As we navigate through life, we will forge our characters and slowly discover what our identity is through experiences and personal events. Oftentimes though, we are influenced by the people around us or by the things that we are exposed to. Although many will argue the contrary, books play a big part in our lives, as the worlds and characters we are confronted with will open our eyes to a myriad of scenarios and personalities that can unconsciously guide us or provide us with someone we can relate to. For authors that can be a great motivation or a strenuous pressure as many readers will unconsciously choose role models within the characters they encounter. That is why it is tremendously important for books to be written with powerful positive characters, yet young women often are faced with the opposite when browsing through Young Adult Literature.
Young women already face pressure when it comes to social acceptability. As Mary Pipher writes,
“Girls have long been evaluated on the basis of appearance and caught in myriad double binds: achieve, but not too much; be polite, but be yourself; be feminine and adult; be aware of our cultural heritage, but don’t comment on the sexism. Girls are trained to be less than who they really are. They are trained to be what the culture wants of its young women, not what they themselves want to become.” (Pipher, 44)
In literature too we see women often portrayed in an unfavorable light. Janet Peterson points out how “[f]or decades, textbooks and literature available to young adults have generated bias against females.” (Peterson, 1) The damsel-in-distress setting is all too common, where we have a weak and passive female just waiting for a big strong man to come to her rescue. In horror stories girls are often shown to be hysterical and unable to use their wits or brain to formulate any sort of plan.
Young adult literature has come a long way when it comes to the portrayal and empowerment of women. Books such as The Hunger Games and Divergent have presented us with strong female protagonists, yet Antero Garcia argues how even then “depictions of traditional femininity still finds these characters as subservient and meek.” (Garcia, 77) Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Among the countless titles that exist in YA literature, there exists books that challenge this concept and introduce us to girls who refuse to be painted with the expected brush of femininity.
Fantasy is a great genre for these empowering women, for it allows them to confront missions and quests that wouldn’t be possible in a realistic setting. The following books are all stories in which the protagonist must face the constraints of femininity and we shall see with further detail just how they overcome them and the different courses of action they utilize to achieve that
Cashore, Kristin. Graceling, Orion, 2008
In the Seven Kingdoms, children with mismatched eyes are Graced, gifted with an extreme skill. While for others it may be swimming, flexibility or intelligence, Katsa is Graced with killing. She is lethal with hand to hand combat and has deadly accuracy with arrows, knives and daggers. As such she is under the command of her uncle the King, who uses her to carry out cruel punishments to anyone who might displease him. Yet one day Katsa meets what might prove to be her match, a Graceling fighter by the name of Po. Despite not being at her level, he challenges Katsa to more than just fighting, as he forces her to confront herself about her true nature and provides her the courage she needs to defy her uncle. Together they set out on a journey to rescue Po’s cousin and to possibly save the Seven Kingdoms. Although she has never lost a fight to Po, could it be that she just might lose her heart along the way? As they reach a Kingdom hazy with lies and deceit, will Katsa’s Grace be more than enough to protect not only those she cares about but also those unable to protect themselves?
Despite being trained with a single purpose, Katsa begins to question her missions and starts an underground organization dedicated to fight the corruption and evil within the kingdoms. She shows us that if we take a leap of courage and reach out to others, we can help those who are unable to help themselves. In her travels, Katsa also noticed how despite being the weakest and most vulnerable, girls and women were taught nothing of fighting and instead relied on the protection of their fathers, brothers and husbands. Women were expected to be the mistress of the home, someone used to produce heirs. Katsa prizes her independence and buckles under the thought that she should entrust her protection to someone else. As consequence, she sets out to give fighting lessons to girls all over the Seven Kingdoms, determined that they should have an equal chance of defending themselves as anyone else. She demonstrates to readers that girls can also be strong and brave in the face of trouble.
Pierce, Tamora. Alanna: The First Adventure, RHCP, 2014
As a lady born to a noble family, Alanna of Trebond is destined to learn the art of magic, but she instead switches places with her twin Thom and heads to the capital city of Tortall, to King Roald’s court to become a knight. Her brother takes her place and sets out to become a sorcerer while she changes her name to Alan and braces herself to living her life as a boy. Although her skills back home were known, court life proves to be tremendously harsh, as Alanna tries to balance a dawn to dusk work schedule while trying not raise suspicion about her gender. She has to learn how to overcome her smaller size and weaker physique so that she will not get left behind and thus be able to stand her ground to anyone without getting caught.
Alanna is a character that proves to be a great role model. She does not conform to the roles given to girls in her time, and instead does all that she can to fight for her dream. She isn’t afraid to ask for help, recognizing that there are areas where she is weak and can benefit from the help of others. When she is singled out and starts to be harassed, she refuses to let others fight her battles for her and instead works herself to the max, training and learning all she can till the day that she finally confronts her bully head on and defeats him in an honest fight. Via her courage and determination, she proves that with hard work and persistent effort we can indeed reach our goals and defy those who mistreat us.
Forrest, Bella. The Gender Game, Nightlight Press, 2017
The toxic Veil River separates two vastly different lands. Towards the East lies Matrus, a land governed by women, and to the West lies Patrus, a land dictated by men. Violet Bates is a Matrian girl with anger issues who has been rotated among several correctional facilities as punishment for trying to smuggle her little brother to Patrus. Tim was found to have ‘aggressive tendencies’ and is therefore unfit to live in peaceful Matrus, yet Violet knows that is far from the truth. Due to several misconducts, Violet is given the choice of crossing into Patrus as a spy or to die for her crimes. Under the facade of marriage, she enters the patriarchy, where women are possessions of their husbands with no right to work, drive, vote, testify or able to own money or property. If she ever hopes to see her brother again, Violet has to set aside her emotions and morals in order to undertake the dangerous missions Matrus demands of her, while at the same time making sure to play the part of a weak and submissive woman who abides by all the rules. Yet Violet has never been a fan of rules, and she starts to wonder where she truly belongs.
Despite her circumstances, our character is a strong and skilled fighter who refuses to let herself be swept away in the concept of how women should be and behave. Even though she is often scared, she faces everything that is thrown her way with steeliness and determination instead of taking the easy way out. She does her best to protect the people around her without hurting innocent people.
DeStefano, Lauren. Wither, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011
Seventy years ago, scientists managed to create a generation of children immune to any disease, practically perfect. Yet when these children grew up and reproduced, their offspring and all their descendants were born with a terrible flaw. Males live to the age of 25, while females only have 20 years before they’re eradicated by a terrible virus. The remaining perfect race, the First Generations, refuse to give up on humanity and constantly perform experiments in a desperate attempt to create an antidote. Rhine Ellery is one of countless girls who ends up getting kidnapped and sold off to a wealthy husband to breed more children and keep the population going. Rhine must navigate through the conflicting feelings she has towards her husband, the trust and wariness she has towards her sister wives and the constant desire to let her twin brother know she is alive. She conspires to escape along with one of the servants, but will she be able to make it before her time runs out or will she be caught again in the grasp of her cruel father-in-law?
Although she is caught in a dire trap, Rhine does not break in spirit. She learns to trust her sister wives and together they form an alliance against their husband. She demonstrates to the readers that there is strength in unity. By reaching out and becoming friend of the entire staff under her husband’s house, she allows us to see that differences in statuses should not matter when forging friendships.
Pierce, Tamora. The Will of The Empress, Lindfield, N.S.W: Scholastic Press, 2005
Sandry’s cousin, the Empress of Namorn, has been insisting that Sandry visit and oversee the extensive lands under her name for years. Finally Sandry relents and armed with her mage friends enters her cousin’s court, where she must use her cunning to survive. Empress Berenne however, has set her eyes on the individual skills that Sandry and her friends possess and has set her mind to maintain them in her Empire no matter what it takes. She offers money, power, love, fame and liberty of magic use to Tris, Daja and Briar individually, yet they remain loyal to Sandry. In order to gain full access to Sandry’s wealth and lands she only needs to marry her off, as the beautiful Empress is quite capable of controlling any man within her Empire. When numerous courting attempts fail, the young nobles of Namorn turn towards a frequently used method of matrimony: bride kidnapping. By kidnapping a girl and forcefully getting her to sign a marriage contract, the couple are now legally wed and as such the husband has the right to all the property and wealth of his wife. The Empress always gets what she wants yet Sandry and her friends did not earn their mage medallions at such a young age for nothing. Will the combined forces of her friends be enough to return back home, or shall the will of the Empress continue to succeed?
The noble women in this novel are used as pawns, unable to live their own lives or make decisions. Our character however refuses to be told how to live and who to marry. She uses the power of friendship to tackle these problems head on and demonstrates that with the help of those who we hold dearest we can battle anything out. She drives home the point that girls should find someone who values them for who they are and not for their position or wealth. Towards the end Sandry knows that with her absence the women in her lands will continue to suffer, and after the advice of her friends she relinquishes her title to her uncle, thus providing protection to all the young girls in her vicinity. With this action we can see that sometimes we have to let go of what we treasure the most in order to do the right thing.
Antero Garcia, Gender and sexuality and YA, pp. 77–93, SensePublishers, Rotterdam, 2013.
Peterson, Janet. “Gender Bias and Stereotyping in Young Adult Literature.” Children’s Book and Media Review 17.3 (1996): 2.
Pipher, Mary Bray. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves Of Adolescent Girls. Riverhead Books, 2005.