Erika Johansen, author of The Queen of the Tearling, wrote an article on Buzzfeed titled “Why We Need ‘Ugly’ Heroines“. While I agree with the majority of what she said in the article, I found her to be a little hypocritical.
In her article, Johansen talks about there not being enough realistic heroines in fantasy novels. You’ll often see covers with barely clad women and if they’re decently clothed, they’ll often have large cleavage. On top of that, she talks about how most heroines are pretty or beautiful. She also talks about how in books with female heroines or books geared towards a specific audience, there needs to be a (usually useless and unrealistic) romance story stuck in there somewhere.
These points are all valid and they’re points that I completely agree with. And in fact, Johansen’s heroine, Kelsea, is not beautiful at all. In fact, she stresses at the very beginning of the book that Kelsea is very plain and not at all pretty. However, Kelsea notices right away that all her guards are super good looking and she notes that her guardians never showed her a mirror because she was so ugly. In other words, Kelsea focuses too much on the way she and others looks.
I admit – I stopped reading the book after the first three chapters and went straight towards reading the reviews for the second book, in hopes that our heroine matures a bit. Nope. Apparently not. This is a bad habit. I should read the whole book myself to form my own opinions about the book instead of relying on others. But I have a hard time forcing myself to finish a book when I find that the character is unlikable.
I also think that constantly stressing Kelsea’s plainness also perpetuates the idea that heroines only think about appearances. In fact, in the second book Kelsea suddenly becomes pretty. In fact, she loses weight because apparently being “chubby” means you’re also plain looking. Because after she loses weight, she magically becomes beautiful. Um… what? Maybe this is an author trick to make readers realize that these points aren’t true. But do you really take two books or more to get your point across? This opinion might be an unpopular one but I enjoy books more when you don’t notice a theme or message screaming at your face. There’s still themes and messages but you don’t notice that the author is actively bringing across their own messages and beliefs. Or when you notice that these messages aren’t from the character but rather from the author. Then I end up getting turned off.
I obviously haven’t read the entire series so maybe these issues are resolved by the end of the third book. Maybe my points are invalid because I haven’t actually finished the book yet. But thinking about these issues and the issues the author brought up made me think about beauty standards in fantasy novels.
I feel like any novel that focuses too much on beauty standards, whether the heroine is beautiful or whether the heroine is plain, only strengthens the cliche that heroines need to look a certain way. Why focus on their looks at all?
One reason, I felt, Hermione (Harry Potter) made such a great character is not only because she was intelligent and kick-ass but also she didn’t care about her looks at all. The complete opposite of Kelsea, who cared about her looks very much. I only mention Hermione as an example because almost everyone knows who she is.
I guess my point started off from Johansen’s article on Buzzfeed in that a heroine who focuses on her looks (disregarding the fact if she is “ugly” or “pretty”) still adds to the idea that fantasy heroines have to look and act a certain way. Another thing that bugged me about Johansen’s Buzzfeed article was also that she put quotes around “ugly” but not quotes around “pretty” or “beautiful” because honestly, those are all subjective words. They mean different things to different people. What you consider pretty or beautiful or smoking-hot might not be what another person considers pretty or beautiful or smoking-hot.
I don’t know if this made any sense. I feel like my posts these days have ended up as word vomits, haha.
Thanks for reading!