feminism

Feminism in YA: Tris Prior (DIVERGENT Only)

Feminism in YA: Tris Prior Written by Grant Goodman, 10/17/2014

NOTE: Full of spoilers for DIVERGENT

Beatrice Prior’s story follows the traditional tropes of teenage rebellion: when given the chance to pick a lifestyle, she completely rebels from her family’s traditions of being bland and selfless (Abnegation). Her pick is Dauntless which emphasizes combat-readiness and mental fortitude. With this change of identity, she also changes her name to Tris and—of course—gets tattooed.

What does it mean to be a strong woman in Tris’ world? If you’re a member of Dauntless, you jump out of moving vehicles, you leap off of rooftops, you let a hot guy throw knives at you, and you engage in full contact hand-to-hand combat. In Tris’ case, finding access to this strength means casting aside her family and her old lifestyle.

In fact, as she continues to grow, she loses more and more. Tris chooses her own path and in doing so she is sexually assaulted, shoots one of her friends (the circumstances are extenuating) and gets both of her parents killed. That’s a heavy message there.

Yes, she does find a way to express who she is. She has a smoldering relationship with Four and she finds a small core of people who want to be around her. Yes, she makes decisions on her own and literally confronts her own fears. The cost, though, is exorbitant.

Tris is a fascinating character, without a doubt. I’m honestly torn on how to reach a conclusion on whether or not she’s a strong role model for girls. Her intentions and her thirst for independence are admirable. The message about what you need to go through in order to succeed, though, is terrifying at times.

I’d love to know your thoughts. Let’s discuss this further in the comments section.

Feminism in YA: Katniss Everdeen

Feminism in YA Literature: Katniss Everdeen Written by Grant Goodman, 9/26/2014

You cannot ignore the roles of girls and women in literature. I mean this both in terms of fiction and in real life. For starters, women read more than men do. In turn, it should be reasonable to expect that there are more female leads in literature than male leads. So how are some of the more popular YA lit titles treating their leads?

Full disclosure, people: I am not a scholar of feminist theory or literature. I am also a man. I took one course on feminism in science-fiction when I was a senior in college. Occasionally, I engage in conversation with those who know a TON more about the subject than I do. That does not make me any sort of authority figure. So if you can add to the discussion and further my education, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

Since the YA blogging world is going to be driven by Mockingjay discussion for the next few weeks, I figured I should start with Katniss Everdeen.

In the first novel, this is a little of what we learn about her: she is the sole provider for her family, she is the mother figure for her sister, she is a hunter, she has a male best friend with whom she does not have romantic involvement, and she does not suffer fools gladly.

I don’t want to use the generic “Is she a ‘strong female lead?’” approach, because I think that term has been kicked around far too much.

Instead, I’d like to simply examine Katniss’ status as a role model.

  1. Katniss understands that adulthood and maturity are defined by your ability to take care of others.

She hunts for food. She looks out for her sister. She (grudgingly) looks after her mother. These roles eat up an enormous amount of her time and energy. Yet, she does them. She carries on.

  1. Katniss understands the true meaning of sacrifice.

This operates on two levels. First, she has sacrificed her adolescence in order to keep her family together. As a teacher, I can tell you that there are few things more heartbreaking than learning that one of your 12 year old students is having to take up the role of mother or father in the family due to negligence, disappearance, or illness.

Second is the literal sacrifice she makes, offering herself as a participant in the Hunger Games, rather than letting her sister be chosen. This second type of sacrifice also comes into play during the games on several occasions.

  1. Katniss struggles with her media portrayal, in which she achieves extra attention once a romantic entanglement with Peeta surfaces as part of the games.

This is a complicated one to navigate, folks. Not just for her, but for the readers. At one point in the games, her hopes for survival hinge on selling a love story to an audience. And so you are rooting for her to pull through, but I also hope that you understand how twisted that situation is. The inner monologue pieces, in which Katniss isn’t sure how she feels about Peeta (is it real? Is it manufactured?) were some of the strongest pieces of writing in that first novel. She recognizes and admits the confusion, she grapples with it rather than simply accepting and blocking it out of her mind.

Okay, I’m struggling to find a proper way of concluding this. Because, honestly, like any human being, there are traits she carries that aren’t worthy of admiration, too.

But what I can say is that by presenting a character who is a mixture of shadow and light, responsibility and rejection, Suzanne Collins gives us someone realistic who we can discuss intelligently, and in my mind, that is a victory.