I notice when any story has a female protagonist, there’s this need with some people for her to check all the boxes needed for a likeable feminist character. I’ll narrow this down and speak about the Western genre. There are many Westerns about male outlaws and bandits doing questionable things, but their character isn’t as harshly judged as a female outlaw, because there’s an expectation that she should be redeemable and empowering simply because she’s a woman.
Women Don’t Need To Be Likeable To Everyone (Let Alone Fictional Outlaws)
I didn’t realize a female outlaw would be such a touchy read for certain people. I figured people knew they’d be reading a gritty Western novel so they’d expect to read about an outlaw, but I’ve noticed over the years people either think she’s amazing or they despise her. My own editor had an issue with her being “self-absorbed”. I mean, look at any outlaw throughout history. It’s like calling a starfish star-shaped. Because the outlaw in my particular story is female, there’s an expectation that she should be like a superhero, or morally “better” than the men she encounters, or that she needs to be redeemed. An outlaw is pretty much the opposite of a superhero. While Mary has her own values (One of which is to protect the innocent), at the end of the day she’s an outlaw who needs to survive – with that comes a lot of messiness and unpredictability (Isn’t that why you’d read a story about an outlaw?). I’m sure avid Western readers are nodding their heads.
Reacting To A Book Review Which Criticizes A Female Outlaw For Not Being Empowering
I’d like to share a book review for my Western novel here. It’s called The Broken & The Foolish. I know it’s breaking the rules. Authors aren’t supposed to react to their book reviews, but it’s 2022. A lot of people are reacting to reviews about them or their content, so here we go! 😀 I’m doing this with the intention of showing how some readers try to pigeon-hole what female empowerment looks like. If you’re more of a tl;dr type, feel free to scroll down to the conclusion as it recaps pretty much everything I want to say about the expectation of what “feminist” is supposed to be.
I want to preface this by saying you are allowed to not like any book or character of mine. If you hate one of my books for being what it is, that’s fine. What I will call out is writing false information in a review about a character, or when one claims to be feminist yet can’t handle the reality of a female outlaw.
Okay, here we go! If you’re still reading, thank you. 🙂
“The Broken and the Foolish is a bold and unique take on the Wild West through the lens of a wronged woman. I loved the premise: female outlaw hell-bent on revenge for the murder of her sister. I also loved the horse, Angel. The plot is mostly a montage of encounters (the majority of them violent) on the road towards that end.“
They liked the premise of the story and they loved Angel the horse. Me, too. 🙂 Yay!
“Several reviewers have described this novel as a Feminist Western. I’d imagined the protagonist would be an empowering example of female badass-ery. But to me, Mary seemed more of a narcissist. She is a tragic figure, damaged from the start, who suffers through much of the story. S
It’s accurate that Mary had narcissistic traits as any outlaw would. I see a disconnect here when it comes to them acknowledging her being an outlaw. An outlaw does not equal a super hero. And “female bad-assery” can be great, but that isn’t what I intended to write in this story. I didn’t write Mary to be some spin-off of Charlie’s Angels, I wrote her to be a true to life bandit, which isn’t always lovely. “Empowerment” means to be comfortably oneself so you can express yourself authentically. Mary is an outlaw who wants to survive like a “man” rather than continue working in a saloon, so her character is true to herself. She’s no hero and she’s certainly no role model. This story was written to be a Western – not a women’s empowerment novel (If you see it that way, wonderful).
“She is a flawed being and not the most reliable narrator. She contradicts herself so often that I had a hard time understanding her motives. Though I could sympathize with her plight, she exhibited a glee/pride in killing, had a selfish/narrow viewpoint, and maintained an excessive disdain for men in general, which made it impossible for me to like and truly root for her.“
What is completely wrong in this review is the “glee/pride” Mary supposedly had in killing. Mary is an outlaw who is very somber over her kills – she even mourns a few of them. I’m a little disturbed that the reader interpreted her in this way. Again with the disdain for a female outlaw being selfish – what were we expecting, exactly? As far as any supposed hatred for men, any woman on her own had to be wary of men in the Old West. Assuming this reader read her previous situations with men at the saloon, one has to understand some of her hesitation to get close to a man. However, she also has positive and neutral interactions with men, so I have to wonder if this reader really read the whole story.
“There are many quotable and potentially profound reflections negated by the heroine flip-flopping on her values/convictions. She has her regrets but fails to learn from them and easily excuses/justifies her crimes.“
Clearly they didn’t connect with Mary which is fine, but I think one needs to be a deep thinker to understand the mind of a female outlaw (regardless of whether you agree or not with her values).
“The innocent suffer is a prominent theme. By Chapter 14, I was convinced this tale was a tragedy through and through. But Kjeldsen finally takes pity on Mary and gives us a HFN ending (but knowing Mary, I’m unconvinced it will last).“
Mary stands by her values in protecting the innocent so that’s true. The reader clearly has a disdain for Mary, which is 100% okay if they just didn’t click. You don’t have to like her – hell, she ain’t for everyone. It seems the reader either lied about what they read or they skipped through some passages and confused some parts of the story, because Mary was never gleeful about murder nor did she have a disdain for all men. There’s a particular part in the story where that becomes very clear (no spoilers).
I think when one has a female protagonist, the expectation becomes higher about her moral integrity or there must be some “redemption” arc if she’s bad. Sometimes neither of those elements are there in a Western.
I’ve watched a few Westerns with male protagonists – and let me tell you, some of those male outlaws were messed up with very unclear morals. I recall watching a Western film where a younger outlaw stalked an older outlaw and said he admired him and loved him, but was going to kill him one day. In the end, this happened. It was messed up, but that’s the kind of plot a lot of westerns have (Check out a more modern Western film like 310 To Yuma and the storyline is similar – a lot of Westerns are tragic and that’s expected for people familiar with the genre). So let’s allow female outlaws the same respect as male outlaws in this genre. Some stories are simply a portrait of what it might have been like to live during a certain time – and just because a main character is a woman, it doesn’t mean she needs to become a highly moral character who fits into an empowerment box.
Want to read about Mary and see for yourself what her story is? Do you think you’ll like her, hate her, or admire the grit needed to survive in the Old West? Now’s your chance to find out. You can purchase her story in ebook or in print!
Thank you for reading today. ❤ It’s something that always shocks me when people expect every female character to be likeable (Or unrealistically “empowering” like a super hero), even if she’s an outlaw in a Western book. I hope you enjoyed this post today and saw some merit in it. I hope you have a lovely day. 🙂