My Problem with the Clumsy Girl Trope
Yes, this is a leftover Christmas pic, but I just dug it out of my camera and loved it. I was out taking sunset pics and noticed Jackson watching me from the window. I didn’t realize at the time how I caught the reflected sunset, along with my own. So much of what I love about my home in this one photo.
I’ve been mulling lately about the trope of the Clumsy Heroine. For the most part, I don’t want to call out specific books (though I’m sure you can think up several offhand), but I will cite Twilight as a well-known example. For the record, I’m a fan of Twilight. In fact, I blogged just last week about my reasons why.
Bella, the heroine of the series, begins the first book as ridiculously clumsy. To the point that this is one of the most frequently leveled criticisms of the book. Even those of us who love the book and series roll our eyes over that. She’s so clumsy that she staggers into life-threatening danger at every turn – requiring the hero, Edward, to repeatedly save her. It gets so bad that you begin to wonder why she didn’t get killed playing in traffic before the age of five.
Now, Bella is irritating to many readers for a number of reasons, most of which have to do with her not feeling like a fully formed human being. She’s subject to the vicissitudes of fate, not an assertive person, seems like a puppet at times. There are arguments that she’s “empty” because she’s essentially an avatar for the reader. The reader inserts herself – and her own personality – into the glove that is the protagonist. Arguably this is part of what makes the book and series so compelling. But what about the clumsiness – what purpose does that serve?
I’m going to suggest that making a heroine clumsy is shorthand for creating a character who has not yet come into her evolved state. She hearkens back to the stage that most of us go through, that awkward adolescence where we seem to be able to do nothing right, whether we’re blessed with physical coordination or not. Even in the naturally athletic types, the growth spurts of our teen years can create situations where our limbs out pace the nervous system, creating dissonance in movement.
Another way of saying clumsy!
However, this stage doesn’t last into adulthood (if all is well) and we rarely see male protagonists with this syndrome, if ever. I did a quick survey in the SFWA chatroom – thanks all! – and the only exceptions we came up with are ones like Thomas Covenant, who has an actual chronic illness (leprosy); ones like Daniel Bruks in Peter Watts’ Echopraxia, who’s arguably only socially awkward; ones where the effect is intended to be humorous like Dirk Gently; or with the pervasive bumbling sidekick. The latter exists mainly to contrast with the ultra-competent hero.
I’d submit that readers wouldn’t tolerate a clumsy hero. So, why the clumsy heroine?
I don’t like the trope because I do think it’s shorthand for that raw emotional state of feeling inadequate. The clumsy heroine has not yet grown into graceful womanhood – despite her age – and requires (sometimes repeated) rescuing by the hero. It feels like lazy writing to me.
Does anyone LOVE the clumsy heroine thing? Clearly it’s been a successful trope, especially in romance. Arguments in favor?