“With a smart and stealthy heroine who should appeal to Gallagher Girls fans, Carter’s story is fast-paced and popcorn-ready” (Publishers Weekly).
In my last post, I explored the problematic relationships found in Pretty in Pink and The Anatomy of a Misfit. I was (and still am) concerned about the images we present to our girls about being female. I’m still bothered that Andie and Anika did speak up and yet they were silenced. But not all portrayals of female characters in YA are still stuck pre-second wave Feminist Movement.
Let’s explore Kat and Gabrielle from Heist Society by Ally Carter. On the surface there are some problematic things about both characters. Kat doesn’t see herself as a “girl.” In fact the narrator says to the reader:
Sometimes Katarina Bishop couldn’t help but wonder if she had been the victim of some colossal, genetic mistake. After all, she almost always preferred black to pink, flats to heels, and as she stood perfectly still atop one of the silk upholstered chairs in Hale’s great-great-grandmother’s dressing room, all she could think was maybe she wasn’t even female–at least when compared to Gabrielle (Carter, 2010, p.213).
There’s a lot that could be unpacked in those two sentences, especially in 2021 and especially in light of discussions around gender. However, Carter is simply looking here at how gender is a social construct and girls are supposed to behave a certain way and look a certain way. The novel is, in part, a coming-of-age story, and Kat is trying to figure out her identity. She doesn’t want to be part of her family’s “business.” She doesn’t seem to fit in with her cousin’s version of femininity. She’s trying to find her fit.
At first glance, Gabrielle, Kat’s cousin, is a stereotypical trope of a static female character. When the reader first meets Kat, they are greeted with this description:
Kat studied her cousin and wondered how it was possible that she was only a year older–not even that. Nine months. And yet she looked nine years more mature. She was taller, curvier, and just in general more (Carter, 2010, p. 65).
Gabrielle parades through the book in impossibly high heels and short skirts. She’s used as the distraction in order for them to be able to pull off jobs. She’s over the top dramatic and a bit too whiny. Except when she’s not. Here’s the thing: Gabrielle should be a mean girl. She should be an airhead. She should be a lot of things. But she’s not. Despite using some tropes for Gabrielle, Carter shows the reader that girls can be all the things that Gabrielle is AND smart, cunning, and a leader.
Kat is also smart, cunning, and a leader. And instead of being the mousy best friend. Kat is also beautiful and has two boys interested in her. She is beautiful in her own right. Carter shows us that the smart girl doesn’t have to be the “best friend” or quiet or hiding behind glasses and a bad hair cut. A girl can be smart and beautiful. Those things are not mutually exclusive.
As an added bonus, Kat doesn’t pull in Hale or Nick, the boys who like her, to be her number 2. That distinction goes to Gabrielle. Without Gabrielle, they wouldn’t have been able to pull off their heist. Which simply shows the female reader, they don’t need a boy to save the day for them. They are quite capable of doing that on their own.
Despite the emphasis on beauty and the commentary from Kat on what it means to be feminine being problematic, Kat’s intelligence and leadership do put girls in a position of power and help female readers begin to see themselves as having agency and power in the world.