I have always feared men. Maybe it was from growing up in the era of the dreaded White Van Kidnappers, but I feared men from the time I was young. Any man I did not already know was A Threat—doctors, teachers, neighbors, random guys smiling at the cute little girl in a store. Every last one of them.
As a child, there’s only so much you can do about the Threatening Grown Men in your life. I compensated by being aggressive with the boys my age. I made friends with some because I played baseball or tag with them. I made sure the ones who weren’t my friends knew that I could and would throw a punch if they crossed me. And no, the teachers weren’t gonna catch me. I was faster and stronger than they were and I knew how to wield a baseball bat. By this point in my life – all six years of it – I had also mastered the “knee to the nuts” trick on grown men and had no issues bragging about it.
I made boys my age respect me or fear me. It kept me safe.
Then I got older. I started getting the unspoken-but-clear message all girls get:
Those messages sunk in at a time of transition in schools, in friend groups, in personal situations. And the world was happy to reinforce the idea.
I was eleven when cars started honking at my friends and me as we walked down the road to the playground, to the 7-11. A busy road with constant traffic, the honks and catcalls came from truck drivers and teen boys and old men. One day, walking with a friend, we had enough. The next car that honked at us, we’d flip them off. And we did.
The driver stopped his car in the middle of the road and opened his door, ready to come at us. The traffic is what kept us safe. We stopped flipping off cars after that.
A year later, when a grown man sexually assaulted me, I did nothing. Said nothing. Told nobody. Spent years refusing to call it sexual assault. Even today, a decade later, I still try to make excuses for it.
A year after that, I let a boy mock me for crying because I was so stressed out about a homework assignment I’d handed in and the teacher had lost.
A year after that, a boy asked if I was pregnant as I left the cafeteria, mocking my weight. I said nothing and played it off as a joke to my friends when I got to my lunch spot, even though it clearly left an impression.
Me, the little girl who threw fists and elbows, who intimidated boys so they wouldn’t mess with her, who knew how to wield a baseball bat. I did nothing.
I was nice.
I was small.
I was quiet.
I was passive.
I was no longer the fierce little girl I had been, quick to defend herself but even quicker to make sure she’d never have to. Instead, I was what society wanted me to be, what it wants all girls to be: compliant.
No longer was I the chatty girl with a million opinions that my parents couldn’t contain. In classes, I stopped asking and answering questions, content to hide behind my books and lose participation points, knowing my grades would compensate for that. The classrooms where I could speak up and be snarky and be opinionated only became those classrooms after months of me deciding if I felt comfortable or not. Through middle school, through high school, through college.
While I shrunk myself to fit into what the world wanted me to be, I devoured books. Books about teen girls who fought the bad guys and weren’t afraid, or if they were, ignored their fear and fought anyway. Girls who worked magic and found their agency, their voice. Girls who killed when they had to and sometimes when they didn’t. Girls with fangs and claws and fists. Girls who I wanted to be.
Young adult books are filled with these girls who are fierce and strong and still vulnerable, still real. Girls like Katniss, Hermione, Tris, Clary, Gemma, Helene, and Shahrzad. But recently, I’ve come to realize those girls only get to exist in speculative fiction, sci-fi and fantasy and historical fantasy. Worlds with magic and demons. Girls in those worlds can throw a punch, pick up a blade, cast an evil spell and still be beloved, revered, held up as heroes.
But the girls in the real world can’t.
Girls in contemporary fiction who defend themselves, use sharp words, are selfish and aggressive and feisty—they are “unlikable” characters. The girls who stand up for themselves and don’t play nice are the characters people call bratty, immature, annoying, Too Much. Girls in contemporary worlds have to play nice, be quiet, be small, be compliant. They make waves in subtle ways with little fuss. This is especially true if the girl isn’t straight, cis, and white. When a girl breaks that mold and sharpens her tongue and holds up her fist, she’s deemed unlikable and, often, the book is as well.
In doing this, I worry what lesson we’re really giving to young girls. We hold up Katniss as a feminist hero while she runs around in fictional world and kills people, but we don’t do the same for girls in contemporary novels who don’t just let their rapists get away with it. Girls in realistic settings who declare themselves feminists are too loud and outspoken and pushy while we applaud Hermione Granger every time we see her punch Draco Malfoy in the face. We’re telling girls that your feminism, your aggression, your defensiveness is only okay in imaginary worlds, not the real one.
Which is what happened to me. And no matter how many YA books I read, I never see those aggressive girls in contemporary books. If I do, I know I’m not supposed to like them or their stories; I’m supposed to wish they found a nicer way to settle the problem.
The world was telling me to be quiet and nice and passive. The world was telling me to let boys insult me, to let them abuse me, all without doing anything about it. And contemporary YA books weren’t countering that narrative. A decade after I started reading YA books regularly, the majority of them still aren’t. The books that do—books by Courtney Summers and Sandhya Menon and Nova Ren Suma—are still labeled books with unlikable characters.
I’m tired of it. Give me your harsh girls. Your aggressive girls. Your defensive girls. Give me your girls who lash out, who push a little too hard, who forget their own strength. Give me the girls who take no shit, who fight back, who use their fangs and claws and fists in contemporary settings. Give me your tough girls, your mean girls, and make them the hero of the story. Teach girls to own their boundaries, own who they are, and never to make themselves softer, nicer, quieter. Teach girls that it’s as important to fight in this world as it is in any magical one.