I often hear the phrase ‘strong female character’ thrown around, especially in discussions about YA lit, without any real consideration of what we mean by this – I have definitely been guilty of this myself. As today is International Women’s Day I thought I would take a moment to really consider what I mean when I say ‘strong female character’ and why this is important.
It is easy to interpret strength as a trait which is rooted in action and we have definitely seen an influx of kick-ass, athletic characters in YA over the past few years. Characters such as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Beatrice Prior (Divergent), characters who are or become physically strong and who have that fearless, selfless, determined attitude towards their lives. The type of girl who will throw herself on a knife for her friend or sibling without thought for the consequences.
Then we have the intelligent, bookish heroines such as Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) or Matilda (Matilda). These girls use the strength of their minds to help their friends and loved ones. Again this is combined with a courageous, selfless, determined attitude… can you see the pattern here?
Whilst these heroines are all fantastic examples for young people, it’s difficult sometimes to remember that strength isn’t just about being physically strong or clever or pretty or selfless or any of those other things. Strength isn’t about what you are; it’s about how you respond to yourself and others. It’s not about being fast or athletic or good at hand to hand combat; it’s about using your weaknesses to your advantage. It’s not about being bookish; it’s about how you use what you know to help yourself and others. It’s not about being pretty or popular, but using that influence to make a difference. Sometimes the best characters are the ones who are arrogant or prideful, the ones who make mistakes; when these characters win they’ve had to work for it and overcome their issues. That’s a true indicator of personal strength.
We are all flawed, and it’s important for children and young people to recognise these flaws in the people around them, and in the characters they read about. So, when I say ‘strong female character’ what I really mean is ‘human being’, a real portrayal of what it means to be human on a truly relatable level. Those are the role models we need for young people, in books and in life.