"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. 




Comments

  1. Is it an American term? I don't use the um, latter word in conversation, and I pretty much only see the term in relation to this subject.

    I don't consider or call myself feminist for a huge variety of reasons, one of which IS NOT that I consider myself inferior (and one of which IS that I feel I have to make that qualifier).

    For the first level, I prefer my characters to be well written, period. Not written "at" somebody, some thought process etc. Which is what I think "kick-ass" characters are, merely, pot-shots.

    Then the next level is just, I guess, my personality. A character can be well-written and annoy the heck out of me still. I do not have meek and mild personality, I'm not a fan of these personalities, I'm not surrounded by these personalities often, and I think this personality is extremely hard to portray well (in a woman) without making them to be weak. For example, I really have trouble respecting Anne in Persuasion, but I do respect Fanny and both are what I would consider, the quiet personality types.

    I've thought about this subject a lot because (I wanted to write a post on this, but I think I need more notes, thoughts) like I said, I'm rather a alpha/dominating type of personality. Personality-wise, I often relate to the personality of the typical tom-boy portrayal. But I'm not at all a tomboy. I relate to Jo in terms of temperament, but my goals/desires are domestic, like Megs, my tastes/aesthetic goals are like Amy. I'm least like Beth. I typically don't read to many lazy kick-ass characters, usually that's not the only example of bad writing, or at least I can easily eliminate it, but sometimes it feels harder to find characters who are both feminine and dominant it fictional portrayals. I actually feel that Ginny meets this requirement. Luna is a more middling personality, not dominant not weak. Hermione irritates me . . . I think Rowling kind of pushed her a bit into the "kick-ass" role. I don't feel that Cho really had much of a character in the books. What little character development I saw, I didn't like.

    I think I'm looking for what I call, people with a spine, male and female. Characters that know their own mind and worth, have their own interests. Neither whiny nor boastful, both of which indicate weakness and insecurity. I know this is absolutely goofy, but since I've been on such a Georgette Heyer kick, I've noticed some of this in her works, the extremely fluffy silly girls, then the more sensible ones (those are actually the ones with more character development). I could go on, on so many different tangents, but I've already written a tome.

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  2. Haha i love a big comment. I agree it's difficult to write less domineering personalities that don't come across as pushovers - i think Jane Eyre is one, melly is another. But I don't enjoy characters who never fail or are too unbending - i just can't relate to that. Judgemental-ness is something that bothers me which is why i struggle with Fanny Price a bit, but I respect the way she stands up for herself! I think with Cho Chang, i feel she gets a raw deal. I like that she stands up for her friend, And how she likes Harry when he's at his least popular. We see her through Harry's eyes, so the reader tends to react to her as he does, but when you look past that i think there's a lot to like there. I love Hermione but I sort of see what you mean with the kick ass thing, she's so on it all the time it's almost superhuman. Reading this back i've associated fierceness with tom-boy ness, which you're right, doesn't always follow. The 'fluffy, silly girls' do get less character development often, but i guess that's what i'm (inexpertly)driving at - they get passed off as unimportant rather than being seen as valid characters who need to be developed. And it can be done - look at Cher in clueless, or Sansa in Game of Thrones, if you're ever watched it. And I need to read more Georgette Heyer! (Guess a long comment needed a long reply aha)

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  3. I am American, and "kick-ass" is a widely used descriptor. It can mean fierce or just plain old good, but I never associate it with feminism. I think people have lost sight of what feminism actually is, and it's the distorted vision of it that seems the most popular.

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    1. It's used here a lot in articles and stuff but I just think it always sounds weird because of the accent... I suppose what I'm actually talking about is how there's a push for female protagonists always to be "strong women" which I don't need all the time. I need well-rounded, realistic women but not necessarily physically/mentally strong or fierce? Same with male characters, I don't want them all to be heroes. I like all my characters with plenty of flaws! But that could just be personal preference.

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  4. I agree that, in an effort to empower girls, we've pushed this opposite stereotype: that there's only one way to be strong, and it involves physical prowess. And I hate when a girl is shown to be "not like other girls" and despises dressing up or wearing makeup or doing anything else that might be seen as too feminine. It's a backlash, but it's not a healthy one.

    I actually think your example of Harry Potter is a way that we can do things right though--the fact that there's a wide variety of girl characters who show femininity in different ways is a good thing. So I don't mind a Ginny Weasley who's balanced with a Hermione and a Cho--this can be a great way to show that all girls have value, no matter what their personality. (Might have been even better if Cho had a larger role in the series overall, though.)

    Thanks for getting us thinking on this topic!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. No you're right about Harry Potter, I think it does do it right and I like Ginny very much, although I do think in the later books her character verges on being pushed to be the perfect girl for Harry so loses a bit of nuance, if that makes sense? I like her best in the fifth book I think which is sort of when Harry starts to notice her more but isn't interested in her romantically yet. I agree a variety is definitely what we need!

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  5. Love this post, Catherine! My big turn-offs are the moment I see the line "strong female character" or, the one I hate most, when I see a heroine described as "feisty", because they're both just different ways of saying "kick-ass" and what those words actually mean when they're used in this context is "not like other girls" and I hate it.

    I love Brienne, and I totally agree that characters should be flawed because that's what makes them human and interesting, but I agree it did break my heart a little whenever she used 'woman' as an insult. Jo March is a really good example, too - it always bothered me that she didn't open her school for boys AND girls!

    Thankfully we're starting to see more diverse and complex women in fiction, but there are still writers out there who, like you say, give a girl a sword over a personality. That's not to say we shouldn't have "kick-ass" heroines either, but I want to see them address the sexism that's perpetuated when men refer to them as the exception to the rule. Isabella does this beautifully in the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, when she explains to her brother that when she does something amazing she's "not like other girls" but as soon as she makes a mistake she's a "silly woman". I love seeing women defend other women in fiction (and in life) and it's something we're starting to see a lot more of.

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  6. Thank you!! I'd love to see more of women defending other women too - in fiction and in life! Urgh "feisty" is the worst. I totally agree, its the implication that a "kick ass" girl is the exception not the rule that irritates me too. Oh, and I think it took the jeopardy of this season to makes me realise I actually love Brienne - that scene where she got knighted!!! And Sansa taking her at word and standing for Jaime! Loved it 😊

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