“I hang out with guys because girls are such drama.”
“She shouldn’t dress like that.”
“I’m not that good at it.”
“That’s not how girls should act.”
I’ve heard these things. I’ve said these things. I’ve written these things. It has to stop.
I’ve been devouring the Handbook for Mortals and 50 Shades of Gray take-downs by the hilarious and brutal Jenny Trout, which you can read here. If you don’t know anything about Handbook for Mortals, I’ll be brief: the author of this novel was accused of buying thousands of copies of her book, which suspiciously shot it to the New York Times bestseller list for young adult. YA Twitter, which does not mess around, caught wind of this farce, exposed it, and it was removed from the list.
The thing 50 Shades and Handbook have in common is a lead character who is NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLSTM. The men want her, but she can’t understand why, because she’s just so plain. The women want to be her, and they are, like, so jealous. She isn’t likable, has no agency, and has a character arc so weak it’s practically a straight line. She exists as the center of a universe where everyone pays attention to her, cares who she is and what she has to say, and salivates over her boyfriend, but OMG YOU GUYS SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND WHY EVERYONE THINKS SHE’S SO PRETTY. At which point she’ll spend at least four to five paragraphs describing her reflection in the mirror.
As these leading women move through plots as thin as tissue paper, one thing is very clear: all the other women around them live in two specific categories. A. horrible bitches, or B. mousy nobodies. If they’re not gushing over the main character, or sabotaging her relationship, they cannot be in her orbit. She only has friends who further her unearned profession (um, how did you earn a spot in a magic show in Vegas with that bogus act?), and gather around to swoon over her questionable relationship with an abusive billionaire (who never works, like ever). She doesn’t care about what matters to her friends, and mostly, she hates them.
Why is this a thing? Why can’t female protagonists have normal friendships, or support other women? I have a great group of college friends who I love and admire and want to succeed. When I’m standing in line at the grocery store, and the cashier smiles at my husband, I’m never jumping in and screaming “Hey, don’t look at my man, you sneaky trollop!” Because she doesn’t care about me. Or my husband. She’s getting paid to be nice to us.
Throughout childhood, girls are often pitted against each other as competition. We’re told we’re too emotional, too bossy. We’re catty. We’re weak. There is nothing more restrictive than being a teenage girl. Anything you like with any kind of passion is ridiculed. Pop music? Ugh, such horrible taste in music. Video games? Ugh, like you even know how to play. Dressing up? Ugh, only shallow girls obsess about fashion. Don’t care about fashion? Ugh, wear a dress once in a while and be more feminine.
It doesn’t stop in childhood. You want children? But your career! Don’t want children? You will someday, silly woman. Daycare? You should stay home. Stay home? That’s not a job.
So why should we tolerate novels featuring a character that is not only horrible to herself, but to all the females around her? Writers, we must do better. We have to. Books like these are the equivalent of bro comedies, where the cast is full of well-developed male characters and one arbitrary woman, who is, like, so chill, you guys.
Femininity is something to be appreciated, no matter where you fall on the spectrum. It’s okay to be girly and squeal over cute pictures of dogs and also maybe your third favorite word is ‘fuck.’ And it’s okay not to like any of those things. The sooner we accept ourselves as we are, with all our strengths and our flaws, the sooner we can find the good in each other.
But we don’t have to tolerate these characters and stories that further stereotypes. We don’t have to believe that a man who is cold and emotionally distant and also wants to punish women who look like his mom is super great boyfriend material. (Side note: WHAT?) And we don’t have to tolerate “she’s a vindictive, envious vixen who must learn her place, so let’s all hate her.” Let’s celebrate characters who make choices, and mistakes, and have agency, and take chances, and express emotions, and enjoy the company of other females. Let’s promote books with females who lift up other females, who go for what they want. And a personal beef of mine: there are millions of jobs in this world, can we please give a female character a job other than editor or art gallery director? Please. I’m begging you.
I have been working on a second draft of my novel Call When You Land, in which I’ve focused more on my female supporting character and fleshed out her story so she can shine. I realized she was disappearing into the shadow of the male protagonist, and I knew I had to do better. If you have written a book, or have read a book that has an awesome female protagonist, I want to read it. If you like young adult books, I highly recommend The Waterfire Saga by Jennifer Donnelly. It’s got mermaids, female friendships, and general badassery. What else could you want?
Also, special thanks to Martina McBride for the blog title. I’ll now be singing this song all day.