My Goodreads Quotes

Allison’s quotes

"Don't you think it's rather nice to think that we're in a book that God's writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right--in the way that's best for us."
Do you really believe that, Mother?" Peter asked quietly.
Yes," she said, "I do believe it--almost always--except when I'm so sad that I can't believe anything. But even when I don't believe it, I know it's true--and I try to believe it."— E. Nesbit

Friday, April 22, 2016

YA Tropes I Hate: Angry Girls

Fierce.  Independent.  No-nonsense, kick-butt, and angry.

Sound familiar?

Meet the new generation of heroines: the Angry Girl.  She's a down-to-earth, working-class girl who hates the oppression of the upper class and isn't afraid to stand up for herself.  She doesn't need looks, charm, or luck to get what she wants, and she certainly doesn't need a man to help her get it.

She is, as a stock character, virtually untouchable.  If you criticize her, you're sexist.  If you wish she weren't so aggressive, you hate women.  If you question the need for violence, you're passively assisting the oppression.

Let me, therefore, begin this post with a disclaimer.  I am a feminist, hereby defined as "advocating social, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men".  I do not believe in the so-called Biblical view of subservient femininity, although neither do I discriminate against those who choose to live by this ideal.  I believe myself to be the social equal of a man.  I want to pursue a career as a lawyer and have a family, and I do not believe these to be incompatible.

This being said, I still think that these repetitive, generically Angry Heroines consistently miss something.  And I believe that this actually has very little to do with their gender.

Before I can dissect this stock character, here are what I consider the classic marks of an angry heroine:

1. She's just an ordinary girl.

The Angry Heroine is not pretty.  She eschews makeup, loathes girls who spend their time on needless things like personal hygiene, and would sooner die than wear a dress.  If you use her as a scale by which to measure women, any sort of interest in one's appearance immediately equals sin.

This point bothers me more than the others.  Authors go out of their way to tear down the idea of beauty as value, but it becomes a matter of "Do as I say, not as I do."  In almost every narrative, there comes a time when the heroine must regretfully don a dress and embrace classical femininity, in order to highlight that-- even though physical beauty doesn't matter-- she's still smokin' hot.  But all the while, remember:

She's just

your average


Nothing special here.

2. She's angry.

This seems fairly evident, but I think it ties into an overarching theme of Specialness that, perhaps, factors more into the Angry Heroine than actual anger does.  She is surrounded by weak, passive people who would rather cozy up to the unjust regime than overthrow it.  The heroine's anger-- both at the regime and at her peers-- drives her to the third, final characteristic.

3. She's vengeful.

These last two may seem like the same thing, but compare the definitions.  Angry means "having a strong feeling of or showing annoyance, displeasure, or hostility".  It is an emotion.  Vengeful, conversely, means "seeking to harm someone in return for a perceived injury".  That's right.  The Angry Heroine, at the end of the day, wants an eye for an eye.  She wants to make those who wronged her pay.  She is, in short, a violent person.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, lies my problem with the Angry Heroine, and it has absolutely nothing to do with her gender.  I have a problem with the Angry Heroine because she glorifies violence.  She promotes the idea that, if you think someone's wrong, you can tear them down without mercy.  She is not peaceful.  She is not a diplomat.  She is judge, jury, and executioner.

And she is not only a female character.  Her counterpart, the Angry Hero, pops up in literature all the time: a vigilante, out-for-revenge man who's ready to do things his own way.  He doesn't care who he hurts as long as he gets the last laugh and a dramatic walk into the sunset.  In a way, I am incredibly grateful to the Angry Heroine, whose dichotomy of femininity and vengeance is so controversial, because it is my hope that she will draw attention to a more subversive issue in literature, the Angry Hero.

"But Allison," critics may say.  "It's just a story.  Really all she's doing is promoting the belief that women can change the world."

No.  I believe that men and women can change the world, and I encourage them to do so.  But I cannot believe that being violent simply because one is angry will ever be acceptable.  I believe firmly in soldiers, crusaders, and heroes.  In history there has always been a time for violence, and I see no reason why there should not be in literature as well.  But it should not ever be simply for vengeance, not change.

To which the critics will probably respond, "Sexist."

Ah, well.  You can't win them all.


Hannah said...

I like it, Allison! I think some types of this character are appropriate (Katniss for example) in the story being told, but the trope is faaaaaaaaaar too present in today's YA literature.

Sarah said...

Another great post!
For the record, I think that the vengeful Angry Hero/Heroine can be used well, can be a good thing . . . but only if it's handled well, either showing clearly the problems with such an outlook or else having the hero/heroine gradually realize his/her problem and let go of that desire for revenge in exchange for a better motivation to fight. Sadly, most people don't do that. :P

Blue said...

This is gold, pure gold!
To be frank, angry protagonists are difficult to root for and many times it shows a lack of maturity.
This is why I liked Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Sairu. Though raised to be deadly, one of her best weapons is her smile. She is independent and active, and at the same time she craves to receive and give love. Such a multi-faceted character is beautiful!

Candice Williams said...

So well said! I totally agree with this post! It doesn't matter if you're male or female, violence and revenge are just... not a good idea. I like stories where the characters use their wits and cunning to solve problems.

And when the angry girl "doesn't care" about her appearance, that's just not that realistic! Everybody cares about their appearance somewhat - it's just how people are. Plus, if appearance really mattered as little to her as she said it did, it doesn't make sense when this character criticizes girls who are concerned about their looks - that shouldn't even be on her radar, she's not supposed to care about these things AT ALL in any way, so that never made a lot of sense to me.

Heroines have come a long way in literature, but I think that neither the angry girl or the damsel in distress are the best or truest portrayal of women, and it's going to be interesting to see how stories change in the next 50 years. Anyway, thanks for the great post! It's a super interesting discussion topic!

Allison Ruvidich said...

@Hannah- Although I appreciate the point Katniss tried to make as a character, I think it might have been better executed had she possessed... a personality? ; ) Snark aside, I do understand your point and agree.

@Sarah- Exactly!! You just conveyed succinctly what I spent a whole blog post telling. : ) There are times when I appreciate moral absurdity in literature, but when it is taken seriously, I think it needs more perspective to show that no, this isn't a healthy world view.

Allison Ruvidich said...

@Blue- Thank you! I like what you say about maturity. Some of these characters read like the moral ideals of toddlers-- selfish, selfish people. Thanks for commenting!

@Candice- Haha, I'm so glad you like it! : D I love how you compare the angry heroine to the damsel in distress. I wonder if they're two sides of the same coin, if that makes sense; that is, equally misrepresenting women. Thank you for commenting! : )

Jemma Tainsh said...

I think you dealt with this quite well! Unfortunately, I accidently wrote one of these characters once, but I despised her so much that I ended up not finishing the story :( I find that this type of character really irritates me and tends to put the whole book in a worse light. I did however enjoy the Hunger Games and thought that Katniss was the right person for that situation. That could be just because it was the first book I read like that though...

Off the topic, you want to be a lawyer? That's awesome! Me too!
What kind of law would you like to be in?