What with Katniss from The Hunger Games and Katsa from Graceling, it seems like kickass YA heroines are the new normal. That’s a wonderful thing. But these heroines owe a lot to the pioneers of YA series past. And Michael Grant and K.A. Applegate deserve a lot of credit for that.
Animorphs not only has Rachel and Cassie, unforgettable and complex female main characters, but a host of equally interesting female side characters. Rachel and Cassie are the most important, but let’s not forget Loren, Aldrea, Toby, Aftran, Edriss, and Eva. Neither should we forget that Cassie and Eva are heroic women of color who don’t fit into any of the boxes where WOC characters are all too often trapped.
But let’s focus on Rachel and Cassie, because they’re the heroines of this story. Because what makes them special is they’re used to explore and shatter tropes that are usually associated with male characters. Both of them are soldiers who struggle with different aspects of war, and women are in that role rarely enough. But it goes beyond that.
Rachel is the character who most obviously shatters conventional female roles. She’s an Action Girl, fierce and powerful, the greatest fighter of the team (except maybe for Ax, but dude, he went to military academy.) As the war goes on, she struggles with her dark side: her own love of battle and violence. It was never a question of whether or not she was going to be able to face the realities of war and embrace violence as a strategy. It’s a question of why she was so quick to embrace it, and what that eagerness says about her as a person. Animorphs isn’t the first series in which soldiers worry about enjoying war and killing too much. But it’s the first series I know of in which it’s a woman soldier facing this problem.
Cassie seems like a stereotype in some ways. She’s a tree-hugger, an animal-lover, reluctant to use violence as a solution. She acts as a nurturer to the rest of the team. But anyone who thinks her love of nature is fluffy bleeding-heart sentimentalism doesn’t understand Cassie at all.
"I noticed that," Cassie said, a little annoyed. "It’s obvious what we have to do. And not just to the bear’s leftovers, but to any live seal we can find. What I don’t understand is why you’re asking me for permission. Do you guys think I’d put an animal’s life over yours? Or mine, come to think of it?"
– #25: The Extreme
Cassie is famous for being the moral compass of the team. I’m not sure that I agree with that; Cassie is pigeonholed as the “moral one” by the team, but Tobias raises moral objections just as often, if not as loudly. But what I think distinguishes Cassie is that she is the Master of Two Worlds, to borrow the phrase from Joseph Campbell’s theory of monomyth. She is the only one who is able to transcend the boundary between species, between mortal enemies, and see the Yeerks the way they see themselves. And through her, Aftran is able to see humans the way they see themselves.
This has been done before; after all, Lawrence of Arabia aided in the Arab revolt against the Turks by empathizing with the rebels and integrating somewhat into their culture. But the reason we love this Lawrence of Arabia type story is because T.E. Lawrence is a “default person.” In Western culture, the default person is a white male. In Lawrence of Arabia type stories (like Avatar) the default person represents our culture to the Other, and has some aspect of the Other’s culture inscribed on him. In the kyriarchical view, a black woman can’t be Lawrence of Arabia because she is the Other – she can’t represent us. Yet in Animorphs, the Master of Two Worlds is a black woman. The Yeerk peace movement is led by a Yeerk who finally came to understand the value of humanity, and it was through a black woman’s eyes. Now that’s revolutionary.
There’s a lot more I could say about feminism and Animorphs, but I’ll restrict myself to one more point. Animorphs in many ways subverts our idea of gender itself. Throughout the series, and especially in Visser, it’s hinted that Yeerks have no real gender of their own, but take on the gender identity of their hosts. Edriss seems to have an affinity for female hosts, while Essam and Esplin prefer male bodies. But in a creature who can infest anyone, that choice is purely aesthetic. This creates a whole new world of possibilities for gender. Are there Yeerks who have no preference for male or female hosts and experience their gender as fluid? Are there Yeerks who think of themselves as male but end up in female hosts anyway? These questions are never directly addressed, but we get tantalizing glimpses in Visser.
So yeah, Animorphs is a whole lot more than “that series I read when I was eight with the really trippy covers.” Respect, Applegrant.