Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Feminine girls in YA fantasy, or Adventuring in skirts is fun too

On the lovely bank holiday, I was confined to the house on a writing mission, doing edits on my second complete chapter (a topic for another post: how my ideas about ‘process’ may be completely wrong) and I made a minor change that felt major. I took Nessa out of her jeans and put her in a lacy dress and leggings instead.

Okay, that doesn’t sound like much of a change. I had to remove a good bit, I thought, because Nessa wakes from a bewitched sleep, still clothed, and I had a moment where she notices the reddened crease at her waist and the imprint of the button on her stomach. Anyone who has lain down for a moment and woken up hours later knows what I’m talking about – and lovely elasticated leggings do not have the same effect. In the end, I gave her a belt too, so I could have the crease and the dig, the moment was worth saving for the effect.

But it got me thinking because of why I made the change. Suddenly, having changed Nessa’s clothes, I changed her and she came clear in my head in a way she hadn’t before. I had automatically put her in jeans – all teenagers wear jeans, I thought, it’s the default – but when I thought about it that wasn’t true, at least not in England these days. Waiting daily on the train platform with a crowd of teenagers on their way to college (Americans: translate to senior high) in town told me that. So that was part of why I changed her, the sort of girl that I thought Nessa was wouldn’t necessarily have gone for the easy, comfortable, practical option to wear to college. She hadn't woken up intending to go adventuring.

I came of age in an era when YA fantasy authors writing about girls that did things were really coming into their own. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown were among the first (and already well-established when I was an adolescent). In her blog and on her website, McKinley often talks about her frustration with all the books she read as a child where boys got to go out and have adventures. She wanted those adventures too and there was no female equivalent to live vicariously through. So she had to make them up.

The same I think applies to Tamora Pierce, whose Alanna books were for me, and a whole generation of girls my age, the first ‘YA’ fantasy books about girls that do things that we read. I use the ‘YA’ term advisedly – there was a frisson of sexuality in the Alanna books that made them something different to the ‘children’s’ books we’d read before. Alanna was the ultimate girl who does things: she wants to be a knight so disguises herself as a boy, and becomes one.

I loved these books. The thing is, though, I didn’t want to be these girls. I didn’t want to be Harry in The Blue Sword or Alanna. I wanted to be their friend definitely, I wanted to be the girl who lived next door in the dormitory, the quieter softer one. I still wanted the romance, I even wanted the adventure, but I didn’t really see the great appeal of being a warrior. A strong empowered woman, yes, but I didn’t fancy riding off into the sunset with a sword strapped at my hip.

I wasn’t in any sense a tomboy – McKinley says some interesting things about this on her blog – and I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t envy boys their freedom, perhaps because I genuinely felt that my 80’s and 90’s childhood was free of many of the constraints that had plagued my mother’s generation which includes writers like Pierce and McKinley. And it was people like my mum, and these writers, that made it that way.

This is not to say that Pierce and McKinley don’t write girly girls too – Pierce’s Sandry in The Circle of Magic series is an excellent case in point. Magic needlework is totally up my street. I don’t want to see a return to the passive heroines of the past – and I have concerns with some of the recent YA paranormal fantasy/romance trend that we’re slipping that way, into a frightening world of controlling tortured boyfriends and passive helpless girls. Radio 4’s ‘All in the Mind’ last night looked at a recent and disturbing study of violence in teenage relationships, picking out in particular the way in which mobile phones and social networks mean controlling (often older – though not centur older) boyfriends can expect to keep tabs on their girlfriends wherever they are. And these girls think that this is what it’s meant to be like – it’s this disturbing equation of love with obsession, and helplessness.

Anyway, my point is that we don’t want a return to or development into this. But, girly things are fun! I love making things, knitting, sewing, creating something beautiful out of nothing. Beautiful clothes, beautiful things, flowers and music and romance. There's something magic about all of this and girls who aren't physically strong (and don't yearn to be) are okay too.

Feminine girls can be incredibly emotionally strong and can be heroes. My heroine Nessa is an ordinary teenager – she is semi-popular, she tries to fit in, she wears pretty clothes and used to dream of being a ballet dancer. She is deeply vulnerable – and I do think that this is part of a certain feminine psyche, and it is an important part of her. If she didn’t have the life experience she does, she could have turned into one of those trapped teenage girls in the Radio 4 programme. But part of what makes her a hero and an emotionally strong one, is her deep bond with her physically disabled mother and the way in which she deals with her mother’s injury, has helped create a ‘normal’ life for her out of chaos and fear. She stands up for what she believes in, and she fights for it, she single-handedly – young, a little shy, small – holds everything together, without a sword. Of course, she beats the monsters too, and bravely.

(Just a note: one of the real great heroines of Spenser’s Faerie Queene is Britomart, a lady knight of the Alanna school, so I’ll get my female warrior fix in all its glory a few books on…)

On another but related note, I found this round table of agent advice for thriller writers (not my area of course, but interesting) quite upsetting and odd because of agent Debbie Carter's recommendations. She specifically recommends that writers avoid writing stories 'where the hero or heroine is in a job we don't associate with their gender, like a man working as a stylist in the fashion industry or a female drummer in a rock band.' I am tempted to keep quoting from the article but I suggest you read it for yourself - let me know what you think.