When most people think of the meaning of hero, they think of something like this:
Big, strong man physically defeats the villain while rescuing the damsel in distress. So, you’d think that when someone thinks of a heroine they’d think of a female hero: a big, strong women who physically defeats the villain while rescuing a male-damsel in distress,* but instead we generally think of someone like this:
Hi, my name is Belle. I’m a pretty but a funny girl. I save a Beast by being pretty and loving. Oh and I have no mother figure because then I would have a female role model and only by having an eccentric and doting father could I have possibly become intelligent and book loving!
Hi, I’m Ariel. I dream of adventure, but I only take action when I see a cute guy. Also, I can’t talk for half of the movie because women should be seen and not heard. Like Belle (and most Disney princesses) I have no mother, but I do have a ton of sisters! They like to sit around and look pretty because that’s what women like to do.
I could do this all day.
But by now I’m sure we’ve all heard about the sexism found in Disney movies, and obviously I’m picking and choosing my arguments. There is that time that Belle attempts to fight off some wolves. She fails, of course, and has to be rescued, but points for trying. I’m sure Ariel did something too…it’ll come to me later. Anyway, they’re just kids movies, right?** What I really want to talk about is how heroes and heroines are created in YA fiction.
John Green when asked why he used a female narrator for his newest novel, The Fault in our Stars, replied: “I wanted to think about the way that gender construction shape our understanding on what constitutes heroism.”
Have I mentioned how much I love John Green? ‘Cause I do. I really, really do.
Lucky for us, you don’t need to write a whole book to understand how gender changes society’s definition of heroism; just look at all the other books that don’t directly address the topic but make it implicit by their characterization of “The Heroine.” The Heroine is the archetypal YA female protagonist. A heroine is not a Heroine unless she has a male character (or multiple male characters) in love with her. The Heroine’s main duty isn’t to save the day; it’s to be attractive to the male hero.
Don’t believe me? Read over the arguments in the popular YA Sisterhood Heroine tournament. I guarantee that at least half of them will contain the argument: “[insert name of heroine] should be chosen because [insert name of hero] picked her” in one form or another. Women in YA fiction are only given status by the approval and admiration of male characters.
I can hear your outrage now. “But Hermione!”*** You exclaim, “She was the cleverest witch of her age!” Yes, certainly. The cleverest witch. Also, who said that? Oh right, everyone’s favourite (male) werewolf, Remus Lupin.
“But…but…Katniss Everdeen!”*** Yes, excellent, thank you for bringing up Katniss because Collins actually addresses this in a very explicit way. How long do you think Katniss would have survived in the Hunger Games if Peeta hadn’t been in love with her? Peeta’s approval and admiration of Katniss actually saves her life by gaining her the love and admiration of Panem and the sponsors. So, who’s the real hero?
Oh Megara, underneath your sarcasm is a message that has been ingrained in our society: women can’t be heroes.
And as long as we continue to accept The Heroine as an actual heroine, it’s going to stay that way.
*Is there even a word for a male-damsel? Probably not, right? Men are never damsels. They’re never in distress. Only women need help from others, and by others I mean men.
**WRONG! But, that’s probably a topic for another post.
***These are obviously two of my favourite heroines. That is why I picked them as my examples. Even the “best” heroines aren’t given the same characteristics as heroes.
You’ve heard what I think, now it’s your turn! Agree or disagree and why? Let me know!