kickass feminists on film: katniss everdeen of the hunger games
Everyone knows that complex and empowering female characters are difficult to find in mainstream films. But there are some who have stood out and become the changing faces of feminism in cinema. In this monthly column, Jade Bate looks at her favourite film heroines who are strong, empowering and kickass.
When I first told my friends I was writing this column for Lip, I asked for suggestions of female film characters whom they thought embodied being kickass, empowering and all-round awesome. Almost every one of them replied with the same name: Katniss Everdeen, the incredible heroine from The Hunger Games series. In recent times, Katniss has become the new face of YA female empowerment, teaching young girls that strength and intelligence are far more important than looks and boys.
(It should be noted that although I’m a huge fan of Suzanne Collins’ very addictive books, this column – due to its focus on female characters in film – will deal with movie-Katniss (as played by Jennifer Lawrence) rather than the novel-Katniss.)
The Hunger Games is an enormous phenomenon, worshipped by millions around the globe. It is, arguably, the most intelligent and original saga for young adults since Harry Potter. One of the major reasons why The Hunger Games such a remarkable story is that it is told from the perspective of a regular teenage girl, as well as tackling huge, real-life global issues like class warfare, over-population, poverty and totalitarianism. Katniss deals with an extraordinary set of circumstances, yet The Hunger Games still maintains a air of authenticity; it creates something that is somehow relatable and familiar out of an outrageous premise.
If you’re not familiar with the narrative of The Hunger Games, either a) you’ve been living on a deserted island for the last five years, b) are over the age of 35, or c) you are a huge fan of Battle Royale and would rather not watch a so-called “second rate” version of it. Set at an undetermined point in the future, The Hunger Games takes place in a would-be North American dystopia called Panem. The nation has been divided up into 12 “districts,” each with their own class structures and duties to perform in order to sustain Panem. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is a 16-year-old girl living in dirt-poor District 12 with her single mother and younger sister. We meet her just as she’s preparing for the annual Reaping,” a ceremony where a girl and boy from each of the Districts is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games: an annual competition in which the group of 24 children are forced to battle each other to the death. This spectacular is broadcasted live on television for the entertainment of the elite District 1. Katniss makes the ultimate sacrifice when she volunteers to take the place of her chosen 12-year-old sister Prim.
Katniss faces both mental and physical obstacles during the lead up to the Games and during the Games themselves, using her hunting and survival skills in her fight to make it through the brutal spectacle. Adversaries come in all forms: not just tributes from other Districts, but from fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who professes his love for Katniss just before they enter the arena.
From this portrait, you might be imagining a warrior-princess kind of character, but Katniss is nowhere near all stoicism and brutality. She’s a complex, multi-dimensional character; she possesses vulnerability and strength, intelligence and doubt, braveness and fear. In other words, she is a human being: a whole and complete person.
While a so-called “love triangle” exists between Katniss, Peeta and Katniss’ childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), it extends beyond the usual angsty tensions most YA films manufacture. Katniss’ dilemmas are not about which boy she should choose, but rather about the impact her decisions have on her family outside the arena. Not once does she place a man over concerns about her mother and her beloved sister Prim. This doesn’t mean Katniss isn’t allowed to love and be loved; although she is never overly romantic towards either Peeta or Gale, she clearly feels love for both of them. Rather than having them rule and control her, she teams up with both of them in order to secure survival and safety.
Her alliance with Peeta in the arena is deliberately exploited in order to gain the sympathy of the District 1 audience and receive vital donations — but what begins as a ploy soon turns into the real thing, as Katniss comes to genuinely care for Peeta, protecting him when he is injured towards the end of the Games. In this instance, Katniss simultaneously assumes the stereotypical female and male roles in the relationship — both caregiver and warrior. Katniss and Gale’s relationship, on the other hand, is very different; they’ve known each other for years, having helped each other to live through the harshness of every day life in District 12. When Katniss leaves for the Games, she asks Gale to protect her family for her, fulfilling the traditional “male protector” role that Katniss had previously assumed in her family.
One can see why this love triangle could be problematic in a feminist reading of the film, but Katniss’ essential character remains clearly feminist. Katniss is a human being: complex, emotional, sometimes uncertain, sometimes afraid. She does not block out the possibility of love, but understands that there are things in her life that are more or just as important than romance and boys. She struggles with her emotional side and her desires, feeling that she should be more focused on the social and political forces at play in Panem, and her role in the Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire have made a combined $1.5 billion at the global box office, not to mention the popularity of the books, DVDs and other merchandise. The world has shown a lot of love for The Hunger Games, and this love has a feminist significance. Blockbusters don’t usually focus on the women in their films, but rather use them as sexual ploys or minor supporting characters. The Hunger Games, however, is a series driven by a strong, complex female character. Katniss Everdeen is just the “girl on fire” we need right now.