Strong in the Real Way: My five fave feminine (feminist) heroines

If you’ve been keeping in touch with the YA world, you’ll probably have heard of the Bergstrom controversy. If not, it’s summed up excellently here by Laura Tims.

This isn’t the first time that feminine-coded behaviour and interests have been devalued, with masculine-coded behaviour and interests held up as the gold standard to which all “kick-ass heroines” must aspire. In fact, it’s not even the millionth time. So many stories reinforce the idea that liking dresses and needlework is silly and shallow, while wearing trousers and punching people in the face is a sure sign that your girl heroine is “strong”.

There are many, many problems with this idea. Personally, I have problems with the terms “masculine” and “feminine” anyway; centuries of baggage mean that we associate “masculine” with men and “feminine” with women regardless of whether those traits, behaviours or activities should even be gendered in the first place. The rules that say “rugby/blue/analysing are masculine (and therefore associated with boys), and ballet/pink/empathising are feminine (and therefore associated with girls)” aren’t rules at all; they’re socially constructed concepts that break down the moment you give them more than a cursory glance.

Secondly, constructing a dichotomy between the “cool”, “kick-ass” heroine who rejects feminine-coded things, and the “shallow”, “bitchy” girl-villains who like painting their nails and wearing makeup, is just another example of the divide-and-conquer tactics that women face their entire lives. Liking pink doesn’t make a girl weak, or bad; liking blue doesn’t make a girl better than her peers.

I spent a long, long time as a young girl hating pink, dolls, and other “girly” things. It’s taken me even longer to realise that, while I was naturally keener on playing with Lego than dolls, the depth of the hatred I’d developed wasn’t because I just liked different things; it was because of internalised misogyny. It makes my heart sink to see any books aimed at kids and teens devaluing “girly stuff”, because I know that this means another generation of little girls (and little kids in general) are going to absorb the same messages I did.

Don’t get me wrong – I love heroines who find their niche in traditionally masculine-coded fields. I’ve written before about my hero-worship of Tamora Pierce’s warrior women, and I also adore characters like inventor Violet Baudlaire, or the deeply morally complex Hester Shaw. My beloved Lizzie is a gifted engineer. But, what I love above anything else – what makes a heroine truly “strong” for me – is her depth of character, her flaws, her progression, her resilience. And those traits aren’t limited to the girls who don’t wear dresses. Here’s a run-down of my favourite, feminist, feminine-coded heroines.


Sandry from Circle of Magic


In amongst Tamora Pierce’s lady knights and blacksmith-mages – all of whom are interesting and compelling characters – we have Sandrilene fa Toren. Sandry is a young woman of noble birth, with all the polished manners to match. She’s a “stitch witch”, whose magic is focused around needlework, clothes, and anything to do with thread. She’s even, thanks to a traumatic event in her young life, afraid of the dark.

And you do not mess with her.

Make racist jokes about her best friend? She’ll pull rank and humiliate you. Try to stop her rushing to the bedside of her sick uncle? She’ll unravel the threads in your clothes and tie you up. Put her life in danger? She’ll weave her magic together with that of the mages around her (her adopted brother and sisters, to be precise) and create a magic more powerful than her world has ever seen before. Sandry is about as feminine-coded as a character can get, and she’s still perfectly capable of taking on all the responsibilities of a landowning noblewoman, and saving the day while she’s about it.


Merida from Brave


I know what you’re thinking. Merida? Feminine-coded? The princess who shoots arrows, wields a sword, knows more woodcraft than Ray Mears, and refuses to marry a prince?

Yes, she is. Because while Merida has always followed in her father’s footsteps, she only truly manages to fix her life when she realises the value of the things that her mother’s been trying to teach her, too. Merida only realises her full potential when she embraces feminine-coded behaviour alongside the masculine-coded behaviour she’s learned from her dad – as we see when she coolly and calmly across a hall full of brawling clansmen, just as Queen Elinor did, before, like Fergus, yelling at them all to “SHUT IT!”

She even breaks the curse, not with archery or swordfighting, but with sewing. (And by telling her mum that she loves her).


Rose Quartz from Steven Universe

We might only see Rose in flashbacks, but we learn plenty about her. She was a fearless warrior and leader who fought a rebellion against Homeworld, to save a planet that wasn’t her own from being exploited and destroyed.

And she was very, VERY fond of pink.


Throughout the series, we’re told that Rose saw the beauty in everything, that she could heal with her tears, and that she loved Earth and humans so much that she eventually gave up her body to bring Steven into the world. And none of this is at odds with her skill as a leader, warrior and rebel – in fact, it’s a core part of the reason that she stood up to Homeworld in the first place.


Twylla from The Sin Eater’s Daughter


Twylla is a teenager living at a poisonous royal court, completely isolated even within this elite environment as both the living embodiment of a goddess, and the royal executioner who can kill with a single touch. Twylla is no weapon-toting, evil-punching heroine; in fact, for much of the book, her body is barely her own, but is set up as a passive instrument used by the powerful figures that control her. She sews, misses her sister, and accepts the role she’s been given – until she doesn’t. We see Twylla’s strength when she starts to question what she’s been told to believe, realise how she’s been played, and takes steps to get her life back.


Sansa from A Song of Ice and Fire


A post on strong, feminine-coded heroines wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Sansa Stark. Sansa is often derided as the weaker of the two Stark sisters, by people who forget the most important point – that kick-ass as Arya is, she would never have lasted as long in court as Sansa. While she may begin the series as a naive child, Sansa soon becomes painfully aware of the realities of the world she lives in, and her time at King’s Landing makes her the embodiment of silk hiding steel. Sansa uses her femininity to make herself appear less of a threat, and thus makes nearly everyone around her underestimate her strength. I’m fairly sure that she’ll be the one to take down Littlefinger, and perhaps the Lannisters as well.


Alice’s books are available on Amazon and Smashwords. Her webcomics, co-created and illustrated by Emily Brady, can be found at the Footloose website. Ally rambles about writing, feminism, and odd questions that cross her mind on Twitter and Facebook.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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