Can’t women be bad-ass while wearing dresses? | Femininity in YA

femininity

What is femininity? Is being ‘feminine’ limited to how a girl dresses and does her hair, or does it go further than that? Does it have to do with the biological inclinations of women to be softer than their male counterparts? Does a ‘feminine’ character crave protection? Is she the damsel in distress? Or is she simply a female character who doesn’t disregard her feminine instincts for the sake of being a “strong” character. Stemming from that, can a female character not be bad-ass or strong unless she is dressed in male clothing and has typically male attributes? Is masculinity infinitely more bad-ass than femininity? And how are these themes explored in young adult literature? I have lots of thoughts, so bear with me.

We’re all aware of the character of Katniss Everdeen, because in many ways, she started this off. Katniss Everdeen – the fierce recluse, the woman who does not need protection, the woman who is not ruled by romantic notions, the woman who – instead – provides protection to those around her. Who doesn’t care about her appearances, who does everything that a male can, not restrained by her female body. And Katniss is important. Katniss was important then, and Katniss is important now. Because she showed her audience that she can be whatever she wants to be and her being a woman does not hinder her. That not all women are stereotypically timid and physically inept.

And it’s important to note that Katniss came soon after Bella Swan. A character who got a tremendous amount of hatred for being ‘weak.’ For needing the protection of her boyfriend because she is physically inept. Of course, Bella Swan had a number of weaknesses in her characterization, but her inclination to need protection was not one of them, in my opinion. Her tendencies to prefer abusive lovers over kinder ones, as well as her general lack of personality make her a disinteresting character. But her physical ineptness was not the problem.

But there are not many Bella Swans anymore. There are plenty of Katnisses. And while there is nothing wrong with a female character who does everything a man can, I find it incredible that many authors have started to dismiss the many differences that do exist between men and women. It has come to a point where a female character, who craves protection, who likes romance, who cares about her appearance is immediately dismissed as ‘weak,’ or a character who ‘takes back feminism a few years.’

In a literary world full of Katnisses and Tris Priors, there is now no more room for well-developed Bella Swans. And that is disturbing.

Now, to turn this discussion into something more concrete, I’m going to talk about one of my favorite series: the Winner’s trilogy by Marie Rutkoski. If you haven’t already witnessed the controversy surrounding the series recently, I’m your girl.

The Winner’s trilogy revolves around a daughter of a general named Kestrel Trajan who refuses to join the military, even though she is expected to. Not because she’s rebellious, no. But because she genuinely thinks she wouldn’t be of any use in the military. But Kestrel is useful in many other ways; she’s wickedly intelligent. She is smart. She is cunning. Her strategies and her politics are above and beyond those of even her father. She can mind game anyone to death.

She sounds awesome, right? She is. And she happens to wear beautiful gowns, and she has her hair up in elaborate hairstyles. She cannot fight physically. She is unable to do so, but she will outsmart her opponents while wearing a couture dress. And that is something you don’t often see in young adult literature.

Now, these are the covers on the shelves at the moment:

Not only are these covers magnificent and breathtakingly stunning, they are also accurate. You know what you’re getting into. They reflect Kestrel’s personality and appearance accurately. And so, of course, the covers got redesigned:

Let’s face it: these are ugly. They are clear rip-offs of the Throne of Glass series, but less pretty. The first cover is basically Crown of Midnight with a different color, and the second cover is basically the Assassin’s Blade. And it’s also true that now my beautiful hardbacks won’t match when the third one comes out. But that is not what makes me as angry as I am.

When you look at these covers, you expect this series to be about a girl who’s a fighter. Who can kick your ass in a duel because she’s sly, she’s lithe and, most glaringly obvious, she dresses in male clothing. I described Kestrel Trajan above; do these covers, in any way, depict her character? You be the judge.

So why, you may ask, did Fierce Reads decide to make the change? Well, according to a tweet that has since been deleted, and I quote:

“The red dress is not happening, we wanted Kestrel to look as bad*** as she is so we thought a redesign was in order!”

Excuse me? So you’re saying a woman cannot be bad-ass unless she’s wearing masculine clothing and carrying swords? A woman cannot be bad-ass if she wears a dress and looks feminine? That is horse shit. And it’s detrimental and it’s problematic.

And think about it: the publishers’ job is to sell books. They want their books to do the best they possibly can, and it’s worth noting that they genuinely believe their books will do better if these are the covers being projected. That may be true, because this is what the masses want now. They want their women to not be feminine. They probably looked at the old covers and thought, “Oh, another Bella Swan.”

Female characters can be strong even if they lack typically masculine qualities. Female characters who dress up and look nice and proper can be strong characters. Female characters who use their brains instead of their muscle to take down their enemies are strong characters. It’s honestly time that people stop stripping female characters of their femininity because they are not bad-ass otherwise. That is false.

In the end, I would like to pose a question: do you think it’s problematic that Fierce Reads redesigned the covers in order to make their heroine look more bad-ass? Do you think female characters can be strong and cunning without being stripped of their femininity? Do you think such characters are important, or do you think the Katniss trope is what the world needs more of? I would love to hear what your thoughts are, so leave a comment down below.

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Comments

  1. Interesting post. I don’t like the redesigned covers based on what you told me about the character. If the character doesn’t fight, if she dresses in girly clothes, then she should be portrayed in girly clothes. If I pick up that cover of her ‘looking badass’ only to discover that she never actually fights or dresses that way at all in the book… I’m going to be irritated as hell, because that’s false representation.

    However, I don’t think the Katniss trope is a bad thing. I don’t necessarily think its 100 percent good, mind you, but I’d rather see a thousand Kats than a thousand Bellas. So… But I think we do need to find a middle ground.

    • Oh, I agree. I don’t think the Katniss trope is a bad thing at all. And Bella is certainly not a great female role model. I think Kestrel is a far better role model than Bella, or even Celaena Sardothien is better than Bella. And there’s no problem if one trope exists more than the other. I do, however, think that this thing where the Katniss trope is given superiority over feminine female characters is problematic.
      You’re right. Middle ground is very much necessary!

  2. Yes! I completely agree with you! I mean look at Tessa and even Jessamine to some extent from The Infernal Devices. They’re from victorian times and so girls were obligated to wear dresses and act very feminine but that does not make them weak characters at all. 🙂

  3. I couldn’t agree more with this post.

    Women can still be feminine and badass. I don’t see how embracing ones femininity means they’re not as badass. I mean if you look at Sansa in Game of Thrones; the reason she survives everything she’s put through is because she uses her role as a lady as a shield.

    When it comes to the cover change I was annoyed. I haven’t read the series yet but the first thing I was drawn to was the covers and when I found out that Kestrel is a character that uses her wits to maneuver her way around the world I was thrilled. These new covers definitely do not represent that.
    Thank heavens that the UK covers will stay the same.

    At the end of the day your physical capability is not the only way to measure strength.

    • Ah, Sansa’s a brilliant example. I wish I had thought of her when I was constructing this post. She’s physically weak, but she’s arguably one of the most emotionally strong characters I’ve read. I don’t think anybody can deny her strength after all she’s been through. I can’t tell you how much I disliked the people who said, “oh, Sansa should die, she only cares about dresses.” Like no. Please. Excuse you. -.-
      You should definitely give the series a go. It’s very well-done, and I would love to hear your thoughts if you get around to it!

      • I plan on binge reading the series as soon as The Winner’s Kiss is released. I feel like I’m going to need to stock up on the comfort food and tissues when I get round to reading them haha.

  4. YES THANK YOU. I completely agree. I wish there was more femininity in ya, at the very least for the sake of diversity. Female Characters in ya books are all staring to be the same, I love Kestrel because she’s different, and she’s intelligent and clever, plus she’s feminine. She’s strong, and she’s not a fighter. In fact, maybe that’s what makes her even more strong. Strength without the physicality

    • “For the sake of diversity.” YES, SO MUCH YES TO THAT. I’ve never thought of it that way, but now that you mention it, I see how important it is for there to be representation of all kinds of women in literature. You’re also spot on about the “strength without the physicality” part of it. I’ve come to hate how “strong” usually goes hand-in-hand with “violent.” 🙁
      Thanks for reading!

  5. I agree with you! I’m so mad they redesigned the covers. The originals were GORGEOUS. I didn’t make the connection that they look like Throne of Glass covers but you’re so right. I honestly would never pick up The Winner’s Kiss if it looked like that I saw it on the shelves. It’s just not appealing to me. And it does give a false impression of Kestrel and that’s very disappointing. I absolutely hate that my covers won’t match now, too. An author I follow on twitter made a good point about cover changes. The hardcovers should match and if a redesign is in order, just do it for the paperbacks. People who buy YA hardcover books are hardcore about their books matching.

    • I’m pretty mad about my covers not matching either. I spent a lot of money on those hardbacks because I liked the story AND the cover was stunning. *cries*
      Oh, well. I’ll still buy the book thought, because I think Rutkoski is one of the most talented writers in the young adult genre, and her work deserves to be supported, regardless of her publishers’ lack of judgement. x

  6. I agree with all the things. It’s false advertising to try and make it look like Kestrel is an action-oriented character! I love these stories and the unique qualities that the female protagonist had…I find it so disappointing that the publishing company chose not to stand behind that character and work to promote a political feminine heroine :/ I just think it was really disrespectful to Rutkoski’s work.

    • I absolutely agree that it’s false advertising. They’re going to piss off a lot of readers who pick the book up based on the cover and find that the heroine can’t fight worth a darn, haha.
      Yes, you’re right about it being disrespectful to Rutkoski’s work. She deliberately constructed the character in the way that she did, and to showcase her character in a way that isn’t true for the sake of bad-assery just says to Rutkoski that, “oh, your character isn’t really as bad-ass as you seem to think.” Disgraceful!

  7. I was thinking the same thing when I saw these new covers for The Winner’s Trilogy. It was such an unnecessary move. -.- I also don’t have anything against any common heroine tropes, whether they be Kestrel or Bella or Katniss, but what I want to see is growth in the character as she goes along with life.

    • Yes! I think all tropes are important, some maybe more than others depending on where we stand in society at the moment. I think all types of women should be represented in literature and appreciated (whether the character is well-constructed or not is a separate story), if only for the sake of diversity! I wish feminine characters weren’t shunned and called ‘weak’ just because they don’t wear pants and swing katanas. xD

  8. Great post! Lots of food for thought. Personally I don’t see why they needed to change the covers, the first set are beautiful and, as you’ve pointed out, fit her character so well. I agree that the new covers look like A Throne of Glass rip off and it wouldn’t make me buy it. I would think ‘oh look it’s a Throne of Glass wannabe’.

    Looking at the trend of female protagonists in YA literature at the moment it is a little worrying that feminine girls aren’t being portrayed – not to say that having masculine female protagonists is a bad thing it’s not, they show girls that they can do anything. However I would be nice to see more authors playing around with strong, feminine female characters.

    • As angry as I am at the publishers and their supposed reasoning behind the cover-change, I do understand. Publishers want to sell books, and they probably genuinely thought that their previous covers won’t sell as well. And it goes beyond the publishers’ mind-set; it comes back to the audience and the masses, because most people genuinely don’t want to see dainty heroines anymore. 🙁 It’s so disheartening!

      I worry about the state of literature today when “strong” is equivalent to “not feminine.” And of course, having non-feminine female characters is just as important, if not MORE because of the current state of our society, but I wish feminine characters aren’t shut out.

      Thank you so much for reading! It means a LOT. 🙂 x

  9. Also I think with the new covers, yes maybe more people will read the series but could end up disappointed because the female lead isn’t what they expected her to be.

  10. This thing was amazing. You make an excellent point. I support feminism, I believe woman are wonderful in their own unique way and they do not necessarily need a masculine aspect in their lives to qualify as powerful, strong and all of those words. If anything, it showcases one sick mentality, you need to look like the superior to be one. These labels are absurd and it is disheartening when publishers try too hard to get one message across, which in my opinion is one stale trope. Those cover changes are sad. I am grateful to you for writing such a beautiful post. Keep these coming in, you do them great justice.

    • You’re so, so, so lovely Warisha! Thanks for your kind words; it means a lot!
      I absolutely agree. I think, for the sake of feminism, people have started to say that women and men are absolutely equal in all ways. And I’m all for social and economic equality, but I do also hold the belief that there are two genders, and both genders have been biologically and psychologically proven to have engrained differences. I wish we would embrace these differences and make them each gender’s strength instead of eradicating them altogether. It’s unrealistic!
      Thanks again. Means a lot that you took the time to read my ramble and commented. x

  11. This is a GREAT post! I love that you are putting emphasis on this conversation. There is a lot of confusion out there about what a strong heroine looks like. Katniss, Hermione Granger, Éowyn, and even Nancy Drew all use their brains and physical prowess in different ways – and that’s okay! Viridiana Sovari from the Night Angel series is extremely powerful, both magically and physically. She can spar with the best, but she doesn’t dress like a guy. Even when she comes fully into her own power, she fights the pinnacle battle of the whole series IN A DRESS. (If you read the book you know why the dress was the best choice, she didn’t just wear a dress because she was a girl. She had her reasons)

    My answer is starting to ramble. I’m basically trying to say that a woman doesn’t have to be physically strong to BE strong. There is mental strength and emotional strength and strength of character and none of those things have anything to do with what you look like and what you are wearing.

    • Thank you so much!
      I absolutely agree. And I think the reason that this topic doesn’t have enough conversation surrounding it is because often, people who say we need heroines that are feminine are put down for being ‘anti-feminism.’ I think it’s furthering feminism itself if you want all kinds of women represented in literature! I was outraged and disgusted that the publisher felt they needed to change the cover because otherwise, the heroine isn’t “badass” enough.
      I have to add the Night Angel series to my TBR now. You’ve got me intrigued, so thank you. 😀

  12. My hope is that with enough resentment to the cover change in Winner’s Kiss, they revert back to their original designs. I’ve seen books that change their covers starting book 2 but received a lot of negative feedback that they went back to the original concept in book 1. I think one example was Mark Lawrence’s Red Queen’s War (but I could be wrong).

    Though I haven’t started the trilogy (I do own it), Kestrel looks like a pirate in the the re-done Crime cover LOL.

  13. To be honest, I think badass, in both actions and appearances, is something that is purely objective. What one person finds badass will surely not be the same as what another person finds badass and it’s a shame that we have come to find only one thing, one image to be truly ‘badass’. It’s the same problem we run into nowadays with ‘strong female heroines’. There’s a box. They must fit in this box because someone made the box and heaven forbid they don’t fit in the box, they’re not a strong character, not a true character, not badass.

    These defining qualities that someone conjures out of thin air are a joke. It’s as if we’ve done a 180 from the renaissance at which time women were required to wear dresses and appear feminine. Now we require they be masculine and not wear dresses… Ugh. Society needs to find a middle ground and fast before we confuse the minds of young girls everywhere.

  14. I made a post about the cover changes as well, but I really like your thoughtful post and the questions that you posed. I think we definitely are always seeking new and different but realistic at the same time. I think women do not have to wear dresses to be feminine but I also don’t think they should be stripped of their dresses to be seen as bad A$% as Fierce reads put it.

  15. This was a great post and I totally agree with you! I do feel like there needs to be me girly YA characters, who are still strong and intelligent. Then again, I do feel like they can’t be too weak because that might loose the reader’s interest. One series that I thought did a good job at finding the right balance was the Tiger Saga by Colleen Houck. She made Kelsey a good mix where she still cared about girly things, but she wasn’t scarred to go hiking through the forest or go explore. I have been meaning to write a post about this, but I also feel like periods should also be mentioned in YA books more. It is a natural part of the female body, and I feel like it doesn’t get acknowledged enough. There are some scenes in books where I can’t help but think, “Did her period just disappear?” I have no idea how some YA characters survive what they do, without mentioning cramps, and tampons, and mood swings. Anyway, I’m rambling. Great post! I really enjoyed reading it!

    • Yay, thank you very much! I’ve heard some good things about the Tiger Saga, but I’m a little apprehensive about reading it because I heard it’s a little culturally insensitive to India? Since I’m South Asian, I don’t know if I’d be down with it. xD But I might check it out if the main character is femininely bad-ass.

      You’re absolutely right. The only YA fantasy that mentions periods as a natural part of a woman’s body is the Throne of Glass series. Which is so silly because every girl goes through them, and it’s not really a secret, so why aren’t we talking about it in series? Ugh!

      Again, thanks so much! x

  16. First, NO the world does not need another Katniss. The one we have is already enough. We get it! An author wrote a great series. Get over it and move on! there are much better books than the Hunger Games to read.
    Second, I totally agree with you that badass girls should be able to retain their femininity and publishers should promote this concept. Young people should be allowed to see that you can be both a badass and vulnerable at the same time. In fact, this would help teenagers deal with a great many things, such as bullying. It would teach them that you can be ‘cool’/badass/whatever and be yourself at the same time. No, it would teach them that you are more ‘cool’/badass/whatever WHEN you are yourself. We live in world that has been taken over by pants, but what about the people who prefer to go about their everyday lives wearing skirts and beautiful dresses? Are they weak or is it just easier to forget about them?
    Great post!

  17. I haven’t read this series, but you’ve made a solid point, and it’s absolutely piqued my interest. I need to scope out my library now…
    I love a fierce female protagonist who is more “tom boyish” than feminine, but…I also love the fierce female protagonist who wears pretty dresses. The first one that came to my mind was Lilac LaRoux from These Broken Stars. I don’t care what other people think; she is awesome. Common’! She adores beautiful dresses, while practically being a master at electrical engineer!!!

  18. Reblogged this on Under The Midnight Sky and commented:
    This is an issue that has been eating on me. This topic needs to be discussed more intensely. Celaena in Throne of Glass is also one of those female characters that I find problematic based mainly on her relationships with abusive men. (Arobyn, Rowan and even Chaol to a certain extent)

  19. I loved this post! I feel like I’ve been waiting for it, haha. I completely agree with everything said. Sometimes I questions whether a female character who goes running into danger and launching daggers and swords all over the place just for the sake of it is any more developed than an apparently ‘weak’ female character who can’t fight at all. Don’t get me wrong, I want to see strong female characters, but I want to see strong female characters I can relate to, woman and girls in books reflective of the woman and girls in my life. I want intelligent, scared but brave, hopeless in love, feminine and boyish females in novels I read. I’m a little tired of the ever brave, I’m ‘plain’ but don’t care types. Lets have a little realism, shall we? Thank you for this post. It left plenty of food for thought.

    • Thank you so much! I totally agree. If we need different types of bad-assery for any reason, we need it for diversity. Because right now, I find myself connecting and relating less and less with the female characters I encounter in YA. Like… I can barely walk without falling over my own feet, and you want me to relate to an assassin? How? XD

  20. Okay! I’ve thought about this a bit since reading it a few days ago, and here are my thoughts: I completely agree with everything you say about femininity/dresses not being a sign of weakness, and that a girl can be bad-ass in a gown. But I disagree about the cover change being an issue (even if that tweet is problematic in itself). Taking from one of Scott Westerfeld’s blog posts, which he wrote after they changed the Uglies trilogy covers and everyone complained:

    “[New covers] create dissent and controversy. Fans mostly don’t like new looks for books, because the old covers are the ones they’re used to. If you’re a fan, after all, that old look was probably the reason you picked up the books in the first place!

    So really, the new covers aren’t for fans at all. You guys already HAVE my books, after all. These are for all the people who’ve never picked up Uglies because the old covers looked boring or stupid to them. Maybe they never even noticed the series on the shelves. It’s for non-fans that this new look exists.”

    I think the cover change was just for marketing purposes. The books are clearly meant to echo Throne of Glass, because they want readers of those books to pick up these ones. I don’t think they’re making any political statement; they just want the books to appeal to readers who like (skinny white girls in) dresses and readers who don’t. I hope this wasn’t too much of a ramble!

    • I get what you mean. Cover changes are first and foremost about marketing- after all, publishers want to sell books, and they’ll do whatever they can to ensure that the books they put out get enough sales. Which, in its own way, is reflective of the phenomenon I discussed in my post. It’s a sad state of affairs that the publishers felt they had to change the covers into something that didn’t even reflect the content of the books just so they can draw readers in. This isn’t particularly the publisher’s fault, but a subtle commentary on what readers are reading.

      The fact that a book with really good reviews wasn’t being bought because it had a girl in a dress on the cover was what prompted me to write the post! Publishers thought that they just needed to put the girl in traditionally male clothing and make it a rip-off of a previous series’ covers for it to even get the attention it deserved- it’s just tragic, ha. I agree; I very much doubt that the publishers were making a political statement (though the tweet was misguided!)

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