The word kick-ass, however, could use some deconstruction.
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See, the popular emphasis on toughness and independence in women tends to manifest itself as a preference for mouthy, feisty, physically forceful girls. This causes all sorts of problems. At best, the gentler strengths get devalued. At worst, a female character can seem designed as a feminist ideal rather than a real and complex woman, which comes off—to this reader at least—as both distracting and difficult to sympathize with.
This list contains some of my favorite heroines, honored here for a variety of strengths. Note that I'm using the term heroines to mean protagonists or at least part-time narrating characters, not merely heroic fictional women. I could've gone on for ages if I allowed myself to include supporting cast members like Hermione, Luna, and the other women from Harry Potter, Galadriel and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings, Daisy Lee from Summer of the Monkeys, and countless others in non-narrating roles.
Oh, and I've limited myself to two per author, because Austen's young women were taking over the list and I couldn't seem to stick with just one.
1. Elinor Dashwood. Any girl who can put up with Lucy Steele's cruelty and pettiness without losing her cool has my highest respect. But Elinor, at nineteen, is also a stabilizing influence on her mother and younger sisters. I wish I'd had her maturity at nineteen—or ever. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
2. Anne Elliott. Along with being patient and respectful and dutiful, Anne is wise. There's a strength that's hard to come by; it's worth any ten others, though. Persuasion, Jane Austen
3. Annie Anderson. MacDonald may have titled his book after the young hero, but it's Annie who shines: loyal and loving, pious and independent, neither constrained by nor spoiled by the harsh rules placed upon her. She walks by the law of charity, and the reader pulls for her even over Alec. Alec Forbes of Howglen, George MacDonald
4. Miri Larendaughter. Perky, assertive, resourceful, and funny, Miri is one of the most delightful tough girls I've ever come across in fiction. Princess Academy and Palace of Stone, Shannon Hale
5. Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee. Shy and used to comfort, Ani—also known as Isi—makes the best of her sudden reversal of fortunes with a queen's grace. She bears with hard work and bad weather and lousy food good-humoredly, makes friends among the poor, and still looks for a way to protect her people and her horse. The Goose Girl, Shannon Hale
6. Wanderer. As Jared said, "Altruism comes more naturally to [her] than lies." She's pure of heart, self-effacing, and strong enough to forgive enemies and make them into friends. The Host, Stephenie Meyer
7. Nynaeve al'Meara. Nynaeve would be one hundred percent determination and power if it weren't for her beautiful vulnerabilities: a passion for healing, love for Lan Mandragoran, and an explosive temper, which is not always beautiful, but keeps her honest. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
8. Egwene al'Vere. What I love about Egwene's cool strength is that she uses it to control herself first and foremost. She also cares about things like humility and unity and tradition, which is nice. The Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan
9. Maria Merryweather. Humble enough to marry a poor shepherd and bold enough to face the Men of the Woods, Maria overcomes her own vanity and sets her whole being to the task of healing her family and her land. The Little White Horse, Elizabeth Goudge
10. Rilla Blythe. All of Montgomery's heroines are wonderful in their own ways, but I've always loved plucky Rilla, who, when her girlhood is disrupted by war, determines to be a heroine. It's hard to be a heroine when your brothers and your young man go overseas to fight and you're stuck at home, but Rilla saves a baby, organizes a Red Cross, learns to accept the consequences of her own pigheadedness, and makes a number of sacrifices of her own. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
All right, I'll stop at ten and save the others for the next time this question comes around. I could've kept going for another ten with just Austen and Hale and Montgomery.
What heroines would you name, and what strengths do you love about them?
One of the reasons I like Rilla vis-a-vis other LMM heroines is that she isn't this marked-outsider extraordinary child-sylph like Anne and Emily (in their varied ways) or even a more run of the mill outsider-ugly duckling like Valancy. She's not an ugly duckling at all. She's a nice, ordinary young teenager whose siblings all think she's a little shallower than they were at her age. I think it works really well for the kind of story Rilla is.ReplyDelete
Though my favorite LMM heroine "as a person" is probably Valancy.
And if you're not going to include Eowyn, I will. She may not have as many lines as Frodo, but if she hadn't showed up, that Witch-King would just have eaten everything.
An old-school heroine who is legitimately kickass in a not-actually-kicking-everyone way (though she does save a he-damsel in distress [twice?]) is Jane Eyre, who is smart. clear-sighted, and self-possessed enough to walk away from Rochester after the whole "wife in the attic" thing went down, even though the emotional and material cost of doing so is immense. Oh, and she does the same to St. John, who has no attic wife, but who just isn't right for her. "Walking away from men" might seem a weak kind of heroism, but it isn't; it's the early 19th century equivalent of fighting a balrog. I don't mean that I'd blame someone in Jane's circumstances who didn't make the choices Jane did, just that Jane was very brave. I've been reading Jane Eyre all my life, but I didn't appreciate that side of it until much later.
I also really liked the movie Brave, which has a surprisingly thoughtful take on the "kick-ass heroine" trope. And awesome character design.
Wow, I'm. . . actually looking around at my books and noticing a dearth of awesome heroines. Better fix that! Well, I like Marya and Natasha from War and Peace, but I'm not sure how I would fit them onto the list; the main thing I like about them is Tolstoy's uncanny character-inhabiting ability.
I didn't have any of these on my list. I love that you chose Anne Elliot though. I did choose Elizabeth Bennett.ReplyDelete
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Sandy @ Somewhere Only We Know
Thank you! I will now forever describ Elinor Dashwood as kickass. Which is a pretty awesome way to think about it.ReplyDelete
Any Miyazaki heroine would make the list--Kiki, Chohiro, San, Sophie, Arietty, Sheeta--much more so than Joss Whedon's parade of political stereotypes. And, Jenna, you'll get this reference if not many others will: Miss Pruet.
Though the word in itself is, I think, reductive; it seems to demand a particularly modern sensibility. Some of the best, most nuanced heroines in literature wouldn't fit here. I'm thinking of Little Dorrit (Dickens) and Fuuka (Azuma).
But can we just stop and give a shout-out for Miss Marple? I think we need a whole other list for kickass old ladies...
Laura, JANE EYRE. I cannot believe I didn't put her on this list--she should totally have been in the first ten. I plead a distracted morning for my idiocy.ReplyDelete
And yeah, I feel the same way about Rilla. And the only reason I didn't include Eowyn is that I didn't include Hermione or any other non-perspective character. Both of them absolutely merit Kickass Heroine status. This list could've gone on forever. And then some.
Sandy, Elizabeth almost made it on mine, too! I just ran out of space. ;)
Mr. Pond, Sophie Hatter deserves a spot on the list in any incarnation. Arrietty probably does likewise. I need to watch some Miyazaki one of these days. And I love Pruet. I'm going to do my very best to help introduce her to the world when the time comes.
Also, I felt the same way about the word. And I'd have been happy to put Little Dorrit in there if I HAD ONLY HAD SPACE. She definitely had an inner strength to her, though it's been awhile since I read it and I can't remember the details.
Lessa from The Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. The narrative perspective shifts around somewhat in the books but the first one is primarily from Lessa's point of view. Also Menolly in The Harper Hall Trilogy, the first two books are from her perspective. Also Nerilka in Nerilka's Story, also set in McCaffrey's Pern.ReplyDelete
And I'm pretty shocked, Jenna, none of Shannon Hale's heroines make the list? Tsk, tsk. ;)
Miyazaki's heroines (and movies) are universally awesome, even when the plot of the movie is just "a couple of girls move into the country and there is a giant friendly magical wood-spirit dude, plus some new human friends." I like Joss Whedon a lot, too, though I agree he can be a little sloppy with his Strong Female Character Generator (my only basis for this claim, beyond 1,000,000 overheard conversations about Buffy, is Firefly, which Has Its Problems in spades and which I love).ReplyDelete
But if this list includes TV (and is limited to perspective characters) then I have to give love to Kira Nerys from Deep Space 9, my favorite Star Trek and the one that broke my heart (through no fault of Major Kira's). Dax on the same show should have been a great character, but mostly wasn't.
I agree that kickass shouldn't be confined to women in "male" suits. Guts, intelligence, and incisive action are feminine traits, too.ReplyDelete
I nominate Kate from Lost. Even though she was quite tough she wasn't hardened.
And I agree about Wanderer. She was strong enough to lay herself down sacrificially for others.
George, see Jenna's #s 4 & 5.
Terribly, terribly sorry, Jenna!! Mea culpa!! Totally missed those two. Don't quite know how. Getting old possibly.Delete
Thank you, Arabella, for pointing that out to me.
I still need to read Pern. Must happen...ReplyDelete
If TV's allowed, I'd definitely include Kate from Lost for all two or three episodes I saw of that. And Laura Petrie. Beyond that, I'd probably be baffled and would have to turn to movies.
Yep--guts, intelligence, and incisive action are totally compatible with the receptivity and nurturing tendencies that tend to come with being female. Though I like a heroine who's fearful and prone to thinking with her emotions and a little diffident from time to time, too. It feels real. ;)
Lucy Pevensie. What's not to commend her? Gentle, compassionate, merciful, truthful, not afraid of adventure and of living up to her duties, not rebelling against her womanhood or girlness but embracing her own uniqueness, and an example of perseverance in faith & devotion. But also not completely perfect either.ReplyDelete
Orual (aka Maia) from Till We Have Faces. To say Orual is a complicated character might be an understatement. She's certainly determined. She works intensely to do well for her subjects in the kingdom of Glome. But perhaps her most interesting and most moving aspect is her intense desire to bring home her accusation against the gods in a logical, reasoned fashion taught to her by her Greek mentor.ReplyDelete
Well, I won't spoil the book for those who might not have read it. Those who have read it probably know where I'm going with this. For those who haven't, let's just say the eucastrophic ending is well worth the read.
C.S. Lewis considered it his best work, & I must agree with him.