I often lament the lack of gender equity in film. Would The Hunger Games’ female warrior Katniss Everdeen quench my thirst for strong, complicated female protagonists?
I devoured the trilogy. The female-centric series’ haunting themes – war, sacrifice, love, starvation, media’s influence, government control and economic inequity – riveted me. The books’ memorable characters lingered long after I closed the pages. So my expectations for the film were high when I saw the midnight premiere.
In a dystopian future, the government at the Capitol mandates a girl and boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected by lottery in each of the 12 Districts as tributes to compete in a fight to the death called the Hunger Games aired on live television. Katniss Everdeen volunteers when her little sister Prim’s name is called.
Jennifer Lawrence’s powerful performance perfectly embodies Katniss, the “Girl on Fire.” A skilled archer, she’s smart, stubborn, brave, abrasive and self-reliant. Lawrence imbues Katniss with a nuanced blend of strength, rage, indignation, desperation and vulnerability. Despite her tough exterior, she possesses a tender vulnerability and “feels empathy when nobody else does,” even for her competitors.
Katniss not only fights for her own survival; she’s compelled to protect her family. Living in the most impoverished neighborhood in the poorest of the 12 Districts, she’s the resourceful breadwinner, illegally hunting for food to feed her family. She’s a surrogate mother to her sister Prim and even her own traumatized mother, grief-stricken over the death of her daughters’ father. Lawrence, who loves playing “maternal wilderness girls,” traversed similar terrain in the brilliant Winter’s Bone.
While Katniss descends from a line of strong literary female protagonists and other female film franchises exist, no female-centric movies aside from Twilight, Bridesmaids and Mamma Mia have experienced this meteoric success. Inspired by young people competing on a reality show and Iraq war coverage and envisioning Katniss as a “futuristic Theseus” from Greek myth, author Suzanne Collins recognized the unexpected choice of “having a female protagonist in a gladiator story.” Earning $152.5 million, Hunger Games became the 3rd highest premiere of all-time. As the 3rd blockbuster book-turned-film franchise penned by a female author, along with Harry Potter and Twilight, we hopefully will see more women writers’ work on-screen which ideally will lead to an influx of diverse and complicated female characters and greater gender equity in film.
While Hollywood is much more comfortable with strong teen female roles rather than adult women, we still rarely see a female character like Katniss on-screen. She’s not sexualized. She cares about archery, not what she’s wearing. Yes, Katniss receives a pageant-style makeover. So do the male tributes. In the book, she disdains the Capitol’s excesses and their primping and preening of her, despite her adoration of her stylist Cinna. While the film merely hints at it, it’s a satire of toxic beauty standards and the gravitational pull of reality TV and celeb culture.
Many female protagonists’ stories revolve around finding and pleasing a man. Yes, there’s a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta (the male tribute from her district) and her best friend Gale. And I’m not going to lie; I love the scenes with Peeta, the “Boy with the Bread” (swoon!) But the romance exists peripherally. Stereotypical gender roles between Katniss and Peeta are inverted. She hunts and barbecues, he bakes and gathers berries. Katniss also takes on the traditionally “feminine” role of healer when she nurses Peeta’s wounds. They become a team, yet she’s the protector saving his life.
Female relationships aren’t diminished. While she fights the female tributes (Clove, Glimmer), Katniss also forges an alliance and friendship with the clever and agile Rue. It’s not the love of a man that spurs her to survive; it’s the love for her sister. That might not seem like such a big deal but in our male-dominated media, where female friendships are so rarely are depicted, it’s a breath of fresh air.
So is Katniss Everdeen a good role model for girls? I would argue yes, yes, a thousand times yes. While some disagree, most call Katniss “a kick-ass role model,” “the role model young women need,” “a great role model for young women,” “a true heroine for girls,” and “the heroine the world needs right now.” While women in action movies don’t necessarily shatter sexist tropes, sociologist Kathryn Gilpatric calls her a “true action heroine” who “really breaks down gender stereotypes.”
Molly McCaffrey believes Katniss is “one of the most important heroes in modern culture” as Hunger Games raises the pervasive issue of female likeability. Because she’s sullen and not “particularly feminine,” Katniss worries about obtaining sponsors, whose gifts of food or medicine in the arena can mean the difference between life and death. Many girls and women worry about amiability as we’re “supposed to be both people pleasers and objects of the male gaze.”
At TEDx Women, Rachel Simmons addressed these confusing mixed messages the media sends – “yes, you can be powerful, but you still be nice while you do it. Yes, you be smart, but make sure you don’t make anyone uncomfortable with your intelligence. Yes, you can be active, but you be sexy and skinny while you do it” – which impede women’s ability to lead.
Katniss acknowledges yet resists these societal cues, never compromising her identity. She doesn’t diminish or hide her abilities. She doesn’t care about her appearance or being sexy. While she plays the game in the Capitol (dressing up) and the arena to survive (heightening her affection for Peeta), Katniss thinks independently, unafraid to voice her opinions or dissent. Even when the Capitol tries to force her hand, she remains bold and defiant.
The Hunger Games remind us that women’s and girl’s stories don’t need to revolve around men and boys. It spreads the crucial message to not apologize for who you are and to be yourself. In a world that continually silences women’s and girl’s voices and objectifies their bodies, we need to hear and see more complex female characters like Katniss Everdeen.