At a time when Americans still profess to be very divided on the subject of feminism, some of the most popular books of the past decade have had an overtly pro-women agenda. Despite putting forward ideas that are seemingly more radical than ordinary Americans would be likely to accept, novels, starting with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and progressing through the trilogies The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Hunger Games, and Divergent, have been runaway best-sellers. One could be a fluke, and two an anomaly, but three or more is a pattern. More than a pattern, even: a sea change. What’s going on here? Why is the kickass heroine ascendant? And where literature leads, does culture follow?
When Dan Brown came out with his Catholic conspiracy theory thriller in 2003, the publishing landscape was, in many ways, totally recognizable. Best-selling authors included Michael Lewis, Stephen King, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, and Ann Coulter, the same titans who are still balancing the literary industry on their shoulders. Among those keepers of the status quo, though, two writers stand out: J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket.
Rowling burst on the scene with the first Harry Potter book in 1997 (1998 in America). By 2000, the series was a bona fide phenomenon and Hermione, Harry’s brave and brainy friend, was a hard-to-pronounce household name. Rowling herself was too, which must have felt at least a bit ironic since, at the advice of her editors, she had blurred her gender, going by “J.K.” rather than “Joanne,” even though she had to make up a middle initial to make the obfuscation possible.
Also in 1999, a writer calling himself Lemony Snicket published The Bad Beginning, book one in what became the wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events, focused on the adventures of three orphaned siblings, two girls and a boy. Neither of the female protagonists is stereotypically feminine: Sunny, the fearless and extremely capable baby, uses her teeth as both a tool and a weapon, while her older sister, Violet, is an inventor of the first order, able to engineer her way out of all sorts of sticky situations.
The unexpected, relatively subtle, and successful feminism of all these phenomena did a lot to prepare the reading public for what came next, especially The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) and its sequels, which focus even more on Larsson’s clear-eyed vengeance demon of a female protagonist. The Hunger Games (2010) and its sequels were blockbusters in print and in theaters, and Divergent (2011) hasn’t done too shabbily either.
Best of all, neither Suzanne Collins nor Veronica Roth had to publish under a gender-neutral pseudonym. If anyone feared the authors’ sex might hold them back, they were proven wrong. And if anyone feared a Pixar movie about a sharp-shooter and her mom, or a Disney one about proactive princesses whose love for each other is their most important tie, wouldn’t sell, they were proven wronger still.
Some of the strongest female characters in literature and film predate the turn-of-the-century sea change made possible by Rowling and her compatriots, including one of my personal favorites, Lyra “Silvertongue” Belacqua, who made her debut in 1995. But it wasn’t until she, Dan Brown, Stieg Larsson, and Lemony Snicket together reinforced the idea that feminism could be a hot sell that the kickass heroine became normalized. Thanks to their efforts, a glass ceiling has been shattered: kids today probably take it for granted that girls can be just as exciting to read about as boys.
Who’s your favorite literary heroine?