Mon
Jan 18 2010 5:12pm

Girl

I wore full slips under my dresses when I was a kid. We Vis girls wore tights and bloomers under our jumpers at school, and I had my share of tiptoing from the car to the house trying to keep my slippery, black, patent leather party shoes out of the snow. Good girls had party dresses and regular day dresses, knee-length and long. If we wore shorts, culottes or overalls, we knew we were daring into tom-boy territory.

Then, about the time I hit the self-consciousness of puberty, my neighborhood baby-sitter Cathie Hartnett gave me a tee-shirt with a cross-stitch design on it declaring: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF A WOMAN. The irony of the cross-stitching, the labor of patience and pigeon-holed creativity, went way over my head, but the shirt garnered plenty of reactions from my brothers and my father’s friends, who took delight in cracking jokes about women’s lib.

In short, it was fashion that clued me in to how the world was changing for women and girls back then, and now in the time-travel method of memory, I feel like I’ve just written a book for the teen I was.

Strong girls are clear winners in sci fi these days, and if it seems like they’ve popped out of nowhere, it’s because their predecessors—Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Offred from Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale obviously come to mind—have been far outnumbered by their brother protagonists.

Just two years ago, when I was working on the first draft of Birthmarked, Collin’s The Hunger Games, Pearson’s The Adoration of Jenna Fox and Meyer’s The Host had not come out yet, and the books I liked—The Giver, House of the Scorpion, Ender’s Game, Anthem, Holes, and Among the Hidden—were all about boys.  I liked the action, science and politics involved.  I loved how they made me think about society. 

But where, I wondered, were the girls? I was surrounded by princesses and shoppers and the newly dead, all wonderful in their ways, but I wanted a girl grounded in fact and grit. I wanted a girl to be in charge of her own futuristic story.

I have a couple of sweeping theories I might as well throw out here: genre fiction like romance, sci fi, fantasy, horror, mystery and western ends well. Maybe it isn’t all Ewoks dancing, but you can trust there will be some version of justice or at least hope at the finish. Literary fiction is the opposite. It ends badly. You can see the train wreck coming, and then, bam, Lennie is dead.

I’ll also throw out that some books are devoted to the private domain: relationships, love, home, mating and children. In the private domain, court life is not grueling diplomacy or international posturing, but a backdrop for fashion and a tiara. Books concerned with the public domain, by contrast, deal with politics, crime, military, science, and medicine. Guess which books typically get the girl protagonists?

Right.

Or at least, that’s been the case until lately. Why more girl protagonists are showing up in sci fi now, precisely, is something I can’t answer, but my girlhood self is rejoicing to see it. My old cross-stitch tee-shirt is rising from the dust, vindicated.

And here’s my discovery. The key is to cross domains. Take a girl protagonist, a real one who is smart and hard-working and loyal and brave, and put her in a public domain book. If her personal decisions put her in conflict with her society, and those decisions have repercussions that affect others, very cool things can happen. That’s what I did with Gaia Stone in Birthmarked.

It seemed to be the humanist thing to do.


Caragh O’Brien’s futuristic, dystopian story, Birthmarked, is due out from Roaring Brook Press in April, 2010. It is her first young adult novel.

7 comments
Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
"Take a girl protagonist, a real one who is smart and hard-working and loyal and brave, and put her in a public domain book. If her personal decisions put her in conflict with her society, and those decisions have repercussions that affect others, very cool things can happen."

Sounds like Vin from Sanderson's Mistborn series, which I very much enjoyed. Nice to see a kick butt girl protagonist - especially when they have to add to her stress by pulling the My Fair Lady trick of dressing the former street urchin up to go to fancy dress balls and spy. Tons of fun. Rob
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
Buffy and Lois Lane were my heroes growing up. Both were tough, no nonsense women who could kick ass and take names, but could also fall in love and be loved in return. Now my hero is Amanda F'ing Palmer for the same reasons. They are who they are with no apologies, and I love that.

You don't have to give up being a wife or a girlfriend for feminism, or vice versa. And if she chooses not to fall in love, more power to her. The very fact that she has a choice and is actively involved in making that choice is so awesome to me.

These are the kinds of protagonists that we need more of. Give girls more "Girl Power" now and they'll be even stronger as adults.
cranscape
3. cranscape
When I was in my young teens I was all about Dana Scully from The X-Files and Kira from DS9. Sure, they weren't teens like me, but I had no problem idolizing them. They were smart, kick-ass, and fully fleshed out. I am glad those fictional heroes over some of the crap (Twilight) girls flock to these days. Its frightening to think what that is doing to the next generation.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
cranscape @ 3: I work as a Reference Librarian at a municipal library. They wanted to show Twilight for teens during Christmas break and I made such a stink about it that they showed one of the Harry Potter movies instead. I just HATE Bella in the books/movies. She's so utterly passive and weak-willed. And telling girls that they're suppose to like it when their boyfriend stalks them, verbally and emotionally abuses them, and basically acts like an all around dick is even worse than letting them idolize Noah and Miley Cyrus. It's one thing to be a crappy movie and another to promote abusive and dysfunctional relationships.
Leigh Butler
5. leighdb
I distinctly remember reading A Wrinkle in Time as a child and being gobsmacked that Meg was portrayed as a mathematical prodigy.

I really don't know where exactly I got the idea that girls weren't supposed to be good at math (certainly not from my parents), but there that insidious, confidence-sapping notion was in my brain, and Meg was my first very important clue that it was bullshit.

For that alone L'Engle deserves every ounce of praise she's ever gotten. That the books themselves are wonderful to boot is just icing on the cake.
cranscape
6. Sihaya
"The irony of the cross-stitching, the labor of patience and pigeon-holed creativity, went way over my head, "

What irony, precisely? Sorry, but I don't get it, and I'm thirty. She used a skill that she knew well, and possibly one in which she had great pride, to create a message that apparently propelled you forward in life. Not ironic at all. Any skill is valuable.
Rick Rutherford
7. rutherfordr
Sihaya,
The irony is that a long time ago, cross-stitching is one of those skills that all girls were required to try to master, and if a girl could do it well, it was an indication that she would make a good wife (because it demonstrated her patience and self-discipline).

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