The Trembling Heroine in Fantasy Literature
She trembles. She bites her lips and feels shaking all over. She is a beaten dog who is filled with righteous fear and a sudden articulated need to vomit or evacuate her system through other orifices. She shakes and hesitates, and has traumatic flashbacks of the terrible times that came before. And she fidgets her way through spilled soups, clumsy meetings where she averts her eyes, physical stumbles, and horrid dreams that make readers pay for their faith in the author. As soon as she catches a cross glance, she loses her appetite. She befriends other underdogs and creates a bench of friends that she treats like Disney animal companions. And most assuredly she feels that her knees will buckle at the most critical moments of her experience, and prays that no one notices her tremors. Her brain tells her to run, but somehow she continues her stride in spite of her instincts.
Will she ever overcome this? Will she ever find her strength and become her own woman? After all, adversity knocks at her door once more, and dear reader, we are eavesdroppers. Can she pull it off?
The answer is, of course, yes. She is the modern young adult fantasy heroine. In spite of her palsy and digestive failings, she manages to do the impossible and vanquish the evil! Oh, hooray for the reluctant savior who wins the day and overcomes insurmountable odds!
Except that I hate her.
I hate her overly bitten lip and fidgeting. I hate the way she devours broth and bread and fights to hold it down. I hate those moments when she stares at her shoes and prays to move on unnoticed. Our tormented lady is weak, naive, and far too easily intimidated. And she keeps showing up in a number of modern young adult fantasy books.
For the life of me, I cannot understand what the authors are thinking. Are they convinced that they need their own Bella Swan to sell copies? Are there really so many women in the modern world who relate to this?
I don’t know about you, but I face adversity like a motherfucking woman. I fly across the Atlantic Ocean by myself, rent cars and drive on the totally improper side of the road, dodging cows and tractors. I stand up at a funeral when no one else will, and deliver a eulogy that brings to life a most beloved family member. I have changed diapers full of diarrhea and have chopped down trees. And do I tremble? Do I bite my lip?
No. I fight through it. And maybe I need a swig of gin at the end of it, and maybe I need to sob in an embarrassing way when I reach the end of a long week and have a little Sam Cooke playing. But I motherfucking own my struggles and only fight impulses to lunge or shout or at least give one hell of a death glare.
Yes, let’s acknowledge that there are a variety of traumas the likes of which I have never experienced. And I am the first one to sing the praises of the traumatized who tremble and hesitate during their recovery. Facing demons is damn heroic.
Let us also concede, however, that only a portion of these quivering piles of feminine gelatin have any proposed traumas in their backstory. Enter Bella Swan again. Theoretically, she was drawn as a clumsy underdog to make her relatable to the “every girl”. Same with Anastasia Steele. If they seem mortal and vulnerable, then any girl can find love with Edward or Christian (…and be physically abused by her partner–wait, that’s a different feminist literary issue).
The problem, of course, is that in the wide, wild world of women, we possess so many other different types of charms that the simple, shaken variety needn’t be our go-to. Coy and embarrassed isn’t a good look on most people, and I dread the thought of teenaged girls putting on the “oops” act to seem like they need a caregiver more than a partner or minion.
Now, there are plenty of instances where the heroine is good-and-plenty traumatized, as in the newest book I just picked up, “Poison Study”, by Maria V. Snyder. Her “lady of woe” is Yelena, and she seems to have assertiveness Tourette’s. One moment she is too shell-shocked to focus on swirling visions in front of her, and the next she is leaping to her feet and chiding or threatening a powerful superior who could execute her with a crook of his finger. There is something very real about her suffering and paralyzing flashbacks, but I picked up the book not to read about recovery and perseverance, but rather to read about a fantastical life at court with poisons and intrigue. The author has snagged us with a bait and switch. Utilizing trauma as a plot device is a bit like torture porn or grief porn. Every now and then I can stomach it, but not too often.
Where have all the plucky heroines gone? I am craving a leading lady who is so gritty that she tells herself, “Fuck the tremors, I want some revenge. Where’s the plunger and a hot poker?” I want more Rachel Morgans and Mercy Thompsons. Us grown-ass ladies know how wonderful and deliciously wicked they are, but the young folk may not realize what a firebrand the hard-luck lady can be.
If you still aren’t convinced, consider carefully that you almost never read novels with male protagonists who tremble and cower, who bite their lower lip, stutter, and twirl their locks nervously around their fingers. They can eat their broth without spilling a drop, and they certainly don’t swoon. This is a woman problem.
So what kind of commentary is this on young women in our time? To all of the authors out there, I want you to remember that ladies, even those of us who have been terribly hurt, are not beaten dogs. We are fierce fucking bears who lie in wait for our moment to strike. So let’s start showing the literary world what it’s like when we show our teeth.