The Problem with ‘Sassy’

Yesterday bestselling author Patrick Ness bemoaned on Twitter that YA novels always seem to have a female MC who can be described as either ‘sassy’ or ‘feisty’. I couldn’t agree more – both words fill me with dread. Both Patrick and I have the same issue with these characters – they are simply not real.

My dictionary defines feisty as ‘(chiefly US regional) 1. Touchy, excitable, quarrelsome. 2. Spirited, tough or frisky. 3. Impudent, bold, overbearing. The word is derived from ‘Feist’, a small mongrel dog.  ‘Sass’ is defined as ‘(chiefly US informal) Impertinence, backchat.

In black and white, these are hardly attractive characteristics, and yet they have become the most oversubscribed words to describe YA heroes. They are always used to describe girls, never boys. What words do boys get? ‘Bold’, ‘Brave’, ‘Fearless’, ‘Strong’. These words are very rarely used in relation to female MCs. There are a few notable exceptions of course – Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games could never be described as sassy – she’s too busy getting on with surviving. Similarly Saba in Blood Red Road is quietly resigned in her quest to rescue her twin. No sass necessary. Sabriel and Lirael, both Garth Nix creations, are far too dignified to engage in anything as uncouth as backchat.

You’ll note that my dictionary has both terms as Americanisms, but they are ones that have readily drifted over the Atlantic. The problem that I have is that they are both essentially negative traits and they do not sufficiently represent the hard work authors have put into their female characters. Understandably journalists and reviewers have adopted these words as coverall phrases, but I would be disappointed if Lis London (from Hollow Pike) is described as ‘feisty’. Phrases I would use would be ‘knows her own mind’; ‘witty’; ‘sharp’;’kind’; ‘inquisitive’; ‘fiercely moral’. If Lis thinks someone is in the wrong, she will call a bitch out, but she doesn’t go around engaging in overbearing quarrelling for fun.

That’s the thing with ‘feisty’ – it’s another word for rude. I find it hard to warm to characters who have embraced ‘sassy’, because to me they are never fully-rounded. As my Twitter followers will know, I’m finding Doctor Who hard at the moment because both female main characters Amy Pond and River Song are 100% ‘feisty’ – they make me cringe. What real human enters a room and immediately starts being rude and obnoxious to everyone they meet? Real life sass-peddlar Katie Price is further evidence of how awful ‘sassy’ can be. Nothing is worse than meeting a ‘sassy’ person in real life – again, I would opt for ‘fake and rude’ over any other adjective.

I blame post 1970s American film and TV. Post second-wave feminism, film-makers attempted to make female characters more independent, capable characters, and while this is admirable, many characters ended up as empty pretenders of these attributes. Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Kat Stratford in 10 Things I Hate About You, Jinx in Die Another Day are just three examples of rude, bratty characters who fall under the ‘feisty-not-real’ umbrella. I might let Kat off because she comes good in the end. In fact, even she admits that her ‘feist’ is a defense mechanism to stop people liking her. Personally, I’d rather people just liked Lis from the get-go. Reality TV and the rise of ‘ladette’ culture in the 1990s further compounded the archetype of ‘free-speaking loudmouth’. Of course, everybody should be allowed freedom of speech, but I’m a big fan of politeness too – as discussed in my Caitlin Moran post.

In YA books, ‘feisty’ seems to have infected contemporary girls more than the historical or dystopian sororities. MCs in Hush, Hush; Fallen; Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries and even Lyra in His Dark Materials suffer from strops of feisty rudeness. I don’t think authors are under any obligation to present loveable female characters. The best characters are fallible. Bella Swan didn’t sell a billionty books for nothing – her hopeless, blinding obsession with Edward rings true throughout the Twilight series, and makes her infuriating, but somehow real. No, once again, the issue is employing the words ‘feisty’ and ‘sassy’ do neither the author or character the justice they deserve.

To writers seeking to make their female characters ‘feisty’, I would ask: When did you last actually meet a ‘feisty’ woman?

Film Studies Essay

In no more than 500 words compare and contrast the films The Skin I Live In and The Human Centipede.


The Skin I Live In is a 2011 drama by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, the genius behind such works as Live Flesh and Talk To Her. The Human Centipede is a 2010 horror film directed by Dutch Tom Six. Without wanting to spoiler either film, both evoke strong reactions from audiences and, although it seems unlikely given the much maligned nature of the latter film, there are actual similarities between the two.

Both films toy with the boundaries of science. Six claims to have been inspired by the illegal Nazi experiments of men like Josef Mengele, while Almodovar took inspiration from the novel Tarantula by Thierry Jonquet. Both films follow the misguided attempts of brilliant and accomplished scientists to take surgical procedures to the next level. The Skin I Live In begins with Antonio Banderas’s Dr Robert Ledgard perfecting his new genetically engineered super-skin, while The Human Centipede examines Dr Heiter (Dieter Laser) and his joy of sticking living things together in a line.

In both examples, the surgeons take their obsessions to dark and dangerous territory. This is where the similarities end.

Onto the differences. The Skin I Live In is a masterpiece, whereas The Human Centipede is the worst kind of exploitative shit I have ever had the misfortune to watch.

This is a question of character and writing, not to mention direction. I urge everyone to get to The Skin I Live In promptly before its numerous twists and turns become widely known. I am absolutely not going to spoiler it, but the fascinating thing is, is that in the hands of a lesser director, TSILI would have been every bit as nasty and upsetting as THC. Through clever writing and direction, Almodovar succeeds in making the very, very dark characters seem almost sympathetic. In fact, I wonder if TSILI is a study in the manipulation of the audience’s sympathies. Credit to Almodovar, Banderas and beautiful Elena Anaya for their work.

Where TSILI is genius, THC is just crap. The dialogue is laughable, the sets look like a Premier Inn and the acting is atrocious. You may well wonder why any viewer would put themselves through it, but remember initial reactions to films like The Exorcist…we mustn’t be close minded because the concepts in a film challenge taste and decency. Sadly (and I pity the actors involved), THC lacks even the most basic devices to make us care for anyone in the sorry affair. The worst offence THC commits is to be so painfully, excruciatingly boring and cheap.

In conclusion, while both films fit in the genre of ‘surgical horror stories’, one is a thought-provoking revenge tale, while the other is utter tripe. Further research is not necessary.

And the winner is…

Last night I had the great honour of being invited along to help judge the Popjustice Twenty Quid Music Prize, the alternative to the frumpy old Mercury Music Prize. Every year, Popjustice celebrates the best british pop songs of the last twelve months, the lucky winner (usually Girls Aloud) takes away a crisp £20 note.

I’d never attended before, but was soon made to feel welcome by the hardcore returnees (some at their fourth awards). It was a boozy affair, and I was blown away by how passionate the judges were…I thought I was the only one who cared about pop music that much! Not just ‘which song is best’ either – the shortlisted songs were dissected and analysed in fine detail. Two rounds in particular were decided by The Lady Gaga Lunchbox, which forced us to decide whether the songs in that round ‘reflected the world we live on’ (yes, on) and ‘how would it go down at a five year-olds party?’. One round saw The Wanted eliminated by a poor quality watercolour painting depicting a ‘vital presentation’.

I was surprised at how vehemently I defended the songs I loved. Turns out I’m a militant Nicola Roberts and Adele fan. Who knew? Heavy hitters fell early (Take That went out to The Saturdays, Adele was defeated by Nicola Roberts). Poor Miss Roberts fended off attacks from Joe McElderry, Hurts and Yasmin before coming head to head with The Saturdays in the final.

This was where things got interesting. ‘Indie’, ‘NME’ and ‘Fearne Cotton’ are dirty words at Popjustice and the mood of the night was that Nicola’s Beat of My Drum was a considered attempt to shun the pop of Girls Aloud and become CREDIBLE. A VERY dirty word at Popjustice. The final reflected a pop song, and a pop song that didn’t want to be pop. I fought tooth and nail for Nicola. Beat of My Drum is a mission statement, and perhaps I’m not as cynical as I should be, but I feel that Nicola is an M.I.A fan and fancied a bit of Diplo action, rather than attempting to be a serious artist. The Saturdays, who I have always found a little bit desperate, present somewhat empty music…which often reflects the worst of pop music.

Sod it. Adele should have won, but in the end it went to Higher by The Saturdays.

Anyway, I present the final two songs for you…do you think we made the right choice?

Easy, Breezy, Beautiful!

Seeing the cover art of your very own novel is a singular experience. Obviously you know you’re going to be published, but seeing the public facing part of your book – the bit that’ll decide whether a reader takes it off a shelf to investigate – is very special indeed. That said, I don’t know if this affects every author, but I also dreaded seeing it for the first time. I’d heard horror stories from authors and agents alike, of writers being stuck with dud covers, that didn’t reflect the soul of their book or their personal taste. What if the art work had come in and I’d HATED it? Would I have had the balls to go to Orion and argue?

Luckily, I need never find out. I LOVE the cover for Hollow Pike. Also, in contradiction to the ‘you get what you’re given’ warning I’d had from other authors, I felt wholly involved in the creative process behind the art work.

The cover discussions started almost as soon as I’d signed the book deal. My lovely editor took me out for lunch, and as well as hammering out the final twist and pondering what is an appropriate amount of tongue action in a YA novel, she asked me what I’d like to see on the cover. I was not ready for this. We both agreed that crows and trees HAD to be a feature. I took some convincing on the need for ‘A Girl’ to be prominently featured. Yes, the book is about a girl called Lis, but I would never seek to alienate male readers. As a teen, I only read the Point Horrors that didn’t have girls on, so people wouldn’t make fun of me at school. My editor explained that we did need to give a bit of a visual clue that this is a YA spooky mystery and not Bravo Two Zero, so a girl was essential. (I did, however, state I REALLY didn’t want a girl in a ballgown – no girl in rural North Yorkshire wears a ballgown around school, unless it’s prom night, and even then they tend to be from TopShop).

At some stage in the conversation, after discussing various book covers we both did and didn’t like, we got onto the idea of hair turning into birds or trees. I wanted something more graphic than pure photographic – along the lines of Twilight or Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce. My editor wanted ‘beautiful’, I wanted ‘striking’. The task for the art department was to combine these wishes. It was only later that I remembered a gorgeous piece of artwork by Brighton artist Eelus called Raven Haired – similar bird/hair concept – someone should get this guy doing book covers at once!

In the end I was sent two possible covers. The purple cover caught my eye instantly. To me, it was both beautiful AND striking. The other, unused cover, was also very pretty, but featured a gently sleeping girl (a less doctored photograph), and the serenity betrayed the peril that faces the teenagers of Hollow Pike! Also, from a very superficial point of view, I didn’t like her mumsy eye makeup. I SOOOO wish I could show you, but there’s all sorts of rights issues with the image. It seems that the Powers That Be at Orion were happy with either cover, so I was allowed to choose. I was so in love with the purple cover that I sent a very gushy email and that was that! When the cover was first unveiled in July, the worldwide response was overwhelming. People were so kind in their appraisals of it, and, more importantly, people seem to want to read it – which is the whole point really!

Finally, a big thanks to Laura at Orion, who actually designed the cover, I’m so pleased with it, and can’t wait for readers to get their hands on it too! Before too long, the whole process of promoting Hollow Pike kicks off (not long til proofs will be available, my lovely bloggers), and we have a couple of other surprises in store too.


James x