What Makes a “Strong Girl Character”? Thoughts and a Podcast

Does rejecting gender stereotypes mean there are no meaningful distinctions between strong girls and strong boys?

Not so long ago, librarians and publishers were concerned about Why Boys Don’t Read.  Why the gap in boy-girl reading scores?  Did boys need special handling, or special reading matter?  The “Guys Read” initiative by Jon Scieszka sought to write, develop, and recommend books that would be of special appeal to the Y chromosome crowd: fast-paced, humorous, gripping fiction and nonfiction.  No one doubted that boys, in general (and allowing for plenty of exceptions), might need a little extra “oomph” to hook them on the joys of literature and hopefully lead to more challenging fare.  At Redeemed Reader we did our part (see “Stalking the Elusive Boy Reader”), and we still tag books we consider of particular interest to boys.

Just because a girl doesn’t need to be like this . . .

But the push for boy books soon ran up against the opposite tide of girl power.  Within just a few years, the very idea that boys and girls might prefer different kinds of reading was considered anathema.  Advocates for the girls ran to the front lines to declare “Let books be books!”  To label one story as “good for boys” was automatically seen as privileging males and excluding girls.

I don’t think that was the issue at all—no one said anything about steering females away from Captain Underpants or The Wimpy Kid.  But according to current gender theory, we’re not supposed to see any difference in boys and girls—unless, of course, some boys identify as girls, and vice versa.  Then, the differences are obvious and must be celebrated.

. . . doesn’t mean she has to be like this . . .

The gender battles going on all over our culture are too knotty and extensive to detail here, but one facet of it is how girls are now portrayed as “strong” in books, movies, and TV.  The kick-butt heroine has been around since even before Katniss Everdeen, but it gets a little ridiculous when pirates, gladiators, knights, and other naturally male roles are played by girls.  Surveying recent YA and MG titles, I found a female gladiator, several knights, and a whole series of pirates.  (And yes, I’m aware of two historical female pirates and I know that women sometimes served as gladiators—but they fought dwarfs, animals, or other women, not muscly guys like Russell Crowe.) Even when they don’t stretch to such obvious lengths, girl characters are routinely portrayed as tough, analytical, and risk-prone. In real life, some girls do fit that profile, but physical toughness, etc. are not generally characteristic of females in any species.

. . . or like this.

It seems a whole lot of girls are learning that “strength” looks exactly the same in male and female, with no clue that women have their own kinds of strength.  Loyalty, helpfulness, sympathy, steadfastness, and virtue are not as dramatic as swordplay, but they are essential to healthy societies.  Does contemporary children’s literature still reflect strengths like these?

Recently I got together with Alexis Neal and Victoria Farmer at the Christian Feminist Podcast to talk about it.  We delve into the strong characters we admired as young readers, share recommendations of current favorites, and talk about historical anachronisms in portraying female strength today.  The podcast is a little over an hour long, but if you’re cooking or cleaning up (my usual podcast time), give a listen here:

Show notes with links to related podcasts and recommended books are here:  

What “strong girl” heroines would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. SHERI D CORNETT on June 20, 2019 at 6:40 pm

    I love Anne Shirley as a strong female protagonist. She is full of imagination, determination, and loyalty to those she loves. I also think Rilla Blythe in the last book in the series is a great read for girls. Rilla starts off very interested in appearance and parties and boys. And as World War I progresses, she finds a new strength in serving and loving her family.

  2. Cody on June 22, 2019 at 7:20 am

    If you’ll pardon my advocating the devil, I suspect that a lot of the pirate, dragon and gladiator books you’ve looked at were action stories and it makes a certain amount of practical sense to have the main character of an action story by tough, analytical and risk prone. Unless you take the position that it’s unhealthy for girls to read a lot of action stories. That is your privilege, I suppose.

    • Janie Cheaney on June 22, 2019 at 8:38 am

      Thanks for this, Cody. It could be that I’m way too sensitive to “agenda driven” fiction, but I do think there’s a move to mix up genders in contemporary culture. It’s fine for girls to be adventurous, as your excellent list in the next comment demonstrates–I just don’t think it’s realistic to portray females going fist-to-fist with males in so many of these books. Doesn’t seem realistic, and even fantasy/adventure/sci-fi should reflect what we know of human nature, as long as it’s about humans.

      • Cody on June 24, 2019 at 7:52 pm

        Well, as a reviewer, you’re in a better position to judge trends than I am. I only read a book if it interests me and I tend to judge them more individually.

  3. Cody on June 22, 2019 at 7:35 am

    Just so people know, I’m not particularly interested in stories where the main character is a good role model. I don’t object to the main character being a good role model. It’s just not a necessity for me. So I imagine a lot of both advocates of patriarchy and feminism would object to at least a few of these choices. But here are some girl protagonists from children’s literature who strike me as particularly vivid. (I’m sorry so many of them are from old books. It’s not like I hate all modern literature, I promise.)

    Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
    Anthea from the Five Children and It trilogy by E. Nesbit.
    Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
    Aravis from The Horse and his Boy by C. S. Lewis
    Polly Plummer from The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis
    Annabel Andrews from Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers
    Aza from Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
    Peregrine from The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine

    (A lot of names that begin with A, interestingly.)

    • Betsy Farquhar on June 25, 2019 at 7:34 am

      That IS interesting about the “A” names because one of the first names that popped into my head was Astrid from Astrid the Unstoppable (a very recent publication 🙂 ).

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