Young Adult Novels and the ‘Masculine Heroine’

Leila Kalliel //

      Young Adult novels are infamous for their overwhelming tendency to rely on well-tested, recurring ‘tropes’ within a narrative to gain audience approval from readers who are often the most impressionable, and are thus most affected by the perpetuation of these literary stereotypes. Some familiar tropes may include:

  • The Chosen One
  • The Parents are Dead
  • Token Diversity
  • Enemies to Lovers
  • Protagonist can’t see her Beauty
  • Love Triangles
  • Faked Romance
  • etc.

     Usually these tropes alternate in my mind between being totally loveable, and well-used because they’re so great, to being totally overdone, and used for lack of a better plot line or character idea. However, there’s one that I just can’t seem to get past in my recent re-readings of some old YA favorites: the ‘I’m not like other girls’ narrative. 

     As a young woman, I was instinctively drawn to YA novels with badass female protagonists. As an adult, I’m starting to wonder why the heroines who appeared the most badass to me were always the most jaded, violent, sarcastic, and supposedly ‘different’ girls in the first place. 

     I think that this has a lot to do with a term that’s gained much traction in recent years known as ‘internalized misogyny.’ There are many different definitions of this word, with none of them concretely established to be more accurate than the other, but to me, internalized misogyny most often manifests in my daily life by my being predisposed to view certain qualities as masculine or feminine, and subsequently assigning the traditionally feminine characteristics a negative light. This is an issue that I now dedicate a lot of time and energy to eradicating within myself, and I even wrote a related article on this subject last year called “Being a Feminine Feminist.” 

   This phenomenon of internalized misogyny is especially observable in YA fiction, with the application of traditionally masculine characteristics impressed on female characters to qualify them as being ‘strong’ and, more subtly, to mark them as being ‘not like other girls.’

      I want to specify that the ‘masculine’ qualities I’m about to describe can, of course, be applicable to women and men alike. However, the YA genre intentionally glamorizes and promotes qualities in a female protagonist that, in the real world, would be not only impossible, but undesirable in both men AND women.

     The typical YA heroine is not just a capable woman who fights for change, can defend herself, and isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. She is essentially a superwoman; who almost defines herself by her ability to crush the assumption that women are different from men. And while I absolutely respect that many of these assumptions about women necessitate corrections; because, of course a woman can fix a car and have fighting experience, I want to raise the question: can’t some men and women be different without either one being ‘better’? 

     A strong YA heroine shouldn’t have to be able to single-handedly fight off a group of assassins, wear a leather jacket, and be bad-tempered all the time to qualify as ‘strong’ under patriarchal standards. She shouldn’t have to be a loner, or not get along with other girls because she’s ‘different’ from those implicitly weaker normal people. 

     The ‘not like other girls’ narrative is actually a pretty harmful YA trope under all of these new considerations, despite the fact that we might still really love and enjoy the works they appear in. However, I don’t think that this new understanding necessitates the total throwing out of our old literary favorites, either. I just think that feminism is moving in a new direction nowadays; where women don’t have to prove they can do the same things as men, because we already know that they can. Why should a woman have to constantly define herself by her ability to not be like other girls? Girls are badass. Even if they prefer skirts to leather jackets—they’re badass. Even if they’re more prone to kindness than sarcasm, or vice versa—that’s freakin badass! The YA ‘masculine heroine’ is too much of an outdated and narrow category to expect every woman to fit into. 

     Although many authors of Young Adult fiction today have made efforts to combat the perpetuation of literary stereotypes like these, I unfortunately still see a lot of works released that continue to play into these outdated tropes. These works frequently come from some of the most popular YA authors with some of the largest, youngest fanbases; doubling their negative impact on the adolescent psyche. To complicate the female heroine in YA will mark the progression of an existing movement towards the general diversification of Young Adult fiction; a necessary adaptation if authors want to continue appealing to the increasingly socially aware readers of coming generations. 

Thanks for reading!

Francis Lawrence (2012) The Hunger Games

Neil Burger (2014) Divergent

Matthew Hastings (2016) Shadowhunters 

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