Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Bella vs. Buffy or Why I Hate YA Heroines

Okay, hate is far too strong a word. But I have been very disappointed with most of the YA heroines I've read lately. I so seldom find girls I would have actually wanted to be friends with as a teen. Swoon-worthy boys abound, but I usually find the girls unworthy of their affections. Can't anyone write strong but vulnerable young women?

In almost every YA book I've read in recent year, the heroines tend toward two extremes: passive, shallow characters who exists only to build up the stronger, male character (ie, Bella) or they are brash, untouchable characters who don't need a man, only to fall in love in spite of themselves (ie, Buffy). And both types seem to view the desire for marriage and family as a weakness. The girls I knew as a teen were smart, resourceful and sensitive. They loved easily and wore their wounds like badges of honor. They were complicated and irrational. They were so much more than the girls portrayed in YA books today.

In the interest of full disclosure, I read all the Twilight books and (mostly) enjoyed them. I watched (the first couple seasons) of Buffy and enjoyed that as well. But isn't there a balance between girls who can't walk straight on their own and girls more likely to give someone a roundhouse kick than the time of day?

I relate to the weak heroines. I'm clumsy, unathletic and much better at mental tasks than anything physical. But I am fully capable of taking care of myself. I have a strong sense of self-preservation. I've learned to make up for what I lack in strength of body with strength of mind.

And I do admire the ass-kicking heroines. I'd love to have hair-trigger reflexes and the skills to take out anyone who underestimates me. But inevitably, after a tearful breakdown, the kiss-ass heroine realizes she cannot live without some boy and lets her obsession with him define her from there on out.

Women are strong and not because they can do everything men can do. They are strong because they can do things men can't do. Like carrying children and giving birth. The very things these YA heroines reject as weakness are the things I view as strength. Only the strongest risk mind and body to protect someone vulnerable with no thought of personal gain. And what is wrong with demanding some level of commitment from a boy before giving yourself to him?

I would love to see more YA heroines who use their brains instead of brawn to defeat their enemies. Girls who don't need a boy to tell them who they are. Girls who are clever and confident. The kind of girls I've known and admired throughout my life.

I know I fail at this as a writer. It's too easy to fall into those established archetypes. But I've tried to create a heroine who is at least worthy of my hero. I've tried to create a character I'd be proud to have as a daughter. Because the girls I know are neither weak and passive nor brash and untouchable. They are both and they deserve better than shallow stereotypes.

So what do you think? Are you disappointed with YA heroines or am I overreacting? Any recommendations for YA heroines you do like? What are some stereotypes/plot lines that bug you?


  1. It's so true. They're usually one extreme or the other. I guess because a balanced, average person might be considered boring by some.

    I enjoyed the twilight series and I thought they made Bella appear stronger in the films than the books.

    If I remember correctly, Emerson Cole of Hourglass by Myra McEntire was a pretty good balance.

  2. This is a very interesting post. I agree about Bella, and although I do get tired of the ass-kicking heroine who, in the end, still needs her man, I don't think Buffy's the best example. Sure, Buffy falls in love with Angel. Like a lot of teenage girls she angsts and obsesses over him for much of the first few seasons. Then Angel breaks up with her. She cries, she gets mad, etc, but in the end, she moves on. I think this is the exact opposite of what you're complaining about....Buffy wants love, but she doesn't need Angel to feel complete. She's also expressly vulnerable, such as when her mother dies.

    However, I do get bored with the tough-as-nails protagonists who eventually realize they can't live without a boy. It's overdone, and anyone who's completely dependent upon their significant other is not in a healthy relationship.

    As for pregnancy/bearing children, I don't really get that complaint, probably because I'm a teenager. Most teenage girls realistically think of pregnancy as a weakness because we're not yet emotionally ready to give up our bodies and minds to a child. I think it's just part of YA fiction....your protagonist is a teenager, so odds are they aren't going to be like, "Pregnancy is beautiful and wonderful and strong women get pregnant." No. Teenagers don't think that way. A 17-year-old is going to think, "Dear god, if I get pregnant, my parents will kill me."

    Idk. That's just me :).

  3. @ Scribbling Scarlet - Good point about balance being boring. We like our flawed characters, don't we? There were things I loved & hated about Twilight :) Hourglass is on my list. I'll have to move it up!

    @ Katy - Thanks for the post! I love getting a teen perspective. I didn't regularly watch Buffy past the first few season, so I never saw that growth. Glad to know it happened!

    The marriage/pregnancy issue is one I bring up only because I see it so often (Twilight, Hunger Games, Graceling). I didn't particularly want children as a teen but I wasn't vehemently opposed to the idea like so many YA heroines. I think a lot of girls put marriage/kids out there as something they'd like later in life. I certainly don't advocate teen marriage or pregnancy but I think framing them in such negative terms (especially when the character has a radical change of heart at the end of the series) does a disservice to women. Not wanting children as a teen is not the same as thinking the desire to have children is a weakness.

    But then again, that's just me :) I love hearing other people's thoughts!

  4. Ah, that makes more sense. I can see how there would be a difference between not wanting children and considering pregnancy a weakness. I have absolutely no desire to get pregnant now, but I certainly want kids and a family in the future once I make it through grad school. I haven't read any YA books in which the heroine is vehemently against pregnancy (I never made it through Twilight). So I guess we're just reading different books!

  5. I completely agree! It's tough when it comes to creating female teens because there is so much going on with them. In my current manuscript I tried to create a balanced heroine. Hopefully I pulled it off :)

  6. Great post. It is a tough balance. But I think the problem is no one wants average(when they read) they want to see someone different from them. They want to live vicariously through someone else. I do think it can be done if you have a good story line, and we will probably see more of that.

    I could not finish Twilight. I made it to 147, and then put it down. Maybe another time.

  7. @ Katy - I supposed I should give Graceling and The Hunger Games a pass since they at least had valid reasons for not wanting children, but it's a weird theme I've been seeing and I think it says more about the writers than their audience. But one of the reasons I posted is because I want to find books with better heroines so I'd love any recs you might have!

    @ Crystal - I think just being aware of the balance is a good start :)

    @ Ladonna - to paraphrase director Danny Boyle "It's not like you've got to ban the bad films (books). You've just got to make better films (books) more entertaining." I think you're absolutely right and we will see better stories coming.

  8. Mini-stalked your blog. HUGE congrats, by the way! :)

    Anyhoo, I was thinking about this a bit, and it occurred to me that there's one character that might fit the profile you're talking about, though she is not a written one. Have you seen Veronica Mars? The character Kristen Bell plays seems similar to the balance between strong/vulnerable that is mentioned.