Childrearing

Katniss Everdeen: The Perfect Antidote To Twilight’s Limp Bella Swan

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Katniss Everdeen The Hunger GamesI am told little girls like pink things—Disney princesses and tiaras. I am told that when my daughter is older I will have to bribe her to brush her teeth with Princess ™ brand toothpaste and tell her stories about how the princess is always rescued and always wears mascara and always lives happily ever after. “This is just the way girls are,” I’m told. I don’t believe it. After all, even when I was a little girl myself, I always enjoyed the wicked stepmother a little better than Cinderella.

It’s over a decade into a new century and we are still bullying girls into fairy tales. Even dressed up with vampires and prom, the heroines we’ve chosen for our daughters are interesting only because of the men they love. Without Edward or Jacob, Bella Swan would just be another vapid teen, upset because she’s skinny and pretty and has too many men interested in her. Rough stuff indeed. Or if these characters do happen to be smart and strong they are sidelined to minor roles, am I right, Hermione? Or worse, like Rapunzel in the movie Tangled, they are strong, smart and still limited by the tropes of happily ever after.

I grew up with Anne Shirley, Pippi Longstocking, Jo March, and Elizabeth Bennett. And each one let me down. Anne lost her spunk when she married Gilbert. Same for Jo March who marries that boring Professor Baer. And  Pippi lived in a world that, while charming, was small and I grew out of it so quickly.  Elizabeth Bennett’s social revolution falls flat when we realize, she’s nothing different — just another female

I had a daughter this past March, and in the 28 years that separate us, I’m disappointed that no one has managed to come up with a better hero for her.

Enter Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is the hero of Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games trilogy.  Katniss is both likable and extremely frustrating; inspiring, brilliant and also really annoying. She is both warrior and pacifist, insightful commentator and confused teen. In sum, Katniss is irrepressibly human.

Collins has Katniss easily sidestep the trappings of other female leads. She is not sentimental. She kills to survive. While she is part of a love triangle that smacks a little of Edward v. Jacob, Katniss is also fiercely independent of both men. In the third book of the trilogy, Katniss steels herself for Peeta’s death, even preparing to kill him herself, should it come to that. [tagbox tag=”princess culture”]

Katniss has agency, strength and skill and she uses these tools to fight her way through a post-apocalyptic world obsessed with image and stymied by inequality.  The books begin when Katniss’ sister, Prim, is chosen to fight for her life in a gladiator-turned-reality-TV-series called “The Hunger Games.” Katniss volunteers in Prim’s place and is immediately thrust into a world of image and a scripted reality that is as deadly as it is entertaining. Forced into a role of a star-crossed lover to win the Hunger Games, Katniss still manages to subvert expectations and rebel against the image thrust upon her. In the second and third books, Katniss’s rebel image is appropriated by a resistance movement, just as cold and calculating, if not more so, than the society they fight against. And here too, Katniss manages to become more than just a role model, more than a lover, more than a fighter, more than a hero. She manages to become human and I love her for it.

And perhaps that’s the lesson of Katniss that Collin’s so expertly weaves. Forcing our daughters out of fairy tales is just as damaging as forcing them into one. Sometimes the rebellion is worse than the status quo. And as I search so hard for role models for my daughter, perhaps I’m looking too hard. Isn’t it best to just let my daughter be human even if that means Princess ™ brand toothpaste and roughhousing? Nerf guns and tutus? All girls are so much bigger than the roles we have set out for them and like Katniss, every attempt we have to push them into the image of our movement—vices, hang ups and baggage—will ultimately backfire. In the end, we just have to let them be and watch them catch the world on fire.

(photo: thehungergamessummary.com)

28 Comments

  1. bl

    December 7, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Really enjoyed this. As a feminist who still enjoys twilight for entertainment value (I swear in the 4th book stuff actually kind of happens and Bella makes a decision or two Edward-be-damned), your description made me smile. I agree though, feminism is about choice, even for little girls. As long as parents are there for discussion about how things apply to real life, I say let them explore their interests, traditionally “girly”or otherwise.

  2. Lyz

    December 7, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Don’t worry, I read a lot of crappy books for entertainment value as well! He who has no sin.. and such 🙂

  3. Elizabeth

    December 7, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    My 5-year-old niece likes princesses and fishing. She wears tutus with cowboy boots. She can do anything she wants to do! She likes it when I tell her stories of girls who do smart, amazing things to get out of bad situations. Even if the book doesn’t have pictures, she loves the stories. 🙂 http://www.amazon.com/Fearless-Girls-Women-Beloved-Sisters/dp/0393320464

    • Lyz

      December 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      Love this! Thanks for the suggestion

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  6. Kati

    December 7, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    “All girls are so much bigger than the roles we have set out for them” – very well said, Lyz! It’s my job to show my daughter the reality of what being a woman means.

    I haven’t read them yet but I’m looking forward to finding out just what is so enticing.

    • Lyz

      December 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm

      Thanks, Kati! I hope you love the books!

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  8. Steph

    December 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm

    Her name was Jo March, not Jo Marsh, and what’s boring about owning and running your own school?

    • Nancy

      December 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm

      She said March. lol

    • Lyz

      December 8, 2011 at 12:06 pm

      It’s not about boredom, it’s about the fact that she is this exciting independent character who all of a sudden get’s so wrapped up in men that she abandons her dreams of travel and adventure to marry a boring man and start a school for boys. Why boys? And why is her future so tied up in men? Laurie? Professor Baer? It’s very disappointing.

    • Steph

      December 9, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      She said Marsh originally, I guess she went back and changed it.

      Lyz, have you read Little Women recently? If not, please do so. Jo doesn’t abandon her dreams of travel and adventure for Professor Baer – she’s already travelled, had adventures, launched her career as a writer and returned home voluntarily after Beth dies and Amy and Laurie get married, when Professor Baer makes his reappearance. Additionally, her future was never tied up in Laurie – he proposed, she said no. The end.

      I’m sorry if I sound overly bombastic here but I, like you, lament the prevalance of wishy-washy characters in fiction and I honestly do not believe that Jo is one. Also, while Katniss Everdeen sounds awesome, she’s the sort of female ‘role model’ (for lack of a better word) who would have alienated me as a child because I’m not kick-ass and tough. Jo is, IMHO, more relateable.

      *steps down from soapbox*

    • whiteroses

      May 26, 2012 at 10:36 am

      Considering the era in which Jo March came into being, I would argue that she’s the ultimate feminist heroine. She lived her own life on her own terms- when most women in the 1860s would have accepted Laurie’s proposal out of sheer terror, she said no. She did her own thing as a single woman before Professor Baer ever came into the picture.

      Jo reminds me of a quote from another female novelist, this one from the 1930s: “If I’m going to be a spinster, then by God, I’m going to spin.”

  9. Kim

    December 7, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Loved this. Almost as I love Katniss and The Hunger Games Trilogy.

  10. Jen

    December 8, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Another amazing, strong, teen/pre-teen girl character is Tiffany Aching. Highly recommended!

    • Lyz

      December 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      I’ll look into her. Thanks!

  11. rachael

    December 8, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Really enjoyed this, but what book are you reading where Hermione is a “minor” character? Supporting, maybe. But she’s second only to Harry in terms of plot, and second to no one in terms of awesome.

    • Steph

      December 9, 2011 at 9:46 pm

      Yep, someone once said that all seven books should be renamed Hemoine Granger and How I Got Two Idiots Out of Trouble.

  12. Leigha

    December 8, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Your statement about preferring the wicked stepmother reminded me of another book–have you ever read Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire (yes, the guy who wrote Wicked)? It’s, well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s Cinderella from the stepsister’s point of view.

  13. Emily

    December 9, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I don’t understand why feminism has become anti-romance. Why is is bad for a female heroine to fall in love? I feel a good story, any story, be it about a male or a female, needs a little romance to keep it interesting.

    Take Harry Potter for example. He’s awesome, he’s the chosen one, he beat the crap out of Voldermort, but he still has love interests (Cho and Ginny.) No one ever talks about how un-masculine he is.

    I think we can have stories about strong female characters that still let them fall in love.

    • Leigha

      December 12, 2011 at 2:42 pm

      Agreed. After all, real women fall in love, don’t they? If anything, the character being allowed to fall in love with someone and marry them and be happy (so long as she still maintains her own identity after) is pretty feminist, in my opinion, because until relatively recently women got very little say in such arrangements.

      Though I did have one complaint about the ending of the Hunger Games (bit of a spoiler), in that she made a point of saying she couldn’t stand the thought of bringing kids into this world, even after things were fixed, yet she did anyway. It didn’t really make sense, nor did the happy tone of “I had kids I didn’t want and was traumatized for life by what seems to be severe PTSD.” But hey, happy endings are required, right?

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  16. Sweetpea

    January 5, 2012 at 12:35 am

    I am a HUGE fan of hunger games. Like, giant. Twilight sucks. After Harry Potter ( my first love, discovered at the age of 11) was finished, something had to fill the void. Enter Katniss and Peeta. (Who I am secretly seriously in love with)

  17. Winter

    January 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I really can’t agree. The one thing that really struck me about Katniss throughout the series is how she never seems to figure out things that are perfectly obvious to the reader (as well as everyone else around her). Why does it take her the entire first novel to realize that Peeta cares about her and isn’t just mugging for the cameras? And most of the latter two books consist of her doing something impulsive, and the men around her telling her why it’s a bad idea and why they have to do things their way, after which she expresses shame and self-recrimination. Put in brief, I would never hold up Katniss Everdeen as an example of a character for little girls to aspire to, even without the murderin’ and what have you.

    • Leigha

      January 21, 2012 at 7:32 pm

      Many (if not most) people have a hard time telling when people like them. Sure, maybe it seems obvious from an outside perspective, but haven’t you ever had a friend tell you someone is attracted to you and you were completely in disbelief? Or had a guy ask you out and assumed they “only wanted one thing”, only to find out they really liked you for you? It happens all the time. It doesn’t make Katniss a bad role model, it makes her a normal human being (of the fictional variety).

  18. Shelby

    August 24, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    As a child, I liked Disney princesses and playing video games with my brother. I wore dresses with sneakers. I was who I wanted to be, not what people told me to be. Now, at nineteen, I’m still like that but a little mellower. Hermione was my first role model (when I was six) and now Katniss is one of the top role models to me. 🙂

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