A few weekends ago, I read both Bitterblue and The Girl of Fire and Thorns — two terrific YA fantasy novels — and I was struck by how far YA fantasy has come over the past several decades from a feminist perspective. Specifically, I was thinking about the books that I read 20 years ago (Robin McKinley was my favorite, but I also read Patricia McKilip, Meredith Pearce, Tamora Pierce, Patricia C. Wrede, and many others).
The fantasy heroines I read growing up took action. They could hold their own with the boys, both mentally and physically. Still, most of the protagonists were white, with regular builds, and they were attractive in their own way, even if they weren’t traditionally beautiful. Many of these stories end happily every after, with the heroine finding a true love who accepts her as she is. I loved these books and still do. They were a huge step forward, and many of them played with genres and stereotypes and subverted them in fun and awesome ways.
What I like in Kristin Cashore’s books (beyond her excellent world-building and the stories themselves) is that her main characters, Bitterblue, Katsa, and Fire, all make entirely different choices in their relationships. Although they find love, their relationships also cause problems that the couples have to find ways of resolving while staying true to themselves — which means the relationships are not happy endings but part of a complex journey, as in real life. Depending on the characters’ situations, marriage may not work, although it’s certainly a possibility and a valid choice. Her main characters are trying to balance their vocations and ideas of self and personhood with their relationships.
Elisa, of The Girl of Fire and Thorns, shows how YA fantasy has changed in another way. She is obese, and while she becomes physically strong over the course of the story, she doesn’t magically lose all of her weight and suddenly fit Western standards of beauty. I think in another time, the story would have been Alodia’s — Elisa’s competent, bright, and beautiful elder sister who is going to inherit their father’s throne. From Elisa’s perspective, Alodia sounds like superwoman — and of course Alodia would face several challenges before she won her kingdom and true love — but today, Elisa can tell her own story. The novel is also set in a world that sounds like an alternate, fantasy version of Latin America, so the characters have black hair and brown skin, again, stepping outside of Western beauty standards.
Taking a quick jump into feminist theory, it’s as though we had second wave YA feminist fiction and are now in the third wave, where children and adolescents can encounter a wide range of possibilities regarding what a girl can do and who she can be and what choices she may have. Writing a strong female character used to be subversion — like writing an Indian American character who was dealing with cross-cultural issues was multiculturalism. Now, feminism doesn’t simply equal “strong girl” and diversity isn’t just a non-white character explaining cultural differences — YA fantasy is reflecting our messy, mixed culture right back to us and giving us new ways of discussing and exploring contemporary issues of gender politics, race, identity, disability politics, and all sorts of other stuff.
In other words, it’s an exciting time to read and to write in this space.