Unpopular Opinion: The Hero and The Heroine

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!

About megtao

Student. Writer. Nerdfighter. Fights for love, justice, and awesome.
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12 Responses to Unpopular Opinion: The Hero and The Heroine

  1. Angel says:


    It’s become a real concern of mine that so many readers identify heroines in relation to the men in their lives, but NEVER vice versa. Where are my boy-girl friendships? Where are the girls that can turn this system on its head?

  2. Truth.

    Seriously, I am noticing this more and more. I mean, I do get excited when I come across a kick-ass female, but at the same time I think — is she kick ass because she emulates traditionally male characteristics, or is it because she is genuinely awesome? I’m not even sure if that makes sense, but it totally did when I thought it out in my head.

    • megtao says:

      I understand exactly what you’re saying, and it’s true. Generally, what is considered to be heroic is also traditionally male, so it’s nearly impossible for women to become heroes themselves without taking on male characteristics.

  3. (Dammit, WordPress didn’t post my first comment, did it? Ah well, I’ll try to remember what I wrote…)

    CAN I JUST HUG YOU FOR THIS POST? Seriously, after the Hero/Heroine Tourneys and the types of characters I’m seeing in YA novels today (not even just YA, but all kinds of fiction and film), I am really beginning to question people’s tastes… or at the very least, their warped definitions of “heroine”. (Actually, if we were to take this a step forward, can we talk about how “heroes” have changed as well from honorable and noble to just strong and possessive and downright abusive?) Disney’s been getting better, if Tangled is any indication, but I am really sick of seeing EVERYONE glorifying that weak, useless, pretty, and only SOMETIMES intelligent girl as a true heroine. And then there’s the fact that when women DO step up to the plate, as rare as it is, and defend themselves, their strength or belief in themselves, like they NEED validation, comes from a male character (like you pointed out with Hermione and Katniss).

    Which makes me really wonder WHAT these books are trying to say about women in general.

    The sad part is that most of them don’t even realize it. Readers don’t care – most of the reviews I’ve read will always point out an awesome male character, but the female is never their favorite. Is it because of the way they’re written, or is it just that readers – male and female alike – just don’t… care? And the sad part is that I KNOW I’m guilty of loving the snarky, pretty, sarcastic, adorable boy in shows all the time without really caring about anyone else.

    I mentioned this on Twitter, and I can’t remember exactly what I said in my original comment, but in answer to your “Are men ever the damsels in distress?” question, I have to say that yes, they are. In Sailor Moon anyway. Mamoru was SO MANY TIMES that I can’t even remember all of them. He constantly needed saving, and yeah, sometimes he could break free (Sailor Moon R movie) because as a guy, I suppose he’s physically stronger without the magic, but most of the time (and even in the R film) he needed Usagi there to save his ass. And maybe die trying. I can’t even remember how many times that boy’s been brainwashed, and sure, Usagi cried when he broke up with her and for a while, she considered getting stronger to prove to him that she could be (again falling into your “women need validation from men” observation), but she DOES eventually realize that she has other reasons, her OWN reasons, for doing this. And then she saves him again. (Though if we were to ignore that freaking random anime break up, then yeah, Usagi saves Mamoru’s ass and Mamoru ISN’T an ass and this random ALMOST-Twilight-like scenario never happens.) I think that’s one of the biggest arguments Usagi/Seiya fans have against Mamoru – that he is ALWAYS the damsel in distress and she needs someone stronger. To which I have to say, Mamoru is man enough to know that his future wife can crush the universe with all the power she has, and that’s totally fine with him. (I suddenly have a strange image of Neo-Queen Serenity destroying youma and King Endymion hanging back to admire her and go, “That’s my wife.”) Does this mean that he’s always in need of saving and she’s always the savior? Well, no. They’re human, after all. But if more books and films were to resemble these characters and these relationships, I’d say it was a massive improvement. Because there’s no need, especially in fantasy and paranormal, for the girl to NOT have the power to save herself, guy be damned. (Going back to Sailor Moon, I was just reminded how in Sailor Moon R, when Neo Queen Serenity is in that eternal sleep inside the crystal, Endymion isn’t the one to break her free. In fact, all he CAN do is stay beside her and pray that they find the crystal again. It’s her own YOUNGER self that saves her.)

    What’s also interesting about this Sailor Moon thing is that it’s true of many anime and manga (not all of them, but more than the amount of true heroines I see in YA today). Yeah, we have cool, strong, pretty boys who can fight back and defend themselves and protect and do everything that heroes do. But for the most part, a lot of the anime/manga I look into have girls who are JUST as capable, if not more so, than the men in their lives, and they don’t need a guy to tell them how awesome they are.

    If only the books we read followed the same trend…

    (LOL, the funny thing is that I don’t even think I wrote about the same things I wrote before… I’m not sure what it was though, so this comment will have to do.)

    In case I didn’t say it before, awesome post, Meg! I’m seriously loving your discussion posts.

  4. OH, I can’t remember the full context, but I DID want to talk about this notion that the weak, useless, pretty girl has to save the physically strong, emotionally stupid guy from himself. It doesn’t really apply to Sailor Moon because Mamoru was STILL capable, but I’m also sick of seeing people thinking that THIS is what a heroine is – the girl who can do nothing, but for some reason, because a boy finds her worthy, she can HELP HIM. It’s a HUGE YA trend currently, riding the coattails of Twilight, and it just HAS to go. There are SO MANY OTHER WAYS for a girl to SAVE a guy. If he’s this possessive, ridiculous ass who can take care of himself, but needs a girl to coddle him to make him feel important, then there is a problem. Also, this I WILL SAVE YOU FROM YOUR INNER DARKNESS thing is really getting annoying, despite the fact that I don’t mind it in Disney films like Beauty and the Beast, and the times we do see Mamoru feel that way in Sailor Moon. It all goes back to the context and the way the characters are crafted. For the most part, reading about this “heroine” and her ass of a boyfriend is going to drive me insane.

  5. Tamara says:

    Am I your hundreth? 😀

    I think anyone can scream SEXIST if they try hard enough. People were calling Rowling out because there weren’t any strong female types in the Harry Potter series. You and I know that’s not true, but these people were using events throughout the books to back up their opinion.

    I’ve read this before somewhere, but I agree with the idea that a nice balanced relationship is one where the male and the female rescue each other at different times. I don’t respect a man that can’t defend himself, just as I don’t respect a woman who sits around crying and waiting to be rescued. There’s got to be strength on both sides. So when you used the Hercules example, yes Meg had to be rescued. But damn, that girl got crushed by a pillar saving him. I’d say that’s pretty balanced.

    • megtao says:

      You are!

      I agree, but I think that’s because we live in a sexist society, so you’re going to find it everywhere. I love Harry Potter, but there is sexism in it because Rowling wrote what she knows–the real world–and the real world is sexist. For example, the most powerful characters in the series are male: Voldemort, Dumbledore, and Harry Potter. In the Goblet of Fire there is only one female champion, and she finishes last. The Hogwarts Founders are each given a main characteristic. The boys get to be courageous and ambitious. The girls get to be intelligent and kind, stereotypical female characteristics. Why couldn’t Godric Gryffindor have been a girl?

      And yeah, she’s definitely one of the stronger heroines out there. Like she still has her issues, but yeah.

  6. CLG says:

    you’re right.
    But you cant say Katniss was only strong enough because Peeta, and the Hermione thing too.
    Katniss has been keeping her family alive for so long. Yeah it was because Peeta gave her the bread and I guess it does become one of the things you’re talking about- but she did a LOT of shit in the 3rd book without his help, and just generally, wasnt she awesome? I mean Peeta HELPED but we can’t say it was all because of him that she succeeded and she wouldnt be much if he wasnt there (if we ignore the bread bit, cause otherwise she’d be dead).
    Same goes for hermione, okay, remus said it, but it was true wasn’t it? And he WAS one of the marauders, so idk.
    You’re right, but I’m just saying, it wasnt just the boys that made them, THEM, they were generally awesome too, without them [the men].

    • megtao says:

      I’m not saying that Katniss wasn’t strong, but you can’t deny she would not have survived in the Hunger Games without Peeta’s help. His love of her made everyone love her which led to the sponsors which helped her survive.

      Yes, she does a lot more in Mockingjay, I guess. Most of the time it feels like it’s just others protecting her because she’s The Mockingjay who needs to be kept on a pedestal and safe and such. But she gets full points for keeping her mom and sister alive after her dad died.

      Yes, it was true. But my emphasis of the word witch was to show that she was the smartest of other women. There were male characters (not necessarily her age) that were smarter. I’m not sure why him being a Marauder makes a difference, so I can’t explain that one.

      I agree that they are amazing without the men, but it is the approval of the men that gives their awesomeness credential.

  7. Obviously you have valid point here but still, Mulan. It has its sexist flaws, admittedly, and she has to disguise herself as a boy but in the end she is recognised and valued for her actions not her gender.

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