by Sarah Rees Brennan
So I was reading a book the other day, and in it was a heroine who described herself as plain and unappealing and unlovable. Fine by me, I thought, and waited for her to change her mind. She did seem to feel better about her looks because a boy liked them. I waited for something else: she ended the book convinced she was nothing much.
I closed the book with a slam and thought ‘What–what–what is this?’
But I knew what it was.
A while ago, Karen Healey wrote a post asking women to say positive things about themselves – it was shockingly hard to write positive stuff about myself without adding qualifiers: saying ‘I’m quite’ or ‘I’m a bit’ or ‘But of course not as good as…’ Because if I did, people wouldn’t like me. I wouldn’t like me. I wouldn’t be likable, if I said I was good at something.
People write these heroines because they think the heroines won’t be likable, if they like themselves.
This is the stuff people have in their heads. And by people, I do mean mainly women. (Which is not to say guys can’t be insecure–many are–and guys can’t have their heads messed with by the world–all do.) But arrogant guys are often seen as attractive and lovable, described as cocky: them being confident about themselves isn’t seen as an awful thing across the board. I don’t see guys saying ‘I can’t relate to Spiderman/Miles Vorkosigan/Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes, no sir, not for me, too awesome!’
Women can’t think they’re pretty–because then they’ll be awful. But they can’t not be pretty, because then they’ll be awful. In the series of books by L.J. Smith, The Vampire Diaries, Elena Gilbert is a happy, popular, beautiful, totally confident girl who is stunned when a boy doesn’t like her. In the TV show, they changed Elena to a girl who’s sad and recently bereaved, no longer terribly interested in popularity, who’s quit cheerleading–specifically because they thought people wouldn’t like the Elena from the books. I really like the show, but that bothers me a lot. I remember when my second book came out, some people said they were glad the heroine was less confident than she seemed in the first book. Some people thought she was still too confident: when the third book came out, it was the other heroine who thought she was too pretty.
There are all sorts of reasons people use to talk about how people shouldn’t like girls.
There’s ladies being annoying.
There’s ladies being ‘Mary Sues.’ Zoe Marriott recently wrote a post on Mary Sues – which is an excellent post I agree with completely. Also, if you want to check the comments, there is a, uh, frank appraisal of my own appearance, which is an example of the way people discuss real-life ladies, let alone fictional one. It’s fairly mild, too, which is why I’m linking it–I don’t think I could have linked or laughed about it if it was vile, and I have seen people say absolutely vile things about the appearance of female writers. (I’ve heard people say absolutely vile things about the appearance of females, full stop, of course.)
The whole business of self-insertion in a narrative worries me a bit. I don’t have to relate to a character to like her, or him. I also don’t want to put myself in books. I don’t want Mr Darcy to kiss me: I don’t want to be in Pride and Prejudice. I want Elizabeth Bennet there. I love her, I love reading about her, I love the particular relationship between those specific characters. And yet if people do want to imagine themselves in narratives, it makes me sad that ‘thinks she’s awesome’ is a barrier to them.
Ursula LeGuin said “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel…is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” But what do people find out from books with girls who don’t think much of themselves? What do they think they find out about themselves, or the women they know, from those books?
I hesitate to say any of this because I don’t want to see any specific fictional lady lambasted for being insecure: loads of people are insecure. And readers naturally criticise girls for anything: that’s my whole point.
I am not saying that all girls in books or real life should never be insecure. I know I’m insecure about a bunch of things! And I have loved an insecure fictional lady many times. Sophie in Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle doesn’t think she is anything special. Then she gets turned into an old lady, storms a wizard’s castle, and realises the things she assumed were true aren’t true. And she loves and is loved by a great guy, but that’s not the only thing going on with her, or the only thing that helps her to the realisation. Then there’s Elizabeth Bennet, who knows she’s smart and pretty. Bianca of The Duff doesn’t think she’s as pretty as her friends, but she knows she’s smart and she is never afraid to show it or to stand up for herself. There’s a spectrum, and that’s how it should be: girls who start out thinking they’re not awesome, girls who think they’re awesome at certain things, girls who aren’t sure what they are, girls who think they’re generally awesome.
I just don’t want to read about fictional girls who can’t think they’re awesome. I don’t like reading about those characters and I don’t like the mindset that produces them. The fictional girls I’m talking about aren’t meant to be depressed (I’d like to see more actually-depressed characters in literature: they can be heroes too)–they’re meant to seem normal, and likable.
I do not want to read about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not want to write about girls who think they’re worthless. I do not think I’m worthless.
Nobody has to like a girl, fictional or otherwise. But words like ‘annoying’ or ‘Mary Sue’ are both used as shorthand for ‘girl I want to dismiss.’ We’ve all read about characters who seemed overly perfect, or who had flaws the narrative wouldn’t admit were flaws, and those characters are irritating. But I’ve seen just as many fictional boys like that as fictional girls (with the caveat that boys tend to get more pagetime, so they get more explored) and those boys don’t get seen in the same way. As I was saying on twitter a couple days ago, I want characters to be flawed and awesome: I want them to be flawesome.
Talking about girls in this way is not useful. It just helps along the mindset that girls can’t be awesome, the lie all girls get told, whispered in their ears over and over again, all through their lives.
It is not true. It never was. No person, or book, should ever have told them otherwise.
To borrow a phrase from Jeanette Winterson: ‘Trust me. I’m telling you stories.’ They’re full of lies, but not about the important stuff.
Sarah Rees Brennan was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic) but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. She recently completed her Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, the first book of which received three starred reviews and was an ALA Top Ten best book. She’s still living in Ireland—and her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it. In 2012 she will publish Unspoken, a modern Gothic mystery starring a sassy reporter. Find her online at LiveJournal or at her website.