From homicidal lesbian terrorists to vigilante feminist crusaders: our top 10 female protagonists
To say some feminist protagonists are undaunted by topics like violence and bodily fluids would be an understatement: often, women writers react to entrenched sexism and misogyny by relishing the realms of life supposedly forbidden to them. Reading their stories might make you cringe—or vomit—but their unashamed dedication to uncomfortable vocabulary and taboo topics can only make you proud to have a vagina.
Others are less intense, but no less ground-breaking; subtle stories of sexual and personal awakenings achieved in spite of antifeminist environs make it clear that girls rule both worlds, the interior and the exterior. Check out our top ten picks for bad-ass female protagonists, written by authors just as empowered.
HELEN MEMEL, WETLANDS BY CHARLOTTE ROCHE
Gross-out is an aesthetic traditionally (read: stereotypically) relegated to those of the Y chromosome, but here Roche’s (porno?)graphic protagonist is 100% female and 100% disgusting. That Roche spent some younger years honing her shock tactics—think: painting with her own blood—is no surprise. Her 18-year-old Helen is admiringly unapologetic about even the most intimate aspects of her body, despite the prevailing sense that women shouldn’t be. The movie’s in German, but you get the idea.
WOMEN, LES GUÉRILLÈRES BY MONIQUE WITTIG
Wittig’s series of vignettes collect to form a radical picture of literal gender warfare in this radical combination of feminist theory and sci fi that oozes late-60s/early-70s cult. Despite its extreme portrait of a barbaric all-female society, though, it’s never dogmatic: Wittig doesn’t exclude men supportive of the cause from her aggressive lesbian feminist dystopia, and the results are epic rather than resentful.
EILEEN, INFERNO: A POET'S NOVEL BY EILEEN MYLES
Violence and anal bleeding aren’t the only routes to feminist literary empowerment; Eileen Myles’ semi-autobiographical novel of artistic and sexual awakening, in which a young poet comes up and triumphs against racism, sexism and homophobia. In addition to mythic descriptions of New York as an accessible city for artists, it’s got some great sentences, and infuriating antifeminist experiences give way to comic optimism by the novel’s end.
CELESTE PRICE, TAMPA BY ALISSA NUTTING
Nutting’s much-discussed debut subverts Lolita-level obsessive pedophilia by putting it in the filthy mind of a female, and she is relentless. Nutting doesn’t hold back in writing a thoroughly reprehensible female narrator who gets creative and sometimes lyrical in describing the mélange of psychosexual trauma she wants to—and does—enact on her pubescent male students.
UNNAMED NARRATOR, TREASURE ISLAND!!! BY SARA LEVINE
Levine’s protagonist is the opposite of pissed off, really; she’s excited and funny, grateful to have emerged from a dead-end job and lifeless relationship with a lease on life gleaned from the book Treasure Island. Despite farcical elements and lighthearted punctuational choices, the narrator’s new values are still super feminist: boldness! Resolution! Independence! Horn-blowing!
MANU AND NADINE, BAISE-MOI BY VIRGINIE DESPENTES
Back to enraged vigilante feminist crusaders. After suffering a violent rape, Manu teams up with the nihilistic Nadine to get revenge on mankind via seduction, robbery and murder in a story that later spawned a cult film banned in several countries.
JANEY SMITH, BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL BY KATHY ACKER
The experimental postmodern punk writer Kathy Acker was a bad ass, and her angry, don’t-fuck-with-me female protagonists are, too. Blood and Guts in High School depicts the acute frustrations of oppression through the vivid lens of a 10-year-old who, despite involvement in incest, prostitution, gang violence, and imprisonment, never seems a victim.
JOANNA, THE FEMALE MAN BY JOANNA RUSS
The title says a lot. Russ engages with feminism directly, challenging expectations and misconceptions with her protagonists’ frank, unapologetic ideologies that link four disparate worlds into one complete picture of feminist actualization. When one character asks Janet, a being from an all-female world, how she has sex without any men around, she is very willing to explain.
CHRIS KRAUS, I LOVE DICK BY CHRIS KRAUS
Kraus’s telling of the interrelated ins and outs of a life make use of many kinds of texts—reviews, letters, essays, travel journals, philosophical treatises on the self. These create a unified picture of a woman who is complex and multi-faceted and engaged with understanding her place in the world.
HOTHEAD PAISAN, THE COMPLETE HOTHEAD PAISAN: HOMICIDAL LESBIAN TERRORIST BY DIANE DIMASSA
The alt indie comic book star’s collected works of man-hating murder and over-the-top radicalism offer a foil to the traditional superhero narrative in the form of crazed, caffeine-fueled vigilantism that’s as funny as it is horrifying. Don’t worry; it’s satirical. Mostly.