THE BLOG
01/11/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Katniss Everdeen vs. Anna Karenina: A Catfight Long in the Making

2012 has been a busy year for female heroines in books and movies alike. Katniss Everdeen and Anna Karenina, to name just two, won hearts worldwide.

For those unfamiliar with their stories, Ms. Everdeen saved her people from exploitation in a post-apocalyptic North-America, but Ms. Karenina -- slightly out of tune -- threw herself into a passionate love affair and then in front of a train when her lover's passion subsided. Never mind that she left her son and friends behind; she killed herself. For a man.

Admittedly, a nuanced portrayal of women has never been Tolstoy's strong suit. Chaste mothers or debased lovers fill the pages of his vast repertoire, with little in between. Nor does Tolstoy's 1873 storyline strike me as particularly anachronistic. In a genre especially created for the affliction called love, rom-coms mercilessly depict female protagonists as hapless damsels in search of a man who will miraculously do away with their problems the moment he marries them.

But Suzanne Collins's Everdeen breaks with the female stereotypes Hollywood generally embraces. The heroine, who is also a lover,a fighter and a mother figure, all embodied in the same character --Tolstoy would have bulked at such feminine complexity -- impressed millions of young girls and boys in cinemas across the world in the first film of The Hunger Games franchise.

Everdeen has more important things on her mind than love. Saving the world and bringing in an income to support her family, for instance. Both are considered traditionally male activities, but she fulfills them with feminine brio. When her father dies at a young age after an accident in the mines that support their district, Everdeen becomes the sole breadwinner of the family. Hunting and selling game are her favorite ways to feed her mother and little sister before she enters the Games.

In the arena, strong leadership skills secure her survival. She forges partnerships with other contestants based on intuition, and never kills except when strictly necessary for her own survival. Her love for the young girl Rue is rewarded with much-needed gifts from the audience and later sparks the embers of a revolution, pointing toward the power of compassion and female networks of resistance.

Reality TV and incessant war footage on CNN inspired Ms. Collins with the idea for the trilogy, which critiques current events at every turn. Everdeen doesn't succumb to looting, rape or torture, unlike other victors of war, and does a great job at "winning hearts and minds" -- one of the major failings of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which didn't fully capitalize on the talents of female soldiers. Her struggle with symptoms that echo post-traumatic stress disorder also shows her to be a real person and not some flawless hero unaccustomed to pain and failure.

Even the books' famous love triangle reverses Hollywood gender roles. Gale, her dashing childhood crush with macho proclivities, vies for her interest against Peeta, a baker's son who gradually earns her love by protecting her in the arena. He doesn't fight off other contestants but rather helps her to become a better fighter. He uses his baking and camouflage skills to dress and hide her at crucial moments during combat.

While Gale is rewarded with a fancy position in Panem's most prominent district for having bombed the Capitol's last defense in a straight line to victory -- a war crime in anyone else's dictionary -- Everdeen chooses to spend the rest of her life with Peeta. "What I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring," she wisely observes.

Peeta doesn't solve her problems or magically resolve her insecurities. A far cry from the usual Hollywood romance debacles, he complements her and strives for balance in their relationship.

Marrying Mr. Right appears as important today as ever, or so Hollywood would have us believe. Forget about independence, a career and other such modern indulgences, many movies seem to say. But by redefining what "He" looks like, Collins offered a welcome diversion from this paradigm in 2012; let us hope 2013 has more to offer than The Hangover: part III.

Subscribe to the In(formation) email.
The reality of being a woman — by the numbers.