Why Female-led Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories Are the Wave of the Future
With a film like Divergent looming on the horizon, there’s a temptation to assume that Hollywood is cashing in on a franchise with Hunger Games-like potential. That’s probably true, but it also underlines an emerging pattern: female protagonists in genre fiction.
And when we say genre fiction we mean EVERYTHING: cyberpunk, steampunk, paranormal romance, vampire violence, urban fantasy... with so much creative diversity, one would think that inclusiveness of gender and race are built-in assets. Not necessarily. Books and films are historically dominated by masculine protagonists who get to have all the fun, while the females have been short-changed as love interests or damsels.
The “strong” female protagonist is a reactionary development from a couple of different angles. More women than ever are writing sci-fi and fantasy, and more creators in general are tired of seeing female characters under—or poorly—represented in media. The word “strong” often accompanies the phrase “female character” or “female protagonist” because it’s not yet a given. The term should really be “complex."
Anyone who watched A New Hope knows the tradition of a male protagonist: the impatient boy who gets pushed out of his home, finds a magical sword, gets an earful of good advice, and slashes his way toward accomplishing something grand. What distances this character from a female counterpart is the immediate accessibility of freedom. Luke Skywalker’s uncle was the only roadblock keeping him on the farm. A viewer can imagine that Luke would have escaped that environment sooner or later, and the Empire just accelerated what was, to him, inevitable.
In the case of a female protagonist, freedom is not always an assumed default. Before they can develop as characters, they have to contend with the added burden of society’s constraints. Katniss (Hunger Games) and Tris (Divergent) are fighting against the world, not a Dark Lord on his throne. Would either of these stories look the same if men were the lead character? It’s an interesting question. To boil down Divergent, Tris is on the run because the establishment accuses her of being different. That’s a living nightmare for many teenage girls, but could as many teenage boys say the same?
Katniss makes for an interesting example when considering the strength and complexity of a character. Before her story began, she had already cultivated significant combat skills. Not even Luke Skywalker was born with a lightsaber in his hand. The relative ease she brings to the battleground emphasizes how her biggest challenges throughout the Hunger Games are mental and emotional ones. She obsesses over how her actions and reactions impact the Game. She wonders who she loves, and how genuine her emotions are. She even gets pushed to the point of attempted suicide. The Game forces her to accelerate her development, which has arguably been stunted by the oppressive dystopia. Her success comes from being able to harness the disadvantages of the system, and use them to fight back.
The result is an emerging class of protagonists who internalize their struggles. Their combat prowess is notable, but only superficial by comparison to characteristics that resonate on a deeper level with the reader or viewer. Internalization allows for more complicated characters on a mental and emotional level. Taking this creative direction isn’t limited to the female protagonists, but it does seem to be the popular choice. Jaime Lannister (A Song of Ice and Fire) gets immeasurably more interesting when he faces a crippling disadvantage and travels in the company of a woman. A chiefly externalized character is forced to internalize and face himself for the first time.
The trend isn’t a recent one, per se, but it’s definitely a growing one. In Garth Nix’s Sabriel, the protagonist already has the skills required to defeat most enemies in her path. Her challenges are bringing those skills to bear in an unfamiliar context, interacting with male companions, and living in a world that distrusts her occult education.
At the end of the day, the demands are the same: diverse and complicated characters who rail against the challenges in their path. Even when the path is in their head.