Forging an independent identity is one of the biggest challenges many of our teens will face. It can be tough figuring out who you are, especially if the idealised identity on sale in our cultural bazaars requires a level of apparent perfection that is dispiriting rather than inspiring and relates to a static idea of how you should look, rather than what you can do with your body and mind.
This affects boys and girls, but it is girls who suffer more of a dearth of healthy role models. If we look at music videos, which have a dominant effect in creating an imagery and theme tune of youth, girls are shown either as accessories or else as powerful by virtue of the pulchritude of face and the amount of skin they expose rather than via the power of their minds and bodies.
How can we give our girls better role models and why is it so important that we do?
A strong sense of identity, forged by the individual, not forced upon them by birth, upbringing or circumstance, or adopted by default from social media norms, is vital to our teens’ happiness and well-being. This philosophy does away with concepts of either victimhood or entitlement, both of which are damaging and hindering in forging a happy, successful and useful life. But identity is created and owned by taking action, by developing hobbies and skills, by inhabiting our physical bodies, strengthening and using them rather than primping and preening them.
But where are the inspirations for our girls in literature and film? Katniss Everdeen has done our teens a huge favour by being a strong, powerful role model. She is not anyone’s accessory, draped provocatively in music videos or taking vicarious power from a stronger male. She is a skilled and brave fighter. A leader of a revolution. But she’s still an exception.
I feel very strongly about empowerment for girls, about their health, physical and mental, and how to promote it.
This started with my own journey. A skinny girl with round glasses and long brown plaits, I was called Skinny Linny, Twiggy and Praying Mantis. I wasn’t cool, I wasn’t adorable-looking, and I didn’t fit in.
Skinny Linny was not a good identity. Rebelling against the pigeonhole my peers were trying to cram me into, I decided to forge my own identity, one that would give me strength; I would be Linda, the fighter. I had a powerful ally, my father.
Glyn Davies, had fought in the Second World War. He believed that you needed to raise children able to look after themselves, armed with the knowledge and physical abilities to get themselves out of trouble, and to fight if absolutely necessary. So he taught my three older brothers, and he taught me. He made no allowances for the fact that I was female and I shall always thank him for that.
When I was eight he gave me my first longbow. I would shoot for hours till my hands were callused, but I loved the focus and the sense of achievement when I hit the bull’s eye, what archers call the ‘Gold.’
My own history explains my long-term fascination with warrior girls. The seeds for Longbow Girl were sown decades before Katniss stalked our screens, thanks to my unconventional ‘equalitist’ father.
Now I have a twelve year old daughter I feel even more strongly about the need for powerful, positive role models for girls. I always make the heroines in my adult thrillers and now in my books for Young Adults, into fighters. Merry Owen, in Longbow Girl, just published here and in the United States, is a supreme archer and has to become a fighter on many levels. That is her identity and it saves her life as well as the lives and lands of those she loves.
Merry is physically marred from an accident with her longbow, but she is beautiful nonetheless because of her strength, her bearing, her attitude.
I particularly love archery, the skill I gave to Merry, because of the calmness, strength and training needed to wield a bow effectively.
The bow is a simple weapon, about as low tech as weapons get. But is rich in tradition and history. It is associated with power, nature, myth and legend whether it is Diana the Huntress, or the Amazonian warrior queens.
But any sporting activity will work. I love the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. And the truth of it is, the more you do, the more you push yourself, the more you can do in all areas of your life.
My message to girls is this: Forget the dopamine hit from an Instagram like of your bikini’d body. Go for the endorphins surge of a fast run, a weights session, a game of tennis, a session of archery. Pick up your bows and aim for the gold.
And writers and film makers, let’s give our girls heroines worthy of the name.