“Strong women” and sexist language in YA.

Old post, but new to me: Rebecca at Crunchings and Munchings has a searing essay on why the language we use in fiction matters:

I feel like there was absolutely a moment in my life (early high school) when I wanted to be strong and self-sufficient and was encouraged (by my boyfriend at the time; by well-meaning guy friends) to think of my strength (and tastes—in music, movies, humor) as being in spite of being female rather than a natural part of it. It is such an insidious form of sexism because, of course, it’s praising women who are strong and brave, right? But, to the contrary, every time we reinforce the notion that bravery, strength, etc. are masculine characteristics that some women sometimes have, we imply that the standard for all those other women all the rest of the time is weakness or neediness; that embracing characteristics associated with femininity might mitigate that strength, that bravery, that self-sufficiency. And we imply that the only way to be strong or brave is in the way we typically associate with masculine behavior.

This is my problem with most books about “strong women”—when a female character is labeled a “strong woman,” what the labeler usually means is, “She espouses stereotypical masculine qualities which are inherently superior to stereotypical feminine qualities.”

In other words, what makes her “strong” is being more like a man.

Dead wrong. A strong woman, to me, is any human being who self-identifies as a woman and is admirably competent in some way (physically, emotionally, mentally, psychologically—whatever), while also being unafraid to be human.

Favorite fictional example: Ellen Ripley, heroine of the Alien movies. Physically, she’s weaker than the ‘roided-up marines she works alongside. Her strength is all cerebral: she’s smart, skeptical, practical, and gets shit done…but she also cries, feels things deeply, and struggles emotionally and psychologically. Well, no shit: she’s the sole survivor after three movies of face-hugging horror. Watch the end of Alien and tell me that’s not the poster girl for Strong Women—hell, Strong Humans—everywhere: grieving, weeping, terrified, yet mustering incredible courage to defeat a super-predator against overwhelming odds.

And, of course, there’s the ridiculously epic ending of Aliens, which was so good JK Rowling had to rip it off pay tribute.

That right there? Strong. Fucking. Woman.

10 Responses to “Strong women” and sexist language in YA.

  1. I love this so much! I don’t much like the “man with boobs” kind of heroine, the one that show no emotion ther than EXTREME MANLY ANGER because I find them as boring as the princess waiting for her prince to come. I think they irritate me more because I see so many people praising them for being “awesome badasses who aren’t icky and girly!” Even women do this! It saddens me.

    I’m writing (slowly) a YA book series with a female protagonist who gets dragged into a dark, horrible other world. She cries, she despairs, she has self doubts, but she still does what she has to to get home, which is an almost insurmountable task. The whole story hinges on her becoming a stronger pedson, but I still want her to have real feelings and insecurities and “girly” personality traits like being kind and sweet. It really depresses me that I know people will hate her because “she cries! She’s not a stone cold ass kicking machine! She has FEELINGS HOW DARE SHE!”

    Also, it seems only female characters get bashed for feeling real human emotions. Harey Potter has them and pwople love him. Makes me wonder how people would feel if he were Harriet Potter.

    • You’re so right. There’s this ridiculous idea that men can’t cry or show emotion or else they’re “pussies.” And that extends to women who are supposed to be badasses…because being a badass, obviously, equals being MANLY and not showing emotion. Yawn!

      • Thanks! I hope when people read her that they understand that a) she’s going to go through a rarely used writing device called character development & not ebd the story the same as she started it, & b) there is nothing wrong with having kind, introverted characters that fall in love (with the right type of person) or get scared of thing like monsters and evil kings and dark magic. Also, I wanted her to have relationships with other females that don’t involve them being petty, catty, two faced or fighting over a man (even though she makes a legitimate friend that is somewhat of a love rival) because there is way too much of this in YA, and it makes me feel bad.

        I have no problem with masculine badass female characters as long as they aren’t one dimensional cardboard cutouts who’s only defining characteristics are she’s aggressive and can fight, or she’s stoic and can fight, but then, I don’t care for male characters like that either. I also don’t like it when there are other, more feminine females in the cast that exist to make the “strong female character” look better because look at how much better she is because she can stab things and hates skirts! I really prefer characters who are badass, but have characteristics that aren’t stereotypically given to badass characters, like a quiet, kind personality, love of cute things, geekiness, silliness et cetera, because not only do the characters feel more real and relatable ( if written properly) but they’re just more interesting.

        I’m gonna stop rambling now.

      • Preach, lady. ITA with everything you’re saying here.

        And yeah, the whole Let’s Play To Gender Stereotypes So the Tough Female Looks Tougher thing makes my brain bleed.

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