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  • Karen Frost

How do We Write Heroes for Girls?

Iron Man. Captain America. Thor. What do these characters have in common? Among other salient characteristics, they're all male superheroes who live without a shred of self-doubt. If asked, "Who's the greatest Avenger?" they would all raise their hand.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how society shapes young boys and girls. What do we wittingly and unwittingly tell young people about their roles--including what they can and can't do (capabilities and abilities both current and future)--and how does that impact how they view themselves? One of the ways we teach cultural/societal morals, values and behavior is through legends and myths. The heroes of folktales (or comic books or movies or TV) become role models whose idealized behavior is highlighted as worthy of admiration and imitation.

But there's a difference between the stories we tell young boys and the stories we tell young girls. For millenia, we have told boys that male heroes are powerful, fearless, and masters of their own destiny. From Theseus, Perseus and Hercules to Deadpool and Superman, male (super)heroes don't have self-esteem issues. They don't worry about imposter syndrome. They don't have negative self talk. Alexander the Great, whose real life has become a legend in itself, conquered the known world by age 32. A hero, we understand from his example, believes in his own greatness. He doesn't question whether he can achieve his goals. He knows he can.

Some people might argue these sorts of flawless characters contribute to toxic masculinity by making young boys feel inadequate in comparison and as though they can't show feelings that might be interpreted as "weakness." They feel like they need to pump iron, never show emotions, and engage in "manly" pastimes like hunting and wrestling in order to fit the mold of what society views as a "man." However, I choose to have a more positive interpretation: by highlighting the bravery and moral strength of these fictional heroes, we create positive role models for young boys. King Arthur and his Round Table inspire. They don't intimidate. Boys can look at heroes like the Lone Ranger and see a world of possibility. If the Lone Ranger can do it, they can too.

But when it comes to girls, the stories we tell aren't intended to inspire bravery and ambition in the same way. We don't tell them about Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fought for the Trojans during the Trojan War. Instead, we tell them about Cinderella, who escaped domestic servitude to dress up and marry a prince. Or Little Red Riding Hood, the dutiful daughter who is sent out to bring her sick grandmother food and instead discovers a wolf. In the absence of women in myth (a separate discussion about sexist gatekeeping throughout the history of storytelling), we tend to default to real life individuals: Marie Curie, Susan B. Anthony, Sally Ride, etc. But these are no swashbucklers. They didn't ride into battle swinging swords. Their triumph is over sexism, not over mythical beasts or armies.

(By the way, it's not that there aren't cool women warriors, just that they're not as celebrated as their male counterparts. Everyone knows about Joan of Arc, but who knows about Grace O'Malley, an Irish woman who ruled over the Umaill kingdom of Ireland as chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and later engaged in piracy with the permission of Queen Elizabeth I? Or Tomoe Gozen, one of only a handful of female samurai in Japan's history and who fought in the Genpei War and was described as a remarkably strong archer and superb swordswoman?)

Lately, there's been a trend in YA writing to write female protagonists with self-doubt. They worry they're not good enough. They question their worth to society. Rather than believing in their inherent ability to conquer worlds, they are surprised when they succeed. This mindset may be true to the reality of most girls, but I worry that by putting it down on the page, rather than teaching girls to believe in themselves, we're accidentally telling them that they should have negative self talk. They shouldn't believe in endless possibilities before them. Are we unintentionally subliminally messaging them not to have ambition?

I ran into some of this problem while writing the world of "Destiny and Darkness." I wanted one of my characters to be fearless. I wanted her to be a role model for strength and bravery. I wanted her to be as confident as male characters are, a Hector or an Achilles. But what happened is that my editor didn't find that character to be credible. It was unrealistic for her to have no fear. So I changed the character and gave her doubt. Not an excessive amount, but some. The change is fine and the character is still a good role model, but she's no Hector.

There's a tension in writing women that doesn't seem to exist as much with men. It is expected that female characters are more emotional. They have more negative emotions like doubt and fear. So how do we write female heroes that inspire young girls to dream big while still allowing them to be multi-faceted emotionally? I think it requires that authors think hard about whether they've added too much self-doubt to characters who are meant to inspire. What is the message girls will get from the character--bravery or fear?

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