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Feminist YA: Misogynist Cheeseheads Need Not Apply

FYA compiles a list of favourite feminist icons from YA literature!

Feminist YA: Misogynist Cheeseheads Need Not Apply

A few days ago, we were contacted by Ms. Magazine regarding one of the cover stories for their Fall 2010 issue*. The article, which you should all go out and read, by the way, as it is Relevant To Your Interests, discusses the feminist icons in YA literature, and how books can be a respite for young feminists out there, wondering what inthe hell is wrong with this world.

With respect to the position of the article, I'd like to counter that YA books can be just as soothing to those feminists who have a few years and endless sexual harassment incidents under their (stylish, yet affordable) belts. Reading YA books as an adult does more than just allow me to relive high school in slightly less nerdy shoes. It also allows me to look back on my own teenage years: the plaintive wails of injustice; the puzzling interdynamics of women; and the confusion about whether I was supposed to pretend I liked sex, or like sex but pretend I didn't, or pretend to have sex I wasn't having, all in order to fit whatever paradigm some other person had constructed for me. It gives me hope, as an Old, to see these young girls (and boys) kicking ass, taking names, and making a world for themselves.

Jessica Stites' article does a great job not only discussing what makes YA such a great genre,but also taking a look at what YA needs to do to improve itself (hint: not everyone in the world has pale skin). And, in something that really struck a note in me, she writes:

"As YA gains mainstream appeal and takes its awesome girl protagonists with it, we need to make sure that kick-ass action girls or vampire heroines don't create new boxes to stuff girls into."

Jessica, I couldn't agree more. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is awesome, but just because I can't slay vampires while delivering a clever pun* doesn't make me, as a woman, less awesome. Possibly just less limber.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of some of our favorite feminist icons(only some! otherwise we'd be here all week); girls and boys who prove that there are all types of feminist heroes out there.

Liesel from The Book Thief

Recommended by Erin

I feel like Sue Sylvester here; you think you got it hard? Liesel Meminger's mother was most likely marched to a death camp for being a communist, her adopted mother may or may not hate her, she's illiterate, her adopted father is on The List for not joining the Nazi Party, her best friend keeps trying to kiss her and she's hiding a Jew in the basement. THAT'S HARD!

But through it all, Leisel acts with fierce loyalty, ambition, intelligence, passion and grace and creates - for herself, her family and her friends - a world without prejudice and hate. Which is pretty hard to do in Germany in 1939.

Natalie Sterling from Not That Kind of Girl

Recommended by Poshdeluxe

From the very first page, it's easy to see that Natalie is a strong, smart girl who won't let boys (even majorly hot ones) get in the way of her goals. Unfortunately, girlfriend's ambition has turned her into a repressed, judge-y biotch. Enter flirty freshman Spencer Biddle, who wears thongs under her plaid skirts and schools Natalie in Healthy Sexuality 101. As a former high school goody goody, I loved watching Natalie realize that a girl can be smart AND sexy, especially because her feminist evolution takes place in a shed in the middle of a Christmas tree farm, in the arms of the most delectable boy in school. Hottest wave of feminism EVERRRR!

Meg Murray from A Wrinkle in Time

Recommended by Meghan

Meg Murray is totally a feminist hero - she gets in fights at school defending her brother, is great at math AND travels across space and time to rescue her dad from a totalitarian evil brain, yo. Plus she learns to be happy with herself instead of changing to conform to what her community thinks girls should be like (and becomes a scientist like her mom!).

Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials

Recommended by Jenny

The thing about Lyra is, if you called her a feminist, she might spit in your eye. She might not know what you mean. Or you might just be in her way. But no matter how you figure it, nobody tells Lyra what she can or can't do. And nobody defines her, except for Lyra herself.

Todd and Viola from The Knife of Never Letting Go

Recommended by Erin

What better way to look at your views on women, gender roles and feminism than to spend some time in the womanless-world-gone-mad in which Todd lives? But it's when Todd meets confused but wise Viola, and ventures forth into other societies, that he learns what it takes to be a feminist, and what it takes to be a man. (As it turns out, it's usually the same thing. Weird how that works.)

Kiki Strike from Inside the Shadow City

Recommended by Poshdeluxe

Kiki Strike is my hero. She's got mad spy skills, speaks several languages and is basically a tiny, white-haired NINJA. While I'm sure that all of the characters on this list kick ass, Kiki does it literally. She's brilliant, she's bossy, and she drinks, like, a thousand lattes a day. I NEED TO BE KIKI. But if I can't, I'd gladly settle for membership in the Irregulars, the secret girl gang she leads into underground cities and haunted mansions. Just like Buffy splintering her slayer powers into girls around the world, Kiki inspires and empowers everyone she meets with her razor sharp intelligence and unsane fierceness.

In other words, if Bikini Kill got together with Gloria Steinem and somehow had a baby with Legolas, the result would be Kiki Strike.

Sally Lockhart from The Ruby in the Smoke

Recommended by Meghan

Sally Lockhart is the best kind of literary feminist - the natural, unforced kind, who doesn't know how to be any other way. She and her bohemian group of friends believe in equality, not just of the sexes but also of classes, and they live accordingly - even when it costs them everything.

Professor Minerva McGonnagall from the Harry Potters series

Recommended by Jenny

We may not have been given much insight into the professor's private life, but what we do know about her is enough to make her a feminist icon, in my mind. One of only a handful of female teachers in a very distinctive school, Prof. McGonnagall goes on to become Headmistress. (Although it is rumored that she will retire by the year 2017). Not only does she go toe to toe with the likes of Albus Dumbledore and Prof. Snape, but this lady never shies from speaking her mind when she disagrees with her peers. She's as tough as they come, with a sense of humor as sharp as her words. Oh, and she's a powerful wizard, too.

Sam from All-American Girl/Ready or Not

Recommended by Erin

What would you do if you saved the life of the President? Well, Samantha Madison can tell you what she'd do: enact social justice, get in the President's face when he isn't treating teenagers like the almost-adults they are, and then bone the President's son. At Camp David.

Frankie Landau-Banks from The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

Recommended by everyone

It can be exhausting, being a feminist. Another day; another injustice, you know? Luckily, we can always rely on our YA feminist icon, Frankie, to totally turn the patriarchy on its head. She's so anti-patriarchy that she's not even going to use their words, okay? Between reinventing old words, navigating between boys who kick ass and boys who think she should kiss theirs, and raising a giant middle finger to the Old Boys' establishment at her school, Frankie Landau-Banks has a banner year for feminism. And we, for one, are proud and privileged to know her.


So obvs narrowing a list of awesome YA feminists to JUST TEN is kind of insane, and I think you'll agree that we deserve a congratulatory cupcake for our efforts. But if we didn't have to limit our list .. . who would you choose?

And, again, big ups to Ms. Magazine and Jessica Stites, for covering such an awesome topic. Go out and read it today!!

* This elicited in me the following reaction: "OMG SOMEONE AT MS MAGAZINE KNOWS WHO WE ARE! ALL OF MY FEMINIST DREAMS ARE COMING TRUE!" This is somewhat hyperbole, but after sex crimes and domestic abusehave been eradicated, the pay gap is no more, a living wage has been created, people stop staring at my tits all the time, and young women and men aren't kidnapped and sold into sex slavery, then ALL OF MY FEMINIST DREAMS WILL HAVE COME TRUE! So check back later for the day that happens; everyone will get a complimentary adult beverage and a party hat.

** Technically, I have never attempted to slay a vampire whilst delivering a witty pun. So technically, it is possible that I am capable of doing so. As my dad always says, "You never know until you try."

Erin Callahan's photo About the Author: Erin is loud, foul-mouthed, an unrepentant lover of trashy movies and believes that champagne should be an every day drink. When she isn't drowning in a sea of engineers for whom Dilbert is still uproariously funny, she's writing about books, tv, the cult of VC Andrews and more.