On Female Protagonists

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while; indeed I’ve had a draft of it on my computer since I started this blog. I think I’ve put off really writing it for so long because my feelings on this matter are so complex and I want to make sure I state them correctly. In essence, I think that fiction (more specifically Young Adult fiction, on which I’ll be focussing) needs more female protagonists. Yes, there are some genres in which most protagonists are female, but these tend to be geared at women: chick lit, romance, etc. In contrast, the default gender for a fantasy protagonist is male. This is better in books than in movies, and indeed I’ve had Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician trilogy, female protagonist and all, recommended to me by three different men, but the genre is still, in my experience, dominated by male characters. In many cases, the best girls and women can hope for is equal representation in a multiple-POV work, but rarely will a titular protagonist be female, in contrast to the male Harry Potter. Furthermore, an author like Tamora Pierce, who writes almost exclusively female protagonists, is often considered to be writing ‘books for girls’, whereas no one would argue that J. K. Rowling, also a woman, with many interesting female characters in her books and ‘feminine’ plotting (which I’ll discuss in a moment), writes ‘books for girls’, because her protag is a boy.

I’m interested in first examining The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien himself was something of a misogynist, commenting that his female students seemed quite capable of grasping the concepts taught by their professors, but rarely of going any further. I think whether or not his seminal work reflects that misogyny is another matter, however. I want to discuss Éowyn in particular, or more specifically her defeat of the Witch King. Arguments about Éowyn herself run the gamut from condemning her as a confirmation of gender roles to praising her for representing a rejection of them, and a full discussion of that would be material for another blog post entirely.

Anyway, back to the Witch King. The Witch King is convinced he is immortal because it has been prophesied that no man will kill him, thus he believes that no person can kill him. For me, this equating of ‘man’ with ‘human’ (or, indeed, humanoid individual, considering Merry’s involvement), and the fact that it leads to the Witch King’s downfall, is a key reason why I tend to think that Éowyn, in spite of Tolkien’s actual beliefs, is a feminist figure. The use of ‘man’ as the default in referring to humans effaces the woman. Tolkien, of course, does this himself often enough, given that the humans in his universe are referred to as Men. This actually bears further discussion, in that Tolkien as a philologist was no doubt aware that ‘man’ used to be the gender-neutral term for humanity, with the male form having a prefix just like the female form. It is possible, then, that Tolkien calls his human race ‘Man’ in light of this; nevertheless, he must have known that most of his audience would not have been aware of the etymology and would read the term within its modern context. At any rate, it is a man’s ability to ignore women and non-humans that leads to his downfall. The Witch King sees only male humans as a valid threat, and thus extrapolates the ‘man’ in the prophesy to be the general term for people. Éowyn, then, demonstrates the dangers to men of ignoring women.

To return to the idea that the default protagonist in non-female-oriented genres is male, this is problematic for two main reasons. For one thing, it delineates YA books into those that are acceptable for boys and those that are unacceptable. Sure, most boys probably aren’t interested in romantic stories, but some are. The idea that romantic novels are ‘for girls’ means that there’s something wrong or different about a boy who likes them. This is emphasised by romance being one of the few categories of fiction that consistently has female protagonists. This leads into the other issue, which is that because male is the default gender in a lot of YA fiction the female remains the ‘other’. Many girls and women see nothing wrong with watching a film in which the only female character is a one-dimensional love interest for the male protagonist, yet can you imagine a boy watching a film in which the only male character is a one-dimensional love interest for the female protagonist? It’s called a chick flick, and to my understanding, no, most boys and men don’t watch them.

To go back to my comment about boys identifying with female protagonists, a man once told me that men can’t. In my opinion, the only reason why a boy might struggle to identify with a female protagonist is because he’s never had to. Any book with a female protagonist in it is one that he wouldn’t be very interested in anyway, because issues like female puberty or romance just don’t interest most teenage boys, and that’s OK (provided, of course, that the boy doesn’t feel this way due to societal pressures). Because of this, he sees female protagonists as inherently different from male ones and, as a male himself, allies himself with the male protagonists and struggles to relate to female protagonists. The only way to bridge this divide is to reject the default male and write protagonists of all genders, regardless of content. It’s not as though teenagers don’t notice the gender disparity, either; when I was 13 I created the protagonist and antagonist for a high fantasy series I’m still working on, and I made them female. I didn’t do it for the in-depth reasons I’ve described here, because at 13 I didn’t really notice them, but what I did notice was the elation I felt when I opened a fantasy book and saw a female protagonist and, for once, felt represented. We need more female protagonists for male and female readers. Not only will it help to eliminate the duality of male versus female, but in doing so it will hopefully allow for better representation of those who do not fit into the male/female (heterosexual) paradigm.

With regards to the male/female duality, I mentioned the idea of ‘feminine’ plotting earlier. I’ve heard before that men tend to stick to a main storyline whereas women are more inclined towards multiple layers and subplots. Whether or not this is true is moot, as long as there are people who believe it to be true and base their reading choice accordingly. Taken in conjunction with the default male idea above, this means that girls and women should have no problem with reading stories which follow one main storyline, with only minor deviations into subplots, but that boys and men should not be expected to read stories with numerous concurrent plotlines.

I think that many of the points I’ve raised here apply not only to women, but to other minorities. People of colour are underrepresented as protagonists in works that do not deal specifically with their ethnicity, as are LGBT individuals regarding their sexuality. I’m reminded of a story I heard, though I don’t know if it’s true, that JK Rowling published Harry Potter under her initials rather than her first name because JK is androgynous and boys would be more likely to read it. I don’t want to deny my gender like that, yet at the same time by writing female characters as a woman I risk reinforcing the idea that female characters are for women and male characters are for men. That’s not going to stop me writing female characters, of course, because even though male protagonists can be interesting I’m more inclined to even out the imbalance a little, but it does feel like as long as women are ‘the other’, my writing will be viewed through the lens of my gender.

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7 thoughts on “On Female Protagonists

  1. An insightful and well explained look at gender roles in writing. Even though I don’t read YA, I’d say your explanations can be applied to most aspects of literature. Funnily enough, even literary fiction, where, for example, the female protagonist of Pride & Prejudice is intended for the female audience.

    At first I thought that perhaps the reason why these gender boundaries exist has to do with our different cultures. Giving it more thought though, I’d refute that myself because whether American, European, Middle Easter or any other, for some reasons teenage boys seldom care for female protagonist. But then, could that be due to age (with the heightened spurt of testosterone) that all they really want is action and sex?

    On further reflection, I do recall (and still am) curious about the female character, the female sexual development and the reasons (rationale) of the choices she makes. I have always believed that understanding the opposite sex gives better opportunity for harmony with them. So, for me, albeit being in the minority, I do enjoy a well-written female protagonist in any of the genres I like (which is rare).

    It is certainly a shame there is a short-coming in that aspect. I do write female protagonists sometimes in my short stories and work hard by trying to avoid any cliches and getting to grips with the necessary psychology needed for that character (enter: girlfriend).

    One last thought: the funny thing is that if a female character behaved more like a man, say kick-ass or rational rather than emotional, it’s possible a young male audience would read her exploits. But is that wise? A consistent misrepresentation of the gender (not all women even want to be that way), I don’t think that serves the purpose. Let’s hope more writers give us well-written female protagonists that can appeal to both sexes.

    Thanks for the great post!

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    1. I think you make some good points about how pervasive this dichotomy is, and it’s interesting to hear a masculine perspective of the importance of female characters.

      I tend to be of the opinion that gender is a fluid and largely social construct, so I have no problem with a ‘masculine’ female character; indeed, I often find that men who write women and don’t try to make them ‘feminine’ do a more accurate job of portraying them because they write them as people, not stereotypes. As you mentioned, such female characters are more likely to appeal to young men, I think, because they’re less feminine.

      That said, I don’t advocate a complete erasure of gender, because while it’s hardly absolute, there are hormonal differences that contribute to broad differences in behaviour over large populations. Thus not all men are aggressive, but they tend to be more so than women; as a result a single, non-aggressive male character is no less realistic, but an entire cast full of wholly non-aggressive men can be harder to accept and a spectrum of aggression would be more believable. The same applies for stereotypically feminine traits, like maternal behaviour or a penchant for shoes (which I’ve never understood as I wear my Doc Martens 99% of the time).

      I guess what I’m trying to get at is that I think men and women are more alike than they are different. Thus there is nothing wrong with the occasional ‘masculine’ female character, because there are women who are like that, but nor should it be the norm across an entire genre (unless, of course, you’re writing an action-adventure novel, in which case most women should have some ass-kicking abilities!).

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  2. It is of course difficult to refute your assertion here. However there are some outstanding exceptions.

    1. Xena, Warriar Princess. I believe this was quite a hit with teenage boys (and me too). Of course, it is not hard to view her through the loins of a male gender 😛

    2. Sheri S. Tepper. http://sheri-s-tepper.com/about/ Virtually all her books have female protagonists. What a shame her work is not better known. I would point out for praise the Jinian trilogy in particular. I have managed to acquire all her novels, including the ones by “B.J. Oliphant”, “A.J. Orde” and “E.E. Horlak”. And from me, that is quite a compliment (especially as I had to import some of them).

    3. Terry Pratchett. His four books for younger readers featuring Tiffany Aching focus on a great female lead character and, along with “Nation”, do not ignore romance but set it in the context of daily life with its varying demands and questions rather than being centre stage. And then of course there are the Discworld books centred on witches as well as a couple of others which have central characters who are female. Once again, it’s not all about romance.

    Still, there is a long was to go I think.

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    1. Thanks for the link to Sherri S. Tepper’s site; I hadn’t heard of her. I am relatively familiar with Terry Pratchett and have heard of Xena, though I’ve not seen much of it. Those are all good examples of the sort of fiction I’d love to see more of, though!

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