s are excusable, but women’s are unforgivable and attacked. I really think I’ll try harder to be more sensitive towards how I think about female MCs in the future (though sometimes there are characters that are simply not written well, never mind that they happen to be female).

    • I took some women’s studies and gender studies courses in college and I loved them because they really pushed me to think critically about the way gender is represented in media, which I apply a lot to the YA books I read and review! I remember in one class we talked about how in society the worst thing you can be is s pre-teen/teenage girl, in terms of being consistently thought of as lesser, annoying, obnoxious etc. (Even if teenage boys are thought of as annoying by society, their interests tend to be looked down upon less; they’re usually excusable/not seen as so frivolous) Since so many YA protagonists are in that 12-17 range, I wondered if this societal line of thinking impacts how we view these characters’ habits and struggles. Even those who are AWARE of these societal trends still often have ingrained ways of thinking like this because we are brought up in such a society. So I think making an effort to be aware that these biases and unfair expectations exist is a great step toward progress. (Although you’re right, sometimes characters are annoying due to a lack of quality writing!) http://girlinthepages.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php#comments-form

  15. This is such an incredible post I don’t even know what to say. YOU SUMMED UP 100% OF MY FEELINGS HERE. I think we can be way too hard on these types of heroines, for those EXACT reasons. And I feel like you listed the bases for, like, almost all heroines. So are we just too tough on heroines as a whole because we’ve read too much? I think being too critical is something I fall into a lot. I forget to sit back and enjoy the story. >_< OH AND ALSO. I think personalities has a lot to do with it. Like not everyone's personalities mesh together, and in real life we clash with people for no reason except that we're not compatible. So when that happens in books, I think readers tend to be outraged at the protagonist instead of considering that maybe the personalities are just not gonna get along. *shrugs* I think about that a lot.

    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    • YES! The personalities thing is spot on! Like realistically, you’re not going to like everyone you meet, so why would you expect to mesh well with every protagonist you read? I feel like I have to appreciate when I don’t instantly love a character (as long as they’re not poorly written) because it means they have differences that make them interesting and different from me!

  16. I really love this post, and you’re so right. Personally I think we criticise heroines in YA in much the same way we criticise teenage girls. If a teenage girl is very feminine she’s too girly, if she’s a gamer it’s because she wants a boyfriend, if she’s wearing a band t-shirt she’s probably only heard one song. Being a teenager, and especially being a teenage girl, is very very hard, because it’s that time in our lives when we step out of the remaining androgyny of childhood and into the moulds that society expects young women to fill.

    I’m reading a fantastic non-fiction book at the minute that I think you’d like: Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story by Jody Gentian Bower. I’m about a quarter of the way through it and I already want to give it 5 stars. 🙂

    Great post!

    Jess @ Curiouser and Curiouser recently posted: This Week in (e)Books
    • Thank you! I think being a teenage girl is one of the hardest age groups to be in because it’s so transitional, and it encompasses such a wide spectrum of experiences (there’s such a big difference between 13 and 17, for example) yet they all fall under that same umbrella of being a teen. Thank you for the recommendation, I love non-fiction books that deal with gender issues!

  17. Oh my gosh, I love this post so much. I like how you brought up problems people have with female characters and then combatted it by saying why that works or why it’s there. that was awesome. I definitely think people are too hard on heroines. We want them to be strong but vulnerable, witty but kind, sweet but able to defend themselves, etc etc. We want them to have all these good qualities and that’s not a good thing. We don’t want them to be perfect, but then we get after them for acting a certain way (like really insecure, as you said). I definitely think it has to do some with gender roles. We want a girl who’s going to be able to be a badass, but we don’t want her to be a PERFECT badass who always wins…or do we? Or we don’t want her to always fix things without struggles. That’s a thing with fantasy, I think. If they’re ‘too’ good, it can be seen as flaw.

    Contemporary has the issue with readers not wanting girls to be so insecure, it’s like, you can’t be pretty and think you’re NOT pretty, because then you’re just annoying. Especially when they have like 2 love interests and everything. I don’t know, I really do love this discussion. Sorry if my comment’s a bit…scattered. 🙂 You said it a lot better than I can.

    • Thank you so much for engaging in the discussion!

      I do think that there’s more room to explore the “flawed” female characters in contemporary rather than in fantasy. I think you’re right, we’re quicker to assume characters are weak in a fantasy or knock them for being too perfect, because it tends to be so much more plot-driven, where contemporary holds more room for character growth. I think it’s hard because it seems petty to say “I don’t want a character who’s TOO good at everything” but at the same time I think flaws bring about readers being able to empathize and relate to a character, which is important to many readers, and in fantasy those little human flaws are often the only thing a reader may have in common with a Katniss or Caleana like protagonist. I feel like for girls at least, it’s a constant struggle between wanting someone who is MORE and BETTER but also being threatened by such images.

    • Haha, oh Tumblr. I think that as we become more progressive as a society we put more pressure on these heroines to be stronger, tougher, better fighters, etc and while I think the sentiment is coming from the right place (female characters with more agency, etc.) I think we need to take a step back and ask ourselves if we’re being just as unrelenting and possibly oppressive to an extent in our expectations toward females, just in a new way.

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