I've been thinking a lot about this idea that girl protagonists in YA fiction can be, well, let's just say less-than-100%-awesome. It didn't start with Bella in the Twilight books, but it is most noticeable there, in terms of recent publications. Plus, since the Twilight books are so well-read by pre-teen girls, the ways in which Bella is a wuss may be more influential than one would like.
First, some titles to add to the butt-kicking girl characters list (thanks to reader comments and further reflection):
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (Stargirl is not the narrator, but is pretty butt-kicking and totally central to the story)
Lyra in The Golden Compass (and the rest of the series) by Philip Pullman
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr (there is a love triangle here, sort of, but the girl solves her own problems in a big, strong way)
Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
ooh, and the girl character in Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (although not the narrator, again)
I wonder how one avoids the pitfalls of writing girl characters who are unsure of themselves, timid, malleable, or generally vapid. I've been trying to write a YA book for over a year, and my main character is a complete moron when I think about it in these terms. She makes all the wrong decisions, completely ignores the obvious, constantly accepts sub par treatment from boys, and cannot see what's good for her to save her life. Now, I must say that I intended for her to be that way. It's sort of the whole point of the book. But when I think about it carefully, I have to wonder why I made that choice, and why it seems like a great idea to put her out there for the pre-teen girls of the world to read. She's an anti-example, maybe. I gave the book to an 8th grader at my school last year, just to see if I was headed anywhere good. She read it in about 3 days and came back to say that she loved the book but hated the main character. So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I hated Bella but loved reading the Twilight books. Part of the fun of watching a horror movie is the idea that we can yell at the screen, "No! Don't open that door, you fool!" Maybe there is a part of us that really likes to do the same thing when we're reading. When Bella prolongs Jacob's agony over her by kissing him as Edward stands and watches, don't we want to yell at the screen, "You idiot! Why are you doing that?" That tension is exciting and fun, and I think that in writing my book, part of the pleasure is actually to make the reader squirm at how agonizingly stupid the main character really is. And it's not hard to do that, since when I think back to what I was like as a teenager, I want to scream at myself, to warn myself, "What are you thinking? He's a total Neanderthal!" or "Have you lost your mind? That's the last thing you should do/say/think/believe/try!"
So what's the difference between an adult's reading of these stories and a pre-teen girl's reading of the same material? Where we can appreciate or even enjoy the discomfort of the angsty situations, since in most of our cases we've experienced some level of those feelings ourselves, the kids who are reading these same books are just at the beginning of their own years of misery. So does this act as a warning for them? Or a road map, an example, a set of instructions, a preview? Does a pre-teen girl take important lessons away from reading about the behavior of these girls, or does she just enjoy the story and leave it at that? And how do those writers who are able to create un-afflicted girls do it? Were they that well-adjusted as kids? Maybe their imaginations are far superior and they can just pretend that they know what it was like to be a strong, confident, unwavering teenage girl.
It makes me wonder if I could write something different, something that is not a reflection of my own experience or memory of high school. To write something that is instead a picture of what I would have liked to be, even then, even as I went through each day knowing that I wasn't.
And what about the boys? We can't forget about the boys.....