I can probably count all of the books I have read written by women in my English classes on just one hand. Now that has to be slightly concerning, right? In every book written by a man, we always discuss how the writer portrays the women. One example that always comes to mind is our class discussion of the role of women in the novel Antigone by Sophocles. Doesn’t it seem like perhaps a female author could describe the experience of being a woman better than a male author? Despite this, we continue to read Shakespeare, Homer, and many other popular authors that depict women solely through the male gaze.
In order to get my heroine fix, I had to reach outside of the classroom. My childhood feminist heroes range from Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series to Annabeth Chase from Percy Jackson, and of course the fan-favorite Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games. While these female protagonists shaped my childhood, it wasn’t until I started to expand beyond mainstream Young Adult (YA) dystopian novels that I finally began to see myself portrayed in the main characters.
When thinking of a feminist hero in a novel, almost always, one particular image comes to mind: a tall, beautiful but “doesn’t know it” type of woman who somehow manages to have perfectly manicured nails while fighting entire armies of men. Oh, and we can’t forget about her obligatory romantic interests and the love triangle that forms as a result. While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this prototypical feminist hero, it leaves little room for imagination for a young brown girl like me. Many popular novels do not have a diverse range of characters. And even if they do, those characters are almost always in the background, like Parvati and Padma Patil in the Harry Potter series (and don’t even get me started on their horrendous outfits in the Goblet of Fire movie!).
In addition to the lack of diversity, even when there is a female protagonist, she follows the stereotypical definition of a feminist. This can lead to a skewed interpretation of feminism in the eyes of impressional children who may believe that they can’t like the color pink or like to cook because those are typical “girly” things to do, which isn’t the case at all. Some of the most well-known feminist characters like Beth March and Amy March from Little Women chose to get married, wore dresses, and put on make-up. Still, they aren’t referred to as feminists in most discussions revolving around feminism in literature.
At the end of the day, feminism is about having the ability to choose the future that you want, and that’s what the characters in novels read by young audiences should display. Although YA authors also need to begin incorporating this idea, a great place to start is with our children’s books. Some of the first stories children hear come from different children’s books, and many of them depict women as damsels in distress while men are sharp and quick-witted. The male protagonist is rewarded for his bravery in going on an adventure or slaying a dragon. He receives a prize of a kingdom, a princess, and many other riches. In contrast, any story about a woman focuses on her being cursed and being in danger because of her beauty. In the end, she doesn’t get a kingdom but instead is married off to the richest and most handsome prince in the land. An obvious fairy tale that so many of us know by heart is that of Snow White, who was forced to flee from her home because she was “too pretty” and her evil stepmother didn’t like that. Even after her stepmother was defeated, all she got in the form of a prize was a prince as a husband. In contrast, if we look at the story of Hercules, he was rewarded riches beyond his wildest dreams, but he chose to stay on Earth with the person he cared about.
Although this is a general notion, so many new Disney stories and movies are fighting this stereotype. Films such as Brave, Moana, Mulan, and Frozen show little girls everywhere that they don’t have to wait around for someone to help them if they don’t want to. Not only do these movies show audiences that they can achieve whatever they want, but they also feature young girls of color. These little girls can look up at a screen and see someone that looks like them and acts like them.
Our perception of the world and the values and ideals that we hold are shaped through the media that we consume as children, whether that’s in the form of books, TV shows, or movies. The media needs to be able to account for feminism, and not just any feminism, but intersectional feminism. In all honesty, if the author’s definition of feminism is not intersectional, then that needs to be improved upon because the idea of feminism involves everyone, not just those that showcase your perceived notion of feminism.
Today’s generation of writers and readers are beginning to promote novels with more diverse characters that play the primary role instead of token characters. This changing tide is influential in shaping the minds of young women of color by letting them know that there are people out there like them doing what they want to do. So as we continue to grow our idea of feminism and continuously adapt and change in this new world, here are some fantastic book recommendations:
Emma by Jane Austen
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Try reading a new book featuring an unlikely protagonist and understand the incredible world of literature that awaits you!