More thoughts on dystopia: The Strong Female Hero

My thoughts on the popularity of dystopia are here.

In grad school, I took a course where we tried to answer the question of why cowboys and the American West were so prominent in 20th century American culture.  One of the most convincing answers was that the cowboy gave boys a template of masculinity in an era where masculinity was put to the test by industrialization and women’s entry in the so-called public sphere.  In West of Everything, (check that out if the Western is of particular interest to you) Jane Tompkins claims that girls like herself identified with cowboys because pop culture of the 20th century (until probably the 80s or 90s, at least) didn’t offer an equivalent female hero.  The women in most Westerns are either virginal brides or prostitutes; they are there to either save or serve the men.

All that to say that I find it pretty remarkable that dystopias, as a new cultural phenomenon, often feature strong female heroes that both boys and girls can identify with.  Heroes like Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games or Tris from Divergent seem to embody a more modern idea of femininity which encompasses success in both romantic and interpersonal relationships and in a career or other non-familial/romantic areas.  If being a woman in today’s culture means “doing it all,” then we certainly see a girl like Katniss living up to that ideal.  She is able to juggle the more traditional female roles of a romantic relationship and caretaking of her sister and mother with the more modern female (or perhaps even masculine) roles of breadwinning and fighting a war.  She best displays this “doing it all” femininity when she is in the first games– she takes care of a sick Peeta while in the midst of fighting the other tributes and struggling for survival.  She is caring and compassionate and strong and violent all at the same time.  I can’t even express how awesome I think it is that kickass, complex, do-it-all female hero is this popular in today’s culture.

At the same, however, it is really interesting that while the strong female hero is gaining popularity in dystopian novels and movies, some government officials are working to restrict access to reproductive control for women.  Some dystopian lit actually deals directly with the restriction of women’s rights (The Handmaid’s Tale and When She Woke are notable examples which come to mind), but I have yet to read any of those so I can’t comment on them.  Is the strong female hero we see a response to these threats to restrict women’s rights?  Probably in some cases, but I think it is also likely a representation of the plurality of feminine identities in modern society.  After all, Katniss is popular in the same time and space as Bella Swan, a female lead derided by some for her lack of strength, personal convictions, and individual identity, as well as her deference to the men in her life.

What are your thoughts?  Why do we see the rise of a strong female hero with dystopia?  How do you think the strong female hero relates to gender roles and issues in contemporary society?

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6 thoughts on “More thoughts on dystopia: The Strong Female Hero

  1. This is really insightful. I’ve been writing about the strong female hero, but haven’t really understood the impetus for the popularity. It does seem like a bit of a schism in the feminine ideal — do we take care of the world or does the world need to take care of us? Maybe it’s because the actual ideal of being both is completely impossible, more impossible than either of the separate ideals, and women are dividing into two camps, neither of which are healthy. I wonder if there are YA books where the ideas find some balance. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank you! I especially appreciate you pointing out that the strong female hero embodies an idealized femininity (since I don’t seem to have put that in my post), just as the cowboy represented an idealized masculinity. Interestingly, it seems that some of the dystopian male leads (I am thinking of Todd in the Chaos Walking trilogy and maybe Peeta from the Hunger Games) are far more balanced men in terms of being brave/violent/strong/manly as well as being empathetic/caring/emotional.

      You’ve also got me thinking about the way the age of YA characters affects the gender roles they exhibit– most are too young to have children and most are coming of age in a way that means distancing themselves from their families. Family life is sort of important, but far less than it would be if the characters were in the 20s or 30s…

      • That’s a great point about the male characters. This inspired me to write about your blog in mine. Thanks for the inspiration!

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