The subject of the female protagonist in YA is a contentious issue for me. As an avid reader and writer it is a subject that often occupies my thoughts. The issue I have can be evidenced in two of, probably, the biggest selling YA books of the last decade, Twilight and The Hunger Games. Two very different novel’s with two very different female leads.
First, let’s discuss Bella Swan from Twilight. Anyone who knows me is aware of the hatred I hold for Bella, arguably one of the most annoying females in literature. Don’t get me wrong, I love the books! Easily my guilty pleasure but to enjoy it I have to overlook the writing and Bella’s weak voice. She is your quintessential damsel in distress, emphasised by her clumsiness (which is clumsy writing in itself). She can not survive without the love of a man, she is saved time and time again by the strong male characters in the novels. Now, I’m not saying that she isn’t a realistic character, I think I would need a hand if a bloodthirsty vampire was after me too! It’s just that the novels play on her weakness and her first person voice is whiny. Why couldn’t she have possessed some kind of inner strength? Some might argue that she doesn’t need help in Breaking Dawn (SPOILER ALERT) when she joins Edward as a vampire. However, even then she is only physically strong, she still doesn’t seem capable of standing on her own two feet.
At the opposite end of the scale is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. At no point in these novels could you accuse Katniss of being a damsel in distress, however, I still find her a difficult female character. Of course you have to consider Katniss’ context but personally I find her too hard, too unemotional. The character of Katniss seems to have an interchangeable gender, it would make little difference to the novel whether she was male or female. Some might see this as a good thing as it gives the novel a wider appeal. Again here, I’m not saying that she isn’t a realistic character. I’m not judging anyone who is like Katniss or can relate to her as a character, I don’t have a problem with strong female characters. The problem for me goes much deeper.
These are only two characters in the whole of the YA genre, however, they trickle down and influence many other books. There is nothing wrong with having a character like Bella or like Katniss, but where is the in between? Where is the female protagonist who can show their weakness, display vulnerability while possessing an inner strength like so many women out there. Why can’t you fight AND cry? The YA genre is widely read by young girls so where is the role model who isn’t a stereotype? Who you would be forgiven for thinking was written by a man.
As a writer I try to keep this in mind when I write my own female protagonists. I don’t decide that they are either a weak or a strong female character, I amalgamate the many qualities that make her female.