As we continue to highlight #RealGirlLeaders, we bring you Eliza Klien. Eliza is 18 years old and a recent graduate of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. She is a 2015 Boston GLOW #IGNITEChange Finalist working to empower girls through creating more positive images of women and girls in fantasy and fiction. Below you will find her winning 2015 IGNITE Change essay!
Celebrating Female Characters: A Zine About Strong Young Women
For years, I saw myself as a minor character in my own story. There is nothing bleaker than the powerlessness of feeling like a minor character in one’s own life. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon sentiment for quiet, insecure teenage girls.
It was this feeling of insignificance that initially drew me to the genre of fantasy. The main characters in fantasy are individuals who thought they were nobody, only to wake up one morning to realize that they were special and the world needed them. I could imagine my face as theirs, their deeds as my own. Reading their stories gave mine a little more importance and provided me with an escape into bizarre and intriguing worlds.
During sophomore year, I began to really question what I was reading. Before then, I had read for the stories, read for the characters, read to escape. But then, like a light had gone off, I began to notice the heroes that I was always rooting for, the brave saviors, were more often than not men. Where, I began to wonder, are the women in these fantasy books? Where are my people?
If I had $1000, I would use it to start a conversation about strong female characters in fantasy fiction. These characters are often missing, often overlooked, and female students in my community would feel more empowered if this conversation existed.
I am currently participating in a semester-long project that examines how young women access power in various mediums of fantasy. I am working with two other female friends through the English department at our public high school. Specifically, in our project we are comparing how women access power in High Fantasy, a sub-genre consisting of an imagined world, versus in Urban Contemporary Fantasy, a sub-genre that take
s place in our urban world but contains characters with supernatural powers.
My partners and I feel that it is important to study how female characters access power in different types of Young Adult literature. This is because young readers - and especially young female readers - can deeply internalize the messages that books send to them. Sometimes, books send empowering messages to young readers. For example, after reading the Harry Potter series in fifth grade, I felt more comfortable with my own convictions because of Hermione Granger, the series’ strong female protagonist. Hermione taught me to be unapologetic for my beliefs and to express myself fearlessly with power and pride. Hermione accesses strength through her intellect, her confidence, and most of all, her unwavering voice. She is an example of a strong female role model within the fantasy genre.
However, fantasy fiction can also send disempowering messages to young readers. It is important that, as young women, we begin to identify these messages so that we can subvert them. Smashing the patriarchy begins by recognizing the problematic messages to which we are exposed. One issue I’ve noticed in the fantasy genre is that throughout both High and Urban Contemporary fantasy, strong women are almost always portrayed as white. Young Adult literature that ignores issues of intersectionality and racism cannot comprehensively empower all young women, as these books send the covert message that all heroes and heroines have to have light skin and straight hair.
Evidently, Young Adult literature sends varied messages to readers, both positive and negative. I believe that starting a conversation in my community about how women access power in fantasy fiction will allow my peers to celebrate strong female characters as well as think critically about what they are reading (and watching - many popular TV shows fall under the “fantasy fiction” category, such as Game of Thrones, Supernatural, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
In order to start a conversation about powerful female characters - and sexism within fantasy literature - in my community, I have begun to create a zine with my friends. Zines are self-made, self-published mini-magazines, and they are often utilized to spread awareness about social justice issues. Our zine will include art, articles, poetry, interviews with local fantasy authors, and analysis of how women are both accessing power and being overlooked within the genres of High and Urban Contemporary fantasy. We have already begun our work for the zine, and a few of our comics for the zine are attached at the end of this essay.
My peers and I truly believe that if we can get this zine circulating, we will spark a broad conversation about women in literature and both the triumphs and shortcomings of feminism in fantasy fiction. Middle and high school aged girls in my intellectual, progressive city are always reading, an
d this zine would both celebrate student work as well as give local young women a way to start thinking about the complex messages they are receiving from their books. Since I live in a very liberal city, most teenage girls self-identify as feminists and are already aware of many gender issues that exist in our society. However, I feel as though the issue of female literary characters, and how they are often under-recognized, or even missing, is often overlooked.
Though we are not finished with our zine, I am confident that this project will have long-lasting effects on our community. Our zine celebrates young voices, strong women, and female writers, and it points out issues within fantasy fiction - the lack of female characters, the lack of people of color, and the general patriarchal systems that undermine female power. Attached is a list of what we would do with $1000 to start this conversation about women in literature.
Our list of costs adds up to $950. We would donate the remaining $50 to our local, student-run feminist club, which has empowered my peers and I in many ways and runs off of donations and fundraisers. In addition, once our zine is published and bound, we will circulate it throughout our community, donate a few copies to the library, and sell copies to interested students. We will sell the zine for $4 and donate all of the proceeds to a women’s shelter in our town.
I am incredibly passionate about fantasy literature and about feminism. I feel that young women in my community can truly become empowered by thinking critically about what they read, about the messages they see in society, and about the female characters in their books. I want to raise awareness about the fact that there aren’t enough powerful female characters - and especially non-white female characters - in fantasy. I also want to celebrate the heroines that do exist, with the hopes that other young readers will find the same empowerment in Hermione Granger (and other characters) that I did. Finally, I want to celebrate the voices of real young women in my community through my zine. My friends and I will showcase our own work, but we are also taking submissions from other students in our school, and will include all creative submissions in our zine.
With $1000, young women in my community will have access to a student-created piece of work - a zine - that will allow them to begin recognizing and combating oppressive literature, as well as celebrating the strong female heroes who have shaped us in so many ways.
Examples of art pieces in our zine: