Sarah, the main protagonist of my novel, Orphan Monster Spy, is the result of a lifetime’s issues with traditional ideas of masculinity. I’ve been working hard on being a fierce, committed, if not always well-informed, feminist since my early adolescence, with varying degrees of success.
There were many reasons for this. My father might have been considered a good role model in a bygone age, but his raging patriarchal brand of masculinity left me with no illusions about men. The bullies who made my school life a misery and the teachers who needled and dismissed me were male. I was fortunate enough to have some strong and fearless sister-figures in early adolescence, plus a General Leia here and a Simone de Beauvoir there, to set the tone for my creative life. Women make more sense to me in some ways, or at least they make more sense than the ways in which they are treated. I embraced the feminine, fell in love with Anne Shirley and the girls of Malory Towers, sought out my own role models and set out to create something worthy of them. Now the female voice is very much part of me.
This is not an exhaustive list of female fictional and historical heroes, only of those who have touched my life the most. It’s a very personal selection and doesn’t necessarily include the most obvious or worthy of candidates. For example, I talk about Violette Szabo, part of the inspiration for Orphan Monster Spy, although more successful or laudable SOE agents, like Noor Inayat Khan, existed.
I was disappointed however, by how few of these names were persons of colour. By drawing from the novels of my childhood, the list demonstrates some of literature’s unconscious bias, if not its essential racism. That I learned about very few historically significant people of colour in my youth is, likewise, a symptom of a society designed for the privileged; that has, consciously or otherwise, edited those prominent women and people of colour out of the collective memory. Where did Mary Seacole vanish to until quite recently? She was famous, later conveniently forgotten. You only have to muse on the fate of Lise Meitner after the war, as described below, to see how and why this happens.
This is why representation, particularly in books for young people, is so important. There’s no shortage of male, white and straight heroes, more than enough to go around. They don’t tend to be very interesting. They’re always starting from a position of privilege in one way or another, yet we default to them so easily. It’s one of the many reasons that Sarah of Orphan Monster Spy was created – or rather created herself and harassed me until I wrote her story – a girl with characteristics drawn from the women in this book.
That said, this list remains much as I began it, with some obvious omissions, because they would be obvious, but perhaps missing some names who should be there. Instead these are my own female heroes – some sublime and some less so, some fiercely personal to me and some culturally vital.
Violette Szabo, Special Operations Executive Agent (1921-1945)
On a traffic island in Stockwell in South London there is a mural dedicated to Violette Szabo, an agent of the British Special Operations Executive who was captured by the Nazis, tortured and finally executed in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp in 1945. She is one of only twelve women to have received the George Cross, the UK’s highest civilian award for gallantry.
My regular bus ride past the memorial, just a mile from where Violette went to school, brought one of my childhood heroes right back to the forefront of my mind. This began a train of thought that led to the creation of Sarah, the main character in my novel, Orphan Monster Spy.
There were more successful SOE agents and pluckier twelve-year-old partisans in the Belarusian forests. However, the story of Violette Szabo always spoke to me. She was just twenty-one when she volunteered for the SOE, driven partly by grief at the death of her husband in battle and partly by a need to do something about the Nazis occupying the country of her birth. The horrific consequences of capture were clear and real – there were fifty-five female SOE agents and thirteen were killed in action – yet she parachuted into occupied France anyway. Twice. It was not enough for her to play her part in the war against fascism at home, she needed to do more, and all this at a time when women were not regarded as equal members of society. This was a level of determination and bravery that I could only guess at.
Part of my interest stems from Virginia McKenna’s excellent portrayal of Violette in the film Carve Her Name With Pride. This is proof of nineteenth-century historian Lord Macaulay’s assertion that “History has to be burned into the imagination before it can be received by the reason.” I watched her story as told in the film at an absurdly young age, and she was as much part of my childhood as Princess Leia or Marion Ravenwood. It had a massive influence on me. As well as cementing a lifelong horrified fascination with the moral complexity of the Second World War, it told the boy I was that women were just as strong, just as complex and just as important as any man. It helped make me the feminist I am today.
This is why representation matters, why books (and films and TV) should portray multifaceted and challenging women in leading roles. This would, after all, only mirror the reality of the world we live in.
This post was first featured on the book blog, My Little Library in the Attic: @myatticlibrary
General Leia Organa, from Star Wars
No list of the women who made me is complete without my princess. Yes, she’s a princess and I get that’s a problematic trope, but this is no typical damsel in distress or Disney princess – even though, now, she literally is.
She’s a politician and a diplomat. She has authority. She’s also a resistance fighter against an overwhelming and malevolent totalitarian dictatorship. She may have been adopted into wealth and privilege, but she has made all that work for her in defence of the oppressed and vulnerable. She’s the ultimate ally.
She is captured, red-handed, by the Empire’s most dangerous individual and can only expect abuse and death. Yet she stays calm and tries to brazen it out with an aura of appalled and condescending innocence.
She is tortured for vital information – and refuses to respond to threats or invasive interrogation methods. She watches her home planet get destroyed, with millions of people murdered, as the result of a double-double cross that she must have relived over and over again in the hours that followed. Then the door of her cell opens, and she makes fun of the Stormtrooper who is presumably there to take her to her execution. That’s some woman right there.
Yet, she’s also a woman of compassion. She comforts Luke on the apparent death of his mentor without judgement – even though she’s watched her father and her people executed just a few hours earlier. She accepts Han’s apparent betrayal as just one of those things – it’s his path, no one else can choose it for him. That’s very generous of her, as his departure will inevitably cost lives.
I was five years old when I first saw Star Wars at the cinema and it was a watershed moment for me, in every conceivable way. It’s difficult to calculate how important this depiction of women was in my cognitive development. Strong, smart, opinionated, right about most things and not taking anyone’s crap. I saw that this was what women could be – should be – in sharp contrast to some of the real world events I was witness to at the time.
Her character continues in that vein for the whole trilogy. She is calm and decisive in the Rebellion’s darkest hour, willing to sacrifice herself to allow the transports to escape. She struggles a little with a sexual harassment issue, but this is resolved by the time she bluffs her way into a gangster’s den to rescue the man she loves, by playing chicken with a thermal detonator. When she fails, she allows herself to be captured and humiliated in order to affect that rescue later. Then she goes to fight on the ground with her troops, a leader who won’t ask anyone to do anything that she isn’t willing to do herself. Finally, when she discovers one of her best friends is, in fact, her brother, she rolls with that as well. She doesn’t beat herself up about what she may or may not have done or felt. By the time of Episode VII, she could be allowed some vulnerability, having fought evil for more than forty years, losing a son and a husband along the way. We’ll also forgive her the moment of racism – “get this walking carpet out of my way” – as she was under a lot of stress at the time and I suspect she regretted it shortly afterwards.
Actress Carrie Fisher struggled with manic depression, plus various substance addictions all her life, an understandable result of being born into a famous family, becoming one of the world’s most famous women at twenty-one and suffering the insidious abuse that Hollywood actresses went through in the ’70s and ’80s. Her behaviour had been erratic and occasionally unpleasant in the past, but she had come to a place of peace, health and generosity in her final years. Those who met her then found she embodied much of the famous princess.
Meeting Carrie Fisher felt like coming home.
(In a side note, I misheard one of her early lines as, “the senate will not forestill for this.” For some thirty years until I saw a DVD with the subtitles on I was convinced that “forestill” meant tolerate. Apologies to those who may have had to deal with me using that word in a sentence prior to 2008. You were all very kind.)
This post was first featured on the book blog, Tea Party Princess: @corazzz
Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen is a hero. It seems too obvious to mention. So successful has this character been in book and film form, so universal and ubiquitous has her effect been, that this blog might seem redundant. But leaving aside her personal influence on me – I’m a big fan, the kind of fan who collects dolls and first editions – she’s really a much more complex character than many “strong female” archetypes. Yes, she is strong and smart and gutsy, but it is the root nature of that heroism that is worthy of note.
For a trilogy about a revolution, Katniss begins with no interest in starting one. That was never her intention. She was angry about lots of things, but the focus of that rage lay elsewhere. She was angry with her mother’s mental collapse, rather than explicitly angry at the system that allowed her father’s death. She has no love for the Hunger Games, but her only wish is to run away from it.
All Katniss wants to do is protect her sister, her de facto child. She doesn’t volunteer as Tribute with a view to winning or surviving. She believes that she is ending her life to save Prim’s. She isn’t aware of the power of her single-mindedness, or that her skill with the bow is a potential game-changer. The Tributes from District 12 die every single year – with one exception in seventy-four years, long before Katniss was born. Not for nothing is Haymitch an alcoholic mess. He’s helped send forty-six children to their deaths.
It isn’t that she doesn’t have a rebellious streak. The arrow aimed at the judges during training is a huge overreaction to being ignored. It isn’t a piece of calculation to up her score, although that is its effect. She snaps, as she does outside the hospital in District 8 before delivering a plot-defining speech. But this anger is swiftly channelled into a will to survive. To get back to Prim.
She doesn’t begin to hate the Capitol, I mean really loathe its raison d’etre, until Rue is killed. Again, it’s her instinct to nurture – a traditionally “feminine” trait – that leads her to risk a loss. Rue is a surrogate for Prim and the Tribute’s murder is her sister’s death writ large. The funeral flowers are a direct act of rebellion, a funeral rite that interrupts the process of the games – her body cannot be collected while Katniss is there. This isn’t to bring down the Capitol, it’s to reassert some humanity. That, of course, is what makes it so dangerous. It’s interesting that the film chooses that moment to show a riot in District 11, the moment that she herself has crossed the Rubicon and become a threat.
The very second that she believes that both she and Peter can be saved she seeks him out, even though that makes her more vulnerable. She risks death again to get his medicine. Even the final moment with the nightlock, the moment that is the beginning of the end of Snow and the Capitol, does not come from a place of rebellion. She is not willing to kill, or have Peter die for her, and he will not do the killing. The trick with the berries is just a way of saving both of them. The act of defiance that it represents is incidental.
When she meets the revolution – District 13 and its conspirators – she is suspicious from the off. For a start, it failed to protect all those she cared for. She suspects that, like every rebellion since the dawn of man, it will end in bloodshed and she’s right.
She only agrees to become the Mockingjay in return for promises of safety and rescue for those same people…and her sister’s cat.
The horrible irony by the end is that despite beginning the journey to save her sister, Prim dies as a result of rebel action. It isn’t that the Capitol – the Nazis or the Empire or whoever – shouldn’t be resisted, it’s just that warfare without compassion is temptingly effective and its cost cannot be calculated. Prioritizing the ends, no matter the means, just proves President Snow right. This is a reality about conflict that is as true of World War Two as it is of the rebellion against the Capitol.
Katniss is a hero who changes her world because she cares, because she has an instinct to nurture. The skill with the bow, the determination, the righteous anger – attributes that could be described as male or masculine – are secondary. It is compassion that is the root of everything she does. It is why she is powerful.
Her final act – killing Coin – comes from that same place. She gives everything up at that moment, she can expect nothing but death. But there will be no more Hunger Games. The children of Panem, all of them, will be safe. It is the same deal that she made at the very start.
This post was first featured on the book blog, The Queens of Geekdom: @hscptcrash
Matt Killeen is the author of Orphan Monster Spy, available now! You can read more of these essays by downloading the free ebook of The Women Who Made Me a Feminist!