Children in Fiction, Part 3: Are Heroes and Heroines Interchangeable in Fiction?

Thus far we have discussed what a lack of children means in terms of world-building, along with fictional children and teens’ (often outrageous) adult-style behavior. Both these items were mentioned in Ms. R.J. Sheffler’s article here. Today’s subject, however, is not among the issues that writers encounter listed therein. Many writers, particularly in the Young and New Adult market, tend to make their young female leads behave like men. These female leads are as strong as or stronger than their male compatriots and/or opponents. They are never in need of rescue or real emotional support from a male character, and they are never wrong. If this type of heroine ever appears to be mistaken, it is through the subterfuge of her male enemies or “the patriarchy.” Most will rightly cite Rey, from the sequel Star Wars trilogy, as an example of this style. However, a brief scan of many modern books will demonstrate that this is a pervasive fashion statement throughout Western media. Not only is it difficult to find a novel with a male lead, it is nigh impossible to find one with a competent man or boy in the story’s driver seat. Far too many of the heroes who do make the cut are feminized protagonists who either have to take a back seat to the heroine, or to admit that she is better in combat and almost every other aspect of life than they are. Now there are occasions when this trend may be used advantageously, as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games* trilogy demonstrates. While Katniss Everdeen behaves in a more masculine manner than her love interest, Peeta Mellark, there are several logical reasons for this. Forced to assume her father’s responsibilities after he died in a mining accident, she must become her mother and sister’s sole protector. Peeta, on the other hand, has been supported and defended from every threat except his mother. He had no need to develop such skills to provide for himself and his family. While it is tempting to lump The Hunger Games in with the myriad examples of the feminization of fiction, this would be a mistake. First, Katniss does not choose this masculine-style role; it is forced upon her by circumstance. While she enjoyed hunting with her father, she did it more as a pastime, something she could do with the best man she knew. Thus she did not initially think of using that skill to her advantage after his death. Peeta’s generosity helped remind her that she possessed a talent which would be an asset in feeding and protecting her mother and younger sister. Second, while he lacks woodcraft and survival skills due to his more stable upbringing, Peeta is not utterly helpless. Aside from his ability in the wrestling ring, he can cook and handle a knife. He can also speak in such a way that others will listen and be inspired by his words. Most importantly, he is adept at reading people and socializing, both skills Katniss lacks due to her focus on keeping her family from starvation. Given the abuse he and the other male members of his family received from his mother, these talents are impressive, even though they are not as obviously helpful as Katniss’ abilities. Thus while their archetypical traits and positions are reversed, there are reasonable motives for the switch. Katniss saw her mother fall into a catatonic state and watched her sister starve, and her choices were to let that continue or fight for their survival. Peeta had to stand up to domestic abuse from his mother while helping his own family carry on. These circumstances are what give Ms. Collins’ inversion of the dystopian hero and heroine archetypes their power. While The Hunger Games trilogy is far from perfect, it is nonetheless enjoyable.
Deborah Sampson
As stated previously at Song, respect for the traditional roles of men and women in fiction does not mean this or any other author believes a woman cannot fight. There are examples throughout history of women wielding weapons as effectively as men in combat. But these women fought either at the margins, took up arms in extremis, or had a special calling on the field of combat. Japan’s onna-bugeisha were not a large corps of fighters. They were small in number, even when they were encountered en masse. Madeleine de Vercheres, Deborah Sampson, Nancy Hart, Queen Blanche of France, and Joan of Arc all fought cleverly and capably. But they were not the equal of their male compatriots physically and, more to the point, they did not try to be. This is where modern tales like the Star Wars sequel trilogy begin to break down. Rey is presented as fighting in the manner of a man, in spite of her femininity and distinct disadvantages in combat with men (e.g. lighter weight, lesser upper body strength, lesser height, lesser bone density, etc.). She is supposedly able to physically and Force-fully overpower her opponents without training and without the difficulty that she should encounter as a woman. It is a most egregious error, one that is made frequently by writers today. A woman cannot fight in the same manner as a man in close quarters; for many women, hand-to-hand combat would be the worst way to do battle. The average man’s greater height, strength, and weight will put a woman at a distinct disadvantage. With the right training and quick thinking, a woman can overcome a man in close combat. But such women are rare, and even they can be caught by surprise or be overpowered. All of these factors will have some bearing on whether or not a woman wins or loses the fight. Although I hate to harp on previously mentioned tales, the fact is that most entertainment from the Orient backs up this fact. With some exceptions, most Japanese anime portrays girls who fight like girls and women who fight like women. Though they do have heroines who fight using sheer physical strength – My Hero Academia’s* Mirko, Black Clover’s Mereleona Fuegoleon, and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood’s* Olivier Mustang – these heroines are the exceptions. Most Japanese heroines keep their distance from their male opponents in a battle. In MHA, Ochaco Uraraka receives a near-merciless beatdown in her match with Katsuki Bakugo during the Sports Festival in season two. Knowing she is not able to overcome him physically, she tries to use her environment and the debris he kicks up in their fight to her advantage. Her plan nearly works, and her determination to keep fighting until she exhausts herself leads Bakugo to defend her when his friends pick on him for “beating up on a fragile girl.” “I didn’t see anything fragile about her,” he mutters after they quiet down.

Ochaco Uraraka
Black Clover’s Noelle Silva is similarly unable to close with her male opponents in a fight. She compensates for this, however, with her raw strength in water magic. Though it takes time for her to develop proficiency with her power, when she does achieve control of it she proves herself to be a frighteningly potent combatant. Risa Hawkeye, from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, is primarily a sharpshooter. She does not engage the men she fights in hand-to-hand combat as a rule, relying instead on her skill with ranged weaponry to win the battle at a distance. No one in their right mind would consider these heroines weak, fragile, or incapable on the battlefield despite the fact that they eschew the typical modern Western trope of showing up the guys in combat. Uraraka is often creamed when she closes with a male opponent, and Noelle absolutely avoids brawling with the men she must fight. Risa’s reliance on firearms speaks for itself; if she were capable of physically dueling with a man taller and larger than herself (and she is fairly tall), she would not use a gun to fight. If Japanese writers can create compelling heroines who do battle like this, then why can’t Western authors? The answer is, unsurprisingly, that they can create heroines like this. In fact, they have. From Éowyn to Jaelithe Tregarth, from Hermione Granger to Katniss Everdeen, there are compelling heroines in this vein written by Western authors. Due to pressure from outside sources, however, many new writers shun this ancient archetype to avoid backlash from the established trend-setters in academia and the entertainment world. But even in this unfriendly climate, a writer can tell a story from an inverted position and bring it to its proper form over time. Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon* series did this quite well with Astrid, Hiccup, and their friends. Much like the other boys, Hiccup seems to be a caricature of the archetypal hero. Although physically weak, he is clever, intelligent, inventive, and curious. But in a society that prizes physical strength and prowess with arms over these and other skills, he is the butt of the village jokes. In many ways, he is the quintessential nerd; he has plenty of brains but not enough brawn to take care of himself in this type of culture. In contrast to the other female teen in the group, Astrid is physically and mentally capable. Not only is she able to overpower most of her male counterparts, she can also out-think and out-maneuver them with relative ease. All of this makes her the top of her class and the one most likely to become the next great warrior of Berk. None of her classmates can match her in combat training and, though Hiccup can compete with her intellectually, his status as the village jinx prevents them from meeting on an even playing field. After Hiccup befriends Toothless, though, their inverted archetypes begin to shift. While still frail in comparison to his compatriots, Hiccup uses his new knowledge of dragons to compensate for his corporal weaknesses, which improves his standing with the community enough that Astrid begins to resent him as a rival for her place in society. Determined not to lose her expected position in Berkian culture, she confronts him and discovers the secret to his sudden success in dragon-killing school. In a very feminine move, she goes to tell the adults what he has been doing, only to be captured and unwillingly taken on her first dragon flight. During the wild ride, all of Astrid’s previous posturing goes out the window when the dragon forcefully insists she apologize to his rider. Eventually too frantic to care about her image of invulnerability, she does apologize, clinging desperately to Hiccup as her very feminine fear overwhelms her. Toothless immediately relents and shows her the world from a completely different perspective. In the course of this brief adventure, the audience watches as she naturally becomes enthralled by the beauty of the world below and the Northern Lights above.
It is the first of many girlish reactions and actions Astrid has throughout the series. The television series Riders of Berk,* Defenders of Berk*, and especially Race to the Edge* all build on this platform, returning the reversed archetype to its original shape. As the series progresses, Astrid stops behaving like a boy in a skirt and more like a girl who enjoys combat. This slow-boiling change becomes most pronounced in Race to the Edge, where her relationship with Hiccup gains momentum, eventually reaching the point seen in How to Train Your Dragon 2*. By How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World* Astrid is almost an entirely different person. No longer is she the angry, masculinized girl seen in the first film. Although a capable warrior who can fight on an equal footing with her beau, her role in this final installment is specifically supportive of her man – a new trait her mother-in-law is only too happy to encourage. Where once she led the charge into battle, now Astrid stands behind Hiccup and backs him up when he makes decisions. At one point she throws her axe into a table to get the villagers’ attention, shouting, “Listen to him!” In earlier installments, she would simply have spoken to the crowd for him, since Hiccup did not have the nerve or the presence to make himself heard. Hiccup becomes a more masculine hero over the course of the story as well. Due to the habitual exercise he receives riding Toothless, he becomes physically stronger and better able to handle a weapon in battle. While he remains lanky throughout the story, there is no question that each new installment sees an increase in his physical strength. He also must grow as a leader and tactician, first when taking command of his fellow dragon riders in the television series, then after he becomes chief of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon 2. Where he has to run away from the dragons in the first film and has difficulty lifting most weapons, by the third and final film he is capable of dueling the main antagonist without help from either Toothless or Astrid. Though he relies on Toothless for a large portion of the series to back him up physically, as the story progresses Hiccup reaches the point where he can lead and fight on his own. Coming to this realization at the same time he accepts that dragon and human co-existence cannot be established in his lifetime, he allows Toothless and the rest of the dragons to go into hiding until such time as it is safe for them to return to the world. This return to a balanced dynamic means that Hiccup and Astrid’s children behave in more archetypal manners than their parents did. Zephyr, their daughter, is as inventive and clever as her father. While willing to stand between a threat and her younger brother, it is clear that her strengths lie in the feminine qualities of will and intelligence rather than in physical prowess. Her natural feminine suspicion also leads her to doubt her parents’ sincerity, while her inborn appreciation for beauty makes it easy to fall in love with the dragons when they make their appearance in How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming.* Her brother Nuffink, on the other hand, is more combative and apt to charge headfirst into almost anything. This is best seen by his penchant for running his head into walls, mantles, and his sister’s dragon traps. He is enthusiastic, hyperactive, and can change his mind on a dime. Action fascinates him; he always wants to be moving, to be doing something, even if it is a touch painful and seems senseless to everyone else. In many ways, he is the quintessential young boy in love with life and its seasons. Thus How to Train Your Dragon takes its viewers and future writers on a journey through a false picture of male/female behavior and relationships to a true image of what both actually are. It is hard to quibble with the domestic scenes in Homecoming, where Astrid is a happy mother and supportive wife and Hiccup is a proud, protective father. The inversion espoused by so many in academia and practiced by far too many modern writers is ably restored to its true balance in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise.
If you absolutely have to begin your story from an inverted position, future writers, then try to keep this transition to a true picture in mind. Should you be free to begin straight off with reality, as the Japanese writers are, then do not hesitate to run with it. The success of How to Train Your Dragon and other stories – new and old, Western and Eastern – demonstrate the viability of this approach. You have nothing to fear by following through on reality; in fact, the opposite is true. Abiding by these realistic principles in one’s fiction has led to the astounding success of these stories many others. Give it a try, future writers. You might just find it a worthwhile formula you can use in more than one story. And you may also discover that readers like these archetypes in their original format much more than the trend-setters today believe they do. If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Order them today! *These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. For some ideas on how to execute the above ideas, check out my stories in Cirsova’s 2019 Summer Special, Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, and Planetary Anthology: Uranus. None of these heroines fight with overwhelming physical strength. They use their natural feminine strengths and powers to get through the battle. Order these collections today to see how they do it!

5 thoughts on “Children in Fiction, Part 3: Are Heroes and Heroines Interchangeable in Fiction?

  1. While it is tempting to lump The Hunger Games in with the myriad examples of the feminization of fiction, this would be a mistake.

    I think the point isn’t really the poor writing – the writing is fairly basic but executed well – but rather that THIS IS ALL WE SEE. I look at Katniss and think “Oh look, another one. Let me guess, her love interest is passive and feminine in his role and she makes a point to rescue and protect him, specifically using combat.”

    I could figure out all of this when I heard the premise and the love triangle. It’s boring and frankly I can’t relate to it at all – I have only ever seen it in real life with extremely unpleasant women and their hen-pecked husbands.

    It isn’t badly written, but it is *boringly* written.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The other reason, I think, that people find Katniss so distasteful is that she doesn’t adhere to the Brotherhood Principle: That is, she is not paired up with an equally strong or stronger male (Peeta taking a feminine role and Gale more kind of “there” than any serious match), and she does not give up anything essential to her femininity: She is the center of a love triangle and ends the story married with a child (one, she notes, that Peeta, not her, wanted).

    You can argue that the reasons she acts this way are well-developed, but there is always going to be a subset – which you acknowledge – that will have a hard time accepting a female character in a masculine role without seeing her either balanced with a masculine presence or forgoing her femininity in some sort of significant way.

    Contrast with several other characters. John C. Weight on his blog criticized the portrayal of Morgiana from Magi, but IMO gave her short shrift.

    Morgiana is basically the equivalent of an Amazon and an extraordinarily powerful fighter, but her motivation is gratitude towards the men – specifically one man – who saved her from a life of slavery. The manga makes this even more clear when Morgiana says the only reason she doesn’t pursue a relationship with him is that she considers him too wonderful for her to be worthy of him – talk about a scene that would NEVER occur in western media.

    Olivier Armstrong is physically powerful and a military commander, but the idea of her pursuing any sort of feminine lifestyle is so ridiculous it is literally looked at as a joke. Izumi Curtis has lost the ability to bear children and her husband is powerful enough to go toe to toe with a homunculus with no alchemy. Hawkeye is devoted to Mustang, who is both her commander and far more powerful, and the relationship is clearly implied to have something of a romantic angle to it.

    Even if you pivot to western media Black Widow is literally the most straightforward and direct version of this trope I’ve ever seen – a fundamental aspect of her femininity, the ability to bear children, is stolen from her specifically so she could turn into a super-soldier-spy who can fight on equal terms with gods.

    Katniss has none of this. You can justify why and how she makes sense in-story, but it is hard to accept a female character acting in a way so fundamentally masculine without finding it distasteful or unbelievable in some way, absent the Brotherhood Principle.

    And indeed – while she is popular among some groups there are many who see her as extremely unlikable as well. And that’s no coincidence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree – Katniss is not a great character. However, if I had to pick a (Western) masculinized heroine who annoys me least (and that’s saying something), it would probably be her. She is irritating beyond belief, but compared to her competition, she is a palatable read because Ms. Collins provided logical reasons for her behavior. Should Ms. Collins have made Peeta stronger and better – absolutely! But her logic for Katniss’ behavior is sound and it is worth keeping in mind, IMO.

      (Actually, Katniss and Peeta have two children, a girl and a boy. Considering her vow at the start of the series not to have children and the reasons behind it, it makes sense that he would have to convince her to have them. Katniss wouldn’t take that step in her own, especially after losing her baby sister. She’d have too much fear of going through the same pain again.)

      That’s why I used MHA’s Mirko and Black Clover’s Mereleona as examples of physically powerful women who can match a man in combat. Mereleona doesn’t even consider her own brothers serious competition, and Mirko refuses to have any sidekicks. They each sacrifice an aspect of their femininity to fight on the level of a man, which many Japanese heroines do not. So while they have their place, I would like to see more heroines who fall in the same category as Ochaco, Noelle, Risa, and Astrid. If the logic used to create Katniss’ character can help with that, then I am all for it. Otherwise, it should follow in the same vein as Black Widow, Mereleona, Olivier, and Mirko: women cannot have it both ways when it comes to combat. It is an either/or proposition.

      Like

      • Yes, I agree – Collins is flawed but not a hack. Katniss’s actions make sense. That she had to be convinced to have children make sense.

        But there is a more fundamental level there, where we look at this character and say “I understand why she acts the way she does, but women as a sex occupying this role just clashes with what I know and understand of women.” Try as you might, it’s never REALLY convincing, and when the spirits unsex you you’re inevitably going to ce off as unpleasant.

        Whatever people claim, nobody wants to see a man beat the tar out of a woman in a fight, even in a combat scenario. It feels wrong, alien. Nobody likes it. And think back: Even with the Strong Wymyn Character type(TM), how many times do you see something like that occur? In the Daredevil series, why does Elektra – who I don’t particularly like as a character – never get torn to shreds the way Matthew repeatedly does in the series?

        It is because we all instinctively know men and women are different, whatever we claim.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s