In this penultimate article of Heroes fortnight, we evaluate the dichotomy of heroes versus heroines. How do their journey’s differ? Are there any similarities? What could be done differently?
Let’s not sugar-coat things. Men as heroes tend to be dominant in all forms of storytelling, while women take a backseat that usually involves supporting the male hero. In 2014 only 12% of protagonists from the top 100 grossing films were women and female characters held only 30% of speaking roles (Lauzen. M, 2015), a shocking figure considering the success of films such as the Hunger Games, Gone Girl and Maleficent. When eponymous men do take a backseat in their films in favour of women, these films are accused of being ‘feminist propaganda’. Books with female protagonists are less likely to win awards, children’s books have been accused of a lack of representation of women, with over twice as many books featuring male protagonists. It is only the Young Adult category that combats this, with far more female protagonists and a dominance of female authors. However, despite films’ or literatures’ desire to follow suit, there have been progressions in the world of gaming and TV.
Yes, gaming, I know, it comes across as a complete shock after the horror of 2014 gaming disaster that shall not be named, but E3 2015 was a refreshing look at female driven stories with over 23 games having the option of playing a female protagonist. Meanwhile television is pampering us with excellent developed female characters, with shows like the 100 putting women in leadership roles. Even comics introduced several new female titles Angela: Asgard’s Assassin, A-force, Silk, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Thor. But can we truly argue that these short runs (Angela, 6 issues; Silk, 8 issues; Squirrel Girl, 8 issues; Thor, 8 issues) are enough when male driven comics go on for hundreds of issues? For the purpose of this essay we will mostly focus on YA literature (we are called YA Teabreak after all!) but we will try to ask the following questions. Why are heroes favoured over heroines? Why is YA dominated by female protagonists? What is really the difference between a hero and a heroine?
Common traits attributed to male heroes depends on the age it’s written for. Adult literature and film tends to show an attractive yet rugged hero, such as Aragorn from Lord of the Rings. These characters are often ‘ladykillers’ (Nolan from Defiance) and it’s more than frequent that the ‘tough’ female supporting character is attracted to him despite his dalliances. On the opposite end of the scale, you have the weak, uncertain but ‘chosen’ male protagonist, with no expertise. This is a common trope in film and as in Bulletproof Monk, the Matrix, Edge of Tomorrow and the Lego Movie, the far-more-qualified, to-be-the-chosen-one female protagonist falls in love with him, because they’d rather date the chosen one than be the chosen one. In Middle Grade fiction, male characters tend to be uncertain and chosen (Harry Potter, Callum Hunt, Percy Jackson) supported by one male and one female character. The female will always become a love interest for one of the two males in the trio.
Female heroes on the other hand are often portrayed under the guise of ‘strong female protagonist’. In the case of film, this usually means that the heroine is stripped of any femininity, hates being compared to other women and is part of the ‘elite’ boy’s club. However, YA shows a breadth of female heroines. Some needy and insecure (Bella Swan from Twilight), while others are arrogant and self-centred (Celaena Sardothien from Throne of Glass). This variety has led to incredibly well developed female characters, with just as many flaws as they have skills. YA is one of the rare categories that actually allow female characters to be flawed.
In general female characters are strong and stubborn whereas male characters are allowed to be weak but this is especially true in YA. Katniss Everdeen (the Hunger Games), Tris Prior (Divergent), Celaena Sardothien (Throne of Glass) are united in their similar personalities: they are determined, strong-willed individuals who hate showing weakness. In contrast, of the few YA male protagonists around, they don’t share the same character traits as their female counterparts. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Thomas (the Maze Runner), Eragon are all timid and unsure of themselves to begin with. There is no power in them, the point of the story is their journey to power and they are not afraid to break down.
However, there is one common factor that the majority of heroes and heroines have in common. Most are either orphans, Harry Potter and Celaena Sardothien (Throne of Glass); have lost one parent, Percy Jackson and Katniss Everdeen (the Hunger Games); or have divorced/separated parents; and Nathan Byrn (Half Bad) and Bella Swan (Twilight). Whether male or female, YA has a reluctance to give their heroes a stable family background.
In general fiction, heroines are still rare. YA is an anomaly, which has filled a gap in the market for strong female protagonists. Even heroines in other mediums have been taken from YA: Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games films and Clarke Griffin from the 100 TV show. So why is YA one of the few categories where heroines are more common than heroes? It is probably due to the prevalence of female authors in YA.
As we discussed in our ‘Why YA Matters’ post, men still dominate the literature world and YA is one of the few age categories where female authors don’t need to consider hiding their gender. As a result, this had led to well-developed female heroes written by women for women, however it has had the negative side effect of a lack of male protagonists in YA. Characters like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, while iconic and memorable are often remembered more for their journey and the friend who accompany them than their own personality. When trying to come up with our favourite male characters in books, we both had difficulty identifying who to chose and couldn’t select a hero from YA.
Love is often an important part of a hero’s/ heroine’s journey, especially in YA. In most cases this manifests in the form of love traingles, particularly for female characters. Katniss has to choose between Peeta and Gale, Bella had Edward and Jacob, Celaena has Dorian and Chaol. When it comes to MG, the male character often has one love interest, such as in Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, however male orientated YA follows the same structure. In Half Bad, Nathan has Annalise and Gabriel, in the Maze Runner series Thomas has Teresa and Brenda.
Outside of YA, romance is treated differently. For heroines it’s often considered the ‘end game’, the time where they ‘settle down’ and have a family. Whereas for male characters, their love interest is treated as a reward for the heroism and more often than not a damsel to be saved, even when they don’t want to be (ie. Megara from Hercules; “I’m a damsel, I’m in distress, I can handle it.”)
Another difference between heroes and heroines, is that heroines often stumble upon their calling, finding it their own way. Lara Croft became an archaeologist and adventurer because of her father, Black Widow was trained as an assassin, Katniss was thrown into the Hunger Games; however, male characters often fall into the characteristic of the ‘Chosen One’. We’ve already discussed this in regard to films such as Bulletproof Monk, the Lego Movie and Kung Fu Panda but it’s prevalent in all forms of media. The trope is played with in Harry Potter, the Magisterium, Good Omens, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Percy Jackson books. Only television subverts this trope with the majority of ‘Chosen’ being the heroines instead of the hero; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Nine Live of Chloe King, Once Upon a Time and the Legend of Korra (and by extension the Last Airbender, a series that has as many male and female ‘Chosen Ones’).
Historically, the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey have not been equivalent. With the expansion of the different entertainment medium, we are beginning to see a shift in the portrayal of female protagonists, but there is still progress to be made. The term ‘hero’, no longer solely refers to a male protagonist, but has become gender-neutral in its application. And perhaps something else to consider is that gender isn’t binary. The dichotomy of male vs female is not so clear cut because gender is a spectrum. YA embraces this diversity, and we hope that such diversity will find its way into broader horizons.
– Nadia and Elizabeth