In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan used magazine literature as an indicator of attitudes toward women fostered by women. In throwaway short stories about wives and mothers, she detected the outlines of a powder-pink prison: Post-war women were being conditioned, and girls were being taught, to have no ambitions beyond the decorative domestic celebrated in McCall's.
Growing up in the years she was writing about, I wasn't aware of my ambitions being flattened via reading material. My friends stormed the library for Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, while I favored biographies and series books about nurses. The heroines I remember were smart, proactive, and self-confident. Little did they know how oppressed they were.
Female protagonists were soon to have their eyes opened by the women's movement. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, they suffered mental, emotional, and physical abuse at the hands of the patriarchy, a trend that sifted down to young-adult novels. But feminism has passed on to a new generation, and women's fiction has entered a new phase. The overearnest victim stage is fading, to make room for a brash and breezy genre unanticipated by those women who demanded to be taken seriously back in the '70s-"chick lit." The corresponding young-adult category is "grrrl lit."
As near as I can tell, the word grrrl originated with the "riot grrrl" movement: a rash of assertive (is there any other kind?) female rock bands of the early 1990s. The spelling of the essential noun varies in the number of r's, but its spirit leaps out with a swipe of half-concealed claws. Grrrls are tigresses in training, working up the nerve and experience to become smooth, powerful women with cool boyfriends. And, after fantasy novels and movie/celebrity tie-ins, grrrl books are the bread and butter of young-adult publishing.
"Grrrl" protagonists can be classified into distinctive types, some of them holdovers from the earlier stages of feminism. "Sheroes" are females who excel in traditional male roles, such as saving the world. The basic premise is best suited for fantasy, like the popular series novels by Tamora Pierce, in which determined young women triumph over fierce opposition to become renowned warriors. "Survivors" are a staple of realistic fiction: girls who suffer some form of abuse (usually male), flounder in guilt and doubt, and finally find strength in themselves to overcome. Survivor novels peaked in the mid-1990s, but Laurie Anderson's Speak (FSG, 1999), about a 14-year-old rape victim, still sells briskly in paperback.
"Superfriends" celebrate power in numbers. In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Anne Brashares (Delacorte, 2001), four friends discover that a single pair of used jeans fabulously fits all of them. Before going their separate ways for the summer, they vow to mail the pants to each other in two complete cycles. Sharing their experiences at summer's end, they realize that friendship-not faith or family-is the greatest stabilizing element of their lives.
A new kind of grrrl is prowling the bestseller charts-the "Sassy Scenarist" who records her adventures in life and love with comic angst (Omigosh! The Hunk is picking me up at seven, and is that a ZIT on my NOSE?!?!). Mia Thermopolis, of The Princess Diaries, is the best known of this type, but a better example is Georgia Nicolson, the slangy London lass who introduced herself in Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging. Angus rode rather obviously on the success of chick lit classic Bridget Jones's Diary, but unlike Bridget, who is anxiously seeking Mr. Right, Georgia is trolling for Mr. Makeout. Her adventures so far have taken four volumes, the last of which is Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants (don't ask).
What distinguishes Georgia Nicolson and other grrrls from Nancy Drew is attitude: a will to claim their territory and define their terms of occupation as girls. They are also funny-brashly so in The Princess Diaries, satirically in Angus, ruefully in Sisterhood, cynically in Speak. Humor signals that the feminist movement has passed beyond its angry, earnest beginnings and is now able to laugh-even at itself. That's good news and bad news: The laughter is often a wry acknowledgment that feminism hasn't delivered on all its promises. But the in-your-face attitude is here to stay.
A virtuous female protagonist, who can find? Try browsing the novels of Joan Bauer (Squashed, Rules of the Road, Hope Was Here, etc.) for heroines who have no ax to grind and don't apologize for "mundane" ambitions. Ms. Bauer's novels are too sunny for deep insight, but they're a breath of fresh air after Georgia's nuddy-pants-and funny, too. Young ladies who don't aspire to grrrlhood may want to check them out.