Katniss Everdeen: Feminist hero in teenage fiction at last?

After Twilight’s Bella Swan left an entire generation of girls lusting after what is essentially an abusive and controlling relationship described as the ultimate declaration of true love, it’s safe to say that teenage fiction needs a new empowering female protagonist for damage control. After watching the film and reading the books, my initial thoughts were that Katniss is a much better role model than Bella: but is she the feminist hero we really need in teenage literature?

Let’s examine what makes Katniss a good role model: Katniss is incredibly brave. When her sister Prim is selected to play in the Hunger Games, meaning almost certain death, she volunteers in her place. We learn that when her father died, it was Katniss who kept her family together despite her young age and her mother falling into despair. She hunts the food that feeds her family or is sold to fund the family’s other needs. She’s a respected member of the District 12 community and no stranger to hard work. Courage is an excellent quality and Katniss also demonstrates good, strong family values.

Katniss does not want or need a boyfriend and does not depend on him when she gets one. It is clear that her friend Gale harbors a romantic attachment to her from the beginning and Peeta’s affections for her are very much real. While playing with Peeta’s emotions isn’t entirely fair on Peeta, it shows that Katniss is strong and clever enough to do whatever it takes to survive even if it means playing on stereotypical female characteristics such as the young girl with her first crush which makes her behavior crazy. She takes negative aspects (for example a fellow schoolmate having a doomed crush on her) and works them into something that works positively for her (a partnership that ultimately saves her life).

The Hunger Games simultaneously gives teenage fiction a good female role model while still giving social commentary on women in the media spotlight. Katniss is a critique of the damaging effects media portrayal of women has on society’s ideals about what a woman is. We women are reduced to simpering little girls by the media, concerned only with looks and love. She must play on her sexuality; her appearance is of utmost importance. She has to play on the stereotype of a teenage girl made crazy by her first love, because apparently all teenage girls form crushes on boys and act ridiculously as a result of this. Katniss must pander to this otherwise she will be deemed too dangerous. This is a sad comment on today’s society where the pressure on girls to be their best is huge, in our own society, we are meant to look our best because it is expected of us. In the society of Panem’s Capitol, even women who are entering a competition to fight to the death are plucked, waxed and painted into “perfection.” Unnecessary value is placed on our appearances and The Hunger Games draws sickening awareness to this. The women presented to us in The Hunger Games sum up the impossible ideals and contradictions women are expected to adhere to: it is impossible to look your “best” while fighting for your very life. Is this perhaps an extreme reference to the way in which we women are meant to be virginal yet ready and willing for our husbands? Be excellent housewives and mothers but maintain an excellent career on the side? Women are expected to be so many things at once, and many of these contradict each other and I believe The Hunger Games draws much attention to this.

Yet is Katniss exactly what we need? Not quite. In the end, it is Peeta’s love that “saves her.” The ending of the trilogy reveals she is coerced into having children by Peeta; it certainly does not seem like a decision she came to by herself. She succumbs to the way in which women are expected to live their lives and it doesn’t seem like she did this because it was what she truly wanted; it seems she did it because it was the safe option. She also lives up to the idea that a “strong female character” has to be someone who can wield a weapon, someone capable of murder, whereas in reality one does not need to show physical strength to be a strong person. Perhaps the ideal role model for young teenage girls at this point would be someone who demonstrates this inner strength rather than someone who shows their strength through violence. While no one is perfect and therefore our role models should not be perfect, Katniss makes some rather problematic decisions over the course of the trilogy that are not admirable. A girl dead set on murdering the President of her country, who at the last minute decides to assassinate the new President of her country is perhaps not as positive a role model as she first seems.

Katniss is also rather oblivious at times to anyone but herself and the relationship between her and Peeta is a perfect example of this. She refuses to believe that he could have any real feelings for her and believes his feelings are all just an act to make him more popular within the Games despite the fact that his feelings for her are very much real. Even when she learns he is not just acting, she continues the act despite the fact that it is causing him pain. Surely a good role model would be able to empathize with the people around her and not use and abuse their feelings? She also plays around with the feelings of her best friend Gale, kissing him a few times throughout the series. While it could be argued that Katniss is a teenage girl completely understandably experiencing lots of new emotions and hormones and therefore experimenting and trying to work out how she feels, it isn’t really fair that people seem to get hurt while she does so, especially because she seems so unapologetic about it.

She’s better though–a great improvement on Bella Swan. Katniss Everdeen certainly gives hope that fictional female characters are slowly but surely becoming much better role models for teenage girls. If anything, perhaps the fact that she is an imperfect teenage girl who makes some mistakes while she’s growing up actually works in her favor rather than damning her to the same hall of shame as someone like Bella Swan. With The Hunger Games being very much in the spotlight and will be for a while with two films still to be released, it’s important that it sends out a good message to the young women who will be exposed and influenced by it. Katniss is strong, she is intelligent and able to be both independent and loving. She isn’t perfect, but she is human and is most definitely a step in the right direction.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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