Chatterbox: Feminism in Books & Top 10 Feminist Heroines

March 4, 2016 by Jeann @ Happy Indulgence | Books, Chatterbox, Features

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We’ve come a long way in the worldview of feminism in the last couple of years. Feminism is no longer about man hating, appearing girly or weak, or even about doing the same things that men can do. Feminism is about equality, embracing the differences of each gender and bringing the issues of being a woman to light. About treating all humans the same, whether you are male, female, gay or heterosexual with the same rights, the same liberties and the same opportunities.

I’m proud to call myself a feminist, but unfortunately, there is still that misconception out there for what it truly is about. And that’s what I still find troubling in fiction, particularly YA fiction that claims to be feminist.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks for example, is a book that is widely lauded to be feminist. However, I took issue with how the main character outwardly claimed to be feminist, yet instead of embracing gender differences and letting boys be boys, she takes issue with the fact that she can’t be part of a male exclusive club. If there’s anyone with an inferiority complex about being a woman, it’s Frankie, and instead of pursuing equality she’s here criticising others.

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I probably don’t have to tell you how anti-feminist books the countless books with the docile, female Bella Swans are, who sit around pining away for their knight in shining armour. I get sick of these characters who have nothing better to do than obsess about a guy’s pecs and daydream about two male leads, instead of bettering their own lives or pursuing their own passions. Or even heroines who get stuck in some sort of nasty situation and wait for the guys to save them. Save yourself, you’re a capable young woman. That’s why I hated Of Poseidon. 

There’s also the tomboy notion of feminism, where liking pretty dresses, shopping and “female” activities like berry picking and sewing apparently makes you weak. You see these sorts of “feminist” heroines in fantasy fiction a lot. Being a strong heroine doesn’t mean that you have to have kickass fighting abilities, that you can wield a sword or bow and arrow and that you can even hold on your own in battle. That’s being a kickass fighter. And as much as I enjoy the stoic fighting female, there’s more to feminist than being that.

Being a feminist is more in the values that you hold – that you don’t rely on men to better your lives, that you can hold on your own no matter the situation and that sometimes – you just accept that you aren’t the best fighter so you’ll use what you have to make it work – like your intelligence or your brain. This is why I loved Kestrel in The Winner’s Curse – you can read my review here.

So what are some books that do portray feminism in a healthy and realistic manner?

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1. Celaena Sardothien (Throne of Glass Review), who IS a kickass assassin who will gut you but who also enjoys food, finery, pretty dresses and shopping. And no one will ever call her weak.

2. Kestral (The Winner’s Curse Review), who has honed her strategic thinking and intelligence for the art of war. Even when things seem dire, she will find a way out of it, using her smarts and her sharp wit, instead of brawn or other men as protection.

3. Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) , who puts her hand up in the face of death and danger to save her sister. She does not need a man to save her. There’s more to life than choosing which guy you’ll end up with, and Katniss is focused on overthrowing the Capitol.

4. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter), who is sharp, loyal, intelligent and totally witty. I don’t know where Harry and the gang would be without her brains, loyalty and friendship.

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5. Linh Cinder (Lunar Chronicles Review), who is half cyborg who understands her limitations and her goals. She will do absolutely ANYTHING to help and protect the ones that she loves, and this doesn’t mean she never gets knocked down. This means she embraces what she is, and she goes for the end goal, no matter what stands in the way.

6. Meg Corbyn (The Others Review), a physically fragile protagonist but a mentally and morally strong one. She’ll do absolutely ANYTHING to protect the ones she loves, and because of her innocence, compassion and bravery, she’s quickly earned the respect of the monsters in the world, who will actually eat you.

7. Joanne Baldwin (Weather Warden Review), who is a weather warden who gets absolutely EVERYTHING thrown at her. It’s like Murphy’s Law for this one, but she’s incredibly powerful, snarky, and isn’t phased by danger. She’s looking out for the greater good.

8. Sal Mitchell (Parasitology Review), who has to relearn everything after an amnesia causing accident. She’s quick to learn what is right and wrong, and to learn that things aren’t as easy as they seem on the surface. I loved her tenacity and her ability to see things for what they really are.

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9. June Iparis (Legend Trilogy), a super smart prodigy who is tasked to hunt down the nation’s fugitive. June has gotten where she has with her intelligence and decision-making, but she’s also incredibly selfless and sympathises with others.

10. Rose Hathaway (Vampire Academy), a vampire guardian who is witty, hilarious and a protector. She’s fiery, impulsive and sarcastic, incredibly loyal and resourceful. I love how she matures over the course of the series but she’s not without her flaws.

What do you think of feminism in fiction? Who are you favourite feminist heroines?

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Jeann is an Aussie blogger, gamer, reader who loves to read, write, fangirl, geek out and eat food. You can find me glued to one of my many mobile devices 24/7, or fangirling over the latest YA book, TV show, movie or game. Chat with me on Twitter @happyindulgence

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62 responses to “Chatterbox: Feminism in Books & Top 10 Feminist Heroines

  1. danielaark

    Absolutely LOVE this post! couldn't agree more with your definition of feminism 🙂

  2. I agree with you 100%, Jeann! I think it's OK to want to wear make-up and cute clothes, and we can still be feminists! There are a lot of things we can all do every now and then to help others see that our gender shouldn't be an advantage or a hinderance in our daily lives.
    Sometimes, I love a real kick-ass heroine, but I also enjoy the ones that are a little quieter, and who rather show with their smaller actions, or with words that they are for equality in every way.
    Great post! No idea why I didn't see it when it was first posted 🙂
    My recent post Review: Acting Brave – Helena Newbury

    • Thanks Lexxie, I completely agree that we should embrace our femininity (or not, if that\’s not up your alley.) I love embracing the different heroines that fiction has to offer!

  3. Thank you! I have such a thing for strong independent women in all media that it is a complete and utter joy to find this post – full of books that I haven't read too 😀 I know where they'll be going ♥
    My recent post 2015 in Review

    • And by strong independent women I mean those who are happy and willing to stand up for their beliefs/don't let men run all over them verse the 'kick arse' I can do everything myself if that makes sense?
      My recent post 2015 in Review

    • I totally know what you mean Alex, we want strong independent women who aren\’t afraid to stand up for themselves and their beliefs but it\’s still okay for them to rely on men if you know what I mean?

  4. Thanks Summer, I absolutely loved Rose and the fact that she was flawed made her all the more authentic. So glad to hear you loved TWC, it was sooo good! I can't wait for the next book!

  5. sumlynnnguyen

    Even though I'm only familiar with only half of the heroines you mentioned I really agree with your choices, Jeann! Rose Hathaway is probably one of my favorite female characters despite her flaws. And I recently finished reading The Winner's Curse and TWC2. I loved them so much. Kestrel is such a nontraditional heroine since she's not physically strong but I love her for that. 😀
    My recent post Summer Says: The Types of (Book) Bloggers

  6. I completely agree with that Geraldine, I wish it had a healthier perception now because it is a serious and empowering topic. Thank you so much, I hope you enjoy the characters! Let me know how you go!

  7. These are FABULOUS, Jeann! I agree with you that it is SO important to show characters who are female AND varied- because there is no such thing as a cookie cutter feminist- that's basically negating the term! I love the female leads that you've picked, and I agree with all of the ones I have read! (And you know, especially Katniss 😉 ) But also Celaena, and Kestrel, and June, and Cinder. And I definitely want to add a lot of these to my list too! Such a great post!!
    My recent post Double the Flails: The Steep & Thorny Way and The Serpent King

    • I completely agree Shannon! I had to pick all different ones for a reason, but they are all awesome in their own way. I can't wait for you to read them!

  8. This post is on point. I couldn't agree more with you. I especially love the comments about strength and the tomboy notion of feminism. You don't have to be badass to be strong and embracing your femininity doesn't make you any less of a feminist. I feel like acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses is so important and it's the way you apply the skills you have that matter. That's why I will never say asking for help is a weakness because here the person is acknowledging the fact that the problem they're facing is more than the person can handle alone. I am so excited to get my hands on The Winner's Trilogy and I love the fact that as a character she embraces her intelligence.
    My recent post Top Ten Tuesday: Characters people like but I don’t

    • Thank you so much Lois! I completely agree, being feminist means female empowerment and that you stand up for your gender – what's not to like about that? I love what you say about asking for help too – it's recognising when you need it, and having the strength to ask for it. I absolutely LOVE Kestrel! I hope you enjoy the series.

  9. Rose Hathaway, definitely!! I also really love Lila Bard in A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab!
    Throne of Glass has been on my list for so long, and now that you've brought it up here, I think I MUST read it.

    Thanks so much for this post. I think talking about feminism is so important, and it should be brought up in YA books, (instead of slut-shaming etc…).
    My recent post Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

    • Oh man, I still have to read ADSOM, I can't wait, especially now that you say the character in there is awesome. YOU HAVE TO READ THRONE OF GLASS. It's my favourite! No problems, I definitely think it's an important topic to reinforce.

  10. YES TO THESE. I basically just want to see ALL SORTS of girls in YA, y'know? I mean, using ASOIAF as an example everyone loves Arya Stark, but we also need the Sansa Starks and the Margaery Tyrells and basically EVERYONE. So the solution to badass fighter girls becoming the face of YA feminism is basically ALL THE GIRLS, in my opinion. I have Legend on my shelf and now I am 300% more excited to read it!
    My recent post What Makes a FANTASTIC Sequel? | A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab

    • I completely agree with you, I love how GOT has those different strong females (like Danaerys!). I absolutely LOVE Legend, I wouldn't mind a reread actually!

  11. I think that was the problem to begin with. Feminism was interpreted as a movement that promotes man-hating instead of being against the dictates of a patriarchal society. Over the years, the definition just got murkier and murkier. I know some may feel like feminism has become a political ploy, but I'm glad it's gotten so mainstream that girls and boys are learning to differentiate the feminism that we now know vs. the old definition of the word.
    My recent post [616]: The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

    • I know, and these days it still has that negative connotation about it which I hate. I'm so glad to know that it's finally becoming mainstream! But I still think it's got a ways to go.

  12. Cyn @ Bookmunchies

    Great post on feminism, Jeann! It drives me nuts when people don't seem to understand the definition of feminism and instead go to that default stereotypical definition of man-hating etc. etc. Like dude, everyone can be a feminist.

    Save yourself, you’re a capable young woman. <— This so much! Some heroines definitely drive me crazy. Anyways, I love your list, and big yeses to Cinder, and Kestrel and Hermione (and everyone on that list, ha).

    Have you read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? A great short essay!
    My recent post Review: Ten Thousand Skies Above You by Claudia Gray

    • Thank you Cyn! I know, the stereotype is just unhealthy and today there's still that misconception out there that it's about manhating which is so not true. I haven't read that one, but thanks for highlighting that one Cyn! I'll have to check it out.

  13. Omgosh Jeann, this is an amazing discussion. I have absolutely nothing to add because you've said everything that needs to be said, and quite eloquently might I add. More people need to realise that feminism = equality and stop wasting their time arguing otherwise.

    • Thank you so much Joy! I totally agree with that, it's annoying when I see people making a mockery out of "feminists!"

  14. YES! YES! YES!!!
    I AGREE WITH ALL OF THIS AWESOMENESS!!!
    I think its so important to have a strong female heroine especially in a genre which has a lot of young readers as the audience. It breaks the stigma of the 'damsel in the distress' archetype and shows women and men that gender equality is important and how they are portrayed is also so. SUCH A GREAT DISCUSSION POST, JEANN!!!!
    My recent post Book Review: Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach

    • I completely agree Faith, it's important to have ones that we can all relate to and reinforce empowerment to women! I am not the biggest fan of damsels in distress at all. Thank you Faith!

  15. Josephine

    Absolutely fantastic! There are different portrayals of feminism in our literature today. Some of them are quite infuriating, as you said, with the classic tomboy feminism which I don't mind, but I don't think it's dominantly about that. Feminism, as you said, isn't about that, but more about the values we hold as women and the belief that we, as women, are as strong and capable as men, without needing to do the things men do, dress like them, or have the same likes and dislikes as them!
    I agree that Celaena is an incredible example of a feminist. Loves luxury and indulges herself significantly, but is able to kick the asses of her opponents and can protect herself so well. GIRL POWER.
    My recent post Does Book Blogging Change a Person’s Reading Style/Personality?

    • Thank you so much Josie! I know, there are some that are just annoying and blatant representations which I don't think are healthy or realistic. I completely agree, we embrace each other gender's differences but there is no right or wrong way to do things, or things you HAVE to like or not like. I absolutely LOVE Celaena, that's why it's one of my favourite series!

    • Thanks so much Emily! I completely agree, Luna was such a quirky and whimsical character who I really liked! I feel like it's pretty slow as well, but hopefully the new feminist movement will start to provide healthier education to people.

  16. Trisha Ann

    I agree with you completely Jean! There's so much confusion about equating feminism to man-hating or lesbianism. For me, Hermione and Celaena nailed it in this department. I have yet to read some other feminist characters on this list. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • I completely agree, and I really hate that notion of it! I think we should all spread this positive message now. No problems Trisha, thanks for the comment!

  17. Jeann, I know you just made this post for me [;

    But yes girl, you know how much I adore feminism and when I see it YA?! Yes. I absolutely love it. Honestly feminism is so important and so often it gets misrepresented into something it isn't. You're definitely correct that there is SOOOO many misconceptions about it, which is why proper representation in the media (which includes YA fiction) is vital in informing and encouraging feministic ideals.

    And oooo yes girl, unfortunately I've also read quite a few YA novels that aren't so feminist at all. Sexism, internalized misogyny, girl hate, slut shaming…those are all things I've not only read in some YA novels but even seen being promoted as a positive. It's so discouraging that there also does seem (at least to me) to be more novels that have anti-feministic themes than positive feminism based ones. And the ones that do have roots in feminism do seem to be more often than not the ones you mentioned, where the MC is some totally kickass warrior….but of course seems to shy away from any traditionally feminine traits. Cause, you know- being girly is totally a sign of weakness *rolls eyes*

    Love some of the characters you mentioned! Hermione is definitely I find to be really feminist and awesome. Cinder is of course epic too, she's so loyal and steadfast. Krestel is everything I adore, placed in a situation where physical strength is generally just hailed but instead displays her insane strategic prowess.

    Amazing post! <33 (crossing my fingers that this comment will ACTUALLY post)

    • YES I have missed your long comments Larissa! I know, like it just annoys me how so many contemporaries seem to have the wrong idea about feminism, healthy female friendships and just a healthy attitude in general when it comes to other women. Being feminine should be embraced, and that doesn't mean that you are weak just because you like children or fashion or food! It's so silly the way it's been misconstrued. I absolutely LOVED Cinder, Hermione and Kestrel as well! Thank you so much <3 I'm so glad it's posted without any problems!

  18. Your post is so accurate. I'm 100% okay with all the characters you choose concerning feminism. I hate that some girls think that to be a feminist, you shouldn't act like "a real girl", it drives me crazy. Like once, one of my friends told me that it was so cliche that pink was one of my favourite colors. Like what even it's a color like another, right? I'm really happy to see more feminist characters in YA fiction though, but I'm really tired of it being an excuse to just feature kick-ass and tough characters, you know? And Celaena is just what should be done: she LOVES her comfort and dresses… But she's super kick-ass. I think authors should mix different characteristics way more, because I feel like sometimes, their characters are one-dimensional. It's starting to change though, which makes me really happy. YA fiction also need more characters like Kestrel, because NO, she isn't good at fighting (no matter what the new covers showed), but she's tough thanks to her brain. I really like that kind of model, because it's easier to relate to. I mean, I don't know how to fight so no matter how much I love Celaena… I can't change things by fighting. Great post! 🙂
    My recent post A compelling Aladdin retelling | The Forbidden Wish

    • What the heck? How is it cliche that pink is a favourite colour? You can definitely tell that pink is my favourite colour but I don't associate that with anything, only that you like it? I completely agree, I'm so glad to see a wider spectrum of awesome feminist characters about. I just LOVE Celaena and how she can be snobbish about things and indulge. YES Kestrel is such an unconventional heroine, but I feel like we need more like her! Thank you Lucie, for your lovely comment!

  19. I love this post, Jeann!
    I take offense when feminism in books is only associated with characters who are physically strong. That's not what feminism is to me at all. Like you said, there are so many different ways to be a feminist and I love that you featured all the different kinds in your post.
    I haven't read all these books yet, but I agree with all of the ones you mentioned that I did.
    Kestrel, Katniss, Hermione, Cinder, Meg, June and Rose are some of my favorite heroines. I'm glad you included Rose especially because she's usually dismissed as being a strong character because of some of her behaviors at the beginning of the series. She did so much of growing up and by the end, she was amazing!
    Brilliant post, Jeann!
    My recent post Review: Blood Passage by Heather Demetrios

    • I completely agree Nick, while I don't mind kickass characters, it isn't the only way to display strong femininity you know? I absolutely LOVE all of these heroines that I listed, and I just love Rose especially her character development throughout the series! She shows to us that you don't need to be perfect to be strong!

  20. BooksatDawn

    Books definitely need more kick butt females who aren't afraid to embrace their gender and bend the rules where they see fit! I also want to see LGBT+ characters that break the stereotypes in books.

    Great post! 😀
    My recent post The Coffee Book Tag | Books at Dawn

    • I completely agree, and I'm glad that I'm seeing more of them come out now! I'm sick of the docile Bella Swans! I am seeing better fleshed out LGBT now which is good, but it would be good to have more.

  21. corrallingbooks

    I 100% agree with everything you said here! A lot of people have a misconception about feminism being man-hating, about how feminists can't like wearing pretty dresses etc., but so not true!
    It's so great that books have a bunch of feminist characters that we can read about – I love your list so much, because all the characters I know on that list represent what feminism is to me! Great post, Jeann!
    My recent post The Fate Of Ten By Pittacus Lore | Ten Out of Ten Book

  22. I agree with Celaena, Cinder, Hermione and June! Some books have kickass female characters, but at some point they'll turn into damsel in distress or they won't stop thinking about their love interests. But these four girls don't let their emotions clouded their judgements, and they'd do what they had to do (overthrow the goverment, kill the evil wizard, free the house elves, etc). They know what they have to do, and they won't let anyone stop them<3 And they also love "girly things"; Celaena with her beautiful dresses, Hermione with knitting, Cinder fangirling with Prince Kai, and June with dresses or her appearence I think. And they're still amazing and they sometimes they even saves the boys. So yeah, they're just amazing!
    My recent post The Unfinished Series

    • I know, it's so annoying when they turn into damsels and all they think about is their love interest! I completely agree with what you said about these characters, I absolutely love their passion and conviction. I'm glad you love them as well Tasya, thanks for visiting!

  23. Ooh, I totally agree! I LOVE feministic books and I love heroines I can root for because they're fighting themselves and not being wilting damsels. I do hate it how "tough" and "kick butt" have become kind of the face of YA feminism though. I mean, I'm with you: I LOVE THOSE CHARACTERS. But that's not necessarily feminism. You don't have to forsake nice clothes and know how to punch someone in order to be a feminist. KESTREL. <333 I honestly think we need more Kestrel's in YA fantasy!! It's so refreshing to see someone NOT into violence, but just as smart and capable and admirable. GAHHH. I want to re-read that entire series now. :')

    I also add Annabeth to the list! 😀 Percy basically slowed her down. xD And definitely Shazi from The Wrath and the Dawn. And basically every female character Maggie Stiefvater ever writes. :')

    • I completely agree, damsels really annoy me so much! Yeah, just because you're not kickass doesn't mean you're a strong feminist character. I completely agree Cit! Kestrel is awesome, I love her so much. Annabeth is such a FANTASTIC character! Agh I need to read the rest of that MS series

  24. Kara

    Yessss, Celaena!! <3 One of my favourite heroines–just after Hermione. I quite literally grew up with the characters in HP, and she always inspired me so, so much

    • Completely agree, they are both such amazingly strong characters for different reasons! I loved Hermione so much, you can be brainy and totally kickass at the same time.