(The girls’ experience) went down almost the same as the Gladers’ terrifying experience, except less of the girl group died – if they were tough like Teresa, this didn’t surprise Thomas in the least.
The Scorch Trials, James Dashner.
Did anyone else roll their eyes reading that? Surely it’s not just me who finds that last part, which is so clearly trying not to be sexist, incredibly patronising. Hey, authors. If girls are so tough and interesting, why not write about them?
Authors find it easy to create strong male characters without having to describe them as ‘tough’. Regardless of the author’s own gender, it’s a problem prevalent in many novels. Why must we set out with this idea of the ‘tough’ girl? Why can’t we just accept that women are capable of overcoming obstacles, and that it’s OK for her to overcome them? Why does there have to be a fanfare every time a girl does something more complicated than dangling off the main character’s arm?
I am not a tough girl. I am wimpy, simpering, and I love high heels. I’m scared of anything with more than four legs. I agonise over first-world problems. I am not like those tough girls in the books, and I don’t like how they are put on a pedestal, as if not being tough is a failing that I need to address in myself.
It is possible to write tough female characters well:
- Hermione Granger. At no point is she described as tough – she often bursts into tears over the slightest thing – but we know that she is. She puts her life in danger multiple times and no one ever suggests that a female is less likely to do this than a male.
- Katniss Everdeen. Her toughness is clear, but her backstory explains every part of it.
- Scout Finch. Unfortunately, there is a suggestion that you need to be boyish in order to be tough, but no one can say Scout Finch isn’t written well.
Generally, though, girls are described as ‘tough’ by a boy who wants to bone her. Toughness is just another thing we have to add to our list of ways to attract a man, then? A list that already includes, but is not limited to: be beautiful but don’t try too hard; be skinny but not too skinny; have curves but god forbid don’t be FAT; don’t wear make-up but make an effort; do well in your career but oh my god who’s looking after the KIDS?!
The thing I hate most about it is that it reminds me of this terrible, terrible saying:
‘You’re not like other girls.’
NYYAAAAAGGGGGHHHH. That’s essentially it, isn’t it? ‘She’s so tough’ can so easily be followed by ‘she’s not like other girls’. So what? Am I a bad person because I get glammed up at the weekend? Am I a better person in the week when I can’t be bothered to do a full face of make-up?
Guys don’t even GO for tough girls in real life. They’re scared of them and call them dykes.
I loved the Maze Runner, but it’s very problematic in this way. It represents women as only being important if they adhere to Thomas’ view of what ‘attractive’ means:
‘Brenda stopped. Thomas expected her to start whimpering or crying or something. But she didn’t, and he immediately felt stupid for thinking it. She’d already shown how tough she was.’
The Scorch Trials, James Dashner.
Not only is the tough girl tough because it pleases the main character, but of course she falls for him too. Brenda only exists so that she can distract Thomas from Teresa – as if she’s his new toy.
Also, apparently girls don’t just cry – they ‘whimper’. Like sad little puppies. Come on, James Dashner. Are you trying to alienate all your female audience? I’m pretty sure there’s not a man alive who hasn’t cried at some point in his life. Why do you have to use such patronising language about women who cry?
I understand that these authors are trying to tick an ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ box, I do. But when they make such a half-hearted attempt, it proves they still don’t believe women can be just as capable as men. Thomas is tough, but Dashner never feels the need to mention it. Gender shouldn’t come into it. Women can be frightened and real and still be interesting. They can be like other girls and still be unique.