Fat Books & Thin Women

The Need for Strong Female Characters in YA Lit (2/3)

Growing up, my family was supportive of all (or most) of my dreams. I wanted to be an author? Great, as long as I was writing! I wanted to be a shark scientist? Well…as long as I kept watching Shark Week and doing my science homework, it was possible. A grizzly bear scientist? A little specific, maybe, but…

That I had every opportunity, and that the girls I work and live with don’t, has influenced the way I think of young adult literature and what sorts of female characters we should be offering up for public consumption. Although I grew up reading books without giving any thought to the gender of characters or to the possibility that what I was reading influenced, in any real way, the direction of my life or the sense I had of my own possibility, I know find it almost impossible to think of young adult literature in these terms.

Books can tell us things about ourselves, especially when we’re young; and when I think of the things I want my students learning, it’s not that it’s okay to abandon all your dreams in order enter into an unhealthily dependent relationship with a vampire (or a not-vampire), or concern yourself solely with gossip and boys and clothes. I’m not sure whether my feelings on this, that the world might be slightly better if it weren’t filled with Gossip Girl and Twilight [1] are pandering to teen girls or are just the natural result of getting older and gazing back with horror on some of the ways I could have gone wrong,[2] but it’s where I’ve landed.

Mayowa over at Pens with Cojones questioned recently whether there’s value in a certain amount of censorship when it comes to literature. In order to guide the reading of our younger siblings or students or teens in general, is it okay to guide them away from books that we (old and wise as we are) think they’d be better off not reading? Mayowa took this question in a different direction than I’m going to, but it’s one that can help to guide us through this larger question, of whether we should be making a conscious effort to seek out books featuring strong female characters like Ginny Weasley or Anne of Green Gables or Keladry from Protector of the Small.

There are, of course, other questions I could face as well – because not every book with a strong female character is a good book, and not every strong female character is well-written; and if a book doesn’t have these things, it doesn’t matter if the main girl character is out kicking ass and taking names. No one is going to believe in it. So inevitably, this post is only in part about the need for girls to find strong role models in the books they read; it’s also about the quality of those books. There’s no shortage of young adult books with female leads, so the question isn’t whether there should be more of them, but whether we should be making a more conscious effort to find those books that are portraying “real” girls rather than characters that remain flat on the page.

Twilight is the inevitable target of a lot of my criticism because, believe it or not, girls here love it. They watch the movies, they read the translated books, they talk about it constantly. And this makes me worry, because these books show a world in which it is okay, in which it is right to subordinate yourself completely to the desires of someone else. In the second book, which is where I’m at, Bella heads straight to Jacob after Edward leaves her; she's incapable of facing the world on her own, and whether she's going to involve herself in a second romantic relationship or simply an intense friendship, the fact is that she's unable to deal with her problems alone or in a responsible manner. But more than that, the book is so terribly written, and Bella is such a blank, that no one can take from this book any sense that women are something more than the canvases men can fashion into the futures they desire. In an article at Livescience on the impact books like Twilight have on teen minds (seriously), Clara Moskowitz quotes Maria Nikolajeva, a literature professor at Cambridge: “If you look very, very clearly at what kind of values the ‘Twilight’ books propagate, these are very conservative values that do not in any way endorse independent thinking or personal development or a woman’s position as an independent creature. […] That’s quite depressing.”

Nikolajeva is later quoted as saying that there’s a need for more positive messages in young adult literature; that, in fact, it’s a moral imperative of sorts for YA authors to include such messages. This thought makes me shudder, but I also have to pause because…well, isn’t that what I want for my students here? For them to be reading novels that show that more is possible for them, that if they work hard in school and do some things that are probably disagreeable to some people in their families, their lives can be more than living in this small town drinking coffee and taking care of their children?

And do I want the same things for middle-class American readers?

The line I’m drawing is so shaky because there’s a fundamental difference in the degree of “need” for these books, between the well-to-do and the girls who don’t have female role models who have been to college or hold jobs outside the home. It bothers me that girls in America are growing up on Twilight, but not as much as it bothers me when girls here talk about it. Here, the portrayal of Bella in Twilight isn’t shocking for its lack of development or independence; it’s simply affirming what the girls already know about the ways women are treated in this culture.

One my favorite parts of Tamora Pierce’s blog, especially because it fits in so well with where I am going here, is when she discusses the types of books she had access to when she was growing up. “When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read.” Teenagers here don’t have the same level of access to books that most teens in America do, not by a long shot; so my problem is when the books they are accessing, when the books that are selling millions of copies not just in America but all over the world, are the very ones that are showing either no female leads or weak ones.

What are some of your favorite books that have strong female leads? Do you think that there’s still a need for these types of characters, even with the (arguable) glut of female driven young adult books in the States? Do you think that there are differing levels of “need” for strong female leads – that we should be pushing books with strong characters at girls who traditionally don’t have many opportunities? Did this rambling post make any sense?


  1. Wednesday – YA Lit: What it is, and What it “Should” Be (1/3)


  1. Friday – Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3)

[1] And I say this as someone who has watched, if not read, plenty of Gossip Girl, and who is working her way through the second book in the Twilight series right now, so please don’t take this whole thing as a sort of “I’m too good for this dreck” brand of snobbery. Back to text

[2] What if I had never gotten over my love of the Backstreet Boys? What if I hadn’t abandoned fashion magazines in disgust and picked up a copy of Bitch instead? What if, what if, what if. Back to text



I think there are many great books for girls with strong female characters, in fact Bella is (I think) an aberration. When I was a girl (I’m nearly 40) I really felt the lack of strong female characters. I loved the Oz books because the women and girls ran everything. My other favorite was Meg Murray from Wrinkle in Time.

Today, I think Harry Potter has strong female characters, but even better are books like the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld and of course the Hunger Games series. I loved Sabriel by Garth Nix. I haven’t read Tamora Pierce but keep meaning to.

Interesting post!

Comment by curlygeek04

thanks for the comment (and here’s to creepy, nearly instant replies). I think you’re right, that there are a lot of fantastic and strong female characters in literature; I guess what unnerved me enough to try writing about this is that the female character so many girls are connecting to now is one who is such an aberration from this positive way of writing girls. I’ve read before that it’s because Bella IS so blank; she’s a character it’s easy to superimpose yourself on, unlike stronger characters who have such well-developed personalities that you are mostly left to enjoy their adventures rather than imagining that it’s you in their place.

anyway, enough from me…thanks for visiting & for getting me thinking some more with your comment!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] previously mentioned blog posts (check out my earlier entries on young adult literature and on strong female characters if you’re new here) the question of Why Boys Don’t Read, and the accompanying question […]

Pingback by Male Characters in YA Lit; Or, Boys & Reading (3/3) « Fat Books & Thin Women

What a great post, Ellen. I think you’ve approached this in very nuanced fashion and it works really well.

You bring up something about the other factors that can intensify or mute the impact books have on young’ns. The number and variety of books they have access to is one (more books and more variety, the less impact individual books have). The second is cultural context, how do the ideas relate to the cultural context (as far as womanhood is concerned in this case), do they oppose, reinforce, ignore cultural ideas and traditions of what it means to be a woman?

All great points and questions…i’m going to mull it over some more.

Thanks for the mention :)

Comment by Mayowa

Since you asked for suggestions…I just recently began reading Diana Wynne Jones, and so far her books have lots of strong girl characters, both good ones and bad ones. I’ve only read four books, and so far two have had male protagonists, two female, but all of them feature strong girls. :D Growing up, I adored the Anne of Green Gables books, and I definitely saw Anne as a strong girl who followed her heart. Looking on the series now, I can see why some might argue it promotes entirely traditional gender roles, but that’s certainly not what I got out of it as a kid!

I am disturbed by most of pop culture’s representations of BOTH girl/woman and boy/man gender roles. I think Twilight’s just a bit more blatant about it. ;) I tell myself that this blatancy might be a good thing, because maybe it’ll lead the girls to talk about the problems.

Comment by Eva

I think you have made some great points about young adult literature today. I too agree that Bella’s character is a horrible role model for the young girls who are reading the books, but what irks me most is how wildly popular they are. Those books have reached an incredibly high celebrity status that I would argue no other book with a female lead has. So it is not so much that I was upset that Bella’s character was blatantly portrayed as being properly “feminine,” because lets face it there are a lot of books that portray their female leads stereotypically, but there have been no books available with strong female leads to counter Bella.
While there are some out there, like The Golden compass series, or The Clan of the Cave Bear series(personal favorites!). None have come close to touching the Twilight series on a popularity level, and for most of the kids who are reading the Twilight series popularity means everything. Everything depends on what is cool and what is not, so I am very worried indeed if Bella Swan has been elected as captain of the YA cheerleading squad. If there is no diversion from Bella then she will continue to be idolized. We need a new cheerleading captain, preferably one with something to say.

Comment by Jennie

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