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?