Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Weak vs. Strong Heroines

I had an interesting discussion on Facebook the other day over a photo. Here it is:
So yes, this is a pro-Hermione photo. Now since I have not read Harry Potter and have not seen the movies, I'll have to trust that the caption on the photo is what happens in the book. Having watched the Twilight movies, I know this is what happens with Bella. I do not think that one movie is better than the other, and I'm not going to argue that point. They both have a place.

So. One heroine is strong - Hermione - and one is weak - Bella. They deal with the loss of their loves in different ways. One sinks into depression, one decides to keep going. Both are realistic. But some argue that Bella is dangerous because she teaches our girls that it's ok to retreat into yourself, and potentially harm yourself over a boy.

I'm not going to go into the myriad characteristics of each character. Instead, I want to ask this question: 

Does this mean that we should never portray weak heroines?

That is the idea one person posited to me. In fact, they went so far as to say that weak heroines were the villains and do not belong in fiction at all.

I disagree. I see value in both heroines. Why? Because for one, we're not all like Hermione. We don't all have the inner strength to go out and get the bad guy. Two, Bella's character is a wonderful way to open a dialogue with your own daughters. I have had great discussions with my daughter over the Twilight movies. She sees Bella's choices and knows that they're the wrong ones. They have consequences. But she also realizes that it is just a story. (And yes, we could get into a deep discussion on how fictional character can influence us, but that is for another day).

The way I explained it was that we need both strong and weak heroines to see the complete picture. It's kind of like not knowing joy without first knowing sorrow. There are lessons to be learned from both.

So. What say you? Is it important to have both weak and strong female lead characters in our stories? I say yes. You?


  1. I agree Melissa. The point of a fictional story is to open dialog and question what we're reading. If we get rid of weak heroines, the topic will never be discussed.

    Great post.

  2. I say yes, too.

    First of all, because anything that opens up a dialog with our kids is valuable in itself. Years ago, I realized that trying to shelter Amy from everything undesirable was impossible, but if we could talk about things, it was a valuable lesson learned for her, and valuable for me because it meant we were communicating.

    Secondly, I think there are many people in real life who see themselves as weak, and loathe themselves because of it. I think they need to see they are not alone, and also hopefully that they deserve to make choices that are positive for them. Perhaps weak role models will help them discover an inner strength they did not know they had or felt they deserved.

    Or maybe I'm full of it:) I know what I'm trying to say, but not saying very well LOL!

  3. Kelley - Agreed. If we rid ourselves of weak heroines, we can't have the discussions.

    Valerie - You said it very well, m'dear. I'm realizing that I can't shield my daughter from everything, either (I never wanted her to watch Twilight in the first place, but she ended up seeing it at a friend's house). So the best course of action is to use it as a learning tool. It's been great for my daughter and I.

  4. I'm totally in agreement on this issue. While I didn't particularly love Bella's character, I identified with her a lot. I respect Hermione and I quite adore her, but not everyone will identify with her. Both people can be "real" people. And as far as Bella goes, I'd say that despite all the mockery, Stephanie Myer hit her target audience and then some. Likewise, so did J.K. How does that make either of them wrong?

  5. L.T. - I agree. There are lots of different audiences out there. Why write to only one? And I also think a lot of teens could/do identify with Bella. I know I wasn't exactly a strong teenager like Hermione - quite the opposite, in fact. I think if we just had all strong female leads, we'd be alienating those of us who are, for lack of a better word, "weaker" than the Hermione's and Buffy's of the world.

  6. Most definitely! Makes the novel more realistic, as not everyone is a Hermione. Some characters have visible strong/weak sides, offering a well-rounded, honest characterization.

  7. Yes both types are necessary as a true reflection of people in general. Also, if a weak character is portrayed, it offers the opportunity for her to change and gain strength, or at the very least, opens that dialogue to considering how one might gain strength and confidence. There's much to learn from both sides.

  8. Very interesting! I don't think anyone should condemn a type of heroine because they don't approve of her type. It's a writer's prerogative to write about what they choose, and a reader's choice to read what they choose. If you don't like it, don't read it. It doesn't mean it shouldn't exist. Both series have done very well (I have not read the Twilight books), so I'm assuming strong/weak heroines regardless, people are identifying with these characters. I think you've got to have all kinds of heroes and heroines -- they all will have an audience, they will all say something and mean something to readers.

    I remember in college being told by instructors that I should be writing about female protagonists, not male. That I shouldn't be writing sci fi/fantasy, but "mainstream." I got told a lot about what I should and shouldn't write, and it was pretty easy to resent that. Fortunately, I'm pretty thick-skinned and stubborn -- I wrote about what mattered to me and ignored them. I've gotten good at what I write -- male protagonists and all -- and I publish regularly now, but it makes me wonder sometimes... There weren't that many strong female role models when I was young. I was surrounded by James Bond, etc., and that absolutely shaped who I became, and what I still write today. If I had grown up nowadays, with stronger female heroines such as Buffy, Xena, Hermione, etc.... would I be writing more stories with strong women protagonists myself? My novels tend to have strong women, but my short stories tend to be more male-oriented.

    Interesting topic!

  9. As a practitioner of creative nonfiction more than fiction, I'm wary to weigh in on the relative merits of strong vs. weak, but in memoir the narrator (author) has some strength in that they're able to tell their stories.

    You MUST read the Harry Potter novels (and the movies are pretty good too). They are sublime, with really rich characters, major and minor, and the most remarkable plotting imaginable. Hermione Granger is by far the most compelling character in the books (and the movies); she has flaws, she has weaknesses, but she overcomes them all not out of self-interest but for a greater good. She does superhuman things but is oh so human while doing them.


  10. Heather C8:48 PM

    Love that you use the books to talk to your daughter about real life. That's so great.

    Also, what about Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games. Is she weak or strong. I read them in such a rush, I might need to go back through and figure that out.

  11. This is a great post. I never quite got the vitriol hatred of Bella. I certainly don't want my daughters turning out like her - either in the inability to function without the boyfriend or in the desire to be a vampire - but fiction isn't about who we think we want our kids to turn out to be. There are plenty of heroes in books that are not at all what I want my kids to emulate.

    And in the end, Bella does fight for something she really wants: her baby. So she isn't all weakness.

    I'm not defending the Twilight books. As far as I'm concerned they don't even compare to Harry Potter. But I agree with you that books are great ways to open discussions. And if you agree with everything in them, what is there to discuss?

  12. Anna - Yep. Well-rounded characters are a must in fiction.

    Joanne - I agree. The opportunity to grow and change is necessary for a great character, and perhaps weak characters offer even MORE opportunity for that.

    DK - Thanks for your wonderful comment. I, too, am vehemently against any type of "censorship" of what we write and what we read. And I am so glad you pesevered in writing what YOU wanted to write and didn't listen to the naysayers who told you what THEY thought you should write. Good for you!

    Patrick - I believe I tried to read the first Harry Potter years ago, but never got past the first few pages. I haven't read the Twilight books, either, but have just watched the movies. Fantasy has never really interested me, so I've never pursued reading those books. But I may have to change my mind on that. ;-)

    Heather C - I haven't read The Hunger Games, either, but I've heard of them. Thanks for stopping by!

    Heidi - GREAT comment! You nailed it with this sentence: "But fiction isn't about who we think we want our kids to turn out to be." Absolutely right. And yes, agreeing with everything in a book doesn't leave much up for discussion.

  13. My character always tends to be too strong! Lol I know that we have to respect the character and admire them but also I believe we need to border somewhat on real.

  14. I agree that both are needed, if only to be able to relate to the character on a personal level. But I'd throw out that care needs to be taken. How does the weak heroine eventually resolve the a healthy way or a self-destructing way? I guess it also matters in what context it's being the author deliberately setting out to create this character as a role model, or does the character become an accidental role model. As you mentioned people can be highly influenced by fiction, a seriously unstable teenager reading a novel about someone who chooses suicide may think that's the only way to solve her problems too.

    Talk about the ultimate gray area!

  15. Terri - I think we definitely have to make our characters real. :-)

    Betsy - From what I understand about the novel, Bella wasn't actually trying to commit suicide, but was instead hoping to make Edward show up by putting herself in danger and diving off the cliff. She was seeking an adrenaline rush, I guess (I am just going off the movie and what my husband told me who read the books. Ha!)

    But anyway, as far as role models, I agree that people can be influenced by what happens in fiction. But that's true of any form of entertainment - violent video games, rock music, movies, etc. It is a very gray area on what to do about it, too. In the end, it all boils down to parenting. Unfortunately, there are far too many parents out there who neither care nor take the time to have serious conversations with their children over these issues.

  16. Elizabeth Parker12:05 AM

    I think we can have a weak heroine in a novel. Of course, it all depends on what you define as "weak." Maybe not all readers will have the same definition of "weak."

    A "weak" heroine can also have a "character arc" where she learns and grows through the course of the story.

  17. I agree too - if everyone was strong there would be no balance. And we all have weak times - that's human nature. Teh characters wouldn't be believable otherwise.

  18. Betty - Good point. We probably don't all have the same definition of weak or of strong, for that matter.

    Flower - Yes! We all do have weak times, and I think we need to portray that in our fiction.

  19. Oh wow. can I repost this? I think this is such a good thing for discussion.

    I agree with you. I think we do need weak heroines too. And while I'm not a big fan of any of the Twilight books (Except the first one I did really enjoy), to be fair when Bella jumped off the cliff she wasn't suicidal - I think the movie didn't portray it like it was in the book. And by the fourth book she had become a really strong, decisive character.

    We don't all start out strong; I like characters that start out weak and make wrong choices and live with the consequences and become strong for it! (And in real life, our weakness are what lead us to Jesus. :)

  20. Margo - You're absolutely right. We don't all start out strong! I think the movie differed from the book, too, and it's unfortunate that this photo floating around the Internet skews the facts.


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