Episode 61! The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character, Conversation with Erin Dionne
Welcome to episode 61 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, author Erin Dionne and Grace Lin discuss Erin’s essay, The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character, which can be heard in episode 61.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Erin Dionne’s latest book for tweens is Lights, Camera, Disaster (Scholastic 2018). Her other novels are Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet, and Notes from an Accidental Band Geek.
Her novel Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking: A 14 Day Mystery, is based on the real-life Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist and was a 2014 Edgar Award finalist. The series continues with Ollie and the Science of Treasure Hunting. Her first picture book, Captain’s Log: Snowbound, illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler, was released in 2018 and received a starred review from Kirkus.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist and her most recent picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star, was awarded the Caldecott Honor. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.
grace: Hi, everyone. This is Grace Lin and I'm here talking to Erin Dionne about her essay, The Fallacy of the Strong Female Character. Hi, Erin!
erin: Hi, Grace.
grace: So, Erin, thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed your essay. I thought it was really thought-provoking. Tell us a little bit about your essay, just for those who maybe don't remember it or haven't read it yet.
erin: So the essay is really about how we label some books with female characters as strong. And sort of the implication there is that if we're calling some characters in some books strong, then other characters, other female characters must be weak. We're kind of setting up this weird dichotomy in the way that we talk about books with female main characters in them.
erin: And a lot of times the other part of the essay is really about how we associate those quote and quote 'strong characteristics' with masculine characteristic or traits, I guess, with being assertive or outspoken. And then where does that leave those characters that are clever, or open-hearted, or have just as other amazing character traits, but they're not so masculine-leaning. And we don't label those characters as strong, even though they might be just as active or involved in their stories as the characters that are outspoken and aggressive.
grace: So you begin your essay with an anecdote about your daughter. Do you want to share that a little bit?
erin: Sure. So I was actually working on it sitting on my couch and I have a nine-year-old, she was almost ten, and she asked me what I was writing about. And I told her that I was writing about how some books are called strong and she kind of looked at me and then I said, "So that means," and she goes, "Other characters are weak." And that started a little bit of a conversation and earlier that day there was something that had gone through Twitter that I showed her about this little girl who was in elementary school, who was afraid to wear her Star Wars T-shirt to school, because she thought kids would make fun of her because in her school Star Wars is for boys.
erin: And we are a big Star Wars family in my house. We're total Star Wars nerds. And Charlotte, my daughter, was really upset at this idea that this girl felt like she couldn't wear her shirt. And she said, "You know, Star Wars is for everyone and these stories are for everyone, and I don't get it." But she already did get it, you know what I mean. She already sort of has absorbed this idea that girls are supposed to stay in one lane and boys are supposed to stay in the other.
grace: Yeah, that's really disturbing that she could see it, but it's also kind of great that she knows that it's wrong or that there's injustice in that. So what kind of descriptor do you think we should use instead? I mean so many times I see things as like a panel of strong girl characters. You know, what would you think would be a better label for those things?
erin: You know I think our instinct is to always try to label things. Right? We like to put things and people in boxes. And I think instead maybe thinking about, are we talking about books that deal with specific characteristics, are we talking about books that are windows or mirrors, or that show another word? I think there's lots of other ways that we can identify what's going on in our stories without resorting to this really black and white, strong or not strong, especially when talking about girls.
erin: I think instead we need to talk about maybe girls who are active, or decision-makers, or kind of highlight the unique characteristics in that particular character, or talk about the type of book it is. This is fantasy book, or this is an adventure novel, or this is a mystery.
grace: Yeah, I think that is a good way of putting it. So what I really appreciate about your essay is how you bring the implicitness of that descriptor to the marketplace. How you say, books with characters with female traits seem like they're called nurturing or clever, and those considered kind of quiet books. Talk about why that's a problem for those who maybe might not understand why that's problematic.
erin: Well, it's kind of funny because it's ... I think that those are great books first of all and I think the industry labels them as problematic. Right? Because they're not these big, bombastic, in your face stories necessarily. And again there's kind of that bias, right? That the big, bombastic stories are going to be the ones that jump off the shelves and reach kids. So they tend to kind of put a little bit less behind those quiet books, those books that are maybe a little bit less over the top, I guess.
erin: And those books, kind of like those shy girls in the back of the class, they don't get as much attention. Whereas there is usually so much depth and character nuance in those books that we label quiet, that all kids can get so much out of them. So it's really frustrating to me when I see somebody, especially somebody who's struggling to get published or it's their debut novel, and people are saying, "Oh, that book is too quiet, it's not going to find an audience." It's like well, that's because we're not doing a good job of shining a spotlight of value on those types of stories. Our society isn't valuing those stories the way that they don't value some of those quiet girls in the back row.
grace: Yeah, I agree. And what bothers me is that since we kind of give those characteristics ... we consider those characteristics feminine, the nurturing, the quiet, and we don't give them that spotlight. It makes it seem like those things are not things to be valued. And if those things, the things that aren't being valued, are considered feminine, then it just further devalues those traits and it makes it seem like boys can't embrace those traits. Which I think is a big problem.
erin: Right, they become less desirable. Right? They become less desirable for boys and they also become kind of a way to shunt aside girls and kind of take the power away from them. I think that self-sacrifice, nurturing, being open-hearted, those are big, risky, vulnerable characteristics, and they are by no means weak.
erin: It actually takes a lot of heart to reach out and connect with somebody or kind of bring them into your world. And I think right now, more than ever, we need to actually be valuing those characteristics that are interpersonal in nature.
grace: Yeah. You posted this essay on your blog, one of the first comments was from a woman named Aberdeen Darnell and her comment was, "I love this because it's a plug for all the phasis of humanity, not just the marketable ones and allow my impressionable sons to see me struggle, and cry, and fail. Why, because those emotions, the modeling too, and it's nothing to be ashamed of to be blunt. Imperfections are obsolete if your mindset is that of acceptance and truth," which I think really sums up a lot of what you're saying about how this idea of the strong female character is really a fallacy.
erin: I love that comment to. I mean it was just so ... I felt like, "Oh, you just took my whole essay and put it into these really great synced sentencing." And I love it, because really what it boils down to is empathy. Right? And that's what books do, they create empathy. And seeing those empathetic characters and those characteristics, that only helps all of us become better people.
grace: So you wrote a couple of different essays for kidlet women. Why did you want to write this one in particular? Like I said you had two or three different essays I think, but this one was something that was your first one that you wrote, I think that you published. Why did you want to write this essay?
erin: Yeah, this jumped out at me right when I found out about the initiative and being asked like, "What do I want to write?" And it jumped right out for a couple of reasons. One, because I write quote and quote the "industry labels' girl books." I write about female main characters who get into all kinds of situations. And I've been on these panels where some of my books are labeled strong characters and others are not labeled like that at all. And I've always struggled with that.
erin: And then also I'm a mom and I have a nine-year-old daughter, but I also have a son, and my son exhibits a lot more of those ... he's like my sensitive guy. He's very, very empathetic, he's very thoughtful, he cries at the drop of a hat, which I love. He's a kindergartner and so he's not a quote and quote "boys will be boys" type of kid. And my daughter is very much out-spoken, she's unafraid of telling what she thinks to other adults, she's very loud. And as I've said through her whole career in elementary school, she doesn't read like a typical girl. She's not the type of kid who's going to sit with her legs crossed on the rug and listen quietly while the teacher tells them what to do. She's got stuff to say.
erin: So I have these really contrasting personalities in my family, and it's really important to me that they both see the value in one another's personalities and that they understand that there's this whole other facet to the way that they're perceived in the world.
grace: Yeah, I agree. That's great. So what do want to make sure that people understand about your essay? What do you want people to take away?
erin: I think the thing that's most important to me is that we stop going for that knee jerk, easy description, because we need to start thinking about what's the message that we're sending. So, right away just labeling something as strong, or weak, or this, or that, let's just be a little bit more thoughtful about the way that we talk about books, the way that we talk about kids, and what that shows to the wider world. Do I think it's going to change things overnight? No, but I hope it starts a conversation and I hope that maybe down the road, we do become a little bit more thoughtful, inclusive, and kind of have these wider descriptors.
grace: Great. Well, thank you very much, Erin. It was so nice speaking with you. To end our conversation here, I'd like to end it with two questions, which I ask everyone. The first one's very easy, it's just what are you working on or what would you like to share about your work with our listeners?
erin: Ooh, I'm working on revisions for middle grade novel that's going to come out in 2019, that's about feminism, and fandom, and owning who you are and what you love.
grace: Ooh, that sounds great. Do you have a title for that?
erin: Not yet.
grace: We'll just wait and see. I'm sure it's going to be awesome. All right, and then my second question, is what is your biggest, deepest publishing dream? And I'll backup and this is the question I ask everyone, and I'll reiterate like I do every time. That when I ask this question I'm not asking you to say something like, "I want to make a living off my children's books, I want just the reader to love my books." We all want that, I completely understand, but I want you to think really hard and dream really big. It's like the dream that you are ashamed to say out loud, the one that's so selfish and shallow, you kind of are blushing when you say it. But I want you to just go for it.
erin: Awesome. Okay, my shameful, deep, dark publishing dream is to have a blockbuster book to the point where kids dress up like the characters and there's a movie and cereal and all kinds of crazy tie-ons.
grace: That's awesome. Like there's even a day.
erin: That would be the best.
grace: Yes. I think that will happen. I feel like, you say it, it will happen maybe. No, we're going to be positive.
erin: That's right. You know, I'll just take the cereal too.
grace: Yeah. Is there a specific book of yours that you're thinking or a book that you're going to write?
erin: Ooh, that's a good question. Well, I will be happy with any of the books that I've already written. But maybe it's one down the road. I have a couple ideas in the pipeline that I think would be great on cereal boxes and fruit snacks and the TV.
grace: I love that idea of confessing up too. All right, well thank you so much, Erin. It was great talking to you.
erin: Great talking to you, Grace. Thank you for having me on the Podcast.