Being a hero doesn’t always mean kicking ass
I love the ass-kicking heroine, the girl who shoots arrows and gets the bad guys. Usually done by shooting one arrow through ten of them at once and then round-housing the remaining twenty. It has become an impressive trend in young adult literature. Women need to have more action roles, so I’m all for it. But I’m also for diversity. Not just in character race or sexuality but for different types of heroes. There are many types of heroes. Many types of courage. They don’t just kick ass. Sometimes their brand of heroism is quieter, subtler.
The quiet heroine is on the softer, dreamier side of the coin. It doesn’t mean she’s not strong and a fighter in her own way. In fact in situations of abuse, the far more realistic version is the silent sufferer. She is strong in her power to endure her mistreatment. Often she is protecting someone she loves, which is brave beyond words. Her feelings toward her abuser are often confused. Put down for years, she struggles with her own self-worth. Her abuser is often clever, manipulative and knows exactly what to do and say to keep her from speaking out or leaving.
Yet some criticize her. When they read her story they think, Why doesn’t she say something? Why doesn’t she fight back? It’s a common attitude attached to victim blaming. That somehow it is the victim’s fault for not getting herself out of the situation. But for these victims, ‘getting out’ is the equivalent to climbing out of a fifty-foot deep well.
I have come across this attitude it in the publishing world: A weird simplification of abuse where it is as simple as the girl punching her abuser in the face and running away. It is never as simple as that. It is never simple.
In terms of Nora and Kettle, think about the support system in the 1950s. Where would Nora go? She is barely eighteen, she has no money, no job. She hasn’t finished high school. She also has her sister, Frankie, to think of. She is desperate to leave but she can’t and her father knows it.
Now think about the support system now. Where would a girl being beaten by her only parent go? She is barely eighteen. She has no money, no job. She hasn’t finished high school. She has family she doesn’t want to leave behind. If she reports her parent does she have to prove her abuse? How? Where will she live? If they take her sister away from that parent, would they go into the foster system and be separated? If not, would she be able to support them both?
These questions are a giant, piled-up weight on the heroine’s back and are not easily displaced.
I think sometimes we can tend to want a great escape. We want the dramatic climax where the bad guy gets his and the heroine rises triumphant, having taught him a long overdue lesson, usually with her fists. And these types of stories definitely have their place. But they are, for the most part, a fantasy. Most of the time, real life is a mix of these things. Enduring, fighting, timing, escape.
The quiet heroine doesn’t have to karate kick someone in the guts to be a hero. Her brand of heroism is more about survival and also about keeping up hope in what can feel like a hopeless situation.