We like to tout our modern horn about our improved ability to portray women in fiction. After all, in the past, women were displayed as sweet homemakers who were all the same, right?
First of all, as someone who has watched a ton of old classics, this is not completely true. There were plenty of interesting and unique women back in the day in movies, TV, and books. Take Lucille Ball, for instance. Consider Elizabeth Bennet. But, you can see a common thread of expectations regarding the idealistic women through media: a sweet, hardworking, and docile mother. Not a bad person but not a mold everyone would have fit.
And now...we've gone from one stereotypical trope to another. Especially in YA fiction. Especially in any kind of world-saving fiction. (There are some genres I can't speak about because I don't read or watch as much, but there seems to be a lot more variety in romance and contemporary.)
We applaud ourselves for veering away from the old stereotypes, only to veer into new ones.
Truth is, modern stories usually talk about one kind of girl as the hero: a fiercely strong girl, whose cruel and harsh, good with a weapon, and still super sexy. To be fair, I do think this would make for a fascinating character. If I hadn't seen it before. The character would be different and one-of-a-kind in a world full of women who aren't like that. Unfortunately, this is the new ideal, and this is the new expectation to measure up to.
Here are some quality traits that most female protagonist heroes in today's fiction have:
1-They are a pilot, soldier/warrior of some sort, or criminal (generally thief or assasin).
Literally, there are thousands of jobs in the world. Thousands. So, why is it that most world-saving female leads in fiction television and movies have one of these jobs before stepping up to the plate and accepting their true callings as world-savers?
Wonder Woman was a soldier. Captain Marvel was a soldier (and also a pilot). Ren is a pilot. Skyward's (which I love) Spensa was a pilot soldier.
Katniss Everdeen from Hunger Games is a thief (technically). Red Queen's Mare is a thief.
Here's a list of job titles from some of 2020's most popular YA novels with girls as protagonists: Alessandra from The Shadow King is an assasin, Renata from Insendiary is a thief, Deka from The Gilded Ones is a soldier, Esha from The Tiger at Midnight is an assasin, Nina from The Court of Miracles is a thief, Gul from Hunted by Sky is a warrior.
Now, to be fair, I love a lot of these characters. Hunger Games is at the top of my all time favorites. Skyward's absolutely an amazing story. But we can't go around pointing fingers at the jobs women had in past movies and books (yes, they were often going toward becoming mothers, but that was actually the job title a lot of women could relate to) when now there's the same narrowness of categories but ones that less women choose (and also all these criminal jobs aren't actually all that good).
Consider guys' jobs in fiction. True, Captain America is in the Army, and Ant Man is a criminal. However, Spider Man is a school boy. Iron Man is a billionaire inventor. Harry Potter is also a school boy. Luke Skywalker is a farm boy. Hulk is a scientist. Percy Jackson is also a school boy.
There are a lot of intellects and nobodies who figure out how to be somebody.
Sooo, why do the girls need these edgy jobs to save the world? Why can't they just be an average-Jane from Iowa who happens to get forced into an incredible role?
It may be that we feel like we need these hardened girls with physical mad skills to something great, but, truth is, there are many ways to save the world. And many talents can accomplish the task.
I'd like to see more girls who are teachers, artists, dancers, engineers, everyday students, full-time mothers, daughters, etc. stepping into these awesome fantasy/sci-fi roles.
I've heard this trope is evolving toward more average stuff, so it'll be interesting to see what comes next.
2-They have to be really tough emotionally.
Most of the women have a serious chip on their shoulder. Katniss is terrible at dealing with people (though she has her moments). Ren is also really tough and serious. Many of them are angry and bitter at life. And maybe that's some kind of reflection of the world we live in. But we talk about genre tropes changing by having strong women and soft men today.
And that's still just another trope.
3-Rudeness is equated with strength.
It is a rare occassion when being a bully is the best option. Sometimes, every so often, someone needs a good tongue lashing. (Think New Testament when Jesus gets mad at everyone and kicks them out of the temple for selling their wares in a holy place.)
But often, yelling and being mean is not the best way to solve a problem. I don't think when my three-year-old throws herself on the floor fake crying and hollering she is picking a smart path to garner the outcome she desires. And yet, we see this behavior in fiction getting applauded as powerful.
For example, I saw a Stranger Things 3 teaser talking about girl power and then showing moments over and over again of a chick yelling at someone (There's so much actual girl power in the series, Like, Eleven's super magic strength to defeat monsters. And the mom's unstoppable love and persistance in spite of everyone telling her she was wrong. Why did they choose those moments?) .
As someone who gets angry too easily, it's actually pretty easy to yell (Sometimes. I get that there are some people that are scary to stand up to and that moment of bravery to speak out can be extremely challenging). It's usually harder to communicate your problems clearly, be honest but kind, put in the work to fix something yourself, ask others for help when needed, etc.
At the end of the day, I'm just saying that tropes are real, and things come and go with time. For instance, if a writer read Hunger Games and thought it was amazing, it makes sense that the writer would want to follow some of the amazing things they saw, and Katniss was unique and different at the time. Trends come and go based off popular media and the world around us.
But, I'd love to see us go wider. I'd love to see more world savings girls who are shy, funny, obnoxious, witty, creative, flowery, audacious, etc. saving the world. I want a sixteen-year-old doctor or a girl who has her own business startup cutting hair doing it. Because, why not?
Truth is, all women (men also) have strengths to bring to the table. Whoever we are, we have a job to do to make this world a better place. And I want my girls to know that they don't have to be tough and cruel to do that; who they are, the best versions of themselves, can be enough if they allow it to be.