Why Female Protagonists are Important to Me

I despised reading the required books I was assigned in high school. I could never pinpoint why I hated reading Of Mice and Men, I Am the Cheese, The Outsiders, and various other books that got so much praise from my classmates and teachers. There were many instances where I refused to even read the book, preferring to just skim it to get the necessary information I needed in order to pass my assignments. It wasn’t until after taking a women’s literature class my senior year that I realized why I hated reading these books: Nearly every single one of them had male protagonists.

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Most of the books and short stories my teachers assigned were about boys coming of age and men waxing poetic about how dreadful society is, blah, blah, blah. I understood the importance of reading these books and absorbing the important messages they held within their battered paperback covers and highlighted pages, but they meant nothing to me without a protagonist I could relate to.

There were some exceptions, of course. I adored The Great Gatsby, and to this day it remains one of my favorite books. Fahrenheit 451 was fairly tolerable, but I still ended up skimming that one toward the end. Most of Shakespeare’s works were lost on me, but I did enjoy Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And not all the books assigned were about male protagonists. To Kill a Mockingbird and The Diary of Anne Frank were decent enough, although I had no love for To Kill a Mockingbird either.

As an adult looking back on how much I struggled in my English classes, I think to myself: what if I’d been required to read books like Pride and Prejudice (which I did actually read in high school) or Where the Heart Is, books about things I was struggling with at a chaotic time in my life? Would I have loved them? Hated them? I don’t know. I’m not the person I was as a teenager, but I like to think I would’ve benefitted from reading about characters like Katniss Everdeen, who struggled with post-traumatic stress and panic attacks after the Hunger Games, or Marianne Dashwood, whose heart was broken by a man she thought loved her, but left her for someone else. Perhaps Little Women could have shed some insight on living as a girl with big dreams but fighting society’s expectations of her and her impoverished family. Sabriel could have taught me that even though I’m a female, I could still be strong and fight off the demons I faced.

It’s important that girls and women are represented in literature that is assigned in school to show that female students’ struggles are just as relevant as their male counterparts’ conflicts. All too often I see instances where girls could have benefitted from seeing how the problems in their lives aren’t exclusive to them, aren’t silly troubles of the female sex, and how they can find solace in the pages of a book about a girl facing the subtle cruelties of the world around them, just like us.