Welcome to Smugglivus 2013! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2013, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2014.
Please give it up for Jenn, everybody!
Thanks, Ana and Thea — it’s an honor to be back, and happy sixth blogiversary!
Last year, I talked about girl adventurers in middle grade books. This time, I’d like to talk about another type of female character —- the kind that possesses qualities that society would like us to believe belong solely to men. These women can be brusque, wounded, unfriendly, demanding, and occasionally brutal. Of course, if they were men, that would make them perfect hero material and gosh-darn sexy, to boot.
Sometimes when a female character exhibits these characteristics, she’s called a “man with boobs.” This is wrong on a number of levels: It implies that certain characteristics are inherently male (and inherently not female), and that women can and should be defined by their deviation from this supposed male norm. If they don’t deviate enough, then they’re “men with boobs.”
No. Just, no.
These qualities don’t correlate with gender identity. They are simply qualities possessed by people.
(Originally, “men with boobs” was used to describe poorly written female characters. That problem is brilliantly addressed in the “Ms. Male Character” episode of Feminist Frequency’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series.)
On to examples! Here are just a few of the awesome women that 2013 brought us:
Wren from Reboot by Amy Tintera
The main character of Tintera’s debut book is Wren Connolly, a girl who was killed at 12 and came back to life as a stronger, more powerful Reboot. But you don’t just get tougher when you come back, you lose your humanity, too. The longer you were dead, the colder and less human you become. Wren was dead for 178 minutes — longer than anyone else — and is considered the least human, the least kind person, in the entire world of the book. She is far more physically powerful than her love interest, Callum, and this doesn’t change during the course of their story. (More on Reboot)
Sybella from Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers
The second book in Robin LaFevers’s His Fair Assassin series features the assassin nun Sybella who I consider a “wounded hero,” an archetype normally reserved for men. She begins the book in a dark place with few friends of any gender. She’s angry and full of a righteous need for vengeance. But it’s more than that: Sybella not only excels at killing people, she actually enjoys it. (Killing is something that women can be good at, but that they’re not generally supposed to like. See The Hunger Games.) Countless heroic men in almost all cultures and across all time take great pride in their skill in battle, in their ability to cut down their enemies, but we rarely allow our women to take pleasure in such a brutal skill. (More on Dark Triumph)
Hallie from Deep Down by Deborah Coates
Deep Down is the second book in Deb Coates’s series that began with Wide Open. The series stars Hallie Michaels, a war veteran who died briefly in Afghanistan and has been able to see ghosts ever since. After solving her sister’s murder, she’s now tangling with Death himself. Hallie is abrupt and unpredictable, except when she’s dependable and loyal. She curses constantly. No one would ever call her nice or sweet, and god help them if they ever told her to “smile.” She’s everything we’re told women shouldn’t be, yet she is every bit a woman — complex and interesting, and in many ways, still figuring things out. (More on Deep Down)
While I’m talking about Deb Coates, let me just mention her short stories, which I think are brilliant and often feature wonderful, complicated women, and which are available as ebooks for the first time. Check out “Chainsaw in Hand,” “Magic in a Certain Slant of Light,” and “How to Hide Your Heart,” just for starters. (The stories are also available at Barnes and Noble.)
Olivia from Fringe (TV Show, 2008-2013)
2013 was the year I discovered Fringe and the incredible character of Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv). I watched the entire run in a matter of weeks, and then I watched it again with my partner. Although I didn’t fall in love until the end of season one, it was Olivia Dunham that kept me watching, Olivia with her awesome FBI suits and unadorned face, with her wounded heart and precision competence. (Olivia was so cold, in fact, that one reviewer called her “wooden and distant.” The writers gave her a sister and a niece so they could show her being “warm.”) She remains the toughest member of the team in all five seasons, and although her veneer does soften a little as her colleagues become friends and then created family, she remains pleasantly hard-edged.
Sara Ashburn and Shannon Mullins from The Heat (2013)
It was a fabulous year for movies starring women: Catching Fire, Frozen, and Gravity were all stand-outs. (Gravity, in particular, is an incredibly rare survival story featuring a woman — “Man vs. Nature” movies are almost always about actual men.) But The Heat will always have a special place in my heart for starring not one, but two exceptional female characters: the socially awkward, arrogant, and extremely competent Sara Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) and the crude, loud, and socially defiant Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy). The movie isn’t shy about what it’s trying to do: blow existing stereotypes to smithereens with a (possibly faulty) hand grenade. I think it succeeded brilliantly.
If I’d read more new releases in 2013, I’d probably be able to add dozens of books to this list. As it stands, I must beg for your assistance. Which 2013 books, TV shows, and movies deserve special mention for their stereotype-defying female leads? The world needs to know!
Thank you, Jenn!