Tuesday, August 15, 2006
  tired of exceptional girls
I'm not talking about genius girls, or super athletes, I'm talking about the characters in so many young adult books, from historical novels to science fiction and fantasy. You know the girls I mean...

The society they live is generally very prejudicial to girls, consigning them to the kitchen alongside their mothers, giving them the menial tasks around the village or the fire circle, defining their future roles to be wife, homemaker, and mother, or, if they are lucky, they might be a healer, or a seamstress, or a craft person. If they're really, really lucky, they're royalty, a princess, although then they have no useful tasks at all as those are taken care of by the servants and nannies; they are responsible only for embroidery, french, and spinett, and of course, marrying the man of their father's choice.

But our character, our intrepid exceptional girl, desires more than that. She, alone, among the dozens or hundreds of girls in her town, village, or castle, has curiosity, ambition, a sense of adventure, a sense of humor, and a streak of rebellion. She is unique -- a smart, brave, and adventurous heroine.

It is fast becoming a hackneyed trope of many genres. Felicity or Josephina of the American Girl series; Alanna of the Lioness Rampant; Pai in Whale Rider; Catherine in Catherine Called Birdy; Alexa in the Dark Hills Divide. The list goes on and on. In fact, this list includes an amazing proportion of the current selections in young adult literature with girl heros (even in adult literature with female heros). I imagine most of the authors of books featuring such an exceptional girl think they are writing feminist books -- giving us inspiring role models that every girl can aspire toward.

It seems me, however, their very exceptionality shoots that goal in the foot. They are more often than not a single, shining example in a society full of women who, like downtrodden sheep, follow the social norms, happily living out their lives as mothers and housewives.

What message does that give us? It's loud and clear, and repeated ad naseum -- only exceptional, truly unusual girls are smart, funny, brave, adventurous, bold, curious, strong, and/or powerful. The vast majority of us, who are just average old girls and women, can expect nothing better out of life than housework and raising kids. (Not that I'm slamming raising kids, but it certainly isn't a feminist vision that motherhood is the end all and be all of 99.9% of women's lives!)(Housework... now that's a different matter... I feel no compunction in slamming that any day.)

Anyway... the message is obvious: only unique and extrodinary girls can hope to escape the age-old routine.

Of course, one could argue that the heroine is an example of why that society is a failure, but more often than not, the girl's adventure creates no change in society, not even an awareness that change might be a good thing; nor does she seek to change her society so that other girls might enjoy the same freedoms she has been enjoying during the book, she just wants to free herself from the yoke of patriarchy. Another lovely example for our young girls to follow -- hedonistic feminism, rather than one that cares about the plight of our sisters! In fact, more often than not, the reader is left with the distinct feeling at the end of the book that, having gotten over her wild ways, the heroine is now going to settle down and toe the line, marry her sweetheart and be a good wife to him and selfless mother to his children.

I'd really like to see more books where women and men are equals, or at least for the most part equals, books where the heroine is smart, brave and adventurous, but that doesn't make her one of a kind. There are some where the elite men and women are pretty much equal, while the impoverished masses are traditional, which is a step in the right direction (education and leisure after all leads to empowerment), but I'd really like more of the men and women are just different genders of human and its the human that really counts, not the male or female.

Of course, in historical fiction that isn't really possible, but then, possible doesn't seem to stop the writers of pop historical fiction from having girl characters whose attitudes are decidedly 20th century.

But for writers of fantasy and/or sf, there is little excuse. Lets imagine new possibilities, rather than sink into the Star Trek, Star Wars, patriarchy is as inevitable as Death and Taxes.
 
Comments:
Good points, all. (Do goals have feet, though?) It's too easy to fall into tropes, including Star Trek-like settings. How hard it has become to be truly original! Characters, in fact, are almost the only ground a writer can plough thoroughly and inventively, because political/social settings have been tried every which way. Even matriarchies have been explored (I'm thinking of The Gate to Women's Country, et al.) Keep pushing us, Pamela!
 
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Progressive Muslim, feminist, mom, writer, mystic, lover of the universe and Doug Schmidt, cellist, theologian and imam.


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