It’s easy to admire strong women and sympathize with weak women—but we rarely demand complex women. Why?
I’m not sure how “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight” series became such phenomena, but I still found myself immersed for hours in their respective first books. I always get sucked into these things. Once I start a story, I can’t stop. I can’t help but love the feeling of devouring a book that’s smooth from start to finish. Indeed, I sympathize with “The Hunger Games” trilogy’s vast fan base. It’s fun to read these kinds of books. They’re easy and exciting. Sorry, though: they’re not worthy of obsession.
All of this wouldn’t irk me that much if not for the buzz about the main character, Katniss (protagonist name fail). Katniss is the family breadwinner after her dad’s death. This role requires her to hunt for her family, so she is a skilled archer. She’s cunning in survival situations, but dense socially. She’s modest, and cares more than anything for the main people in her life—her mother, sister and friend Gale. She seems … kind of normal to me. I know plenty of women at Duke who are physically strong and mentally sharp, yet sometimes caring and awkward.
From the way people talk about her, you’d think Katniss was some supernatural babe. Entertainment Weekly calls her “remarkable, kick-a**.” One unfortunate New York Times piece calls Katniss’ character “A brilliant, possibly historic creation—stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will—Katniss is a new female warrior.” Rolling Stone goes on to say that the film is a “victory” because it presents “a heroine propelled by principle instead of hooking up with the cutest boy.”
Haha. No. Katniss is not a revolutionary or historic character. We’ll confine this conversation to popular fiction and film, but even within those spheres Katniss is not terribly different from previously conceived characters. The recent films “Hanna” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” spring to mind; both feature androgynous female characters who exhibit tough attitudes and physical prowess. (Also: Mulan? Remember her?). “Winter’s Bone,” which incidentally stars the same Jennifer Lawrence (the actress who portrays Katniss) follows Ree, another stalwart breadwinner in dire straits. In the book realm, you’ve got the heroines of basically all of Robyn McKinley’s works, not to mention Lirael in Garth Nix’s “Old Kingdom” series. The devastatingly clever Lyra in “His Dark Materials” is an easy comparison, as is our beloved Hermione. These are just a few women characters who have captured our imaginations.
Besides the fact that Katniss’ character has been done before, it is also problematic to me that she’s now being juxtaposed with the infamous Bella of the “Twilight” series. It’s easy to chime in and say that Bella is weak compared to Katniss. Essentially, if the two women were in a cage fight, Bella would definitely lose, and probably die in the process. In the words of Rolling Stone: “Katniss makes Twilight’s Bella Swan look like the wimp she is.” I’ll admit, when I read whatever the sequel to “Twilight” is called, I too cringed at the book’s catatonic phase, in which when Bella loses Edward. For a long time afterwards, I probably would have agreed that Bella deserved to suffer for being so dependent. But recently, I’ve been thinking—no matter how annoying it is, why do we accept Katniss so fully, and yet reject Bella so vindictively?
Debates about “strong female characters” (double puke) need to stop. Praising characters for being militantly physical or condemning them for their lack of power tends to mask what their essence is as human beings. Women and men have endless personalities and minds that can be unbearably complex. Physical and mental “strength” has little to do with the deeper complications of being human. Characters in popular fiction and film—especially the ones that kids and young adults internalize—should reflect these inevitable and fascinating diversities.
What should be respected in this teen-fiction genre is the ability to evoke a truly realistic, touchable, vulnerable and relatable character. This should be the goal. Like adults, teen girls should be able to read popular fiction without having to learn something about being “strong” or “weak.” Rather, they should be able to relish the joys of character development. We should be able to devour these books in peace.
Ellie Bullard is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.
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