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


By Marissa Chin

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

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.”

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 who still resonate to this day.

Hermione Granger, The Harry Potter series

“I’m hoping to do some good in the world!”

In an alternate universe, Hermione Granger would’ve definitely been the protagonist to this acclaimed series. Despite having no heritage of magic in her ancestry, Hermione was a gifted wizard whose magic came naturally to her than most. She did not allow her Muggle (human) identity 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 and became one of the greatest witches in the wizarding world (showing sometimes, being a nerd 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.”

Unlike her other sisters, Jo March is a brash, tomboyish girl with a firecracker of a personality. She is well-known for her anger tantrums amongst family members and 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 feels 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 the end, Jo becomes a successful author through her relentless effort. Go Jo-Jo!

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.”
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 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’ for Adultery to atone for her sins for the rest of her life. In her lonely lifetime, Hester withstood the hatred and shame of the people but did not grow in hatred herself but in kindness towards those who were less fortunate like her. Hester 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.”

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 loud 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.”
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 love. Make no mistake—even though she volunteered to take over her sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games, Katniss is terrified of what is to come. But when push comes to shove, Katniss’ pragmatism and quick thinking comes 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 win.

Hua Mulan, The Ballad of Mulan

“Loyal, brave, and true.”
Courtesy of Disney

While her real existence 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 as a man in order to take his place. Not only does this prove her self-worth but it also completely transgresses gender norms of that time, showing 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 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.”

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. Beatrice’s most charming features are her witty word-plays and natural flair for humour; her words drip in 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 will either take the crème de la crème of men or no one at all.

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