"Kick Ass" girl characters are NOT necessarily feminist and they do my head in: A discussion/rant
(Disclaimer: First of all, English people using the word "kick ass" is cringe-y and disturbing. So I apologise. There's an r in it. Even if I really ramped up the Scouse in my accent it would sound wrong. And the proper English pronunciation is even worse and is not to be attempted. But pronunciation issues aside.)
The "Kick-ass girl" is a trope I really take issue with. Why? You ask. The world has had enough of damsels in distress, we want girls who fight their own battles, who can beat the boys at anything and don't need to wear pretty dresses and smile. And I agree. But the "Kick-ass girl" for me has a few big issues.
1) She's an excuse for lazy writing. ("Look, she can do two types of Kung-Fu and has super skills with a bow and arrow. Why does she need a personality too? No-one can say I'm not a feminist.")
2) She becomes an under-handed way to put down other girls. ("She play-fought with the boys because the insipid games of the other girls bored her, she wasn't like them, just waiting for a man to carry her away on his white horse.")
3) Glorifying traditionally male pursuits and past-times undermines centuries worth of women and the things they've cared about. ("Sewing, gossiping with the girls and playing with dolls were an agony to her, when she could have been spending her time doing something productive. Because there's nothing at all productive about being creative, creating meaningful female friendships or imaginative play. If you're not punching someone or throwing yourself around a muddy field you might as well be dead.")
4) Ignoring historical context. You can't set a story in the past, or in a fantasy world based on the past and blame your female characters for existing and behaving in a way in which their society had conditioned them to behave, while your "kick-ass" girl gets plaudits for breaking rules that for most women would have resulted in serious consequences.
I don't mean to slam "tom-boys" here (another expression that should probably be retired) or deny the fact that female characters are more interesting and inspirational when they have more agency, make their own decisions, etc. etc. But you can have agency without being "kick ass" and people who decry "girly girls" shy girls or gentle girls (think Jane Eyre, Susan from Narnia or Melanie from Gone with the Wind) as inferior to the other sort, are missing the point of feminism. We shouldn't be teaching girls that acting more like society's idea of a boy makes you a better girl. We should be teaching them to be true to themselves, whatever that means.
When I say "kick-ass" I don't necessarily mean physical fighters either. I better give you some examples. How about Jo March from Little Women. If you ask me, she's not really a feminist, although Little Women probably was feminist for it's time. Is she a strong woman and an interesting character? Yes. I like that she pursues her writing and she has the strength to turn down Laurie's proposal because she doesn't love him 'like that'. I like that she knows girls are just as clever as boys and should have the same opportunities. But then WHY does she always infer that boy are much more interesting, and WHY when she gets the opportunity to open a school, does she open a school for boys only, not girls? And yes they did educate girls back then, because Amy goes to school, doesn't she? I mean fair play to her, she can do what she wants, but don't try and tell me she's a feminist icon.
"It's bad enough to be a girl anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman.”
- Jo, Little Women
Brienne of Tarth, there's another one. I'm fond of the her, but she's all brawn and no brains that one, lets be honest. She's also an example of how being a tough, sword-fighting type doesn't make you a good feminist. Always coming out with little nuggets like "you whine and cry, like a bloody woman" and spending a lot of her time pining after a man. I'm not judging her, I like my characters to be real and flawed, and we're all bad feminists sometimes. But someone like Sansa, to me, is much more admirable, with her "woman's courage" and her diplomacy.
I'm also fond of Ginny Weasley. I like her spirit and I think she's good for Harry. But Hermione, Luna - and even, to an extent, Cho Chang - are more what I look for in my heroines. Strong in different ways, feminine in their own ways, and less obviously what a man might view as a strong woman. Hermione and Cho both cry a lot for example, Hermione nags, and Cho is always surrounded by a 'group of giggling girlfriends', whereas Ginny is beautiful and athletic and competent, has great banter and is almost never weepy (which is one of the things Harry cites more than once, as something he likes about her.) I almost want to hate her (that's the bad feminist in me) but then I remember that she's kind and she likes cats and she writes Harry that embarrassing singing valentine....
Basically I think it's important to celebrate different kinds of women, girls with strengths in different areas. And I also think it's important that they have some vulnerabilities. I expect that from my male characters (no-one likes a Mr. Perfect) so in the interests of equality the girl should have flaws too. It makes them more relate-able, and it makes them more interesting. What sort of journey is a character going to have if they don't fail sometimes?
I don't mind it when my girls are good fighters, and strong women. I like it. But there are ways of creating characters who are tough, without making them too insufferable. Katniss Everdeen, for example, seems like the embodiment of the "kick-ass" girl trope. But I love her because of her love for Prim, her affection and admiration for the gentle Peeta and rebellious Gale. And also for her social awkwardness and lack of charm. She doesn't need to be charming, because she's such a good fighter, but I like that her lack of charm is presented as a weakness that she has to fight against, not a strength - because in The Games and in real life, charm is an important weapon to have in your arsenal. I like that's she's kind of a twist on the underdog heroine.
Alanna of Trebond is another one, who I discovered when I was maybe eleven years old. I've not re-read the Song of the Lioness books, but I remember that what impressed me about Alanna wasn't her fighting skills, but rather her determination and self-belief and how she handled herself in situations where she had to think fast or make difficult decisions. Like when she got her first period while disguised a squire and had no idea what was happening to her. Or when her sort of boyfriend turned kind of controlling later on and she got herself out of there because she knew it wasn't right.
Anyway, this probably makes no sense but I was feeling like a rant. (Mostly because I just read an article in Empire where they were trying to say how the original Princess Jasmine just waited around for a man. I'm sorry. Someone needs to go back and watch the film. She's not just some prize to be won, were they listening?)
So what do you think? Do you like your girls to be "kick -ass"? Or like me, have you felt vaguely aggressive about the whole thing, ever since Pink implied that playing with Dolls=bad, playing football=good (in the Stupid Girls video, back in the day.)
And now I'm going to stop using that terrible expression before I make myself sick.