Must Every Heroine Kick Butt?

Before I get into the subject of today’s post, first, a little housekeeping. The winner of the $15 Amazon gift card to purchase Mary Quattlebaum’s newest book, Jo MacDonald Hiked in the Woods, is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Akoss!

Jo-MacDonald-Hiked-in-the-Woods-Cvr

Congratulations, Akoss!!!! Please send your email address to lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com or comment below with it so that I can get that ecard to you!

Once again, thank you to all who commented. Now, on with the show. . . .

300px-Sigourney-weaver-alien1Does a heroine have to be battle savvy in order to be considered a strong heroine? (I’m thinking of heroines in science fiction and fantasy stories, rather than in realistic fiction by the way.)

Don’t get me wrong! I greatly appreciate a heroine who can kick butt. I wept tears of joy watching Sigourney Weaver (above) as Ellen Ripley in the Alien movies. I championed Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s young adult dystopian (and series) The Hunger Games (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the movie, below). I loved Katara and Toph in the Avatar series. I even said, “Woo hoo,” at Lara Croft’s antics in the first Tomb Raider movie. And I wanted to be Buffy, Storm, and the Black Widow.

katniss

There are many, many YA heroines besides Katniss who are battle ready (like Katsa in Kristin Cashore’s Graceling) or, in many paranormal romance books, trained by hot instructors to battle the enemy with an arsenal of weapons. And then they later get to date the hot instructors. Good times.

3236307Awhile ago, I wrote a guest post for Hardcovers and Heroines where I whined about an old Lois Lane comic book, because my niece questioned the fact that Lois, the star of her own series, had to be rescued. That was back in “the day.” We’re in a new era of empowered female heroes with agency galore. Like Helen Parr in The Incredibles, we can have it all!

Mrs._Incredible

Yet when I sat down to write the novel I recently completed, I evaluated what I wanted from my heroine. Having earlier begun a novel with a magic-wielding heroine (one to which I’ve since returned), I didn’t want to go the same route. So, I asked myself, and now I’m asking you, does every heroine have to have an edge—that sense of knowing that she’s armed and deadly? Granted, the idea has merit. I’ve mentioned in other posts that I grew up in a rough neighborhood. Even someone nerdy like me needed to look fierce, even if I wasn’t exactly Ripley. But most days, I looked about as fierce as a poodle.

Poodle_Ballerina_Wallpaper_mq8mvAttack, Fifi! . . . Oh forget it!

But I didn’t want my heroine to have the veneer of power. I didn’t want her to be a pushover, you understand. But combat trained? Nope. I wanted her to get by on her ingenuity, her MacGyver-like sense of scraping herself out of danger with whatever she can quickly grab (a rock for example). (Wondering who MacGyver is? Look here.) I also wanted her to fail most of the time, but still try.

Charles Yallowitz has a great post on female characters. In his Legends of Windemere series, his heroines are tough and plucky. But Charles is well versed in weaponry. Me? I wouldn’t know how to swing a sword properly if someone held a . . . well . . . a sword to my head. Yes, I know there’s a thing called research. Trust me. You don’t want me researching a sword thrust. I’ve cut my fingers on my own steak knives. Anyway, sword wielding didn’t seem right for my character. Making hard choices is her strength.

So, once again, I pose the question: Must a heroine kick butt to be viewed as a strong heroine? Please tell me what you think. Inquiring minds wanna know. . . .

Poodle image from scenicreflections.com. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley from alienfilmspedia.wikia.com. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss from rhsapinoso.wordpress.com. Graceling cover from Goodreads. Helen Parr from disneywikia.

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38 thoughts on “Must Every Heroine Kick Butt?

  1. As much as I love a kickass heroine, I certainly believe that they don’t all have to be that way. I would love a silly heroine, a gullible heroine, a witty heroine. I’d love any heroine if they were written and characterised well! That said, one of my pet peeves is overpowered characters. If any hero or heroine is kick ass simply because they have to be, I start getting annoyed with them. I like a good balance!

  2. Lisbeth Salander- a victim, a survivor, using ingenuity and her advanced hacking skills. By hacking, I am not referring to the swords that you mentioned, but her hi tech abilities. She is much too slight to kick ass-but she does resort to one of those electric-shock thingies.

  3. I love a kick-ass heroine as well, but I don’t necessarily identify them (apart from maybe “That was awesome! I wish I could be like her!”) I find a heroine who likes baking and singing show-tunes and freaks out at the first sign of magic but after some consideration thinks maybe it could be cool, but would still rather not deal with an incarnations of evil if she can possibly avoid it, much more identifiable.

  4. There is a lot to be said about a protagonist–male or female–who is not a fighter. Some of the best tension comes from scenes where the main character is hopelessly outclassed physically and has to be smarter than the bad guys to get through the situation.

    Which, I suppose, is a different way of kicking butt, now that I think about it. Maybe a better question might be, Does a heroine have to physically overcome the villains in order to be a heroine? No, and having her out-think and outmaneuver them instead is a lot more work for the writer, but can also be a lot more fun for the readers.

    One of the main characters from Cannibal Hearts is Agony Delapour, who is never gets in a fight because she’s always several moves ahead of everyone else–that makes her a bigger threat than a combat oriented character would be.

    • Ooo. Agony sounds awesome, Misha. I see what you mean about whether a heroine has to physically overcome a villain. What I love about Ally Carter’s YA series, Heist Society, is that the heroine has the George Clooney role in Ocean’s Eleven. She’s the planner and has to be two steps ahead.

  5. I don’t think they do. Like male protagonists, a heroine can be the cunning type. The female characters in Ranger’s Apprentice aren’t warriors, but they are smart enough to think their ways out of problems. So, they’re dangerous in their own ways. I do wonder why so many heroines are designed to never falter. At least from what I’m seeing, I’ve rarely seen a female hero screw up or get beaten as badly as a male hero.

    • You brought up an interesting point, Charles. Some heroines skate toward Mary Sue territory for this reason. It could be wish fulfillment on an author’s part–wanting to live through that character and do the things that couldn’t be done in real life. Another reason is the fear of allowing a character to be hurt. I’m guilty of this. So many people have told me, “You’re too protective of your characters!” And they were right.

      Stieg Larsson wasn’t afraid to let his character, Lisbeth Salander, suffer however!

      • I don’t mind hurting and putting the clamps on my characters. It helps them grow. I never understood the Mary Sue concept. It’s only recently that I heard the term, so I’m not exactly sure what it is.

  6. Love this, Linda. One of the major themes of my contemporary YA is what it really means to be a strong woman, so I’ve definitely been thinking about similar ideas even though I don’t write fantasy/sci-fi. Since I know you also watch Doctor Who, I wonder what you think of the doctor’s female companions and whether they fall into the kick-butt heroine category?

    • Laurie, I’m glad you brought up contemporary YA. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue. I love contemporary YA stories, but I mentioned fantasy, since the power dynamics are so integral often to the fantastical element.

      As for the Doctor, his companions’ pluck in the face of chaos is usually very attractive to the Doctor. The companions are an interesting mix of inner strength and kick-butt tendencies. Amy Pond in many episodes of seasons 5–7 would be considered a kick-butt heroine. But many times, she’s had to talk the Doctor out of doing something stupid, as have Clara, Martha, Donna, and other companions in the past. And River Song. We mustn’t forget her! That’s the role of the companion–to stop the Doctor from going too far. But while they are free to pick up a gun, the Doctor is not.

      • I think contrasting the old, classic Doctor Who with the new revamped show shows just how much things times have changed. The Doctor’s companions used to just run around and scream a lot, serving to be a foil for the Doctor’s omniscience and heroic acts. Nowadays his companions often save the Doctor/world/universe themselves. Think of her time post Doctor’s companion: Rose Tyler-Defender Of The Earth.

      • Good point, Andy. There’s a marked difference between Sarah Jane Smith and Rose Tyler. In all fairness, however, Leela, the fourth Doctor’s (Tom Baker) companion, was very different from Sarah Jane too. She was the kick-butt type. But he sometimes rebuked her for that. Overall, Donna Noble is my favorite of all of the companions.

      • Leela did cross my mind as the one exception. Tom Baker is still my favourite Doctor, followed by Troughton. I am not sure, but I think Ace was supposed to be like that. I cannot vouch for her though, as I stopped watching when McCoy became the Doctor as I really didn’t like him. I was young though-would be interesting to re-watch and see what I think of him now.

    • And that kind of character also appeals to me, Jill. Reminds me of my high school days where survival was the goal. 🙂 But I wanted to take fencing in high school. For some reason, I couldn’t get a spot in the class. Perhaps the teacher knew that I shouldn’t be handed a sharp weapon.

  7. Great post (as per usual). Your question reminded me of something one of my creative writing professors said in college. He said the hero/heroine/protagonist (whatever you want to call it) can’t be a victim. They need to show some agency in the things that are happening to them, but I don’t think that means they need to kick butt. They could be hyper intelligent, or funny, or good at manipulating people through femininity, or wanting to be kick butt but always failing at it. As long as they aren’t passive, I think you’ll be fine.

    • Thank you, Alison. Yes, agency is a fine line to walk. How do you make a character active in a way that’s true to the character and engaging to a reader (or viewer)? I guess that’s why the kick-butt heroine is compelling (ala Black Widow in The Avengers and Ripley in Aliens). Yet one of my favorite scenes in The Avengers is the scene ***SPOILERS when Black Widow and Hawkeye talk after Hawkeye’s reconditioning. END SPOILERS*** I love that conversation, because it shows a quiet determination I found so compelling. Of course I love the earlier scene in the warehouse too (her first scene in the movie). But this scene has the heart.

  8. I wonder if the emphasis on kick-butt female heroines is a result of a pendulum swing from the days when the heroines all needed to be rescued. We want to create strong female characters, and the kick-butt heroine is the current expression of that. There are so many ways characters can be strong though–emotional strength vs. physical strength, intelligence, street smarts, etc. We should just pick whatever seems most true for our character.

  9. I think many of these kick-butt kinds of heroines are one-dimensional. There are so many ways for women to be strong, but kick-butt is a pretty easy thing to portray. There aren’t many layers. She’s doing things rather than thinking or feeling things.

    • Yeah, I know what you mean. Because after the first time of punching a dude in the jaw, she’d definitely feel something–pain! They make it look so easy in the movies. But yeah, some seem standard-issue “action hero.” They might have initially been written as guys, but changed to females to silence any outcry from the female population.

  10. Wow, your readers know their stuff! I’m not sure I can add something like they did, but there goes! When I choose a good science fiction, I want the main character to be a woman. As such I read all the Chris Longknife books (she’s a princess who’s in the military), and I also enjoyed Anne MacCaffrey’s dragon books — actually, all her books, because she made her women strong characters, even the “lame” ones.
    I think the ones I choose, the women are trained in self defense in one way or another. But that’s because I know ahead of time that they will kick butt, as you say. I suppose, now that I think about it, I’ve been too … Afraid … to try other books. Huh. I think I’ll try some of the ones your readers have mentioned. Think outside the box.
    🙂

    • Wow. I never heard of the Longknife series, but I’ll look for it. A princess in the military is an interesting premise! I have read Anne’s books though. Who can resist dragonriders?? I haven’t read her sons books though.

      • I haven’t read more than one either. I realized after reading it that I just have to mourn the idea of reading another one again.

  11. I haven’t checked my blog feed in the past two days. I apologize I’m late to this.
    Here is my email for the e-card: nakecape[at]yahoo[dot]fr

    Thank you.

  12. I love kick-butt heroines but I also love witty ones and the MacGyver type. I love it even more when the heroine has two of those characteristics like Ripley. She kicked butt and she was also very clever.

    • Okay. I finally got it open. What a great article. I love this:

      I want her to be free to express herself
      I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women
      I want her to be weak sometimes
      I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power
      I want her to cry if she feels like crying

  13. Pingback: Links for a Lazy Sunday | Hardcovers and Heroines

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