Two Sisters’ List of YA Lit’s Badass Chicks Who Are Non-Violent and Don’t Have Special Powers
by REBECCA & JENNA (she’s my sister!)
In honor of March being Women’s History Month, my sister and I bring you our own version of history—a list of the characters from our own personal history who define badassness. While there are, of course, a huge number of possible contenders, we decided to narrow the playing field in two ways. First, to characters whose badassness comes from inside of them, unaided by any magical powers (disqualifying such incontrovertible badasses as Hermione Granger). And, second, to characters whose badassness manifests in their strength of character and not in their strength of arms; that is, to characters who are non-violent (disqualifying the badassest badass Katniss Everdeen).
Furthermore, these are characters whose badassness actively inspired Jenna and me as kids. There are few more important effects of young adult literature than showing our young readers that they have the capacity to be excellent, strong, badass women! So, without further ado, here are our picks for the top five badass chicks of YA lit without special powers and who are non-violent:
1. Harriet M. Welsch, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964).
Harriet the Spy is a bold adventurer. She sees the world as an endlessly fascinating parade of characters and she wants to observe them all. She is smart and analytical and teaches herself to draw conclusions based on observation and imagination rather than assumption and generalization. She believes in telling the TRUTH! And when telling the truth alienates her friends, Harriet learns two important lessons: that most people can’t handle the truth about themselves, and that, in the long run, her friendships are more important than the truth. And when she realizes this last truth she makes it right by apologizing, addressing the harm she has caused, and takes the risk that she won’t be forgiven. She is a fucking AMAZING role model because she can admit when she’s wrong and has the tenacity to keep writing, incorporating what she’s learned into her art. Goddammit, Harriet the Spy, you are the ultimate badass.
2. Jo March, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868).
Another writer, no surprise. When people expected her to dream of being a wife and a mother, Jo just wants to be a writer and create her own worlds. She is fiercely loyal to her sisters (even though they’re mostly unbearable) and dreams of writing a world where they can, as it were, shuffle off their mortal coils—or at least their corsets and societal expectations—and be villains, pirates, lovers, and heroes. She befriends the little lost boy next door, sells her hair to pay for her mother’s train ticket, and moves by herself to New York City to follow her dream of being a writer. She masters the pulp fiction market, transcending stereotypes about women not being able to write anything but sentimental fiction. But then, she takes the ultimate risk: she writes a novel that is raw and personal to her, and one that ran the risk of being seen as sentimental fiction. And she KILLED it. Thank you, Jo, for writing the ultimate book about sisters. And being a badass.
3. Weetzie Bat, Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block (1989).
Weetzie is a different kind of badass. She doesn’t stand up to social injustice or right wrongs. Rather, Weetzie dreams magical dreams in the ordinary world, and by doing so, she makes that world magical. She is a badass because she isn’t afraid to look at a world rife with limitations, problems, frustrations, and pain, and still see in it possibility, beauty, hope, and love. And that takes an immense amount of faith in people, energy to work toward a better world in her own way, and the vision to try and turn it into what she sees in her glitter-soaked, rose petal-encrusted, vintage silk-draped dreams. Besides, she spits in skinheads’ faces at concerts. Weetzie’s strength is in the way she turns the world into art and her art into the world she imagines. And while it might not be as clear-cut a badassness as some, it is equally important. Thank you, Weetzie, for bringing beauty’s excess to the world and being FIERCE about your conviction that we need it.
4. Meg Murray, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962).
Meg Murray is my favorite nerd. She is awkward and funny-looking, unable to control her temper, and easily frustrated. At least at the beginning of A Wrinkle in Time. But as she is called upon to go on an adventure (or, really, a rescue mission), Meg eventually saves her brother, her father, and her friend. She is a total badass because she turns all of her weaknesses into strengths. Her stubbornness is what allows her to resist the forces of homogenization that cripple her more moderate partners. Her anger allows her rescue her father by cutting through what holds him. Her awkwardness makes her accustomed to feeling like an outsider, so she is able to go against the conformity and politeness that the others find so distasteful. Meg Murray weaponizes her weaknesses and turns them into the tools that let her survive and flourish. Is there anything more badass? ROCK ON, Meg Murray.
5. Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960).
To Kill A Mockingbird is our mom’s favorite movie, and most people, whether in the movie or the book, look at Atticus as the savior. And Atticus is great; he is. But Atticus is a grown man, with power, influence, intelligence, and the respect of his community. Not that that makes doing the right thing easy; but it helps. But Scout is a kid. And she has is an innate sense of right and wrong and the stubbornness to resist falling victim to the unjust beliefs of her town. She doesn’t change her values to fit in even when kids tease her and Jem because their father is defending Tom Robinson, and she has deep, deep empathy for people who are different than her, like Boo Radley and Dill (based on Truman Capote!). She is a generous reader of the human condition, unless you’re screwing with her family, and then heaven help you. It’s clear that Scout will grow up to be someone extraordinary.
So, there you have it, fellow celebrators of the history of women—or, as we like to call it, HISTORY. Our top five badass ladies of YA lit. They all had a profound effect on me and on Jenna. And, interestingly, Weetzie Bat is the most contemporary read in the bunch, and that’s from 25 years ago, and of the five, three of these are from the 1960s, and the fifth from a hundred years before that. That’s some history.
What badass ladies of YA lit influenced you growing up? Tell us in the comments!