As I write this post, it’s International Women’s Day, which is both a good and a not-so-good thing. If everyone in the world spent an entire day thinking about issues relating to women (education, health, environment, economics—pretty much everything) that would be great. But then again, think about it: do they have “CEO Day,” or “Take Your World Leader to Lunch Day?” Nope. Commemorative days (weeks, months) belong to those who have been, historically, pushed to the margins, which means we should all be crossing our fingers that eventually this day will be obsolete.
Yesterday in class, I was talking with my college students about Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a book that I loved as a child (I was Meg Murry, people, except for the whole genius-brother and time-travel thing). When I’ve taught this novel in previous semesters, students—male and female—generally like it, but not this term. “The ending—all that love, love, love—it’s totally cheezy,” complained one student.
You remember the end of the novel, right? Meg’s little brother Charles Wallace has been absorbed into IT, the huge brain that controls everyone on the planet Camazotz—a nightmare of totalitarianism fueled by Cold War fear. Meg realizes that the only weapon she has against IT’s strength is the love she bears for her brother and so, yes, she stands in front of IT and “loves Charles Wallace.” When I read this section, I get a little choked up, but my students apparently are made of sterner stuff.
“She’s supposed to be a hero and all she does is love him?” asked one skeptical student.
My students in this class—and all my classes—come from almost every country in the world: this group comes from, variously, Morocco, Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Palestine, the US, and Ireland. The students from former Soviet countries were more sympathetic to Meg than other students, but none of them seemed to find her particularly sympathetic: all that “love stuff” struck them as silly, too “girly-girl.”
I pointed out that in 1962, L’Engle sent her manuscript to more than twenty-five publishers before finding a home for Wrinkle because the book broke the unspoken taboo that heroes in science fiction have to be male. “I’m a female,” L’Engle said. “Why should I give all the best ideas to a male?” I suggested to my students that maybe Meg could be seen to challenge convention, on the one hand, because she’s the (female) hero of a science-fiction story, even though her solution—loving her brother—seems to cast her as the stereotypical nurturing female.
“The time for all that is over,” said my most outspoken student, a Palestinian girl in a headscarf. “Girls can totally be heroes and do science and all that.” Vehement head nodding, particularly from the several female chemistry majors in the class.
So I challenged them: name some female heroines in young adult fiction who are act on their own behalf and the behalf of others. We came up with Katniss Everdeen, scoffed at Twilight’s Bella, and then there was a long pause. A long pause. Finally someone mentioned Buffy the Vampire Slayer—but of course “Buffy” is a television show, not a book, and it had gone off the air by the time my students were old enough to watch TV.
Are they right? I know there are some strong girl characters in children’s picture books—Princess Knight comes to mind, and Princess Furball—but in young adult fiction, where are the girls who take center stage, whose consciousness guides the action, without the help of super powers, super beauty, or a super boyfriend? (Hermione Granger comes to mind, but of course, it’s Harry’s story, not hers.)
Maybe lots of these characters exist and my students just don’t know who they are. Or maybe the absence of these characters is just further demonstration that we still need International Women’s Day.
Can you think of any female heroes in young adult fiction?
This is an original post for the World Mom’s Blog by Deborah Quinn.