So, I’m kind of a not-so-secret feminist. I realized it when I was pretty young, before I had a word for it, when I thought it was out-and-out bullshit that my younger brother was allowed to walk to the 7-11 down the block with his friends and my sister and I needed an adult with us because we could get kidnapped and other such nonsense. Now, I’m not out burning my bras in opposition to the patriarchy (tool of oppression or not, I love the way my cleavage looks with a good push-up), but being a woman, I am always looking for “role models” in my reading for myself and my potential future daughters (shudder).
That’s not to say I completely discount books without strong female characters—thus far, there have been like 5 women total (that’s a generous count), only one of whom isn’t purely someone’s wife or mother (Galadriel, obviously, and she’s only in the story so far for the space of a few pages). It also doesn’t mean that a girl can’t look up to a male character or see him as a role model. I’m a huge fan of the cross-gender mentoring relationship, even if the so-called mentor is fictional. Girls can learn a lot from men, as boys can from women. Before the gender of a character is considered, he or she must be an actual role model. Humbert Humbert being the main character of Lolita doesn’t instantly make him a role model. Similarly, making a woman your main character does not immediately make her a worthwhile role model—Alya from Clan of the Cave Bear is famously strong and capable, but she’s also Barbie-doll pretty and so perfect I had to make a drinking game to deal with it. That tends to be a problem with many female leads—the author is so determined to make a strong female character that they forget to give her flaws to make the reader like and root for her. What I want out of my books is females who are similar to the male characters we have so many of—strong, flawed, imperfect, but still working towards doing the right thing and being good people. Somewhat surprisingly, I’ve found some of the best female characters in the Wheel of Time series. Elayne, Egwene, Nynave, Min and Avendhiah (those are who I consider the main female roles, rest assured there are many more) are all strong and powerful in their own rights, separate from the men in their lives; they have a vital role to play in saving the world, and they know it. The very scope of the series (remember, this is the series so gigantic that reading LOTR as a “break” from it seemed a good idea) give Jordan time to flesh out each of their characters as an individual, and there are huge lengths of the book that focus purely on the women with little to no interference from the men. These stretches allow Jordan to flesh out the personality of the individual women, providing a more balanced portrait than would be allowed in a smaller series. If the series had been smaller, it isn’t unreasonable to assume the female characters would be the ones cut, to make room for the more “important” male leads.
It’s important to me as a reader and a feminist that I read things that appeal to both sides of me, and I’m always looking for new books.