The challenge list has today as ‘Spooky Middlegrade’, but I don’t read much Middlegrade, so I thought I’d go for something a bit different instead, and talk briefly about a particular trope in horror.
This trope is tricky. It’s great to see women out there kicking ass, but at some point they sort of all blended into the same person – paranormal/urban fantasy, to me, feels particularly guilty of this. Women who have all the vampires and werewolves fawning over them, or in less fantasy-based horror, all the men, anyway, but who push them away, and push them away, and push them away until at some point they succumb to the seduction. Which is fine, but all too often these women have no families, either parents, partners or dependants, and the sense is the men around them make them who they are.
This sometimes comes with a ‘Gifted’ element. Sookie Stackhouse doesn’t fall into the ‘strong woman’ trope (honestly, it made her kind of refreshing) but she is ‘Gifted’ in that she can read minds. But take Anita Blake – works for the police, constantly competing against men to prove herself, can raise the dead and, in later novels, uses the power of sex to save the day. I loved the first Anita Blake novels, but somewhere close to the 20th I started to lose interest.
There are a few elements that can be combined for the ‘strong woman’ trope. Usually has a ‘masculine’ job, retains their femininity mostly in their looks, has to prove themselves to the men around them – it’s like the Final Girl, all grown up. Adding in the Gifted element can sometimes work, though it really depends.
The trope definitely feels like it came about to try and give women more agency in genres where they didn’t always have it before. It is a good thing, and it’s always great to see women really kicking ass, but sometimes the whole tough-chick-no-emotions thing can make these women feel unrealistic, and it can fall flat, making it feel like cookie cutter Lara Croft, Ellen Ripley, or Buffy.
However, there are two recent books that present strong women in a different way, taking the trope and really adding to it, ensuring the characters don’t feel like ones we’ve read before. They are also two books I will not shut up about so yes this is a chance for me to rave about them some more.
Faith York – The Festering Ones, S.H. Cooper
Faith York is a really interesting character, one who witnessed something awful in her childhood and revisits it, years later. The novella focuses on Faith, but as she unravels the mystery surrounding the strange monsters who killed her father, she sort of collects other women, who journey with her to rescue their own loved ones. Faith might not be a police officer, or military, or be involved in a masculine job like other women of this trope, but there’s no doubt she’s strong. And she really connects with the other women, rather than pushing them away, sympathising with them. All too often, with ‘strong women’ characters, we see them set against other women, showing how they’re totally different and other women – who perhaps enjoy dresses and makeup, shock horror – are all catty and out to get one another. The Festering Ones doesn’t have any of this, just a group of women uniting to tackle an evil they barely comprehend.
Rose McFarland – Whispers in the Dark, Laurel Hightower
On the surface, Rose fits nicely into this trope. She’s a S.W.A.T sniper, used to taking people’s lives, and can come across as cold and unemotional. She has a tragic backstory, and is Gifted. But where Rose differs from most others is in her attitude and the way she treats people around her. Rose is scarred, deeply, from the fire in her home as a teenager. But when the men in her life call her beautiful, she doesn’t spend a page mentally pondering this – she accepts it. And she doesn’t push these men away, either. She’s happy to operate on her own, but she accepts help when offered too, and the men don’t constantly insist on trying to help her, but realise Rose is better equipped to protect herself and her family than anyone else. She’s strong and confident, and, something I personally hasn’t seen before, has two kids as well. She has a good relationship with her ex-husband, mourns her second husband, and is sleeping with her partner, and all of these things are handled well and realistically. Rose feels more real than a lot of other women found within horror and paranormal/urban fantasy, and it makes the book so much better for it.
In short, both Faith and Rose are fantastic characters, both strong in their own, different ways, and though both might seem to fit into the ‘strong women’ trope, they’re so much more than many other similar characters I’ve seen before.
More characters like them, please!
Are there any particular books you think handle similar tropes in different ways? Any really strong female characters you absolutely love? Let me know!