What Makes a Feminist Hero in Literature?



book heroines


What makes a feminist hero in literature? This question has plagued reviewers for decades, with the scant definition of feminism in literature usually boiling down to “I know it when I see it.”


Those with a more discerning eye usually demand more than a lit-turned Bechdel test, however, requiring feminist literature to involve character growth, self-sufficiency, and a marked non-reliance on any male character in the book. This could be said to be born out of the long-beleaguered coming-of-age genre within young adult fiction, a genre that is overloaded with stories of women discovering themselves for the first time in their teens or twenties. As has been pointed out, this sub-genre hardly exists for male characters as most “coming of age” stories for men are classified as adult literature. Does anyone think of Mark Twain as a “coming of age” novelist? It has been said that J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye created the YA genre, and yet we discuss its merits as a work of literary genius (which it is). So why in the 1980s and 1990s were the young adult adventures of women cordoned off into a subcategory that is frequently snubbed in literary circles? Think Judy Blume, think Susanna Kaysen. Their works carry just as much weight as young adult literature about boys, but because they are about girls they are categorized differently. Why?


Thankfully, there is a branch of feminist young adult literature that is breaking away from the coming-of-age mold, and these can mostly be defined in terms of their plot devices, narratives and underlying messages apart from the characters themselves and their inner journeys.


These newer examples of feminist content are most clearly defined not by how amazing their women are—that’s a given. Instead, they are forging new ground by reversing the roles of men and women in their books, as plot devices. Most notably, many of the lead characters would be perfect “manic pixie dream girls,” characters who serve no purpose other than to be eccentrically troubled yet bubbly, pushing the male protagonist out of his stoic, depressed solitude. They are a device to further male characterization. In newer feminist YA lit, however, not only is this trope left unused but it is turned on its head. 

In The Half Life of Molly Pierce, by Katrina Leno, for example, it looks as if a typical love-triangle will emerge, with the protagonist, Molly, the object of a pair of brothers’ attention. But the book is not about the brothers, not about how they feel about this enigmatic powerhouse in their midst, but instead about Molly and her struggles to find herself, by herself.


As opposed to Molly being swept away by the emotional pulls of love and lust, where inevitably the men’s ideations would overtake—or at least fight for dominance in—the plot line, Leno’s male characters serve as a device to further Molly’s own personal journey. A teenage boy who is introduced in the first chapter, chasing after Molly on a motorcycle to prove his love for her, is never developed. He remains as seen in those introductory paragraphs—a paper cutout, a person with whom adventures are had, but only spoken of in a two-dimensional way in which growth is not possible. That boy’s brother, Molly’s true love interest, is given the same treatment, and the reader is never subjected to whatever deeper troubles may be affecting these young men. The true victory in all this, though, isn’t that the men aren’t fully fleshed out characters, it’s that we find out, quite surprisingly, that we don’t need them to be.


A young woman’s narrative stands as important on its own, without the aid of male characterization to give her meaning.


In Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, a true jump from typical coming-of-age feminism is realized. Both main characters, Maddie and Queenie, grow immeasurably as people and adults in a time of war and battle through using their wits, abilities, bravery and friendship to fulfill typically male roles in Europe during World War II. The imagery presented to the reader goes far beyond the usual “girl discovers herself through battling herself” and ventures into “girl discovers herself through life and by not putting up with any of this patriarchal bullshit.” Perhaps it is one of the most obviously feminist works today, using Maddie’s unlikely job as a pilot and Queenie’s unlikely position as a translator to circumvent the fact that they are women, without ever once falsely ignoring that fact. Within the novel, both Queenie and Maddie are subjected to unwanted advances, underestimation and derisive thoughts and actions on the part of the men they must deal with.


Again, though these issues arise and are not ignored—such as when one male leader tries to sexually assault one of the women, and she in turn threatens to shoot him with his own gun—they are not dwelt upon. Wein prefers to arch the narrative directly over the two women and their friendship. She treats them as men, by which I mean she makes no excuses or apologies for them in her writing style, she gives the fact that they are women no special attention, other than what would be merited due to them being active war-time women in the 1940s. Men do not fill their thoughts, nor do stereotypical girly tropes disgrace the page. Within these books there are no manic pixie dream girls shoring up their broody male counterparts, there are no damsels in distress, waiting for the strong hero to save them. The slut, the shrew, the Stepford Wife, while the women in these new feminist novels may exhibit some of the traits attached to these stereotypes, they have substance and depth and intricacy of character that envelope the traits into a full person, that make the traits simply traits, not entire characters. The reader is treated to what a woman who is simply living in such a volatile time would think and feel and do, should she not be encumbered by the strict narrative rules which have for so long held women characters captive.


As a whole, it appears that young adult literature is evolving toward a more natural feminist bent, one where authors do not have to beat readers over the head with intent, but instead can simply move past the traditional supporting roles women characters have been forced to hold in the past. In doing so, they frequently relegate men to those roles, again, without fanfare or hoopla, just because that is where the devices fit. As such, we are normalizing feminism in young adult literature, and importantly moving beyond a “coming of age” scope when dealing with the stories of young women and the battles they face. As we continue to refine our definitions of what female characters should and should not do in literature, moving these types of plotlines forward can only behoove us and our young readers, giving what appears to be an easy, meant-to-be victory to our literature, after a hard battle where something as important as human rights had to become exaggerated and cartoonish for so long.