Discussions: Gender perceptions in Young Adult

When you see a review or hear a discussion about a book, and they are talking about the characters, you never hear the words “he is a Strong male lead/Strong male character”. So why is it, that when we hear the sentence “Strong Female Character”, we somehow associate this with “this is a good book, you must read it!”. The word “Strong” is fast becoming ambiguous.

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Why do we just assume that somehow this is ticking some sort of check box for us?

How is a “Strong female character” so unusual in literature, especially in Young Adult where the main trends for book covers seem to fall into two categories:-

  1. Girls in dresses

  2. Girls in pants holding onto weapons and looking into the distance.

    And an occasional Bonus:

  3. Girls in dresses holding onto weapons and looking into the distance.

What does the use of “Strong” mean, do they mean she can bench press a heavy weight? Is she sarcastic? Stone-faced? Passionate? A bitch? When did girls have to follow the stereotypical male traits to somehow be more “Acceptable” girls?

When you search “Strong Female” on the listopia option on Goodreads, there are 133 related results, with titles such as “strong heroine series”, “best strong female fantasy novels”, “female characters you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with” and “girls who kick ass”. Interestingly, when you search “Strong Male”, you get only 27 results, and their titles are much more…negative. Spanning from “Controlling sexy/posessive men” (I kid you not! First result on the list!), “Hot alpha males” and even “Questionable Alphas:Dominant, Posessive, Jealous, Controlling, sometimes scary but always Hot” (what…the f—?)

There is apparently no such want or need for a “strong male” character, not in the same way there is for female characters. When a female character is “Strong” it is not so much in terms of physically strong and controlling and bossy and jealous, but more a positive thing based around the character’s mentality and self-confidence. Does she stand up for herself and her morals? Does she let her friends or relationships boss her around? Does she fight for her rights and her missions in the story?

When it is a “Male character”, there is no assumption that he isn’t Strong. If a male character is “strong” then he seems to be boxed into a weird mix between being physically strong and seen as sexual. There is no wondering whether he is standing up for himself and his morals? Does he let others boss him around or make choices for him? Of course he does! I mean, why wouldn’t he, right?!

You can see a backlash of this, for example, in Collin’s Mockingjay. After the mental exhaustion and trauma of the series, you finally see the stress of it get to Katniss at the end of Mockingjay. How did a lot of the readers react when the book originally came out? They moaned and complained that this “wasn’t” the Katniss they knew. This was “weak” and “unlike” strong Katniss. Katniss Everdeen did not show emotions, or cry or struggle to comprehend what was going on, and she certainly didn’t have any sort of mental breakdowns.

I won’t go into detail incase there are those who haven’t read Mockingjay yet, but basically, Katniss suffers from an experience of PTSD at the end of the book. While I didn’t personally “love” Mockingjay, I really admired Collins for allowing Katniss to experience this, and it showed the depth of the stress and the trauma she had been put through for the last two years. It wasn’t a fictional reaction but rather a human reaction. A real-life reaction. But the second Katniss showed a sign of weakness, the readers of YA seemed to come down on it like a ton of bricks!

I can’t help but feel that this is actually hurting not just the perception of female characters, but also male characters.

One of the biggest arguments calling for “strong female roles” in, specifically Young Adult, books, is because they can act as role models to future generations, to young girls who are growing up without these heroines in their lives.

So we are saying that female characters in literature should be “Strong” and passionate and confident and inspiring, but they aren’t allowed to feel timid, or weak, or complain because they are tired, or have insecurities? Those are human emotions that every human, regardless of gender, experiences. We want characters who represent those of us in reality- not characters we cannot relate to and inspire to be like.

But why can’t Male characters also be written as “Strong” in the same way, and instead of being seen as immediately either “controlling/demanding/possessive and sexual” be seen as “passionate, confident and inspiring”? Shouldn’t we be worrying about the “role models” lads get to look upto when they read these books, the same way we justify the need for “strong females” for young girls? If these lads are only seeing the male characters, when portrayed as “Strong”, as being immediately sexualised and behaving in possessive and jealous manners, then isn’t there then a risk of them believing this is the acceptable way to behave and treat women in real life, because hey the books are selling like mad, this must be what women want in relationships…right?

This was a very “all over the place” discussion because I have a lot of thoughts about this and my mind is like a runaway train- but basically, yes, I believe the condescension of “weak” girls and the over-sexualisation of “strong” males needs to end because it just isn’t helping anyone, at all.

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6 thoughts on “Discussions: Gender perceptions in Young Adult

  1. I apologize if this response ends up being very long. I tend to agree with you with regard to “strong female characters” in literature (or even television for that matter) where females are expected to “earn” the right to be called strong and male characters are assumed to be such. We are not at a point in history when we can just assume female characters are strong, because unlike their male counterparts, females have not had the luxury of always being presented as complex. Females have been used (and in many cases, still used) as a means to move a male character’s story forward (this could be her death sparking his journey or she could simply be a damsel-in-distress, basically the prize at the end of said journey).

    I don’t think the problem is really calling female characters strong, but rather the definition of strength. And you are right, we tend to take characteristics like detachment, boldness, and mercilessness (ones that are stereotypically masculine) as marks of strength. Generally speaking people associate their opposites: emotionalism, timidity, and leniency with females. I like for both female and male characters to be vulnerable. You can’t, for example, build a relationship with someone who is always apathetic. Vulnerability needs to be shared by both sides in order for a relationship to grow.

    And I completely agree with you on Katniss. What happened to her and all the other characters who lived through those games was horrific. Haymitch, for example, never got over it, it’s why he became an alcoholic because he was looking for an escape. I think the negative reaction to Katniss is partially because people have misunderstood her character. She was reluctant to be the symbol of hope from the very beginning. She struggled in the second book with nightmares and she was never looking to lead a revolution. The last book doesn’t end with a happily-ever-after, in fact it left me feeling deflated, but rightly so because we’re talking about war and kids were forced to kill each other. There’s nothing happy about that.

    While I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with pointing out a female character is strong (or male characters for that matter), I do think it is wrong to assume that she will come in similar packages each time. Being empathetic or gentle are strengths too and in many situations you need people like this and not the ones with a gung-ho attitude. I also think we can be unfair to male characters as well who aren’t allowed to be emotional, but as you put it “controlling/demanding/possessive and sexual.” We have a tendency to call a woman weak if she shows herself to be vulnerable and male characters strong if they are aggressive. Vulnerability does not equal weakness and aggression does not equal strength. Like I said in the beginning, understanding what strength is is the first step and the understanding that certain characteristics are not “male” and “female” is another. I’m going to end here because I don’t want to make this too long (probably too late for that).

    • thebookheap says:

      Thanks for replying!! Your comment is always welcome, whatever the length! That is what I hope for when I post discussion posts!

      I really, really like your response! I’ll reply in full tomorrow because I need to go to sleep right now (sadly, damnit!) But yes, great reply! Sorry I can’t respond right now : /

    • thebookheap says:

      Righto- wide awake now so I can reply in full ;3

      It is pretty sad that in this day and age we still have to actually state outright whether a female character is “strong” and it isn’t just expected for her to be that way, definitely agree there. I just think it’s sad that it seems to be being used as a selling point, rather than the actual book itself. It also puts the female characters to shame who are a little more timid or vulnerable.

      You’ve hit the nail on the head there, the definition of what is “strength” to a character, gender in both ways, seems to be leading to a lot of these problems. I think what has annoyed me is that it seems to be going in the way that any character showing any sort of weakness or emotion in times of stress or hardship, instead of just getting on and dealing with it, is somehow seen as being weak or moany- instead of actually being seen as realistic and human.

      Mockingjay left me feeling unsettled and , like you, deflated, but again like you- I completely understood and accepted why- because it was never going to be a happily ever after story, it was/is a dystopian where people die- often characters you love, just like real life- I really admired Collins for having the guts to end it like she did!

      I like that we are basically on the same page here and I’m not the only one who thinks along these lines- I give you the highest of fives!

  2. A good male lead is different from a strong male lead. For female a strong lead means she kicks butt and doesn’t whine annoyingly. I agree strong female leads are so often not girly. I think that for a good character they need to be well rounded.

    I think it’s not that they can’t show weakness, but that they don’t constantly complain and whine and cry and break down. It’s an amount thing and how they pick themselves back up and institutional too.

    I think it’s because male characters aren’t often whiny and weak and cry. Male leads are traditionally strong and stand up for themselves.

    • thebookheap says:

      I think that is what I meant to get at and never did. They seem to have taken using the word “Strong” as a synonym for “good/well-written character”…

      I’m not saying I want more whiney characters, god no (LOL) but I think that there needs to be books where both males and females can show traditionally feminine traits and not be shamed or mocked for it.

      I also think they (the almighty “they”) need to start using “well-written” instead of “Strong” when describing a character, because it does seem to be used in particular when describing female roles and it’s just weird.

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