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?

10 Replies to “My Problem with the Clumsy Girl Trope”

  1. I think it’s lazy too. In romance at least I think it functions partly to serve as the heroine’s one relatable flaw. She is beautiful, smart, kind, generous and self-effacing, but look she’s not perfect! She’s a little clumsy! That also means she can stumble and the hero can hold her up. Unless there’s a medical condition or disability behind it, I don’t want it.

    1. Oh, that’s such a good point! It’s like “Oh, she’s not a Mary Sue – LOOK! I made her clumsy! Adorably so!” It would be really interesting if she had something like Parkinsons or MS that affected her movement. My hubs has early-onset Parkinsons and there are challenges – not in the least how other people perceive him.

  2. As the fully adult woman who just bashed her head into the corner of the wall while pulling up her pants, I can identify with the clumsy heroine, but I think rather than making clumsiness a PART of a character, a lot of authors use it as a “growth mechanism” to show change throughout the story. And let me tell you, love has NEVER made me less clumsy.

    (Also, any guy who routinely “rescued” me would soon tire of it. On any given week I have easily a half dozen bruises I have no clue how I got.)

    1. That would be funny – the hero who gets tired of rescuing the clumsy heroine. He’d call from the other room “Open an artery or break anything?” and when she said no, he’d be all, okay then.

  3. Granted, it has been 30 odd years since I read them, but I recall the protagonist of the first couple of Xanth novels by Piers Anthony to be clumsy male.
    One might also argue that Rincewind from Discworkd embodies that spirit as well… albeit maybe more hapless than clumsy.
    But yes, the damsel in distress thing gets old.

    1. I don’t recall him that clearly either – though if asked I would have agreed to bumbling or hapless on both, and both played for comedic effect. I don’t mind damsel in distress – it’s a powerful trope – but I don’t like her distress to be bumps and bruises, and wandering into traffic.

  4. I like clumsy for one simple reason–I AM clumsy. I’ve written clumsy heroes, too (the one in the WIP slid on ice–went right under his car). I like it as part of character, but I wouldn’t like it as something that needed to be rescued or fixed.

  5. I’m very annoyed with this trope. I read on another site that its supposed to be a “relatable flaw.” I’m thinking, “For whom? A 5 year old?” I can see how it would be relatable for people (women, typically) who are clumsy, but I can’t imagine the percentage of people who are Bella clumsy is very high. While I’m not arguing that it should be ended, maybe writers could throw in a girl who is messy, or consistently late, or has an innocentish addiction, like coffees or french fries. I’m part of the Miraculous Fandom and the main character suffers from this condition, despite the fact that it does nothing to improve the plot. When I started listing my favorite stories with this trope, I actually thought Twilight was the only one it made sense in, since it gives her a convenient excuse for all her vampire/motorcycle related injuries.

    1. As with many tropes, this sort of thing can become a crutch. I think all the examples you cited have been used in one book or another, but you’re right – characters should be as varied as actual human beings. We can all relate to all sorts of flaws and failings!

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