Friday, December 6, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Tally Youngblood (Uglies)

It occurs to me in this moment, as I try to wrestle a small child into his high chair and persuade him to eat his lunch (okay, so that was actually an hour ago, but still), that I do not actually like strong-willed people. Or rather, I don't like strong-willed people that I am trying to convince to do something that they are not inclined to do. In this case, that would be eating.

It's funny, because I actually love strong-willed characters in fiction. I just have to stop every once in a while and remind myself that these characters are awesome and amazing in stories, and kind of annoying to be around in real life. Case in point? Tally Youngblood from Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy.

Tally is the heroine in this story, and for good reason. In a society where everyone undergoes an operation to become "pretty" at age sixteen, Tally is one of the few people to see the society for what it is, and one of the only people who can stand against it. Mostly because she is so darn stubborn. She refuses to have her choices taken away from her, and therefore in any situation where she might lose her agency, or even when she's already lost it, she'll fight like hell to get it back.

She doesn't start out this way, of course. Tally begins the story as just another screwed up fifteen (almost sixteen) year old girl. She hates how she looks and can't wait for the operation that will cure all of her perfections and make her just like everyone else. She has a late birthday, so there's really not anyone else around for her to be friends with, until she meets Shay, who shares her birthday. Together they try to pass the time until their operation. And then Shay shares a terrifying secret: she doesn't actually want to be pretty.

Tally can't even really deal with this idea. Not wanting to be pretty? What does that even mean? But Shay shows Tally that there's a world out there, and people. People who have chosen not to become pretty, or who chose to leave after the became pretty, which is rarer. Once you become pretty, something changes, and you're not the same person you used to be.

And then Shay runs away. Tally has a sneaking suspicion where she's gone, but it isn't until Special Circumstances (the boogeymen or men in black of this world) turn up and demand that she follow Shay and infiltrate the rebel group if she ever wants to be pretty that Tally figures out the magnitude of the problem. She agrees to spy. And that one choice changes everything.

This story fits into the ongoing narrative we've seen about teenage female protagonists in overbearing dystopian societies fighting the system for those they love. But this is a little different. Tally doesn't want to fight the system at first. She wants to join it. She wants to join it so freaking hard. But she can't.

The whole time Tally is on Shay's trail, and uncovering more and more of the resistance, she struggles with the idea of what pretty actually means. She sees magazines and pictures of pre-pretty people. She thinks about it. She meets someone who was born completely outside of the pretty system. She changes. And she grows.

Unfortunately, Special Circumstances is still tracking her, and even though Tally has completely changed her views, they still want to bring her and everyone else in. Because totalitarian regimes only actually work if their control is, in fact, total. Tally and her friends flee, but most of them don't make it out. They do, however, figure out what's making the people change after the pretty surgery - it's a tiny brain lesion, but one that's powerful enough to radically alter personality, breed docility, and make for a captive human populace. The rebels have a cure. But they have no test subject.

And that's where Tally comes in. Distraught over having caused the capture of all those she's come to love, and having finally helped some of them escape, Tally decides to become their first subject. She writes down her consent to the procedure, then takes herself into the city to become pretty.

Only, she wakes up pretty and has no memory of any of that. When a stranger appears with some pills, Tally can barely focus enough to realize that she should actually take them. But then the craziest thing happens. Tally takes one, and Zane takes one (her boyfriend, who agrees to share the risk with her), and they both get better.

That shouldn't actually be possible.

You see, as with most advanced medical treatments, the pills were supposed to be taken together. They had corresponding jobs. By taking one pill each, they each only got half of a cure. More specifically, Zane got the brain-killing half, and Tally got the half that didn't do anything (except prevent the brain-killing). And Tally still gets better. Why? Because of the simplest idea of all, one that even the rebels didn't dream of.

Tally gets better because she wants to. She recovers not because she is so much better or braver or stronger than anyone else, and not because she got the cure. She recovered because she chose to. As it turns out, this is a story about consent, and about change. About how you can never actually change someone from the outside. They have to choose it for themselves.

Now, the story goes on from here, and there's a governmental overthrow, and even a series sequel set a couple of years down the road. But this is the really interesting part for me. Tally doesn't change because anything changes her. She changes because she wants to. Throughout the entire series, whether she's been turned into a pretty or a special, or even something else entirely, Tally always finds her way back to being Tally. She is so much herself that she cannot be anything else.

Throughout the books, characters are always calling Tally special. And that's true. But not for the obvious reasons. They imply that she has a special brain, or that she's inhumanly good at healing from the procedures. That's not true. What is true is much less complicated: Tally Youngblood is stubborn as hell, but she knows exactly who she is. And she never forgets.

Ultimately, that's what matters. And that's what makes her a compelling character. A strong female character, even. Because Tally doesn't let anyone else change her, the only things that are done to her (that stick, anyway) are the ones she consents to. While people play havoc with her body and try to mess with her mind, Tally retains her agency because she maintains the importance of consent.

As a heroine for teenage girls, it's hard for me to think of anything I like better.

So here's to you, Tally Youngblood. While I hate it when that two year old is being strong-willed, I love it when you are, because you being stubborn means that the world might just change for the better.


  1. I love these series: I am about due for a re-read. :) Did you read Extras?
    Do you have any recommendations for other, recent dystopian novels that are good?

    1. I've got Extras out from the library, so I'll probably start reading it when the first overdue notice comes. That's how I roll. As for other novels, I love the Matched series by Ally Condie, and of course the Insurgent books are totally awesome. I haven't yet read Maze Runner, but I have high hopes.

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