Beyond Sassy: What are Strong MG Girl Characters Made of?

I was on Twitter the other day, lurking on #MGLitchat, sticking my 2 cents in every now and again, and the topic of “strong” female characters in middle grade literature came up. I said I’d blog about it this week. So, looking for ideas or an angle to approach the topic, I asked my Facebook friends what they thought of strong middle grade girl characters. The following exchange ensued between two of my clients, one a middle grade writer, one not. They are both strong characters themselves and much better writers than I, so I’m just going to share with you what they said:

RS: Wisdom beyond her years, in some way. For me, a strong MG girl is human and vulnerable and isn’t oblivious to the changes underway in her peers. She sees that the people who are becoming what’s expected and accepted are generally having an easier time of it. But she already values herself enough to choose to endure painful experiences if necessary.

RH: I like this answer. But I also wonder how would a strong MG girl character be different from a strong male or non-MG character.By strong do you mean the character is a strong person, or the character is strongly portrayed — three-dimensional, nuanced, an individual?

RS: I think the conversation stems from the misconception that if you stick a female middle-grade character in a baseball cap (that’s a dumb example, but you know, just something stereotypically “tomboy”) and give her some extra super sassy comebacks, she’s a “strong girl.” Yes, though, three-dimensional, nuanced, and individual definitely applies the the creation of any character worth reading.

RH: And as for a character who is a strong person, I would say active rather than passive, and thinking for herself rather than automatically doing what’s expected.

RS: The topic still creeps up in chats and forums. Good to think about what “strong girl” means, but also why, when, and if making that distinction even matters. Great thoughts, as always!

RH: A standard I try to apply to my own writing is expressed by the Bechdel Test, which is usually used for movies, but works for any narrative form. To pass the test, a story has to have 1. at least two female characters 2. who talk to each other 3. about something other than boys. It would be interesting to see how that rubric applies to MG novels, and whether talking about something other than not boys would be more appropriate for the age group.

At which point I jumped into the conversation! I said: How about sticking a girl in a baseball cap and having her advocate for her right to play baseball, when she’s told she has to play softball (different game, different skills, different rules) just because she’s a girl? The issue of being strong for a MG girl character isn’t the same as with all characters, I don’t think. I think culturally we’re still quite constrained by stereotypes. And these are girls on the cusp of kid/teen. What makes them strong? What if they are passive not active because of circumstance? What if they are outspoken but stereotypically girly? Are they still considered strong?

RS: Yes. That’s the when/why/if part, for sure.

RH: I’ve been thinking about the outspoken but girly model. What if the girl’s parents were pushing to get her on the baseball team, but the girl really didn’t want to do it, and stood up for her right not to be made into a poster child, because she just wanted to be part of the group?

RS: Strong, too, IMO.

RH: In mine, too. But the premise I just described makes me a little queasy.

RS: Girl raised with gender neutral toys by parents she calls crazy hippies, going through middle school and just wants to be girly already….just wants to wear cute bras, paint her fucking nails, and get a professional keratin treatment. Haha! This story exists somewhere. I just don’t know what it is. And yes, that would take strength of character, even if it isn’t the character we’d wish for our daughters.

RH: Right. But can’t she just have regular nails? Do they have to be ones that fuck? And what the hell’s a keratin treatment? Going to google it now, in case I ever decide to become a real girl.

Let’s just say the rest of their conversation devolved from there! Click here for more on the topic from another of my middle grade fiction clients.

But what do you think about writing strong girl characters? Do you think it’s different in middle grade and young adult literature? Do you think it’s different in real life?


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13 responses to “Beyond Sassy: What are Strong MG Girl Characters Made of?

  1. Middle grade can be such an awkward time, a vacillation between child and pre-adulthood. I think a strong MG girl is somehow comfortable in the discomfort, not trying too hard to remain a child and not rushing into adulthood (which I think is the greater temptation). A MG girl is strong when she’s honest about her confusion at the changes going on in her body, the politics at school, her growing awareness of how screwed up the world is around her and doesn’t pretend to know it all even while she might admire her peers who act like they do.

  2. Strong girls in middle school are often very quiet. They know they’re smart and have opinions, but it’s a tough time to be those things. The girls playing baseball has been done a lot– why is it always sports? Why not girls running a robotics team, or beating the pants off the whole school in chess? Acing Math League tests? There are a lot of different kinds of strong. I particularly like the girls in Korman’s new Ungifted. He makes them smart but pretty savvy.

  3. I don’t write MG but I have to admit that the term “strong female character” always makes me nauseous. In my writing, if my character ends up being strong-ish in the end (my characters are almost always wounded and weak to begin with), I’m loathe to use the term when describing my story. It just rubs me the wrong way. Maybe because I’m so lucky to live in a time (and a place) when the difference between the sexes is almost negligible. I don’t know. I guess that when I break it down, I think I must associate “strong” with “overly loud, pushy and obnoxious” – the types of characters I avoid both in real life and in literature. Not fair to think that way, of course, but my bias definitely influences the type of books that I buy.

  4. Thank you for not making me pink.

  5. I love this blog…love it : )

  6. I like that “seeing that others who are become what’s expected and accepted are having an easier time of it”– the idea of seeing that there’s more than one path, and what are the trade-offs. (I was never super girly, but I do remember accusing my mother of pushing me toward math out of some twisted feminist agenda, when I was more inclined to other kinds of nerdom. Still, there were no nail treatments in my household.)

  7. Regina Wells (in my book, Adventures Above the Aether) is a twentieth century woman at the end of the nineteenth century. She loves her husband, yet struggles with his narrow vision of her potential. Though feminine, she actively and aggressively pursues her dreams, argues points she feels strongly about, and remains firm in her principles, regardless of the consequences.

  8. Active vs. passive nails it. A whole world of strong personality types fits into that.

  9. Thank you for making me green.

  10. Yes! Love this post. I like girl characters who do what they are good at and pursue what they desire no matter what other people think. Even if that means an uncool status will result.

    • I agree, Melanie. I’d go even further and say that a strong girl character doesn’t necessarily have to embody the same politically correct or feminist politics that I espouse for me to be drawn to her or like her.