Hillary Clinton almost wrested the Democratic nomination for president last year. In endorsing Barack Obama she spoke of being unable “to shatter that highest hardest glass ceiling this time [but] thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks.” Clinton did for women what Barack Obama did for blacks. Women were no longer content to remain second class citizens; playing second fiddle to males and acting submissive to them.
Just as significantly as Clinton being a woman was the fact she had flaws . . . more than a few. It was her complexity that made her so compelling. She was someone women could identify with, not the perfect female heroine with the sizzling body and glowing personality. Women saw a lot of themselves in Hillary Clinton and supported her despite her failings.
Adolescent girls now more than ever need literary protagonists they can identify with – warts and all. Too often females are secondary characters (significant, yet subordinate). The Harry Potter series revolves around, well, Harry Potter (ironically proving a woman can create compelling male characters).
Adolescent girls, so confident in elementary school, face an identity crisis and a battering to their self-esteem beginning in middle school. As an educator for 28 years I’m the first to admit teachers are often to blame (girls aren’t as capable in math and the sciences far too many teachers believe. It’s rubbish, but that’s what pre-teen and teenage girls are taught to believe). Parents aren’t as involved as they should be so adolescent girls don’t get encouragement from the home.
Girls at this age need to read about others like themselves. They need to read about other girls who lack self-confidence, are full of contradictions, are childish, headstrong, selfish, jealous and bitchy. They need to see, too, that these same literary characters can be confident, inspiring, compassionate yet strong. They need role models who are able to make almost impossible choices and live with the consequences; female protagonists who can lead and accomplish as much or more than their male counterparts.
Teens have to read about girls who get knocked down, bloodied and battered, yet get up to fight another day. They need literary protagonists they can say, “That could be me. I’m not a freak. Others have the same self-doubts and insecurities as I have. I’m not alone . . . and I can prevail.”
Girls need strong-willed and flawed literary role models to shatter stereotypes that hold them back. Boys protect girls. They strut their stuff when their girl is challenged or endangered. Women couldn’t fight in wars until recently and even now can’t fight in combat units. Girls are nurses (not even doctors, for the most part) in relative safety behind the lines helping to patch up the wounded.
And we can’t ignore the double standard when it comes to sexuality. A girl who is sexually active is a slut or “easy.” Yet, sexually active boys are studs. On the other hand a girl who doesn’t let her boyfriend get to second or third base (much less home) is a tease. Is it any wonder girls are confused? Sexually, regardless how an adolescent girl responds she faces negative connotations, yet for boys to be aggressive is “manly.”
Where are literary role models to counteract these stereotypes? Far too few exist. And with the vast number of heroic males literature only reinforces stereotypes males have of females and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Boys lead and protect. Girls follow.
Authors need to follow the example of Hillary Clinton and provide flawed, complex yet heroic female protagonists. We need female characters who refuse to submit to their male counterparts. Female characters adolescents can identify with.