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8 Spunky female literary characters that defied gender norms and social conventions

8 Spunky female literary characters that defied gender norms and social conventions

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Text: Marissa Chin Adelina Tan

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures
Image: Lionsgate
Image: rawpixel

From fiery personalities to everyday heroines, here are some of the bravest and most empowering women in literature whom inspire us with their deeds

Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice


“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
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Perhaps the most iconic female character in all of English literature is none other than the ever-so-snarky 'Lizzie' Bennet. She is stubborn, loyal and self-assured. Elizabeth fights for her own happiness and is headstrong in her beliefs, such as marrying for love instead of for money or status, which was unfathomable for a Victorian society that saw marriage as purely transactional. She was even willing to stay single until she found the right partner which caused all kinds of headaches for her prideful mother. For her refusal to accept patriarchal social norms, Elizabeth remains one of the most memorable defenders of women's rights and her beliefs still resonate to this day.

 

Hermione Granger, The Harry Potter series


"I'm hoping to do some good in the world!"
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In an alternate universe, Hermione Granger would’ve definitely been the protagonist of this acclaimed series. Despite having no heritage of magic in her ancestry, Hermione was a gifted wizard whose magic came more naturally to her than most. She did not allow her Muggle (human) background to define who she wanted to become and through hard work and determination, went on to help Harry Potter defeat the Dark Lord with her wealth of magical knowledge, earning her place as one of the greatest witches in the wizarding world (and proving that studying hard to achieve your dreams is more than alright).

 

Josephine “Jo “March, Little Women


“I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”
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Unlike her other sisters, Jo March is unconcerned with gender norms and possesses a firecracker of a personality. She's well-known for her outspoken nature amongst family members and the townspeople, a startling contrast to the typically demure and compliant female ideals of the time. Jo wants to be free from gender conventions and hates the idea of romance because she believes marriage will only separate her from her beloved sisters. At the heart of it, Jo is a free spirit who wishes to read, write, travel and learn as much as she can. By staying true to who she is and through relentless effort, Jo eventually becomes a fulfilled and successful author.

 

Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter


“The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her, —so much power to do, and power to sympathiSe, —that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength.”
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Painting by Hugues Merle, 1861

If there was ever one woman who was ‘scandal’ personified, it would be Hester Prynne. Being shunned by the entire community as a sinful adulterer while having to raise a child alone is no easy feat. Most people would break under that psychological pressure and humiliation but Hester’s legacy lies in the strength of her character. She is determined to raise her daughter, Pearl, even in her solemn solitude. Hester’s circumstances expose the extent to which society will punish a woman for her sensuality and ‘devious’ nature: she is made to wear the red ‘A’ that marks her as an adulterer, to atone for her 'sins', for the rest of her life. In her lonely lifetime, Hester withstood the hatred and shame of the people while growing in kindness towards those who were less fortunate like her. She was a great example of a strong woman who made peace with her suffering and displayed the subtle power of a genteel heroine.

 

Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables


“It's been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.”
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A much younger but altogether fiery character is Anne Shirley. If you’ve watched the Netflix series or the many film adaptations (seriously, people just love her), then you’ll know that Anne is a bright and chatty young girl. Despite being an orphan and never having a real home, Anne’s love for life is refreshing and inspiring, showing that it's not what you have in life that matters but what you make of it. With the sharpest tongue in Avonlea, Anne tackles each obstacle in her way, one sassy remark at a time.

 

Katniss Everdeen, The Hunger Games


“At some point, you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead.The hard thing is finding the courage to do it.”
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Courtesy of Lionsgate

Arguably the most modern female badas* in a list of classics is the archer heroine hailing from District 12. Katniss is resourceful, guarded and fiercely loyal to the ones she loves. Although she bravely volunteered to take her sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games, Katniss is actually terrified of what is to come but hides it under a facade of calm. When push comes to shove, her pragmatism and quick-thinking come out in full force, making her a formidable contestant in the games. In the end, she not only manages to survive the Hunger Games but also uses the Capitol’s own system against them to liberate herself and others.

 

Hua Mulan, The Ballad of Mulan


"Loyal, brave, and true."
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Courtesy of Disney

While proof of existence and identity in history remains unclear to this day, the thousand-year-old legend that is Hua Mulan has become synonymous with the term ‘heroine’. Driven by her desire to protect her ageing father from fighting in the war, she disguises herself as a man in order to take his place. Not only does this demonstrate her strength (both inner and physical) but it also completely transgresses the gender norms of her time, proving that it was possible for women to possess exceptional martial arts skills deserving of military recognition. In the original tale, she does not see her family for twelve long years and finally returns as a decorated war hero who not only successfully protected her family, but her entire country.

 

Beatrice, Much Ado About Nothing


“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”
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While she may not be the protagonist, Beatrice is one of the most delightful and memorable characters in this comedic play and, arguably, in all of Shakespeare's works. Fond of engaging in witty wordplay and with a natural flair for humour, her words drip with charming sarcasm as she delivers each blow with a pleasant smile. Her savage repartee with Benedick honestly puts some of the 21st-century Twitter fights to shame. Beatrice is intelligent, unapologetic, bold and most importantly, self-assured to a tee that she'd rather stay single if she can't have the crème de la crème of men.

  

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