Those Girl Heroes

Girl heroes are a prominent part of children’s and young adult literature—they have been for over a century. Katniss from The Hunger Games, Bella from Twilight, and Elsa from Frozen are only three such girl heroes to find their way into popular culture in the last decade. The popularity of such characters, however, raises questions.
Consider, for a moment. Katniss is thrown into an arena where she has to kill other young people, and she becomes a post-traumatic wreck by the third book in the series. Bella is largely a passive character, who chooses to become a vampire by … which book I can’t remember. As for Elsa, she is a Disney princess who chooses isolation, builds a giant ice castle, and inadvertently creates an endless winter. Such girl heroes get caught up in violence, questionable relationships, or, just … causing endless winters.
I find The Hunger Games compelling, and I love Frozen. I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the second book in the Twilight series—largely because of the turgid prose and ridiculous characters. That’s just me. I always love discovering new girl heroes, but I have my favourites, too. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne is one of those favourites.
Last June, I attended the Lucy Maud Montgomery and Reading conference in Charlottetown, PEI. I love visiting Prince Edward Island—the people there are more open and friendlier than anywhere I’ve visited. But I also enjoy this conference more than most. I shouldn’t be, but I’m always surprised at how much people love Lucy Maud Montgomery—the Anne books, in particular. This conference happens every two years, and it was good to catch up with people I met at earlier conferences and talk about Montgomery. I also tried to have fun—going for an historical ride on the Hippo, an amphibious vehicle that tours downtown Charlottetown before heading into the harbor.
I presented on how Anne’s language comes from the books she’s read, and how her use of that language informs and defines her place in Avonlea. Oddly enough, Anne doesn’t refer directly to that many texts: she’s caught reading Ben-Hur by her teacher, and she and her friends enact the story of Elaine from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Anne reads novels, but don’t forget, this is a bad thing in turn-of-the-century Canada—or anywhere else, for that matter.
Anne is a girl hero. She has the beginnings of a love interest by the end of the first book, but she doesn’t fully understand her feelings for Gilbert until the end of the third book in the series—a far cry from characters like Katniss or Bella. At the same time, Anne is more like Hermione from Harry Potter: interested in books and scholastically ambitious.
I’m sure my love of girl heroes comes from having raised two daughters. And perhaps because I’m a father, the girl heroes that most appeal to me are those who face difficult, if not necessarily life-threatening issues, and grapple with difficult, if not problematic relationships. This is probably why I love characters such as Anne, Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Tenar from LeGuin’s Earthsea cycle. Girl heroes of the twenty-first century often fall into a type—the teenage misfit, who suddenly finds herself the object of at least one young man’s attention—and often two. Katniss and Bella are both good examples of such a type. Types aside, I will always enjoy meeting new girl heroes, but I will always have my favourites.

5 thoughts on “Those Girl Heroes”

  1. A timely post with so many active young female heroines appearing in YA Lit and at the movies. Thanks for drawing attention to Anne of Green Gables. One of the pluses of taking a Children’s Lit class at the U of A for me was reading Anne of Green Gables. The character of Vanessa MacLeod in Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House interests me, too. Although she’s not a heroine and that’s not generally thought of as a children’s book, Vanessa MacLeod demonstrates that prepubescent children can have insightful and valid takes on the life around them. Shakespeare heroines who disguise themselves as boys/men also interest me.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting you mention Vanessa. She is another kind of girl hero.

  2. One of the papers I wrote for your Children’s Lit class was entitled “A Girl is a Different Kind of Hero”. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I believe it was about the Hero’s Journey and how it looks different for girls. I know I looked at Lucy from Narnia, and possibly Dorothy of Oz and Anne, as well.

    And once again I agree with your points here. I’ve not read Hunger Games, nor Twilight (didn’t even make it past the first few pages on that one), and I can’t stand Frozen for a number of reasons i won’t go into here. But give me Anne, give me Lucy, give me Hermione, give me Cinderella from the 2015 film – girls of quiet strength and POWER.
    Another favourite girl hero of mine is Cimorene of Patricia P. Wrede’s TALKING WITH DRAGONS – if you haven’t met her yet, you’re in for a treat.

    1. Angelika, thanks for your comments. And yes, the definition of girl hero goes far beyond twenty-first century girl heroes. I appreciate the point that many girl heroes are “girls of quiet strength and power.” And thanks for the book recommendation; I will definitely check out Talking with Dragons.

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