|Kickass Heroines: Too Stupid To Live, or simply female?|
Witchstruck on Amazon.com
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.