058: On The Strong Female Lead
Elizabeth Held from "What to Read If ...?" on how Sarah Dessen’s “This Lullaby” preached vulnerability long before Brené Brown
This week, I’ve teamed up with Elizabeth Held of “What to Read If …” to bring you a Substack book-writer swap. Today, Elizabeth is telling us about a book that’s helped her survive, and tomorrow, I’ll be contributing my own “What to Read If …” over on her space.
I like What to Read If because of the wide range and deft handling that Elizabeth brings to each week’s three-pack of book recommendations. There’s something about bringing together a book for practical jokesters, a book for monster hunters, and a book for fans of The Wire that appeals to me. You can learn more about Elizabeth here, and follow her here. You should also check out What to Read If’s 2022 edition of Summer Bingo which comes with a very fabulous list of prizes, including a Survival by Book t-shirt.
The Antidote to the Strong Female Lead
by Elizabeth Held
There’s a thirty-second clip in “10 Things I Hate About You” — the 1999 retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” set at a high school — that manages to establish a character’s personality, her whole vibe really, without any dialogue.
The scene opens with an overhead shot of a wealthy, suburban neighborhood filled with gorgeous Victorian homes. As the camera zooms into the window of one of the houses, the song abruptly changes from a soft acoustic tone to pop-punk. As “Calypso” by Spiderbait crescendos, we see Kat, played by Julia Stiles, sitting alone in a chair, reading a hardback copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. She’s wearing green jeans and a camo tank top, her hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun. As her dad enters the room, she stays seated reading instead of getting up to greet him.
I don’t remember when I first saw “10 Things I Hate About You.” I was ten when it came out. In the intervening 22 years, I’ve seen it at least 20 times — at countless slumber parties, late nights during college, a rainy Saturday while on a friend vacation, and lying on the couch with my dog. Yet, as I re-watched it to write this essay, I was shocked to learn the movie doesn’t open with Kat’s characterization scene. Instead, it comes 12 minutes in. To me, it was such a defining moment, there was no way it didn’t happen immediately. (Interestingly, a friend had the exact same equally strong and wrong conviction.) It stands out so much because as a pre-teen and teen, I recognized Kat as who I was supposed to be: The Strong Female Lead.
The Strong Female Lead was an archetype so popular in the late ’90s through the early 2000s, it went on to have its own Netflix category. On TV, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the women of “Charmed” took on literal demons while “Veronica Mars” fought figurative ones. Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang prided themselves on relying on only each other. The literary world caught on in 2008 when Hunger Games was published.
Joss Whedon, the now-disgraced “Buffy” showrunner, even gave a speech in 2006 answering the question reporters asked him most often, “Why do you always write these strong women characters?” (Reading the address in 2022 is cringe-inducing— as is the idea that a man writing “strong female characters” is newsworthy.)
The Strong Female Lead was tough. She was independent. She wore dark colors and tall oots. She didn’t take any shit from anyone, and if someone dared criticize her, she had a quick barb to take them down. Perhaps, after many pages or countless seasons, she would grudgingly allow friends or a partner into her life, while maintaining a cool distance. When she did, it felt almost more like a concession than growth.
As a nerdy, self-declared feminist — prone to toting around my own copy of The Bell Jar — I knew Kat was who I should aspire to be. She was smart, heading off to Sarah Lawrence, and a talented writer. Yet, I knew I would never be able to have the sense of detachment Kat had. I was too reliant on other people, too eager to become part of their lives.
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In “10 Things I Hate About You,” Kat is eventually worn down by high school bad boy Patrick (played by Heath Ledger). But, through a series of swoon-worthy moments (he co-opts the school’s marching band to serenade her and buys her a guitar), she realizes he’s worth letting in. In broad strokes, it’s the same plot as Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby, a YA romance about cynical Remy Starr and musician Dexter, who’s convinced they’re destined for one another.
Published in 2002, three years after the “10 Things” release, it’s a book that I still, in my 30s, turn to regularly, grabbing it whenever the world feels like a bit too much. I read my first copy — likely purchased with my babysitting money — so many times it fell apart. My second copy has received a bit of a workout over the past two years.
This Lullaby was Dessen’s fifth YA novel and a bit of her departure from her usual. While her first four books featured heroines like me — slightly nerdy, well-behaved upper-middle-class white girls — Remy is a cynical semi-reformed party girl. She snuck into clubs with her fake ID (something I never would have considered) and stayed out all night (something my parents would never have allowed). She smoked, drank and “went off with guys [she] didn’t know that well into dark dark corners, or dark cars, or dark rooms.” While demographically we were the same, white teenage girls, we could not have been more different.
She even made fun of characters like me. Her brother’s girlfriend, Jennifer Anne, is an eager, try-hard collector of self-help books, who Remy has no patience for. Upon discovering Dexter has a collection of snow globes, she thinks, “Who over the age of 10 collects snow globes?” Me and Corbin Bernsen.
Yet, it was Remy’s story I turned to time and time again. If you asked me as a teenager, why, I likely would have said the swoon-worthy love story or the humor. The novel is genuinely funny. Dexter’s band plays a series of songs — an opus — about potatoes. With lyrics like, “I don’t want no rotten tomato/all I ever wanted was your sweet potato/mashed baked sliced or diced anyway you fix it baby sure tastes nice,” it’s clear Dessen had a lot of fun writing it.
As an adult, though, I’ve realized This Lullaby helped me recast what I saw as a fundamental weakness — my reliance on others — as a core strength. It’s the same lesson Kat learns in “10 Things I Hate About You” but made explicit. In the early 2000s, years before Brené Brown became a household name, this felt radical.
Remy’s cynicism is well earned. The book opens as her mother prepares to wed her fifth husband. Remy’s father abandoned her mother while pregnant, stopping in a roadside motel to write a song with the lyrics “I will let you down,” after hearing of her birth. She was raped during her freshman year of high school. The experiences, understandably and unsurprisingly, left her wary of men and love. She forms quick, surface-level relationships as a coping mechanism.
Until she meets Dexter. They grow close quickly, with Remy spending hours at his band’s rented home, watching the musicians compete in absurd challenges for beer money. She breaks all her rules for him. She shares personal details about her life and fails to draw the boundary that their relationship must be casual. She even lets Dexter eat in her car (an admission her friends find more shocking than anything else). But when Dexter’s band appears to be on the brink of success, Remy abruptly ends their relationship, dumping him before he can leave her.
Later, while talking with her romance-writing mother, Barbara, Remy explains she believes love is a sham. Her take shocks Barbara, doubly so when Remy says she developed it watching her mother’s marriages fail.
Barbara responds, “Well it’s true that I have been hurt in my life. Quite a bit. But it’s also true that I have loved, and been loved. And that carries a weight of its own. A greater weight in my opinion. … Holding people away from you, and denying yourself love, that doesn’t make you strong. If anything, it makes you weaker. Because you’re doing it out of fear.”
A confounded Remy sits in silence, unclear what to say next. She thinks, “I realized I’d felt sorry for my mother for nothing. All these years I’d pitied her all her marriages, saw the very fact that she kept trying as her greatest weakness, not understanding that to her, it was the complete opposite. In her mind, me sending Dexter away made me weaker than him, not stronger.”
It takes a certain kind of bravery to let people in, knowing, as Remy’s father promised her, they would let her down. Dessen returns to the theme in This Lullaby’s epilogue (YA isn’t exactly known for subtlety).
Months after Remy and Dexter have reunited, she receives a package from him in her Stanford dorm room. It’s filled with photos taken with warped disposable cameras (the early 2000s, remember). When Dexter first used the camera, Remy argued it was a useless endeavor, the photos wouldn’t come out. He retorted that even if the images weren’t perfect, it was worth trying. The photos are blurry and a little wacky, but they work. Remy recognizes the pictures as the metaphor they are.
Our Strong Female Lead has learned that her life is richer with a certain amount of vulnerability. In a society that prizes independence and self-reliance, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that we’re somehow better people — stronger people — for doing it on our own. And yet, as Dessen shows, the real strength comes from trusting a flawed human and knowing you’ll both be better for it.
Doodle Dispatches is on hiatus this week, so please accept this photo of my current location as a substitute. (And visit her new Substack!)
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