I’ve had more than a usual amount of reading time lately (*coughprocrastinationcoughcough*), which has reminded me of why I previously took a time-out from reading. My mother says I’m a snob when it comes to books. And she’s probably a little right.
Okay, a lot right.
I’ll be blunt: a lot of common literary tropes get under my skin. I’m guilty of some of them. They’re so inborn to our writing culture that they creep into the draft before we even realize it, with their eely assumptions and biased presuppositions oozing all over everything. On one hand, we have archetypes that act as a starting point for characters to grow and develop. On the other, there’s this sinister narrative that some negative traits and quirks are natural, normal, or even desirable.
Character trope: the girl with low self-esteem
Women in literature have an exceptionally difficult role, I think. It’s bad enough that a female protagonist hallmarks a “girl book” (but male protagonists are for everyone, amiright?), but I’m increasingly disheartened by how women—especially when written by women—are portrayed. Fellow writers, “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” stereotype has got to go. We want the reader to relate to the main character, but is this really a characteristic we should encourage? “Look! She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!”
How common is this story line: Girl is plain, overlooked, unloved. Girl meets super-spechul hot guy who inexplicably likes her. Girl is suddenly worth something because a man took notice of her.
Pardon me while I rigorously barf up my lunch.
Not every female protagonist fits this stereotype, thank heavens, but there are far too many that do. (I’m giving you the squinty eye, Romance genre. You know exactly why.) There’s a flip-side of this equation, too. Often, the literary woman with self-esteem is a barracuda, seen as aggressive, and ultimately she gets humbled or changed to a more submissive persona by the end of the book. And we, the readers, applaud. Or rather, we’re supposed to.
The coveted alternative
In the real world, it’s possible to have self-esteem and be normal. In the literary world, that type of character is almost like an ivory-billed woodpecker, elusive and critically endangered. (If you find one, please broadcast her existence to everyone who will listen. We need to protect her habitat with lots of readers.) Instead of “She feels like crap about herself! She’s just like you!” a better message would be, “She’s confident and knows her worth! You could be just like her!” Alas, how rarely this message gets communicated.
I know, even as I express these frustrations, that some people will dismiss me as a feminist. Because this sort of discontent could only be harbored by someone marginalized into an -ism that is as much derided as it is espoused, right?
Good literature has good female characters. If Elizabeth Bennet had low self-esteem, she would have burst into tears at that first dance and run into a back room to sob over how the rich, handsome hot guy considered her only “tolerable.” If Jane Eyre had low self-esteem, she would have groveled to her abusive aunt and everyone at Lowood. If Cathy Earnshaw had low self-esteem… Well, maybe people wouldn’t have been so miserable. BUT THE BOOK WOULD HAVE BEEN TOTALLY
Anyway, long story short,
I’ve harbored my feelings on this subject for years. Decades. Ever since the first time I read a book with a simpering heroine and internally thought, “Oh, that’s awkward. Why is she behaving like that?” The harbored feelings grew into conversations with myself. The conversations have now morphed into cartoons—rudimentary in drawing, but the message is more important than the art.
I’m poking fun at my hated literary tropes. “The Girl with Low Self-Esteem” gets the first skewering.
And thus I give you The Adventures of Average Everygirl.
Enjoy! Or not! I don’t really care!
PS—My recent readings did yield a couple of ivory-billed woodpeckers: Polyhymnia from Spindle by W.R. Gingell and Rosemary Mayfield from The Villain by May Nicole Abbey. Click the titles for links. Protect the habitat.
Exactly! Low Self-Esteem girl seems to be a modern concept–all the great classics have confident, competent women. Not always admirable **coughCathycough**, *coughLydiacough**, but sure of their place in heir social setting. Maybe Low Self-Esteem girl is a by-product of the advertising that has bombarded us for the past century or so–all with the message that we’re not really good enough without a ludicrously over-hyped product and its resulting social elevation.
It’s definitely modern, and I agree that our advertising culture probably has a lot to do with it. I find it so off-putting that in our “liberated” society this is even tolerated, whereas in works from the “repressed” days of yore, it’s basically non-existent.
Low Self-Esteem Girl falls nicely into the Girl-As-Object mentality that pervades almost everything. It’s a step backwards.
Reading this made me so very happy! I’m ridiculously often irritated by this particular trope- so much so, in fact, that the poor Hubby has to put up with me scolding whichever particular book that I happen to be reading at the time 😀
Also, thanks for the mention! 🙂 Now I’m gonna check out the other book you mentioned 🙂
I don’t know that I’ve ever scolded a book, but I’ve rewritten far too many scenes and/or characters in my head. I don’t have the mental capital to waste on other people’s projects, though, so at this point, it’s grounds for abandoning a book mid-read. (That was sacrilege in my youth.)
And you’re very welcome on the mention. One thing I love about your female characters is that they do have self-respect, regardless of what happens to them.
Hi! When I read a book with a relationship in it, I always ask myself why they like each other. I need to see evidence of what they get from each other. Why does the hero like the heroine? If all she does is complain and b**** the whole book, why would he be drawn to her. Same for the hero. If you take away his good looks, what does he offer her. If he was a creepy looking guy, would his actions still seem attractive? There has to be draw, substance. They have to need each other. Find healing through the other… with God, of course!
So often as readers we’re given a list of physical traits, a few sassy lines of dialogue, and then we’re expected to step into this paradigm where two characters are perfect for each other just because. Only, if the foundation’s not strong (as your list of questions intends to reveal), the sassy dialogue falls flat and the physical traits are left the only crutch holding up the story. There has to be internal substance, as you said.
Love this post!
Thank you! 🙂
Not feeling eloquent. Sufficeth to say:
-Wonderful thoughts and well said!
– I Adore and admire you!
-Look forward to more
Thanks, Kristi! I adore and admire you right back! 😀