The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Why I Love Kick-Ass Heroines

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I love kick-ass heroines in books, the kind of women who are strong and independent and don’t take crap from anyone.  The kinds of characters who are just as well-developed as their male counterparts.  This is something I seek in fiction, and I’ll often put a book down if it doesn’t have it.

I have always sought books with characters I could identify with.  And as a female whose defining traits include “extreme stubbornness” and “tendency to inadvertently take over any situation I’m in,” the shy, retiring heroines just don’t work for me.

But for a long time, I had trouble finding these kinds of heroines.  They were easy to find in children’s/young adult literature (e.g. Anne Shirley, Meg Murray), but much more difficult to find in the books I started to read as an adult.  It seems like the women seemed more concerned with finding men than being themselves, and get overwhelmed by the male characters with bigger, stronger personalities.  It got to the point for awhile where I didn’t read books as often, because it seemed like every book I read featured heroines whose lives were defined by the men they were with, or by their quest for men.  And it’s not that I mind romance; what bothers me is that literature feature so many females whose lives seem to start, and end, with that romance.

I think maybe that’s one of the reasons I gravitate toward science fiction and fantasy so much.  Maybe it’s more difficult to spend your life obsessing over the right man when you’re in a world filled with aliens and zombies and werewolves and various other supernatural creatures, battling for the existence of the human race.

I think it bothers me because, in the real world, I’ve seen so many women fall into that trap, women who allow men to take over their lives, women who allow their personalities to be subverted by others, women who believe they should be “seen and not heard.”  Nearly 50 years after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, there’s still a deep-rooted cultural expectation that women should be more submissive, less assertive, less successful, than their male counterparts.  And women, in many cases, buy into it, still perpetuate the idea to their daughters and granddaughters that they need to be married with children before they’re 30; that they should act less intelligent, less competent than they really are so they don’t scare off men; that their self-worth comes with an expiration date.  As a woman who considers herself strong and independent, I’ve often felt like an outsider.

So I seek out books with female characters I can relate to, women who are true to themselves no matter what anyone else says or thinks.  And it gives me hope that maybe, one day, those cultural expectations I rally against really will be gone for good.

Some of my favorite kick-ass heroines:

Elizabeth Bennet.  Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice may be remembered as a romance, but nearly 200 years after its release, Elizabeth Bennet remains one of the strongest, most well-developed heroines in literature.  In an era when women usually married for money and status, Elizabeth holds out for love.  She spurns the handsome, wealthy Darcy because she thinks he’s a jerk, as well as the status-appropriate Mr. Collins because he’s a drip.  She also cares deeply about her family, finds humor in everyday situations, and speaks her mind even when she probably shouldn’t.  For me, it’s not about how she falls in love with Darcy, but how she realizes so many of her prejudices and assumptions about the people around her were wrong.

Jane Eyre.  Another novel that people remember as a romance.  But unlike Pride and Prejudice, this one actually…isn’t.  It’s actually a coming-of-age novel, in which Jane grows up and discovers her selfhood and independence.  Sure, her relationship with Mr. Rochester is a pivotal part of the novel, but when he proposes that Jane become his mistress, she refuses to compromise her principles and leaves him behind.  They only reunite when they can meet on equal footing, when Jane no longer needs to be dependent on him or anyone else.  I love that the book is narrated in first person, Jane’s strong, self-assured voice carrying us through the whole thing.

Kate Daniels.  One of my favorite current series is Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series.  Over the course of five books, we’ve seen Kate grow from an isolated mercenary to someone who fights tooth and nail for the people she cares about.  Her biological father wants to kill her, she can’t tell anyone her true identity, and she lives in a world filled with often-dangerous magical phenomena.  Yet she carries on despite all of it, makes her own place in a harsh, cruel world.

Georgia Mason.  In Mira Grant’s Feed, Georgia Mason is a news blogger chasing down a conspiracy on the campaign trail—involving zombies.  But zombies are just an ordinary part of the landscape in George’s world, after a mutated virus was released into the population that left the dead prone to rising.  She can be cold and blunt, but she’s also smart, strong, and resilient.  For better or worse, she pursues the truth at all costs.