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Sheroes? OH NOES!

Mary PlainThe Guardian have chucked up a distinctly random Top Ten Heroes of Children’s Books today. Like all Top Tens, it makes you want to jump up and down and go ‘you included HIM and not HER?’, and being a gallery, it doesn’t disclose its selection criteria either.  Do we mean ‘best’ or ‘favourite’ when we say Top Ten?  Were anti-hero protagonists excluded on principle?  What do they mean by ‘hero’ anyway?  And what the blithering spoonbenders is George from Dick King-Smith’s George Speaks doing in there?

There’s another glaring fact: the lack of any characters of colour, although I suspect that says more about children’s literature (and not just the classic kind) than anything else.  Lucy Coats,  however, thinks something else is missing: the gender divide.  Do I feel the cold hand of political correctness (surely not in the Grauniad!). Why didn’t they do 10 best Sheroes and 10 best Heroes?

Now, I’m a big fan of nonce-words generally – but not when there’s a perfectly good word already in my dictionary that does the job.  (I once read about someone who was trying to sell their fiction quadrilogy.  Not a quartet.  A quadrilogy.  Good luck with that.)   But ‘Sheroes’ isn’t replacing a perfectly good word here – because ‘heroine’ isn’t a perfectly good word.  The Guardian chose not to divide up their bookish heroes into boys and girls because our fictional heroes are the characters we love, admire, relate to and aspire to be – regardless of whether we share a chromosome or two (or in the case of hairy Mary Plain up there, rather less).

Lucy says I’m misunderstanding her: that’s she’s trying to celebrate ‘the female side of things’.  I’m sure she’s sincere (I’ve met Lucy, she’s perfectly lovely) – but that’s not what ‘Sheroes’ means to me.  It means taking Lyra Belacqua, and Petrova Fossil, and Pippi Longstocking, and putting them in a different box from  proper, real heroes, worthy of the name.

And that matters.  Our words matter.  I write ‘pink’ books, with bottles of nail polish and love hearts on the covers.  My latest title is a romance, all about a teenage girl who is so stricken with panic at being the only one of her friends to be boyfriendless that she invents an imaginary boyfriend – because that’s the real world that our teenage and tweenage readers have to live with.   Let’s not make that world any more skewed, destructive or demoralising than it is already.  Let’s call Lyra, and Pippi – and even Heidi the imaginary-boyfriend-inventor – heroes, because I don’t ever want a reader of mine to imagine for one second that’s something they could never grow up to be.

Paul Magrs’ The Diary of A Doctor Who Addict, which arrived from this morning. Peter Davison and teenage angst! I’m in heaven.

Edit edit edit. Three chapters to go! And I’m working on an EXCITING SEKRIT PROJECT TOO. My writing group (well, some of us!) are meeting this weekend. Expect curry-powered genius to ensue.

Creating the world’s first flavour-free chicken balti; wondering if trying to sleep in a tent over Easter is a Very Bad Idea or Attractively Daring; listening to a quite worrying amount of Duran Duran.

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10 thoughts on “Sheroes? OH NOES!”

  1. Hooray, some proper debate and another opinion. This is great, Susie. As you know, I think the Guardian’s list was lazy, unimaginative and uninspired. (I was kinda joking about the cold wind of political correctness though, and wanted that to cause controversy–and bang! Here we are.) There are so many wonderful heroic characters, male and female in children’s books–why go back to the ones everyone will have heard of? (Except for George–I entirely agree with you on George, and I am a great FAN of Dick King-Smith). The main reason I wanted to divide the sexes was so that we would have MORE heroes ie 20, 10 of each. Sexuality was an easy way to divide that down the middle and I knew it might cause offence to some when I suggested it. I could have divided it into 3, female, male and furry animal. However, I can see I am going to have to explain why I used the word ‘sheroes’. Apologies if you already know this, but back in the 80’s and 90’s there was a big movement in the USA to get more feisty female heroes of the kick-ass kind (ie not droopy wilting ‘heroines’ who needed a man to get them out of trouble) into YA fantasy fiction, and teen fiction generally. Thus Sheroes Central http://sheroescentral.com/ was set up by Tammi Pierce (author of the Alanna Books) and Meg Cabot. Here is a quote from their ‘mission statement’. “SheroesCentral.com is about female heroes, “Sheroes”, of every age, race, and country. Here, we discuss women and girls who get out there and do it, females who kick butt and take no prisoners, role models who inspire women and men, girls and boys. (In other words, guys are welcome, too.)” Tammi and Meg have done great work in raising awareness and inspiring/empowering girls who thought they were worth nothing by writing great role models for them. I use the word in tribute to them and what they have achieved for all of us, boys included, with their fighting and their writing. That’s the background to the word, but maybe I should have announced that more clearly. I’ll put this comment on my blog too, so people will know! PS if we are talking about nonce-words–‘tweenage’ sets my teeth on edge a little. I know it’s descriptive, but still…yeurgh!

  2. Thanks for the background info. Meg Cabot is obviously ace and I’ve never heard anything but good things about Tamora Pierce – but alas, to my brain ‘Sheroes’ still reads like a mash-up of Shoes and She-Ra (and really, however much I might want to wave a flag for ‘females who kick butt’, given the choice between Master of the Universe or Princess of Power, I know which one sounds like it kicks most butt).

    Terminology aside, this is the feminist’s perpetual challenge: whether equality gets closer through making us all part of the same team, or pointing out the ways that we aren’t. Do we risk sidelining these characters by giving them a special name? Or should we be celebrating them as distinctive and unique? And when are we going to live in a world where having a girl hero isn’t automatically assumed to halve your audience?

    I do think it’s a shame the Guardian list was so feeble – and yes, predictable – but it was ill-conceived in multiple ways (and clearly a random bit of filler in the circling-the-drain G2). I’m thrilled that your blog’s commenters have reminded me of lots of wonderful characters (and reminded me of more I’ve yet to meet). But I still think it’s a reductive move to divide heroes into male and female in this kind of list, whether it’s supposed to result in ‘more’ or not, and I’m genuinely stunned that no one else on your blog even questioned that divide.

  3. Well, Im going to put a link to this on FB, flag it on Twitter and I’ll put a link on the blog so people can join in this debate if they want to. That do you? 🙂

  4. Just to add a little to this debate. With regard to contemporary literature in particular I think both terms “heroes” and “heroines” – and “sheroes”- are problematical, in that for me they constrict a character to one that we should look up to, admire, seek to emulate. Now, that’s okay, I’m not against creating such characters at all, and there is need of them. But personally I’m more interested in reading – and writing – about characters who are less idealised, more “real” than that – flawed, three-dimensional characters, with whom we may identify and empathise,feel “pity and fear” for in whatever narrative conflict or dilemma they are placed. Seeing how such characters deal with, survive, and overcome these conflicts and dilemmas – or how they may fail to – rings a greater truth for me. Therefore I think I’d rather use that other Ancient Greek term – protagonist. Which also has the benefit of being applicable to characters of either sex.

  5. Agreed, David: ‘protagonist’ suits this discussion infinitely better – though I reserve the right to admire anti-heroes and villains even if I might not want to emulate them. With all the talk of Charlotte’s Web at Lucy’s I was just thinking that Templeton’s the real star of that show for me… But perhaps the Guardian list-maker believes kidlit is best crammed with Nice Young Children who spend their stories learning to behave?

  6. A hero isn’t always the protagonist. I often use the word in my daily speak and don’t have a gender divide for it. Like for instance I’d say you were my writing hero, Susie.

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