Sunday, March 24, 2013

Maybe This Shouldn't Bother Me - But It Does

My daughter has turned out to be quite an avid reader. Just before spring break, she finished reading Graceling by Kristin Cashore, and she had been going on about how good it was. Since I was finishing up The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare, I decided Graceling would be my next book.

I don't really regret that decision, but I'm not entirely happy with how it's turning out. I'm 20 chapters into the book now, and while I normally wait until I'm finished with a book before writing about it (so I'm not making snap judgments about things that work out in the end), a couple of things bother me about this book and I just need to sort them out by thinking on paper (or pixels, in this case).

Graceling is young adult fantasy set in a world in which children are sometimes born with an extraordinary gift for something. These children are marked by having eyes of two different colors, and when a child with a Grace is born, he/she is sent to the King, who will decide whether the Grace is of any use to him. Those who are judged to have a beneficial Grace are raised in court; the rest are sent home. It's an interesting premise.

The main character is a Graceling girl named Katsa, whose Grace happens to be the ability to kill (yep). As you can imagine, the King (who is also her uncle) finds that a very useful Grace, and he has made Katsa his enforcer/assassin. However, Katsa also has a side business going, in which she uses her skills to help right social wrongs. While on one of those missions, she meets another Graceling, Prince Po, whose Grace turns out to be a heightened sensitivity to others, to the point that he can practically read minds (within limits). Po helps Katsa see she has the power to refuse to obey the king's demands, and the two of them set out on their own quest. It was Po's kidnapped grandfather that Katsa was rescuing on the original mission, and they are trying to get to the truth about why he was kidnapped. Of course, Katsa and Po are also falling in love, in what one of the blurbs on the book cover calls "a knee-weakening romance that rivals Twilight."

It's not so much this individual book that bothers me as it is a pattern I think I see developing in young adult books. Of course, we all understand that publishing is an industry built around making money, so once a successful formula is discovered, there are going to be multiple reincarnations of that formula. And what was the most successful and celebrated young adult book since Twilight? I'll give you a hint; the name of that main character also started with "Kat." Yes, yes, of course -- Hunger Games! Mega-successful, the epitome of Girl Power, with a side of tortured romance.

Katsa in Graceling is just one more incarnation of what I'm going to call the "Kick-Ass Girl" (sorry, Mother, I had to say it!). Katniss in Hunger Games introduced the type - a strong, self-reliant girl who excels at traditionally masculine activities like hunting and who is emotionally tough to the point of even being gruff, which of course covers up her underlying vulnerability. Katsa in Graceling is that character taken to extremes (because, of course, you have to up the stakes to be different when you are building on a pattern). Katsa is the Navy SEAL or the Army Special Forces version of the KAG - she excels at killing people, except she has learned to control her skill so that usually she only knocks them unconscious. She is able to take out a number of (male) guards single-handedly, and no one is able to beat her in a fight. Because of being used for these purposes by the king, she has developed a self-image as a thug or a vicious, trained dog, which makes her often angry, rude, and stand-offish. When Po appears to be able to read her mind, she is furious because she views the fact that he understands her feelings as an intrusion.

Why does this bother me? I guess it's because it seems the only model for "girl power" right now is the KAG who rejects EVERYTHING that is feminine (except falling in love with a hot guy). I've written before about female characters who disdain traditionally feminine activities like knitting or cooking; of course, Katsa fits this model - she has even filled the room where she used to do embroidery with swords and daggers. To tell the truth, Katsa seems the ultimate image of the rejection of the feminine; at one point, she has a couple of girls in an inn cut off her hair. As she says, "The shorter you cut it, the happier I'll be." It's not that she's trying to pose as a boy; she just hates taking care of her hair. And maybe the most telling rejection is a rejection of the very thing that makes her most female - the ability to have children. Katsa is determined to never have children because she doesn't want to mother them, so she tells Po she would fill a garden with seabane, an herb that is supposed to keep a woman from conceiving. Even Katniss Everdeen didn't go that far; she did have two children, although she seems too emotionally scarred to truly appreciate them.

I might write it off as just one young author writing to a hot trend, but there's an ad at the back of Graceling for another young adult book, with a heroine who is "blessed with dangerous gifts," who will be "trained as an assassin." She's everywhere, this KAG, even for younger girls, as Merida in the Oscar-winning animated film Brave. Don't get me wrong; I think we need strong girl characters. But why can't we ever have a strong girl character who also cherishes something feminine? Why can't we have a girl warrior who also knits beautiful shawls?

Rats. It's late, and I still need to clean the kitchen, and tomorrow is back to the school grind. So my second beef with Graceling with have to wait until another day.


lil red hen said...

From Mom -- What's this world coming to! :0) Doesn't sound like my kind of book. I think toys for girls have taken the same turn.

Ephemera said...

All these books, and sadly, the reality for women is much different. For every KAG someone writes about, just pause a moment in the grocery aisle and look at a magazine cover. You'll see a very different type of girl (at the moment I'm not coming up with any name for them except "Sultry Looking Unnatural Toys" -- you can figure out the acronym). Too many women seem to think that a female only has worth IF she has big boobies and a tiny waist, and big, soft, pouting lips and dark steamy eyes....

It's a world of extremes I suppose. I think that's one reason that I liked "The Closer" when it first came out on TNT. Brenda Leigh Johnson was a female who was strong and opinionated, and tried (but wasn't quite able) to pull off "sexy." But in her bull-headed approach to life, we got glimpses of the vulnerability she felt, and the failures she had, even when she was playing the KAG part.

Whew. Too much, huh.

Ann Turnbull said...

It bothers me too - a lot. I try to 'fight' back with stories about girls who have real courage and determination - but can also knit a stocking or make bread.