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.