Trigger Warning: Date rape
The prominence of Young Adult fiction over the last decade or so has seen a wide range of interesting and challenging topics covered in novels marketed towards the teenage reader. But alongside this there has been a sadly popular trend of the “damsel in distress”: female characters who do just fine until they meet a handsome boy who comes riding in on his white horse and renders them useless to any kind of plot that isn’t romantic.
I will make one mention of Stephanie Meyer and it shall be brief – after all, Twilight is the most high-profile offender. Its protagonist idealises her relationship with a vampire who insists on controlling every aspect of her life. And she is okay with this. And he, being a super-vampire, goes off to save the world while she sits and hopes nobody kills her. Just like he told her to.
Unfortunately, this seems to have kicked off a trend for great female protagonists who become damsels in distress as soon as the male protagonist announces himself. I’m an avid library user and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve put down a book, sometimes before opening the cover, because of the damsel storyline.
Two subsequent bestsellers to Twilight come in the form of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and Divergent by Veronica Roth. I read and reviewed the first Hunger Games last month on my own blog, and I like how Katniss seems more than capable of looking after herself, and how the author dealt with her relationship with Peeta. But without having read the sequels, I can’t yet decree it a resounding anti-damsel success. Better is Divergent, where Tris doesn’t bow to the will of her love interest – in fact, she seems to make a habit of doing the complete opposite.
One book I did pick up from the library was Night School by CJ Daugherty. It’s your run-of-the-mill ‘mystical boarding school with secret stuff happening’ plot. But there is one scene where the female protagonist is with the (first) oh-so-swoony love interest and he tries to date-rape her. Luckily he gets stopped by a fellow pupil, but to quote a Goodreads review:
“Bloody hell. I can’t believe I have to say this: would-be date-rapists are NOT LOVE INTERESTS. No, okay. Just no. A guy who, by his own admission, encourages a girl to keep downing alcohol, then takes her outside and engages in pushing her into a situation she’s clearly not into, and only stops when he’s interrupted, is not a love interest. Hear that? I have NO SWOONS to give. NO EFFING SWOONS.”
The redeeming feature, if it is indeed redeeming, is that the female protagonist calls the character out on it and he apologises. His behaviour is not romanticised in any way. But the demand for a love triangle – from publishers, editors, maybe even the writer herself – means that this character will inevitably be seen as a love interest for the subsequent books in the series.
(Spoiler alert: she forgives him. Way to ruin what could have actually been a decent discussion in a book about how Edward Cullen-like behaviour is NOT OKAY.)
There are books out there without boy-dependant heroines, but the more young girls are fed novels that tell them just to wait for a man to come and sweep them off their feet, the more they are told that controlling, and abusive, behaviour is okay. And that’s not a message we should be sending to young people. And so I’m still waiting for a damsel-free bestseller. I just hope I won’t have to wait very long.