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"What message are we sending to young people?"
March 27, 2014 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Julianne Ross asks: Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite? Amy McCarthy asks a similar question: Why do all our young adult heroines look the same? Mandy Stewart also offers up her own advice: Be Divergent and Other Lessons for My Daughter. Interview with Veronica Roth on her book 'Insurgent' and feminism.

Even the star of Divergent Shailene Woodley chimes in:
"Twilight, I'm sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship. [The protagonist Bella] falls in love with this guy and the second he leaves her, her life is over and she's going to kill herself! What message are we sending to young people? That is not going to help this world evolve." via: jezebel
posted by Fizz (142 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Speaking on the "Why do all our..." article- isn't this more a criticism of Hollywood's remakes than the books themselves? When Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss, there was a huge outcry (at least in my circles), that a Native American actress wasn't cast - Katniss's skin is specifically remarked as being olive, her hair straight and dark, and the presumed location of district 12 has a high Native American population.

The article brings up a valid point. I don't read much YA fiction (not due to lack of interest or anything), and I'd be really interested to see mention of other top titles. I just wish the author would have taken more time to really dive in to the subject, beyond "these two series that are now movies who's actresses look the same".
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:37 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


I just wish the author would have taken more time to really dive in to the subject, beyond "these two series that are now movies who's actresses look the same

The article (at least the first one) quotes the descriptions of the heroines from the books. It mentions, in fact, that part of fans' initial negative reaction to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence was that she was too "big-boned" for the role of Katniss.
posted by yoink at 8:39 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


Anita Sarkeesian also discusses over at Feminism Frequency.
posted by Fizz at 8:41 AM on March 27


in love with this guy and the second he leaves her, her life is over and she's going to kill herself! What message are we sending to young people?

Which is why so many teenagers kill themselves after reading Romeo and Juliet. I think there's something to these critiques, but let's give teen girls a little credit. They're not seeing the woman in the vampire movie as a model to base their actions on.

The body image issue, has a lot more relevance, I think.
posted by spaltavian at 8:49 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


Well, for starters, both Insurgent and Hunger Games are set in dystopias with occasional food shortages. So it makes sense that there aren't going to be a lot of hefty people around, much as there probably aren't a lot of overweight kids in Mogadishu or whatever passes as a dystopia in real life. So there's that; it's arguably a cheap trick on the part of the author to make it clear that we're not in 21st Century America.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:49 AM on March 27 [7 favorites]


Even when I was a kid, the tall girl in books (in other words, the girl who looked like me) was the bumbling sidekick, the goofy girl who laughed at herself before everyone else had a chance to.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:50 AM on March 27 [18 favorites]


I'm aware, yoink. Which is why I noted I was talking about that one article, specifically. The first article is much more fleshed out (no pun intended), but it's mainly about the size of the heriones. The article I was referencing tries to bring up other points-queerness, race, etc. But other than just throwing in a string of buzzwords, it's not really developed.

And I'm not trying to say we shouldn't be looking critically at the trope of the bird-boned protagonist. But when those same characters are also white, straight, etc (though both of those things could be argued against as far as Katniss goes), then I'd like to see those points brought up too.
posted by FirstMateKate at 8:50 AM on March 27


"Twilight, I'm sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship.

You should never have to apologize for hating on Twilight.
posted by mhoye at 8:53 AM on March 27 [31 favorites]


Perhaps not totally related, but when watching Haywire it was really refreshing to see a female protagonist who really gives the visceral sense that she could straight murder me with one hand. Kind of the opposite of Sarah Michelle Gellar's crazy flailing in Buffy. No offense to the latter actress but she just did not sell murder skills.
posted by selfnoise at 8:54 AM on March 27 [19 favorites]


Is the petite YA Heroine the female aspirational/power fantasy equivalent of the male comicbook superhero? You know, where the men are for male readers and the women are for male readers too.

Does anyone have an idea of the size of the various blade-posing, back tattoo'd heroines from the paranormal mystery/adventure genre?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:00 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


white, straight, etc (though both of those things could be argued against as far as Katniss goes)

I think "olive skin" is a hell of a thin reed on which to build an argument for a "Katniss-of-color." "Olive skin" isn't a particularly "racialized" term: someone like Ava Gardner, for example, would routinely be described as an "olive skinned beauty" back in the 50s without anyone implying that she was "passing" or in any way racially "other." And the whole "Appalachian/Melungeon" thing is kinda silly--given that "Melungeon" is a basically meaningless term and that the "olive skin" was as often attributed to Portuguese origins as to Native American ones.
posted by yoink at 9:05 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Is the petite YA Heroine the female aspirational/power fantasy equivalent of the male comicbook superhero?

I think they're more the equivalent of the weedy boy protagonists of many YA adventure stories who cater to the reader's wish-fulfillment fantasies that even a scrawny, unpopular outcast can eventually go on to save the world, get the girl etc. Harry Potter is an obvious example, but he's typical of the type.
posted by yoink at 9:08 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I think they're more the equivalent of the weedy boy protagonists of many YA adventure stories

In fantasy circles we always referred to this character trope as: "kitchen boy".

Some notable examples:

Rand Al'thor (Wheel of Time)
Garion (The Belgariad)

Become a hero, get the girl.
posted by Fizz at 9:09 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


yoink, there's also (missing context if you haven't read the books), the theme that the "darker" coloring (olive skin, darker hair and eyes), is associated with the poorer mining class in District 12, and that the wealthier merchant class generally has fair skin/hair/eyes, and that this is a source of tension. Katniss's parents came from opposite sides of the tracks, as it were, and she and her sister look fairly different, in a way that gets them treated somewhat differently in their society.

No, it's not airtight, but it's definitely thematically resonant in a way that struck a chord for a lot of POC, especially mixed POC.
posted by kagredon at 9:10 AM on March 27 [16 favorites]


I wonder if petiteness is employed because that is how many girls are presumed to see themselves on a figurative level, as a small figure in a busy landscape?

Funny counterexample: I have a pet theory that many adolescent boy fantasies feature stereotypical Strong Female Characters because that is how adolescent boys are presumed to see girls in their peer group: as being tall, capable, distant, inaccessible, but also as a prize to be won for hard work and accomplishment.

...

Regarding Jennifer Lawrence's body type, there isn't really a logical reason to assume that her character would be thin, let alone stick-thin. In areas that actually resemble post-apocalyptic scenes, people find ways to stay healthy. Check out this Yugoslav Partisan, for example. This is a young woman who carried out guerrilla warfare on a very simple diet.

(Sidenote: when the Western Allies were transmitting propaganda through Axis-occupied Yugoslavia, they once made a silly food-related error. They claimed that the Axis forces had been so demoralized that they had been reduced to eating potatoes. For the many Yugoslavs who enjoyed eating potatoes very much, and who may have been eating a potato at the very moment when they heard that bit of propaganda, there was some degree of offense and bemusement.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:11 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


(of note, to multiple tracks of discussion: the casting call for The Hunger Games specifically called for someone "Caucasian" and "underfed but strong".)
posted by kagredon at 9:16 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Xena: Warrior Princess wasn't exactly petite...
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:19 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]


It's not like this is restricted to YA fiction. TV and movies have a lot of petite or small heroines who wind up fighting in a martial arts style that's not very useful for someone with less strength/mass. I was really excited by Game of Thrones' Brienne of Tarth character for just this reason. Here's a woman who's built to slug it out. Contrast this with the "Battle Waif" type, like pretty much any Joss Whedon female character. I have no objection to depicting smaller women kicking ass, but it should be with finesse and joint manipulation or precision strikes to soft targets like eyes and throats. I'm sorry, but a 100 pound woman punching with near perfect efficiency isn't going to make much of a dent in a 260 pound man's chest.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:20 AM on March 27 [12 favorites]


I take issue with this:

And in more adult fare, this archetype of the delicate-looking action hero often gets twisted into a fetish disguised as girl power. (Just look at the ultra-violent Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sucker Punch, and virtually everything Joss Whedon has ever written.)

I think it is unfair to say that Joss Whedon is not sincerely supporting women in his writings. Delicate looking action hero? What about Gina Torres as Zoe in Firefly? (Or pretty much any woman in Firefly, including quite a few of the guest stars. Christina Hendricks anyone? Melinda Clarke?)

I realize that there is a lot of Joss hate around the interwebs, but here is a man who is truly trying to say that there are strong women of many stripes, and is continually being harassed as a "fake feminist." This reminds me too much of my being called a fake geek girl to allow it to pass without comment.
posted by blurker at 9:21 AM on March 27 [17 favorites]


Not that I would consider Firefly "Young Adult," though.
posted by blurker at 9:21 AM on March 27


small heroines who wind up fighting in a martial arts style that's not very useful

Let's not forget they're also often dressed horribly, without any utility or common sense.

Because topics like this can sometimes be depressing, I'm going to leave this here:

Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour [tumblr].
posted by Fizz at 9:22 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


Xena: Warrior Princess wasn't exactly petite...

OMG, and that was brilliant casting.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:23 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Gina Torres is like the exception that proves the rule. Between Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eliza Dushku, and Summer Glau his depictions of women fighting are informed by a kind of comic book physics style.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:24 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


Xena: Warrior Princess wasn't exactly petite...

Different genre, though. I think it's specifically the YA, coming-of-age/action/fantasy setting combo that tends to steer writers towards the "s/he was the runt of the litter, but s/he ended up conquering the world" thing. The problem with making your hero/heroine a strapping figure is that there's no sense of surprise, then, when they turn out to be The Best At Everything. And they don't feed the reader's desire to see themselves as the marginal, overlooked, unlikely kid who nonetheless turns out to be the Chosen One.
posted by yoink at 9:24 AM on March 27 [13 favorites]


I think that this isn't so much about gender as about (as someone mentioned upthread) the equivalent of the "nerdy boy kicks ass" trope, but with girls. They're not going for someone who looks like they could legitimately kick ass; they're going for the "against type" (ironically playing into a "type" themselves) idea. Take Vin from Mistborn, who is 5' tall but kicks ass: that's part of the point. She's 5' tall and will kick your ass.

Unfortunately, when they need a generic "hello, I am a bruiser" character, they go to a guy, rather than a big, beefy woman.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:26 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?
Fans debate whether she's supposed to be fat or just thinks she's fat, but Eleanor in Eleanor and Park is described by other people as being chubby. I don't know if the author was talking about YA in general or just YA action heroines, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:27 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


"Twilight, I'm sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship. [The protagonist Bella] falls in love with this guy and the second he leaves her, her life is over and she's going to kill herself! What message are we sending to young people? That is not going to help this world evolve."

I know that there's probably enough written about how awful Twilight is and why, but I read all of those stupid books, and Bella's behavior is not the worst part of that story line. It's that after he tells her that he doesn't love her anymore and leaves her, and she's had her breakdown and then they're reunited, he makes her feel guilty for believing what he told her! He's all, "Do you know how that made me feel? How could you do that to me?"
posted by amarynth at 9:29 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

I did stumble across this at the book store recently.
posted by Fizz at 9:29 AM on March 27


I'm sorry, but a 100 pound woman punching with near perfect efficiency isn't going to make much of a dent in a 260 pound man's chest.

Wait until you find out that vampires don't even exist!
posted by yoink at 9:30 AM on March 27 [13 favorites]


the second he leaves her, her life is over and she's going to kill herself
This also happens to Edward. He thinks Bella is dead so he goes to Italy to get offed by the vampire equivalent of the Mafia. It is an unhealthy relationship, but it is not just the girl who acts this way.
posted by soelo at 9:32 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


Rand Al'thor (Wheel of Time)
Garion (The Belgariad)


...Taran (The Chronicles of Prydain)
Simon (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)

I was about to joke that I'd like to see a fantasy book in which the Kitchen Boy's long-honed turnip trimming skills actually play a part in the plot, but then I remembered that L.E. Modesitt actually does that in all his books, and 300 straight pages of minutely described woodworking/sheep ranching/sewer maintenance can get pretty tedious.
posted by Iridic at 9:32 AM on March 27 [12 favorites]


I've seen the first Hunger Games movie, but haven't read the books. Lawrence seemed well cast to me in that she has a strong physical presence and doesn't look like a tiny delicate flower. She was convincing in the squirrel gutting in Winters Bone and was reasonably convincing in the Hunger Games, given its limitations as a cheesy YA movie.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:35 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Come to think of it, Luke Skywalker is a pretty classic Kitchen Boy.
posted by yoink at 9:39 AM on March 27 [7 favorites]


Game of Thrones' Brienne of Tarth

Exactly who I was thinking of while reading the articles. But keep in mind that on the show she's routinely mocked for being, well, able to beat asses from daybreak to dusk. And the show tones down the abuse -- both from others and herself -- that she gets for her non-conventional interests and looks in the books. Even in the decidedly more adult world of GoT, the female bruiser is still the outcast (even when she is also clearly a sympathetic character).

This may be more of an issue for YA TV/movies than for books, which have the luxury of allowing more leeway in the reader's mental image of characters, but there's an inevitable "girls want to be her/boys want to be with her" calculation that goes into casting a heroine. So conventionally attractive it is! Of course, that feeds back into perpetuating the idea that Strong Girls™ must never be so strong that they'd intimidate the boys.

The whole waif-y heroine thing is a way of undercutting and minimizing whatever gender role transgressions having a girl assume traditionally masculine roles of being the active, assertive, go-getter. Like sure, she's tough as nails and calm under fire, but she also looks oh-so-pretty in a prom dress.

And now, I'm not sure if I've been spending too much time with my niece or not enough. Is it acceptable to give an 11 year old a "smash the patriarchy" tattoo? What if you get one with her?
posted by Panjandrum at 9:40 AM on March 27 [11 favorites]


I'm sorry, but a 100 pound woman punching with near perfect efficiency isn't going to make much of a dent in a 260 pound man's chest.

At least in Buffy's case, that's a 100 pound woman with supernatural powers.
posted by kmz at 9:41 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


Gina Torres is like the exception that proves the rule. Between Sarah Michelle Gellar, Eliza Dushku, and Summer Glau his depictions of women fighting are informed by a kind of comic book physics style.

Then his depictions are completely appropriate, because Torres is playing a regular human woman, whereas Gellar and Dushku are playing Slayers and Glau a psychic super-soldier.
posted by The Tensor at 9:49 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Women Fighters in Reasonable Armour

Still seein' a lot of "boob plate" on that Tumblr.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:50 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]


I wonder if petiteness is employed because that is how many girls are presumed to see themselves on a figurative level, as a small figure in a busy landscape?

When I was a teenager, I wanted to write novels for a living. Nearly all of my story ideas were what you'd expect from a teenage girl: a young female protagonist going on some sort of Virgin's Promise-type journey. My protagonists were almost always overlooked outsiders with few social connections, and for the most part, they were short and slight. I did have a couple of tall, powerfully built, confident female protagonists, but I didn't know what to do with them, and I kept coming back to the idea of the tiny waif coming into her own.

Part of the reason I made my characters small was wish fulfillment: from elementary school to high school I was taller and heavier than nearly all of the girls my age, and I wanted to be petite. But part of it was that I created protagonists that mirrored how I felt in real life, and I felt small and powerless. I often thought of myself as a short kid in a large, incongruously adult body.

None of the stories I tried to write as a teenager really went anywhere, which is probably for the best. They were full of clichés, not the least of which was the scrawny girl trying to stand her ground in a huge, overwhelming world. I got so wrapped up in this trope that I completely missed the reality: the world is huge and overwhelming no matter how big or small you are.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:50 AM on March 27 [15 favorites]


whereas Gellar and Dushku are playing Slayers and Glau a psychic super-soldier.
Is there something about being a Slayer or psychic super-soldier that means that you have to be teensy-tinsy? Male supernatural fighter types are generally not portrayed as being teensy-tinsy, right?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 9:52 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]


This annoys the hell out of me, and it's not just in YA lit. In a ton of fiction all over the spectrum, the lean, small-breasted, small-assed body is the "tasteful" body, and the curvy, large-breasted, large-assed body is the "vulgar," "showy" body. The small body denotes a person who's clever, the larger body denotes a person who's this-worldly and sensual. Heroines are small because they're self-controlled, packing all their grit and energy into a compact, flexible, tough package; in their female rivals, lack of that maturity, self-control and intellectuality spills out in the visible form of T&A.

So, of course, these books are what we give to teenage girls whose bodies are developing in directions that they have no control over. And that say nothing about who they are as people. But try telling that to all the 11-year-old girls who acquired a "dumb slut" reputation solely through being the first girl in their class to develop breasts.
posted by ostro at 9:52 AM on March 27 [50 favorites]


In a ton of fiction all over the spectrum, the lean, small-breasted, small-assed body is the "tasteful" body, and the curvy, large-breasted, large-assed body is the "vulgar," "showy" body.

In real life, too. cf the Kim Kardashian thread the other day.
posted by KathrynT at 9:54 AM on March 27 [18 favorites]


At least in Buffy's case, that's a 100 pound woman with supernatural powers.

Yes, described in the series as increased speed, strength and endurance, but actually depicted on screen in terms of how she fights as either being denser than an ordinary human, or somehow being able to control her inertia and momentum in contravention of the laws of physics. I can accept a certain amount of MAGIC! to explain overdone wire work and/or lazy fight choreography, but it's still going to make it harder for me to suspend disbelief as it would be for anybody who watches the way things move in the real world. If someone is going to cite MAGIC!, I'd appreciate if they made some tiny efforts at making the explanation consistent with the depiction, or preferably leaving the explanation out entirely to avoid the inconsistency. It's not like back story isn't usually ridiculous and boring anyway.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:57 AM on March 27


Is there something about being a Slayer or psychic super-soldier that means that you have to be teensy-tinsy?

It allows Whedon to violate the "helpless waif" trope: larger, stronger bad guys assume they're going to be able to overpower the apparently-weak heroines, only to discover that they're secretly strong.
posted by The Tensor at 10:00 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


It allows Whedon to violate the "helpless waif" trope: larger, stronger bad guys assume they're going to be able to overpower the apparently-weak heroines, only to discover that they're secretly strong.

Yeah, I get that this is supposed to increase the drama of the moment, I just think it could also be done by depicting the character using aikido or gracie jiu-jitsu moves, Dushku in Dollhouse especially.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:04 AM on March 27


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

Yes, the lead in The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy started out fat. She got kidnapped and marched through the desert and started losing weight and gaining physical strength and also confidence; it was never clear to me what her size was at the end, though.
posted by jeather at 10:06 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Robin McKinley's heroine in The Blue Sword was constantly being looked at askance for being extremely freaking tall compared to other women and many men...so when she later got badass sword skills, it was somewhat believable.

For heroines with any meat on them, you pretty much have to go to webcomics, as far as I can see. Which is a shame, I would dig some bulldog-like stout women badasses.
posted by emjaybee at 10:08 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

Leonard Neeble in Daniel Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars is described as being a "short, portly kid" whose clothes "wrinkle up on" him. He stands in contrast to the tall, thin, blonde, WASP-y kids at Bat Masterson Junior High.

To follow the David-and-Goliath trope, your David and your Goliath have to be distinct, and operating at opposite ends of the spectrum of assumed advantage. In much the same way that the reader of Mendelsohn can easily understand that Leonard doesn't fit in at Bat Masterson, the reader of Hunger Games can assume that Katniss is at a disadvantage in her very physical, hardscrabble environment.

Being a short, rail-thin teenaged girl isn't an ideal experience. You feel sort of . . . permanently 14. While your friends get curves, you get elbows and knees that are slightly further away from the center of your body than they were a year earlier, but which are still just as pointy. You feel like you're a year or two behind them, sort of waiting for your status to be upgraded to Woman from . . . gawky half-grown kid, I guess?

Being thin and tiny may not be socially advantageous from the teenaged point of view. Maybe authors and readers are both mapping adult body-image ideas onto the teenaged experience.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 10:11 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Which is a shame, I would dig some bulldog-like stout women badasses.

That's pretty much Alanna of Trebond right there. Or Keladry of Mindelan, but Kel grows up quite a bit taller than Alanna.
posted by asperity at 10:22 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


BrotherCaine: "Yeah, I get that this is supposed to increase the drama of the moment, I just think it could also be done by depicting the character using aikido or gracie jiu-jitsu moves, Dushku in Dollhouse especially."

Agreed on Dushku/Dollhouse, but the point of having a teeny-tiny superheroine using conventional brawler-style fistcuffs instead of the more scientific, leverage-based martial arts is to show that the character has some kind of unnatural super-strength. And as such, she can just kick ass like a bare-knuckle boxer without even having to think about her technique.
posted by Strange Interlude at 10:26 AM on March 27


Being thin and tiny may not be socially advantageous from the teenaged point of view.

Well, that's one thing hindsight does help us with. It's a lot easier for me to look back now and see that adolescence was horrible for all of us, even the small girls - having a lot of attention called to your body by people who think it's wonderful at that age can be just as bad as having a lot of attention called to it by people who think it's an abomination unto nature.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:28 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


"Twilight, I'm sorry, is about a very unhealthy, toxic relationship."

And Divergent is about "killing people is really casual, but DON'T HAVE SEX!"
posted by inigo2 at 10:28 AM on March 27 [5 favorites]


Being thin and tiny may not be socially advantageous from the teenaged point of view.

I had the opposite experience. By 12, I was at least a 1/2 foot taller than the other girls in my class and had clearly been "blessed" by the puberty fairy. As I result, I always felt clumsier and frumpier than the other girls, and I received plenty of derisive comments about my appearance. I wasn't fat, or even particularly curvy, but I was never anything remotely like a waif, and I passed coltish long ago. ArbitraryAndCapricious mentioned the wonderful Eleanor and Park, and boy did I identify with that character.

The heroines in the novels often talk in terms of their potential, of what's going to happen when they leave childhood behind and become a woman. When I see examples of petite girls who blossom into strong heroines (without growing in size), my takeaway is that I "blossomed" too early, and without any of the benefits.
posted by bibliowench at 10:30 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


I was hoping to be the first to mention Tamora Pierce's Keladry books, but I see I'm a little late to that party.

Those books (and the Alanna books, kind of - she is short, but I believe she is described as stout and, frankly, not very attractive) go into quite a bit of detail about how their heroines' physicality deviates from the feminine ideal. Kel is BIG. She is bigger than many of her male cohort, which isn't that unusual in adolescence. And she stays big. AND, what I appreciate even more, the physical grunt work they have to do to become competent soldiers, and the changes it makes in their bodies. And how pleased they are to develop those bigger muscles, with which one can better swing swords.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 10:37 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]


I would like to see more heroines whose appearance isn't even a factor, ones who are completely average. Nondescript. Unexceptional-looking. An Ann Veal but with personality for miiiiles, I think that would come pretty close to a lot of teenage girls' experiences.
posted by troika at 10:41 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


I, too, rushed into this thread to say there should be a Protector of the Small movie. Of course, it just highlights the problem that so many people have the same example.

It'd be really neat if the Tortall books became the next YA movie craze, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.
posted by heathkit at 10:47 AM on March 27 [3 favorites]


The heroines in the novels often talk in terms of their potential, of what's going to happen when they leave childhood behind and become a woman. When I see examples of petite girls who blossom into strong heroines (without growing in size), my takeaway is that I "blossomed" too early, and without any of the benefits.

This actually reminds me of an insight I read a while back about magical girl stories in anime. Basically, the reason that it's "magical girl" and not "magical women" stories is that it's less threatening to give power and agency to petite girls than it would be to give the same power to grown women.
posted by heathkit at 11:04 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

Sure there are.

But then their stories have to be partially about getting thin, finding boyfriends, and still feeling insecure. They can't win.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:04 AM on March 27 [6 favorites]


Maybe young adult novels aren't the source of deep, complex characters we all thought they were...
posted by dobie at 11:08 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


I loved Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series, the way the fighting and training was depicted especially. I'm not sure if the character was big, but you got the sense she was a bit stocky from training, and she makes excellent use of a club to whack the hell out of people.

And as such, she can just kick ass like a bare-knuckle boxer without even having to think about her technique.

I get the intent, and better camera work and choreography might've made it look like that was what was happening. I'm not trying to pick on Whedon more than any other Hollywood director who's painted themselves in this particular corner (Tarantino, etc...). I like Whedon's work. I just have to work a lot harder to suspend my disbelief in the fight scenes than I do for other directors.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:11 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I'm really conflicted on this.

On the one hand, I really want girls to have great role models of their size. At the same time, though, one of the taunts regularly given to girls who get involved in sports or fighting or what have you is that they're going to "look mannish", be too bulky, too unattractive.

So I'm torn between cheering for them saying, "You can be beautiful /and/ kick ass" and between booing for the implication of "You can only kick ass if you're beautiful."
posted by corb at 11:12 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I would love to see this prequel spinoff fed to a YA crowd: Growing Up Brienne of Tarth
posted by mcstayinskool at 11:19 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

China Mieville's YA novel Un Lun Dun is told from the point of view of a slightly chubby, extremely average-looking girl. Her best friend is the stereotypical outcast-but-pretty heroine with hidden potential and the narrator is the funny sidekick...until everything goes wrong and the "heroine" is defeated. Then it's up to the narrator to save the world herself. It's a great book. There's only the barest hint of romance, though. It would be fun to see that sort of heroine get the guy in a more mainstream YA book.
posted by AbbyNormal at 11:23 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of YA women are petite because they are frequently underdogs. In the Divergent and Hunger Games series, the women are physically fighting and being smaller often puts you at a disadvantage when you fight people. I have vivid memories from taking karate in my early teens when I was not quite 5 feet tall. The only way that I could compete against taller people was by becoming really flexible so I could kick people in the head, leading to a pulled groin muscle which is embarrassing at any age but especially 13.

Also, a lot of these books are about the transition from childhood to adulthood and being smaller is a mark of childhood. Everything else being equal, it's harder for a petite woman to pass as an adult than a tall woman. Plus being a teenager is a time when one struggles between wanting to blend in and wanting to stand out. YA literature frequently puts an emphasis on breaking away from blending in and wanting to stand out. Short women blend in.

In some ways, this is one way that the pendulum is swinging away from the trope that women and smaller people need to be protected by Big Strong Men. None of this is to say that this is the way that it *should* be. Fiction is a place where we can experiment and challenge some of these ideas. But I don't think they're baseless, just misguided.
posted by kat518 at 11:24 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


So I'm torn between cheering for them saying, "You can be beautiful /and/ kick ass" and between booing for the implication of "You can only kick ass if you're beautiful."

More media with female protagonists to begin with would be a good start, I think; maybe then there would be room for more of a variety of physical types.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:24 AM on March 27 [8 favorites]


> Still seein' a lot of "boob plate" on that Tumblr.

Meet the male version.
posted by jfuller at 11:26 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Meet the male version.

Ah, the Black Russian, I think. Always terrifies the clergy.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:39 AM on March 27 [2 favorites]


James Patterson wrote a pretty decent adventure novel I'm reading to my five year old called "Treasure Hunters." One of the central four characters, Storm, the older girl is not petite. Yes, the story is told from her younger brother Bick's point of view, but Storm is definitely given a strong not-just-support role. Clearly this book is a bit of an exception, and they minimize that good work by making her a 'fat is okay' character by having Bick's twin sister Beck be rail thin. And of course, the older brother Tommy is an Adonis.

So yeah, guess it got close but... oh well.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:02 PM on March 27


I think a lot of YA women are petite because they are frequently underdogs.

Yes, this. I'm very petite and have to live with the knowledge that no matter how hard I train, any man, even a very out of shape one, even a drunk or high one, could take me down. I wouldn't have a chance. It's a different kind of emotional body struggle than many other women have, but it's definitely a real one and for that reason it's really vindicating and fun to consume media that shows tiny women kicking ass. Buffy is great, but things like Veronica Mars, where the scrawny protagonist isn't super-strong but just uses her brain to get out of hairy situations, are even better.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:07 PM on March 27 [12 favorites]


it's really vindicating and fun to consume media that shows tiny women kicking ass

I agree that that's good, and I'm glad tiny women have literary and media heroines to look up to, but what about the rest of us? We want that, too. Especially considering the general societal view of women is petite and slender = ideal. Women in other shapes, sizes, and colors deserve to have vindicating and fun media that we can see ourselves in, too.
posted by troika at 12:22 PM on March 27 [13 favorites]


I'm glad tiny women have literary and media heroines to look up to, but what about the rest of us? We want that, too.

Totally agree with you and feel you on this, but I don't think that petite (by which I mean 5'3 or less) = ideal. Petite women are infantilized in the workplace and socially, and taken less seriously than average-height women in general. Which is another reason why strong petite role models are awesome. But yeah, that's totally not to diminish that heroines of all shapes and sizes would be ideal.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:27 PM on March 27 [6 favorites]


More media with female protagonists to begin with would be a good start, I think; maybe then there would be room for more of a variety of physical types.

I agree with this oh so wholeheartedly, and I think the best route to it is more female writers getting opportunities, especially in film, TV and video games. Maybe there'll even be movies with 5' snipers backing up 6' brawlers.

Buffy is great, but things like Veronica Mars, where the scrawny protagonist isn't super-strong but just uses her brain to get out of hairy situations, are even better.

And that's awesome, because any girl or woman, no matter how petite, can carry around pepper spray or a taser, but getting unnaturally strong without steroids seems like a bit of a problem. As for any man taking you down, I agree that it's much, much harder for a tiny woman to win a fight, but don't discount yourself completely, an elbow or punch deep into someone's throat could be lethal even with a huge size discrepancy.

I'm just getting into YA for the first time recently, I like the protagonist of Carrie Vaughn's Steel because she's a fencer, and her size and strength are less relevant than her skill with a rapier. She also is smart enough to run away from fights that she can't win. Something I'd like to see in all fiction along with the good guy actually setting traps for the bad guy more often. Best part of the cheesy movie Master of the Flying Guillotine is that the one armed protagonist assesses his opponents and chooses his battlegrounds to be disadvantageous for them.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:33 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


"I would love to see this prequel spinoff fed to a YA crowd: Growing Up Brienne of Tarth"

Oh man I bet you wouldn't. Knowing GRRM, I'm sure her childhood/adolescence was just horrible.
posted by joelhunt at 12:36 PM on March 27 [6 favorites]


Brienne of Tarth all the way.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:42 PM on March 27


Buffy is great, but things like Veronica Mars, where the scrawny protagonist isn't super-strong but just uses her brain to get out of hairy situations, are even better.

THIS because then it doesn't matter whether the protagonist is tall, short, skinny, chubby, light-skinned, dark-skinned, blue-skinned, green-skinned, whatever. And that would be a wonderful message for YA lit to promote.
posted by kat518 at 12:57 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Agreed on Dushku/Dollhouse, but the point of having a teeny-tiny superheroine...

Further data on issue of "teeny-tiny superheroine[s]" in the Whedoverse: posted by The Tensor at 1:05 PM on March 27 [9 favorites]


115/128/120lbs
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:11 PM on March 27


THIS because then it doesn't matter whether the protagonist is tall, short, skinny, chubby, light-skinned, dark-skinned, blue-skinned, green-skinned, whatever.

To be fair, Veronica only fits in that cabinet that one time because she's impossibly tiny.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:22 PM on March 27


I get the intent, and better camera work and choreography might've made it look like that was what was happening.

I don't think anyone would disagree with the statement that, while there are lots of reasons to watch Buffy, the fight choreography is not one of them.
posted by Panjandrum at 1:37 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


To be fair, Veronica only fits in that cabinet that one time because she's impossibly tiny.

Confirmed!
posted by The Tensor at 1:37 PM on March 27


I don't think anyone would disagree with the statement that, while there are lots of reasons to watch Buffy, the fight choreography is not one of them.

Two exceptions: the epic slapfight between Xander and Harmony, and the use of the hammer from the end of Season 5.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:40 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Perhaps not totally related, but when watching Haywire it was really refreshing to see a female protagonist who really gives the visceral sense that she could straight murder me with one hand.

In that case it helped that Gina Carano might herself have been able to straight murder you.

but things like Veronica Mars, where the scrawny protagonist isn't super-strong but just uses her brain to get out of hairy situations, are even better.

One of the things I really liked about VM is that Veronica's ability to usually use her brains and charm to get out of hairy situations meant that she occasionally got herself in way over her head and into very dangerous situations. Fast talk is all well and good until an actual thug lifts you up by your neck with one hand and slams you down on a pool table without letting you get in a word edgewise.

Even then Veronica often got out of the situations herself through a combination of luck or brains but she did need rescue now and then.
posted by Justinian at 1:45 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Further data on issue of "teeny-tiny superheroine[s]" in the Whedoverse:

Huh. All of those women are dead-average or very slightly above-average for an American woman. Not big by any means but not small either. Average height for a woman in the united states is about 5' 4".
posted by Justinian at 1:47 PM on March 27


As someone who knows a number of real-life badass women, from accomplished martial artists to highly competitive strongwomen to international-level weightlifters, I would welcome any depiction of a female badass whose body type even approaches theirs. It is ridiculous to see the number of women on screen who we're supposed to believe are incredibly strong and fit, yet lack any visible muscle mass and look as if you could break them in half if you just sat on them. It's got nothing to do with height. "Tiny" means "no muscle and at risk of developing osteopenia". Hell, even the curvier actresses generally lack any kind of muscularity.

But we live in a world where some people consider Michelle Obama's arms to be disgustingly muscular. So we're already operating from a pretty skewed perspective on what actually strong women look like.
posted by schroedinger at 1:50 PM on March 27 [9 favorites]


It's especially weird when you remember that Sigourney Weaver and Geena Davis were big stars not too long ago. (Maybe it was that long ago, and I'm just being an oldface.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:52 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]


For perspective, the woman featured in this video is a national-level lightweight strongwoman. She's about 5'4'' and is around 130-140lbs. THAT'S what a petite-but-strong woman looks like.
posted by schroedinger at 1:52 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]


Divergent has a fucking creepy-ass love story on top of worldbuilding so bad it jolted me out of the narrative.

I'm not sure if the character was big, but you got the sense she was a bit stocky from training, and she makes excellent use of a club to whack the hell out of people.

When Beka describes herself I recall her saying that she's on the tall side without a lot of boobs because she hasn't bothered putting weight on for them.

Seraphina of the book by the same name is also tall. So is Sabriel, who is "of a height" with her love interest. The heroine in Scott Westerfeld's steampunk novels is taller than her male counterpart and masculine enough to pass for male for the whole series.

Sometimes I wonder if people making these kinds of broad statements about YA just don't bother reading stuff that's not out of the subgenre of Mormon/BYU fiction.

Outside of YA, there are others I can think of: the gigantic Bobby of Leviathan Wakes and Captain Roland of Temeraire come to mind.

I get the underdog narrative thing, but you know who else gets underestimated? Fat women. Just sayin'.
posted by NoraReed at 1:59 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]


THAT'S what a petite-but-strong woman looks like.

The problem is that you need someone who can actually act.
posted by Justinian at 2:04 PM on March 27


Sometimes I wonder if people making these kinds of broad statements about YA just don't bother reading stuff that's not out of the subgenre of Mormon/BYU fiction.

I think it's more about what's been film adapted as in most discussions at the intersection of pop culture & literature (sadly).
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:30 PM on March 27


My local librarians are scrabbling to fill my hold queue, so thanks for the recommendations
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:32 PM on March 27


Is there something about being a Slayer or psychic super-soldier that means that you have to be teensy-tinsy?

The weird part is not having a super-powered protagonist who is tiny. The weird part is thinking that a super-powered character like Superman would have to be a big, buff guy. As if it's somehow more believable that a 6'4" guy could lift an aircraft carrier than a guy who is 5'8". And what kind of exercises is he doing that can damage his muscle fibers enough to develop that much definition?
posted by straight at 2:32 PM on March 27 [11 favorites]


I thought River's psychic power was telepathy. Unsure how that translates to killing Reaper's with axes.
posted by squinty at 2:33 PM on March 27


The problem is that you need someone who can actually act.
Is there something about being extremely slim that makes a woman more likely to be a decent actor than having a more-muscular body type?

But also, I think that male aspiring action heroes are actually encouraged to eat and exercise in ways that get them more-muscular physiques, because that's what a male action star is supposed to look like. Women who aspire to Hollywood careers are encouraged to eat and exercise in ways that make them extremely thin, not muscular. Although maybe that will change now that Jennifer Lawrence, who is thin but not tiny, has become such an icon.

Finally, this isn't just about movies. It's also about how female heroes are written in YA books, where casting considerations aren't really an issue.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:37 PM on March 27 [8 favorites]


Is there something about being extremely slim that makes a woman more likely to be a decent actor than having a more-muscular body type?

The correlation goes the other way; if you're a good actor you are likely to maintain your appearance in such a way to maximize the number of roles you can play. Since there are far more roles which don't require you to look like an action star than there are roles which require you to look like an action star it doesn't make sense to maintain the sort of daily regimen which makes you look like an action star.
posted by Justinian at 2:40 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


I thought River's psychic power was telepathy. Unsure how that translates to killing Reaper's with axes.

At The Academy, River was experimented on, and the series hints at her ability to "see" what others are going to do before they do it, which I suppose could be considered telepathy. But the series also shows that she's just a darned good fighter, presumably because of what she (was forced to) learned at The Academy.

Also, it's 'reaver,' not 'reaper.'
posted by cooker girl at 2:50 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


The correlation goes the other way; if you're a good actor you are likely to maintain your appearance in such a way to maximize the number of roles you can play.

There are plenty of successful actors (as in nearly all of them!) who have gone through dramatic body transformations for parts. From pretty boy to super skinny to having a gut to jacked-up action hero. But the body transformation of actresses usually goes from "slender" to "emaciated", and possibly some muscle tone once in a while if you're Jessica Biel. The issue is not that only skinny women can act, but our media generally only hires and promotes actresses who fit a very narrow range of body types, no matter how silly and unrealistic that body type is for the part.

The lack of diverse body types in YA fiction is symptomatic of a larger issue in our culture--namely that there are a sad number of people who think it's gross when a woman has any amount of muscle beyond what's necessary to survive. I think it feeds on itself--we are fed image after image of incredibly skinny women kicking ass, to the point where people think that's what ass-kicking women look like. So when they see women who can actually kick ass they think "Ew, gross, she's on steroids!" We need a total cultural overhaul of our perceptions of femininity, muscle, and physical ability.
posted by schroedinger at 2:53 PM on March 27 [14 favorites]


But the body transformation of actresses usually goes from "slender" to "emaciated", and possibly some muscle tone once in a while if you're Jessica Biel.

Remember when Linda Hamilton being pretty jacked in Terminator 2 was such a huge deal? Haven't been many like that since then.
posted by inigo2 at 3:03 PM on March 27 [12 favorites]


I think it feeds on itself--we are fed image after image of incredibly skinny women kicking ass, to the point where people think that's what ass-kicking women look like.

I think this is true. We do sometimes get small male ass-kickers as well; Tom Cruise is significantly smaller in proportion to large men than women action stars tend to be in proportion to large women but in general you're right. There aren't really female equivalents to Arnold Schwarzenegger in Hollywood. Of course there aren't many male equivalents either, Arnold being Arnold.

So when they see women who can actually kick ass they think "Ew, gross, she's on steroids!"

On the other hand I have never once encountered a guy who thought "Ew, gross" when seeing Ronda Rousey, the woman in the picture you linked. In my experience almost everyone thinks she is very, very attractive.

It's women bodybuilders who tend to get that "Ewww gross" reaction not the Gina Carano/Ronda Rousey types.
posted by Justinian at 3:17 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


By the way, Ronda Rousey is 5'6" and 135 pounds. Not exactly mammothly sized.
posted by Justinian at 3:20 PM on March 27


I'm friends with Veronica Roth and always assumed that part of the reason Tris was tiny was not just to make a visual metaphor of how she goes from invisible Abnegation to self-possessed standout Dauntless but also because Veronica herself is a really tall lovely goddess of a woman and when you're a young woman writing YA you do everything you can to physically distinguish yourself from a heroine to avoids cries of "Mary Sue!" I mean, that's why i made the MC of my YA novel lean and lanky (well that, and my own fascination with how many tall friends of my acquaintance feel themselves unfeminine for taking up more space than is typically allowed for women) but then my publishers put someone with my build and hair color on the cover, contrary to the description of the character, and you can't win, anyway.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:45 PM on March 27 [7 favorites]


What's up with covers that look nothing like the characters? I always find that jarring.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:51 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Doesn't this stuff go in cycles? Male action heroes were physically huge in the 70's and 80's and shrank in the 90's and 00's. Now they seem to be getting bigger again, of course the most obvious example is the Expendables which is literally those same guys from the 70s and 80s.

Anyhow, one of the things I liked about that show Alias was that Jennifer Garner's fights were fairly realistic, in that they recognized the real size and strength advantage of most of her opponents. It's been awhile since I watched but I seem to remember if she went toe to toe with a big fella she generally got the brakes beat off her; so she used stealth and her environment to her advantage and brained the guy with a frying pan, crowbar or whatever else she could get her hands on. That show got really weird in the end, though.
posted by mrbigmuscles at 3:57 PM on March 27 [4 favorites]


Also, it's 'reaver,' not 'reaper.'

Okay, maybe you missed the crossover/sequel where River teams up with Commander Shepard and they eliminate the Reaper threat by taking them on with River's super-quick action axe space magic whatever and Shep's magically stabbing omni-tool, but that doesn't mean all of us did.
posted by NoraReed at 3:58 PM on March 27 [7 favorites]


By the way, Ronda Rousey is 5'6" and 135 pounds. Not exactly mammothly sized.

My point was that small women who can kick ass look very different than the small women we see on the screen who are supposedly kicking ass.

And you would be surprised by the number of men and women I've talked to who look at Rousey and say "Ew, she's too big!" or "Ew, she's so manly!" I picked her specifically because she's someone who's incredibly physically attractive yet still has people who label her as grossly muscular.
posted by schroedinger at 4:06 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


What's up with covers that look nothing like the characters? I always find that jarring.

I don't know. I got lucky, in a way, when my hardcover bombed and they decided to redesign it. My publisher sent me two models to choose that time (unlike the first, when I wasn't involved at all). One looked nothing like the character and the other looked exactly like the character. Weird experience.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:06 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Huh. All of those women are dead-average or very slightly above-average for an American woman. Not big by any means but not small either. Average height for a woman in the united states is about 5' 4".

It's too late, you can't stop it. I'm pretty neutral on whether i like Whedons work or not, but people will go out of their way to cherry-pick stuff to create a narrative of him being a hunk of crap. Truth and/or statistics be damned.

Personally, i always liked that no one in most of his work looked like characters, they all looked like people you would meet on the street in a major city. It's way too far into "find facts to support a predetermined conclusion" mode to switch to "see what conclusion comes from the facts" however.
posted by emptythought at 4:11 PM on March 27


And you would be surprised by the number of men and women I've talked to who look at Rousey and say "Ew, she's too big!" or "Ew, she's so manly!" I picked her specifically because she's someone who's incredibly physically attractive yet still has people who label her as grossly muscular.

Apparently I would. Those people are bad and should feel bad.

All of this reminds me of the controversy surrounding the casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Lots of people are complaining that she is too small and non-muscular.
posted by Justinian at 4:11 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I can think of another heroine with poundage: Heather Wells. This series is kind of like if Britney lost her career and money, gained some weight, had some brains and got a regular day job and worked as an amateur detective on the side.

Anyway, another possible reason for this (besides the whole "dystopia means you don't get food" thing, which is a fairly good reason for smallness) is wish fulfillment on the part of weeny little girls. I know I watch Whedon shows and other ones because I desperately wish I could be a pint size waif fu dance battler vampire stabbin' badass. Except for the part where this doesn't happen at all in real life and even big ol' badass strong chicks with weaponry like Brienne have to worry about being raped. And can easily BE raped unless you've got a male friend around to make up a BS story about a sapphire stash.

I hate real life. That is all.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:24 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]


It’s always jarring to me to hear women of average or shorter height say that wearing high heels to be taller makes them feel powerful and confident. It was seared into my brain through a childhood and adolescence as a tall girl consuming Western media - and surrounded by other kids doing the same – that being tall and female at the same time made me the exact opposite of powerful and confident. I was told in no uncertain terms that it made me ugly; unlovable; a big, dumb ape; permanently undateable; and equal doses frightening and ridiculous. It took a long time to shake that. Oddly enough, it was invariably being cast as the monster or some other supernatural creature in school plays that gave me the tools. When I would start to feel subhuman just walking around, I would remember how it felt pretending to be superhuman on stage.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:56 PM on March 27 [7 favorites]


The Underpants Monster, I think part of it for me is that wearing a bit of heel (not so much that my walking becomes difficult, just an inch or two, generally with a wide base) actually changes my gait in a way that is noticeable. It's a distinctly feminine sort of power, and it comes from culture and media, but having anything change the way you walk can change the way you think of yourself and hold yourself. It can go the other way, too-- pencil skirts make me feel small because of the way they restrict my movement. But usually in a heel-- especially a boot that I can feel against my calves-- I am not just a bit taller, but I know my legs have that fucking amazing curve in them, my torso's a bit more forward, I hold my back a bit straighter, my chest and shoulders a bit forward. And if I'm shit at walking in them, well, so is Commander Shepard and no one's gonna say shit to the hero of the goddamn Citadel.

It totally makes sense to me that you'd have the opposite experience, though, because every size and shape of woman is shamed in their own unique ways. I've been seeing a bit of a reflection of what you said about being superhuman going on in tumblr, where there's been a surge of popularity for identifying with monsters of all kinds (and dragons in particular). It's been cool to watch.
posted by NoraReed at 5:21 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Wasn't the protagonist in the book Holes also heavy?
posted by pxe2000 at 5:27 PM on March 27


A guy once took a zine I'd written about a road trip I took and, without consulting me, wrote a screenplay based on it. There were many creepy things about this but the creepiest was that he had the character based on me so tiny she sat in a shopping cart's child seat area.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:16 PM on March 27 [8 favorites]


I think some of the Whedon backlash is just that when he did it with Buffy, it was kind of new / unfamiliar. Then he had a similar character in a bunch of other shows and it got kind of old.

I do think its awesome that one of the best fighters in Agents of Shield is a 50 year old woman, though. That seems kind of new to me.
posted by wildcrdj at 6:25 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching is fat. She doesn't grow out of it, either, and she gets a boyfriend who likes her for who she is.
Buffy is an edge case because her original character was a girl in possession of all the mundane power an American high school girl can have - she's pretty, popular, and a cheerleader. The movie was a response to the 1980s/John Hughes stories of sad sack kids finding themselves. Instead, a girl with everything she wants is abruptly burdened with a "gift" that's more about responsibilities than pleasure. Buffy had to be conventionally good looking and thin.
posted by gingerest at 6:36 PM on March 27 [5 favorites]


When I read YA fiction as an actual young adult, as opposed to now, when I'm a good 10 years older than most of the protagonists of these books, I never really noticed the petite size of the characters as a thing. I mean, maybe it was a thing, it just didn't catch on for me. What I do recall remembering quite vividly (and which, unfortunately, seems to have been repeated in Twilight) is that the girls tended to think of themselves as plain and gawky but everyone else found them beautiful or something about them uniquely attractive. I was drawn to this trait immensely, mainly because at that age I thought of myself as plain and gawky and pretty much a loser but it was a little bit soothing to believe that maybe, just maybe, other people thought otherwise - because if the girls in the story thought the same as me, there was a chance I was the same.

Of course, that wasn't true at all. I was shy and painfully socially awkward to the point that I couldn't manage to look at people in the eyes when I talk. Those are usually characteristics that tend to make you easily forgettable, or worse, thought of as weird, just because it's so difficult to strike up an actual conversation. I mean, what do Bella and Edward even talk about?!

On a side note, I have a major gripe about Divergent. It's interesting that Roth and the actor who plays Tris have distanced themselves from Twilight, but really I found so many similarities between Bella and Tris. They're both kinda plain, not confident and really kind of boring and invest so much of themselves in their love interest. That said, I've only read the first book and found the writing so atrocious I can't continue with the rest of the trilogy so maybe this changes.

On a further side note, just to defend my homeboy Joss - it hasn't all been entirely in his hands about who he has cast in a lot of the roles. He has said repeatedly that he's wanted girls not so conventional by Hollywood standards in his shows, specifically with Kaylee in Firefly, if I recall. He even asked Jewel Staite to put on more weight for Serenity but that didn't happen. Could he have done better? Sure, but I don't think he specifically above all other creators and directors of YA shows/films/books should be crucified, given that he was one of the few that actually tries to be different.
posted by liquorice at 6:42 PM on March 27


(I should probably clarify - I think it's pretty much accurate that YA fiction doesn't have much diversity of any sort, including body shape.)
posted by gingerest at 6:47 PM on March 27


Was into Judy Blume in a big way, hit 13 and bypassed YA entirely for adult books that seemed to have more realistic teen characters than the books marketed as much...but then again, my favourite teen characters was DC Comics' Teen Titans, so there you go...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:56 PM on March 27


Eleanor from the very good YA book "Eleanor & Park" is described as being "large". And it's a love story.
posted by SkylitDrawl at 7:56 PM on March 27


Judy Blume's heroines are all tiny as well, with plenty of other characters remarking on how thin and small they are. Taller, fatter female characters are invariably written as pathetic.

As someone who loved Judy Blume, this wasn't lost on me when I was a kid and it definitely contributed to my hatred for my own body. It was like, if these sensitive, insightful books contain disapproval of how I look, I must look really bad. That's how I thought, anyway.
posted by Toothless Willy at 8:57 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Huh. All of those women are dead-average or very slightly above-average for an American woman. Not big by any means but not small either. Average height for a woman in the united states is about 5' 4".


Honestly, I wonder if the problem is that Hollywood tends to select for actors and actresses who are well above average height. If the average Hollywood male is 6'2", a 5'6" woman is going to look petite.

Of course now I want to write a character who is a minor actress, and is a bit self conscious because she's the Hollywood average of 5'8". And is bitter that the 5'3" Scarlett Johannsen gets all the major roles.

Anyway, as far as literature goes, I have to wonder if a lot of the "petite heroine" whing comes from Anne McCaffery and Andre Norton. I cut my SF teeth on Andre Norton and her heroines always seemes to be described in terms of "Never would be considered a beauty", followed by descriptions of sharp features and wiry A-cup bodies. And McCaffery's Lessa IIR was petite and wiry and athletic. Of course they wouldn't be described as conventionally attractive, but still that attitude of small and lean may have worked it's way into the F&SF consciousness.
posted by happyroach at 12:57 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching is fat

I think you mean Agnes Nitt/ Perdita, who is one of my favourite characters and I wish she appeared again.
posted by sukeban at 3:17 AM on March 28 [11 favorites]


I thought Lessa was really curvy? Large breasted, at least.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:19 AM on March 28


It’s always jarring to me to hear women of average or shorter height say that wearing high heels to be taller makes them feel powerful and confident. It was seared into my brain through a childhood and adolescence as a tall girl consuming Western media - and surrounded by other kids doing the same – that being tall and female at the same time made me the exact opposite of powerful and confident.

I think it's different if you start out tiny. For example, my boss is really short. She's not officially a Little Person size or anything like that, but she wears three inch heels all the time and I think she's still under five feet standing (I've never seen her with the shoes off). If you're starting from a height deficit and you're just trying to get yourself around the same average size as everyone else seems to be, I think it would be powerful to add some height on. But also, the average height for a woman is about 5'4, so they're probably not roaming around any taller than 5'6-ish most of the time with big shoes on. They're not really dealing with the OMG TALL GIRLS HORRIBLE shit because they can't get tall enough to fall into that range of shaming.

And really, why we're shaming tall girls, I have no effing idea. Other than "we gotta shame women for existing, let's pick a reason, oh, that's the obvious one" anyway. If it's not your height, it's your looks or weight or the fact that you exist anyway, right?
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:36 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


And really, why we're shaming tall girls, I have no effing idea. Other than "we gotta shame women for existing, let's pick a reason, oh, that's the obvious one" anyway. If it's not your height, it's your looks or weight or the fact that you exist anyway, right?

Oh, absolutely. As I mentioned upthread, looking back, it's a lot easier to see that we all felt horrible about our own bodies and jealous of other people's. Of course we couldn't see that when we were going through it and having our psyches possibly permanently developed by it. It's possible to rewire all the perceptions laid down in our formative years, but it can be a big job.

That's why a variety of "valid" physical types is such a valuable thing for young people to see.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:39 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


IIRC, the YA novels Dragonsong/Dragonsinger has Menolly, who's described as tall, strong, competent enough to survive in the wilds on her own, and fully capable of entering into a profession that had been exclusive male up to that point. Just a counter-example, and one of the earliest genera YA novels I'm aware of.
posted by Blackanvil at 8:50 AM on March 28


IIRC, the YA novels Dragonsong/Dragonsinger has Menolly, who's described as tall, strong, competent enough to survive in the wilds on her own, and fully capable of entering into a profession that had been exclusive male up to that point.


AND she got a bunch of fire lizards, AND she got a totally hot boyfriend, AND she built C-3PO, AND she won the pod racing championship at age 9, AND she's going to bring Balance to Pern...

PhoBWanKenobi: You may be right about Lessa- the main thing I remember is she's supposed to be short and terrifying. Assuming I'm even rememberng that correctly
posted by happyroach at 8:59 AM on March 28 [1 favorite]


> If the average Hollywood male is 6'2

Is he? I had the impression that male movie stars tend to be short or short-ish (note: not science). I read an article somewhere in the past year about a tailor in Hollywood who just worked for short men, and how it was a good area for his business... maybe it was Jimmy Au, but this isn't the article I'm thinking of.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:10 AM on March 28


And really, why we're shaming tall girls, I have no effing idea.

In this case it seems to be the other side of the coin shaming short men. The idea seems to be "OMG how are you gonna find a husband when it's completely unnatural to marry a man shorter than you!"
posted by straight at 9:33 AM on March 28 [2 favorites]


In this case it seems to be the other side of the coin shaming short men. The idea seems to be "OMG how are you gonna find a husband when it's completely unnatural to marry a man shorter than you!"

PREACH. I always crack up at the trickery needed to make the 5'8" Robert Downey Jr. look taller than the 5'9" Gwyneth Paltrow in the Iron Man movies, particularly because she wears heels. But the more I think about it, the more it irritates me -- why can't they just, you know, make a movie in which Pepper Potts is taller than Tony Stark, and that's OK? It's not enough for him to be a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist, he also has to be tall?!
posted by KathrynT at 9:46 AM on March 28 [11 favorites]


What amuses me is when they're inconsistent about those heels or boxes or what have you. For big dramatic scenes the hero will tower over the heroine, but then at other times they'll be eye-to-eye. "Agents of SHIELD" is one of the worst about this. Those actors are each of tremendously varying heights.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:02 AM on March 28


In this case it seems to be the other side of the coin shaming short men. The idea seems to be "OMG how are you gonna find a husband when it's completely unnatural to marry a man shorter than you!"

This was a serious hard-core concern for many of my tall college friends. I once wanted to do a photo project with a fictional dating relationship between two of them and I couldn't get my roommate to participate because the guy was the same height as her.

AND she got a bunch of fire lizards, AND she got a totally hot boyfriend, AND she built C-3PO, AND she won the pod racing championship at age 9, AND she's going to bring Balance to Pern...

The best Menolly thing was that she outran thread. Which was totally unreastic but also a totally awesome physical example of her kick-assitude.

Also Shailene Woodley is actually taller than average (5'8" according to IMDB), which I thought was interesting. Divergent fans were actually really upset about that when the casting was announced.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:03 AM on March 28


It's not enough for him to be a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist, he also has to be tall?!

Being a short man is treated as a moral failing. It's very unfortunate.
posted by Justinian at 11:55 AM on March 28


Yes, hopefully this tangent is organic enough so that it's not a "but what about the menz", but it's worth looking at how short men are often pictured as clowns, martinets, etc., such as Lord Farquaad in Shrek. Look at how Wolverine became tall for the movies, which is a little odd when you consider that wolverines themselves are known for their outsized ferocity and strength in relation to their size. Look at how Dennis Kucinich gets mocked for being an elf and whatnot, especially when he's seen next to his tall, awesome wife.

Bringing it back to the post itself, it's often clear in character design that there is an order to the world: beautiful people are good, ugly people are bad, petite girls learn to rule the world, fat girls are invisible non-persons who exist in order to become thinner, tall girls are gawky, smart people are frail and wear glasses, fit people are tall and visibly muscular, ogres are even taller and bigger (but also more wild and stupid), fat people are jocular gluttons, women who are lean but tallish are nonetheless seen as petite and teeny-tiny, etc.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:05 PM on March 28 [2 favorites]


Hey now. Kucinich gets mocked for being Gollum. It's his wife who is the elf.
posted by Justinian at 12:46 PM on March 28


She's a Tolkien elf, he's more of a traditional European mythology elf.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:59 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


In this case it seems to be the other side of the coin shaming short men. The idea seems to be "OMG how are you gonna find a husband when it's completely unnatural to marry a man shorter than you!"

There's definitely more to it than that. A friend, and my partners former coworker is 6'6. Maybe 6'7 actually. Tallest woman I've ever met.

One of my best friends since childhood is a guy who's 6'5-ish. Wears heavy boots a lot, so they end up being about the same height. He's way taller than the average guy you see on the street, but no one has ever randomly catcalled him about it on the street that I know of.

On the other hand, one of the things I constantly hear about her dealing with is people literally just screaming shit at her. It's not always height related, but she gets more harassment than anyone else I've talked to about it. Sometimes it's height stuff, sometimes it's just "nice face slut!", but people just gravitate to her to yell stupid shit.

There's more to this than the marriage thing. I think that's a symptom, not the disease. There's some deep seated "tall women = bad" thing going on and the other stuff is more like ...and therefor branching off from it.

Otherwise I don't really get the deep seated hate. People will yell at her, she'll go "what?" And they'll stammer trying to come up with a reason that they just yelled whatever they did. Not that that's unique with confronting street harassment, but it always seems like with that it just popped out of their lizard brain without thought more than usual.

My favorite one for that was
"Why am I a slut? It's like 35 degrees I'm bundled up from head to toe"
"Because you have a... Uh... slutty face!"

I think it's something way more basic like "women have to be shorter than me, as a man, so I can be dominant and stuff!". And then people not directly shoveling that manure internalize it? Idk. As I said though, the marriage thing feels like a symptom to me.
posted by emptythought at 1:13 PM on March 28 [5 favorites]


Aeryn Sun had pretty good muscle definition.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:14 PM on March 28


In fact, are there any lead characters of young adult books that have ever been fat?

Jupiter Jones in The Three Investigators?
posted by starscream at 3:19 PM on March 28 [1 favorite]


Oh, and Bess from Nancy Drew. And Chet from the Hardy Boys.
posted by starscream at 3:20 PM on March 28


Emma from Nobody's Family is Going to Change.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:33 PM on March 28


There was Ox, the title character from the obscure YA series. He was initially fat, though later he put on muscle and was stocky. He was also smart and nastily witty.
posted by happyroach at 1:52 PM on March 29


And Chet from the Hardy Boys.

Yeah but Chet is a classic example of the Fat Best Friend. He seems to exist mostly as a deus ex machina to drive the plot along than as a real character. Nobody wants to be Chet.

I only read a few of the Nancy Drew books as a kid but I don't think there's quite as much of a FBF issue there, although they have their own set of weird issues.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:32 PM on March 30


I feel like Chet's entire personality was that he was fat and jolly and had a jalopy. Or did Biff have the jalopy? I don't think that Biff had any personality at all.

On the other hand, characterization was not the strength of the Hardy Boys books.

I don't think that chubby boys were particularly rare in kids' books. Someone mentioned Alan Mendelsohn, Boy from Mars, and I think that Lewis from House With a Clock in Its Walls was also described as being chubby. I think there's an absence of fat girls, not necessarily fat protagonists in general.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 2:16 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


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