Five Books With Complex Female Leads You Need to Read
January 24, 2020
We undoubtedly need more female characters in media, however, YA fiction is an exception. YA fiction actually does have a lot of female leads: 65% of YA fiction published in 2014 featured
We undoubtedly need more female characters in media, however, YA fiction is an exception. YA fiction actually does have a lot of female leads: 65% of YA fiction published in 2014 featured a female protagonist. Considering that the genre is dominated by women, girls in these books still aren’t being presented as three-dimensional, complex people. In fantasy and dystopia, a certain type of girl has emerged: the strong female character. They’re the tough, fierce, fighting sort. You’ll see this character often rejects and has contempt for femininity. She doesn’t cry; she doesn’t really show much emotion. This kind of one-dimensional character dominates bookshelves.
We as a society equate femininity and emotion with weakness, and the media we consume reflects this. Even in a niche mostly inhabited by teen girls, like YA, we still aren’t seeing ourselves as we are: complex, vivid people. We’re told we need to be able to throw a punch to be strong and that “being like other girls" is a bad thing. If you’re tired of the way that girls are depicted in books, here are six that break the mold. Some of these girls fight demons and corrupt governments and some fall in love. Some embrace femininity and some reject it. Some are outgoing and some would rather stay home with a book. All of them are three-dimensional, colorful, flawed, and lovable.
The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
The love triangle in this series may put you off initially. Don’t let it. With the Victorian setting, fantasy/mythology elements, and a twisted villain to deal with, the love triangle doesn’t overpower the series at all. The Infernal Devices is a beautiful trilogy with one of the best heroines I’ve ever read about: Tessa Gray. Unlike most protagonists in fantasy YA, Tessa isn’t really a fighter and she’s rarely in fight scenes, but that doesn’t make her boring. Tessa’s strength lies more in her intelligence, curiosity, and kindness.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is relatable to anyone who has ever really, really loved a book. The main character, Cath Avery, suffers from severe anxiety, and writes fanfiction to cope. She also struggles with family issues: an unstable father, a party-girl twin who develops problems with alcohol, and an absentee mother who decides to make a reappearance after more than a decade. Cath isn’t strong in a traditional sense, but she’s smart, creative, and incredibly lonely. Her story is poignant and bittersweet, and will resonate with anyone dealing with anxiety.
Ten Things I Can See From Here by Carrie Mac
Ten Things I Can See From Here focuses on Maeve Glover, another character with severe anxiety. Though she has that in common with Cath (Fangirl), Maeve is a distinct character. After her mother moves to Haiti for six months, Maeve moves in with her father in Vancouver, where she has to cope with new worries, such as her step-mother’s upcoming home birth.
At the same time, Maeve meets Salix, a musician. Her romance with Salix is a bright spot, but it is never presented as a “cure." Maeve’s anxiety and her eventual triumph are amazing and her voice is unflinching, honest, and occasionally funny.
Girl Mans Up by M.E. Girard
Pen Oliveira, a sixteen-year-old girl, is unabashedly a tomboy. All she wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been, but her old-world Portuguese parents are putting pressure on her to be more feminine and her best friend Colby is forcing her to help him pick up girls. When she starts a relationship with a girl Colby had designated as his next target, it puts more strain between them.
This book does a great job of examining gender, sexuality, family, and friendship. Pen is a flawed character who starts off in the wrong crowd and struggles to cut ties. She doesn’t always make the right decisions, but she tries until she gets it right.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Beauty Queens doesn’t have just one or two female characters. It has fifty! Libba Bray does a fantastic job with a large cast of wildly different and interesting characters. This book includes a trans character, gay characters, several characters of color, and a deaf character, all of whom have a chance to narrate.
When fifty teen pageant contestants are stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash, they have to work together to survive and hone their pageant skills. Beauty Queens is a satire, but it deals with serious issues, such as racism and sexism.