Since ancient times, long before the world-weary YA novel, coming-of-age tales have been a hallmark of storytelling, from the journey of Aeneas as depicted in Virgil’s Iliad, to the path to Camelot traveled by Arthur, the once and future king in the Cycle of the same name. Notice that the way to adulthood in these tales ultimately leads to a crown. As time has gone by, that crown has become more symbolic.
But notice also that such tales focus on a male protagonist achieving adulthood. There seem to be few, if any, tales of ancient lore in which females come into their own. In fact, a lot of the time, women seem to be the root of the problem; the heroine is a much younger concept than the hero. This is not to say that there were no heroic females of ancient myth and folklore, or even better, this is not to say that there were no heroic females who were strictly the stars of their own story. Take the stories (historically factual ones, I might add) of Queen Boudica, who led the Britons in rebellion against the Romans, or of Grace O’Malley, the Irish chieftain and pirate who led rebellions against Queen Elizabeth I and the British Empire, and let’s not forget that Queen Elizabeth was a worthy adversary in and of herself.
And of course, even in tales where females are not the protagonist, and are not otherwise delegated the role of beguiling and seductive villainess, strong female gems can still be found among the cast of characters, like Princess Nausicaa of Homer’s Odyssey.
So even if female heroines, by definition of being the female counterpart of the heroic archetype, were fewer and farther between in ancient times, they have developed into the modern world as gracefully as male heroes have. Predictably though, they have developed in different ways, since they came from very different perceptions since their beginnings. In literature, what it means to become a man is a contrast to what it means to become a woman, even when the woman tries to put aside her femininity to equal themselves to male heroes.
The Ways of Old
Since gender specificity was so clear in the days of old, it can come as no surprise that what was expected of a girl in order to become a woman was so much different than what was expected of a boy to become a man. However, if a girl wanted to become a heroine—the female version of a hero—she would have to abandon some of her womanliness in order to achieve that status. For instance, we can look at Queen Boudica: she did indeed uphold the role of dutiful mother to her daughters, but she had to take that to the level of the violent passions of a man to fulfill that in the heroic sense, when her daughters were raped by those Roman despots, forcing her to step up both as mother, and as queen and leader of her people, to rally the Britons into rebellion against the Roman occupancy.
Otherwise, it would seem that the story of a girl’s journey into adulthood wasn’t all that important. Wife and mother, and that’s the end of that. As for men, their concerns were chiefly violent and wrought with glory and bleeding-heart zealotry, and since that was considered a far more superior tale than of a girl’s journey to wife and mother, that was the paradigm of the heroic epic: slash the way through all of the trouble with the trusty broadsword, and at the end raise the head of the enemy high up in the air on a pike, giving a great ululation of victory.
Guts and glory, right?
And so it was for a long time. Heroes of the masculine sort were dominant, historically and mythically alike: plenty of monumental trials and tribulations on the road to becoming a king, but no (if any) poetic homages to the travails of childbirth (which is surprising considering the fact that the gore factor can play just as big a role in that as in the slaughtering of armies). But of course, anything domestic, i.e. the duties of the female, was considered the norm, being that it was centered around the home, and it was a man’s job to go and restore the balance when that norm was upset by external forces, like Grendel wreaking havoc on King Hrothgar’s Heorot. That was interesting—sweeping up wasn’t, but chopping of dragons’ heads was.
And who can argue with that logic really?
So since the man’s job description involved all of the excitement by definition, male heroes were more common than female ones, and if there were female ones, they were placed in masculine situations of feat and skill. Even in Shakespeare, oftentimes the heroine—from Viola of Twelfth Night to Rosalind of As You Like It—adopted the raiment of a man and the identity of a man along the way to coming into the fruition of her own destiny (ultimately, love with a man).
But as the world progressed in terms of looking at gender qualities in new ways, so did the tales.
YA, a.k.a. Young Adult, a.k.a. Teenager, a.k.a. “Growing Up Is So Painful!”
The concept of the “teenager” didn’t really emerge until the 1920s, but from preliminaries such as the growing pains of Pip into a Victorian English gentleman in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as well as those of Cosette into a French Victorian lady in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, among others, there emerged this thing called “adolescence”, which became the primary focus for a new literary genre that would be called, “young adult”, or YA, in shorthand.
And the calling card of these books tended to be that bridge between childhood and adulthood, for both males and females alike. So, like with everything in the twentieth century, the clear definitions of yore became blurred, and so did the stories of boys to men and girls to women. True, there are still many differences, but there are also similarities, not to mention a greater prominence of the heroine.
Here, instead of dealing with slaughter as the path to manhood, boys question whether slaughter truly makes a boy a man, like in Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer. Instead of trekking the trail towards wifehood and motherhood as the marks of adulthood, girls find themselves unmarried and with child, and faced with the choice of an abortion or giving up their baby for adoption, because sixteen is much too young anymore for those responsibilities.
Longer life spans mean we should cling to childhood a little longer. And meanwhile both male and female heroes of these YA novels both face the demons of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Boys, Boys, Boys (and Girls)
In some ways though, the male hero is still preferable. Take Harry Potter for example: indeed, he’s a great character, but it is also widely believed that had he been a she, a Harrietta Potter shall we say, the books would not have sold as well.
Because girls are not universally relatable to both genders, whereas boys are.
Wait a minute, don’t we live in the twenty-first century?
All the same, that’s the story and the stats. In order to give a girl heroine the same status as that of a hero like Harry Potter, she really has to step it up, a bit like those heroines of yore. She’s got to have a masculine edge to her, otherwise you lose the male demographic, because while it’s cool for girls to wear pants, it’s still weird for guys to wear dresses: in other words, boys are cool to everybody, but only girls will appreciate a female antagonist who’s all feminine.
So you get heroines like Catwoman (as ambiguous as she is) who sports a sassy attitude, or better yet, Wonder Woman, who is in fact an Amazonian princess, and as anyone who knows anything about the Amazons is well aware, they are not only strictly female, but strictly well-toned warriors and female.
Mainstream YA fiction is really the only place it seems where absolute femininity can be celebrated in the same heroic fashion as masculinity has been for millennia. When we see Yuki in Shizuko’s Daughter grow into a woman beyond the life-shattering suicide of her mother, excelling in painting and art, the reader can’t help but cheer: Yuki may not have slain a single beast in the process of becoming a woman, but in the hands of a writer like Kyoko Mori, the reader observes her embrace adulthood with her own inner strength, against the adversity of her listless father, her jaw-clenching stepmother, and the most terrible foe of all, the grief for the death of her mother, Shizuko.
But can heroines like say Bella Swan of the Twilight Saga pave the way for female heroines in other genres within the genre of YA fiction, where coming-of-age is concerned? Indeed, the reader does see a heroic and glorified homage to wife and motherhood in Bella’s journey from saying “I do” to Edward at the altar to the heart-stopping labor of giving birth to a half-human half-vampire baby (in which situation Edward has no choice but to turn her into a vampire in order to “save her”, and so here we have a transformation represented by something literal and physical—in other words, human into vampire).
Then again, perhaps that’s not the best example.
In the meantime, other contenders will pave the way, and perhaps one day the tales of the modern world will fully embrace the sacredness of femininity as a new a holy grail on the passage from childhood into adulthood, that most celebrated, dreaded, and anticipated of life’s achievements.