Friday, 4 October 2013

Kickass Heroines v. Too Stupid To Live

Kickass Heroines: Too Stupid To Live, or simply female?
Witchstruck on
A few years back when I was first starting to write romance, I kept coming across the phrase TSTL, short for Too Stupid To Live.

This epithet seemed to be directed at female characters - in fact, I have never seen a male character described as TSTL - who took risks in the story, and tended to make 'bad' or 'poor' decisions, according to readers. I never really understood the mechanics of this insult, but basically it was used in reviews to indicate a character who made ludicrous and unlikely choices that could lead to her endangerment.

Recently I noticed that some readers of my Tudor Witch Trilogy, starting with Witchstruck, have described my heroine Meg Lytton as making 'stupid' or 'dangerous' decisions. So I guess she must fall into the TSTL category.

Puzzled by this, I looked at Witchstruck in detail. I had intended to make my heroine kickass. Had I in fact made her Too Stupid To Live?

Reading through, I could not find any situations where the decision Meg took was one that could not have been taken by a male character without incurring any criticism whatsoever. This made me wonder whether TSTL actually translates as 'not feminine enough'.

It strikes me that, although trends in Young Adult fiction demand 'kickass heroines', when we come across a heroine like Meg Lytton in Witchstruck, a teen witch in the 1500s who puts her life on the line for the people she believes in, some of us are actually repelled or horrified by that side of her character. So while feeble decision-making by a heroine allows us to consider how differently we would have played a scene, a too-strong response turns us off and makes us feel the writer has overstepped some invisible line.

This far, and no further, thank you. Kickass, but only within these limits.

Am I wrong to wonder this?

Yet along with the TSTL complaints comes this odd contradiction. Those who have seen Meg as making foolish and dangerous decisions also tend to comment on the fact that she faints twice during the story, and flag this up as a sign of her feeble nature. Hmm.

Without wishing to run a spoiler, one of these two instances of fainting is where she is physically exhausted and stressed beyond human endurance, which I agree may be outside the experience of many people, but which did happen to me once. I know ... I fainted once, under the combination of terrible stress and physical exhaustion. What a feeble person I am!

My point though is a serious one. Is it possible for a character to be both feeble and reckless? And what is going on in literature when readers look for impossible standards of behaviour from Young Adult heroines, so a teenage girl whose life hangs in the balance is required to stand any stress without cracking, and at the same time make wise and rational - which presumably means 'safe' - decisions in dangerous situations?

I applaud YA writers like Laura Dockrill, whose recent blog post at We Love This Book calls for more 'inspiring, refreshing or honest female protagonists in fiction for young people'. And I agree with her.

But I do wonder whether we are ready for female protagonists who don't tow the 'I'm a girly' line, whose decisions are more those of a typical male action hero than a YA heroine, and who ALSO occasionally behave in an honest way by fainting or losing the plot under stress.

The world is changing rapidly, yes, but not always by moving forward. Sometimes the world moves backwards, and we have to dig in our heels and stop it ruining advances we have made as women, as feminists, as readers, and as writers. If honest failures in our heroines are no longer welcome, and if Too Stupid To Live has started to mean Too Bold For A Female Character, we're in trouble.


  1. It's a question of balance. Every 'strong' character should have elements of doubt, and fear about making terrible choices that they naturally dither about. Even the most guerilla shopper amongst is faced with the dilemma of whipping cream or double cream in Waitrose. Imagine how it is when facing life/death situations. Few of us can.

    Not having fear means you are TSTL, not dithering or reacting to intense stress makes you less human. It's deciding to carry on with your purpose despite these that shows courage whatever your level of kick-assedness. And the same for our characters. And the gender thing is plain nonsense; that's other people's problem.We should be breaking stereotypes, not submitting to them. But everything in context, obviously, especially in a historical one.

    Oh, I always go for the double cream.

  2. Thanks, Alison. I agree, it's the same in life. Let's break those damn stereotypes!

    I'm a whipping cream babe. Just thought I'd offer that. x

  3. The kind of stress your heroine would have been under definitely means that she must have cracked sometimes. Why can't readers take that into consideration? I think I would.

  4. I liked Meg, and I am in my late '60s. Characters are after all human. Physical and mental endurance can cause male, or females to faint. I love Meg, she is a tough cookie. But at the same time vulnerable. Long live the feisty, get up and have a go female characters, whether it be in the 16th Century, or modern day ... Rosy

  5. Thanks, Maria and Rosemary. This isn't a dig at readers, of course, but more at trends. I suspect we get used to heroines - and stories in general - being a certain way, and then find it hard to step back from that 'norms' and think about what they're saying about our expectations in real life. Perhaps in trying to create superwomen in our novels, we've forgotten to allow them to be human at the same time. Vx


Many thanks for visiting my website and commenting! Victoria.