The Young Adult market certainly offers a variety of main characters for readers to relate to. However, it also features several problematic tropes, including a common tendency to portray the female main character as incredibly lacking in confidence. Considering these female main characters potentially play the part of role models for young adult readers, this portrayal could have a damaging effect.
It's somewhat miraculous I grew up to embrace positive narcissistic tendencies after dedicating my adolescence to reading about plain girls who could save the world before they could believe in their own beauty. Maybe these girls simply didn’t leave their mark, or maybe I dedicated every ounce of conformity to characters like Rose Hathaway and Luna Lovegood, who both scorn other peoples' opinions in their own unique ways.
Regardless, I'm grateful. I've seen what a lack of confidence—or worse—can do to people, particularly young adult females.
This problematic YA trope centers around a female main character who—usually at the start of the novel—makes it clear that she is plain, not particularly skillful, and has little chance of ever being seen as beautiful. Whether these characters are shy and clumsy, or hardened on the outside, they often scorn common symbols of femininity and beauty, such as gowns and other pretty clothes. Overall, the character’s lack of confidence serves as an important part of her identity, and it presents a model to readers that the main character they should relate to does not feel confident in her own appearance or talents.
This lack of confidence often plays a big role in her inevitable romantic relationship as well. In many stories featuring the unconfident female lead, the male love interest eventually swoops in and proves his special nature by declaring that he does see her as beautiful. This might lead the main character to understand her beauty through the male’s eyes, or she might end the story simply accepting that she can be seen as beautiful or interesting, even though she still doesn’t agree.
This is bad, to say the least.
Not only does this trope encourage the idea that boys are the leading experts on female beauty, but it also encourages a concept that girls are seen as beautiful when they don’t think they are. (Cue “That’s What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction).
This leads into the flipside of the unconfident trope, which is when a shockingly confident female main character immediately earns an unsavory label.
In these stories, narcissism usually characterizes villainous women and/or 'bitches'. If the female main character displays signs of confidence—acknowledging or supporting her own physical beauty, talents, or style—she often receives backlash from other characters within the story as well as from readers.
A prime example is Celaena Sardothien, the female protagonist in Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass. I’m only partway through the first book, so I certainly can’t speak for the character’s attitude later on in the series, but at the start of the series, Celaena makes it very clear that she believes she is beautiful, she thinks incredibly highly of her talents as an assassin, and she loves clothes. When I read reviews beforehand, I came across several reviews tearing down Maas’s novel because of Celaena’s so-called ‘arrogance’.
So far, I find Celaena’s confidence refreshing.
Why is it a problem for a girl to acknowledge her own skills or beauty? Or to go so far as to favor them? Why do such characters immediately earn the description 'arrogant'?
If it were a boy, no one would bat an eye. Dozens of YA male love interests ooze narcissism and arrogance, and readers adore them! Their self-awareness and confidence make hearts flutter.
Is this inherently bad? No. I enjoy confident male characters as well, as long as that confidence doesn't turn itself into misogyny.
The problem is a societal view that boys can be confident but girls cannot. And this societal view has a lasting impact. The portrayal of these female main characters tells readers that it is good and normal for a girl to deny her own worth, and if a girl dares to flaunt her own beauty and talents, she is arrogant, narcissistic, or worse.
It is okay to depict insecurities—we all have them. But I’d argue there’s a benefit to portraying mostly confident girls in YA novels. Use these characters as examples to show girls that it is okay to see yourself as beautiful! It is okay to be proud of your own abilities!
A female lead does not need certain physical characteristics to be beautiful. If we're told a character is beautiful, we believe it. Maybe girls with mousy brown hair and plain features should stop being told they aren't beautiful, or that they're only beautiful because they’re not conventionally pretty. (I’m rolling my eyes).
Being confident, proud, or beautiful does not make you an arrogant, narcissistic bitch. It does not make you a bad person. Being cruel to other people is a whole different ball game, and that comes from a different place. As a society, we need to stop connecting the two together. As booklovers, we need to support confident characters rather than tear them down.
What are your thoughts? Is there a merit to the unconfident lead? Should more female main characters display signs of self-confidence in their narratives? Who are some of your favorite female protagonists, and why?
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.