The following is an abridged excerpt from Fan Phenomena: Hunger Games [Intellect Books, $22.00] by Nicola Balkind. Follow her on Twitter here.
The "strong female character" is having a moment in popular culture. Equally, it is the subject of criticism by many, including Sarah Dunn at PolicyMic, who says, "Enough With the 'Strong Female Characters', Already," and Sophia McDougall who simply wrote, "I Hate Strong Female Characters." Natalie Portman has also weighed in, and was quoted by PolicyMic as saying:
The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a “feminist” story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.
In a recent study entitled "Violent Female Action Characters in Contemporary American Cinema," academic Katy Gilbatric conducted a content analysis of violent female action characters shown in American action films from 1991 through 2005. The analysis focused on three aspects: gender stereotypes, demographics, and quantity and type of violence. In a section quoted in Wired, she writes,
The [violent female action character] is a recent addition to contemporary American cinema and has the potential to redefine female heroines, for better or worse. This research provides evidence that the majority of female action characters shown in American cinema are not empowering images, they do not draw on their femininity as a source of power, and they are not a kind of "post woman" operating outside the boundaries of gender restrictions.
According to the abstract, the author’s findings ‘suggest continued gender stereotypes set within a violent framework of contemporary American cinema’. Taking this as an indication of the climate into which Katniss (as a star movie character) was born, let’s take a look at reactions in the media. Jezebel’s Melissa Silverstein commented on the sheer exposure of The Hunger Games the day before the movie premiered. Over 2,000 screens were sold out ahead of opening weekend, and the writer points out that the film was due to open on approximately 4,000 screens, while Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (Bill Condon, 2012, the fifth movie instalment in the saga) opened in a mere 62 screens more. (She also gives credit to Twilight for "setting the table" for The Hunger Games.) Silverstein argues both sides: why it’s good that little attention was focused on the film’s female protagonist as a point of importance; and why, at the same time, it is remarkable. She observes that the romance element of the story was not focused upon until the final week of marketing, stating that, "I’m sure it is a testament to the book, but it is also a testament to the diversity of fans." On the negative side, however, she writes that
at the same time it DOES matter that Katniss is a girl and people – men, women, boys and girls – are all interested in seeing this film. This has the potential to show Hollywood where honestly it is already a hit even before it opens and finding the next potential franchise is on everyone’s mind, that having a strong female character is not something to try and avoid, it is something to be seen as a potential success.
While female-led franchises are often seen as box office poison, or follow a hyper-sexualized, violent female protagonist dressed in masculine qualities and tight clothing (think Catwoman [Pitof, 2004], Salt [Phillip Noyce, 2010] and Aeon Flux [Karyn Kusama, 2005]), Katniss, on the other hand, is not sexualized – which we’ll come back to in detail in a moment. Despite this, Jennifer Lawrence still came under media scrutiny; more specifically, her looks did. In her review of The Hunger Games, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis wrote, "A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission." Many more comments were made in the media about Lawrence’s size and height relative to her co-star and Katniss’s male love interest, Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson. Slate’s L. V. Anderson was quick to respond, asking, "why haven’t they been more consistent in their critiques of actors’ bodies? [...] I haven’t seen much concern about Liam Hemsworth’s muscular frame, even though his character in The Hunger Games occupies the same food-strapped world as Katniss." Further, she argues,
Movie critics suspend their disbelief all the time – and when they suddenly refuse to do so for a female actor whose body looks more like an average woman’s body rather than less, it’s hard to see that as anything but sexist.
Misogyny in the media seems inevitable, and this charge demonstrates a real-world hang-up on the physical portrayal of femininity. This leads us to Suzanne Collins’s own handling of masculinity and femininity in The Hunger Games. Every well-rounded character in fiction is likely to embody some traits from each gender (as they are typically understood and stereotyped). Katniss is particularly interesting because not only does she demonstrate both masculine and feminine traits, but the scales tip in favor of the more masculine. In "Katniss and the Politics of Gender", Jessica Miller outlines Katniss’s leaning towards masculine traits thus:
Bucking the popular culture trend of the helpless girlfriend who needs to be saved by her man, Collins presents Katniss as the strong one. Yet Katniss still needs Peeta’s warmth and decency. Even their postwar domestic life bucks gender expectations: Peeta begs for children and Katniss relents; Peeta bakes and Katniss hunts. The romance between Katniss and Peeta offers a welcome foil to the many romances in popular culture that hew closely to the expectations of stereotypical femininity and masculinity.
Kelsey Wallace of bitchmagazine.org takes this further, delving into the relative femininity of Peeta’s primary characteristics in direct opposition with Katniss’s more masculine ones. While Gale, as the third point of the triangle, is conventionally masculine and, as Wallace puts it, "follows the 'masculine' logic that men form bonds through shared activity as opposed to shared feelings (the woman’s way of bonding)", Peeta, on the other hand,
possesses many traits we associate with femininity – he’s artistic, he’s intuitive, he cries in front of people, he wears his heart on his sleeve – he’s emotionally vulnerable in a way we don’t think of heroes as being emotionally vulnerable. Pretty and sensitive.
A few weeks after Dargis’s review in which she concerned herself with Lawrence’s appearance as Katniss, she took part in a discussion with colleague A. O. Scott in a piece entitled "A Radical Female Hero from Dystopia". Here, Dargis questions our stereotypical ideas of what is masculine and what is feminine thus:
I mean, is killing masculine? Is nurturing feminine? Katniss nurtures and she kills, and she does both extremely well. Katniss is a fantasy figure, but partly what makes her powerful – and, I suspect, what makes her so important to a lot of girls and women – is that she’s one of the truest feeling, most complex female characters to hit American movies in a while. She isn’t passive, she isn’t weak, and she isn’t some random girl. She’s active, she’s strong and she’s the girl who motivates the story.
Throughout the books, Katniss appears unemotional at times. She is often disconnected from emotional triggers or is actively screening herself from painful thoughts and situations. This runs counter to Peeta’s relative vulnerability and Gale’s emotionally charged (read: angry) rants against the Capitol. While Katniss’s stereotypically masculine solemnity is derided by many, Peeta’s more feminine sensitivity often goes without comment. This reversal of traditional gender roles confronts many of our preconceptions about gender and, by doing something unusual, creates conflict within the story and brings out a great deal of debate in the real world.
Katniss is a tomboy, and her masculine traits often act as a protective barrier against the world. What she must come to terms with are her feminine traits, which are presented as a double threat as she navigates the feminine sides of both her personality and her physical appearance under public gaze. As Peeta and Gale discuss in Mockingjay, Katniss will choose a partner based on her best chance of survival, rather than for love, which also hardens audiences’ perceptions of her. In contrast to Katniss, Finnick is a strong, handsome character with deep sensitivity like Peeta. He is presented in a way that is unlike other male characters: for example, he is a prostitute for the Capitol, an unusual storyline for a male. His love story is also set in opposition to Katniss and Peeta’s: while the starcrossed lovers’ story is filled with artifice, Finnick and Annie’s enduring love is rewarded with a wedding free of Capitol contrivance. While the majority of love and marriage stories focus on the bride, Finnick is front and centre. Meanwhile his wife-to-be is shown as a highly vulnerable, very feminine character, as sweet and helpless as Prim was at the beginning of The Hunger Games. Despite having won the Games herself, Annie is ruined by the experience and her mentor Mags, like Katniss, volunteers in Annie’s place.
Katniss is also wary of being portrayed as physically feminine, and much of this is tied up in the performative aspect of the Hunger Games, from being selected to how she thinks she’ll be portrayed on-screen in the Arena. For example, she keeps herself from crying at the Reaping so as not to appear as an easy target. During her Capitol makeover, she describes the action as though it is happening outside of herself, like she is not an active agent in the beautification of her face and body. During the Hunger Games interview process she demonstrates a flourish of femininity, as mentioned above, but it does not last. This interplay between her mental and physically masculine traits comes to a head at the end of this process: when Peeta announces his love for her, she argues that he has made her look weak; Haymitch counters that Peeta made her desirable. These moments, much as she hates them, allow Katniss to draw power from her feminine traits and are most instrumental in her growth as a character.
As Collins and the film-makers are breaking the binds of traditional gender roles, Katniss also takes on roles beyond her gender which she must learn to navigate. These go beyond the Capitol’s punishment in all its forms (poverty, imprisonment, compulsory fights to the death, and even physical beautification), and into the murky arena of identity. A.O. Scott places Katniss’ many identities both in terms of the story and the larger cultural context thus:
as she sprints through the forest, Katniss is carrying the burden of multiple symbolic identities. She’s an athlete, a media celebrity and a warrior as well as a sister, a daughter, a loyal friend and (potential) girlfriend. In genre terms she is a western hero, an action hero, a romantic heroine and a tween idol [...] and also the synthesis of Harry Potter and Bella Swan – the Boy Who Lived and the Girl Who Must Choose. Ms. Collins’s novels are able to fuse all of these meanings into a credible character embedded in an exciting and complex story.
Believing in Katniss is a major element in the story; it’s what makes us empathize and root for Panem at large. In "Will the Real Katniss Everdeen Please Stand Up?" Victor’s Village contributor Satsuma also addresses the issue of Katniss’s identity – or, rather, identities, all of which she must embody to ignite the fight against the Capitol:
And much like the overall story offers different things to different people, so does its heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Marshall Bruce Mathers III created not just one persona, "Eminem", but also the "Slim Shady" persona as a spinoff of that. Well, Katniss, along the course of the story, also acquires several different personas. The Girl on Fire. The Star-Crossed Lover. The Mockingjay.
Before the Games, Katniss’s life relied on activities directly correlating with subsistence: hunting, trading, taking care of Prim, and so on. Not only is her day-to-day life redefined by action, but personas and identities are bestowed upon her. The Girl on Fire and the Star-Crossed Lover from District 12 go hand-in-hand, but are also opposing identities. When she behaves in the mould of one identity at the expense of another, it creates opportunities for ridicule, making her life a constant compromise between personas and identities. This includes fluctuations in the distribution of her masculine and feminine characteristics, the reactions to which are not limited to the storyworld, but also take place in the public discourse.
Katniss is certainly a character who reaches beyond this faux feminist, "strong female character" Hollywood fad. Her masculine traits are not simply active and violent, they are coping mechanisms, instincts to protect and survive. When she breaks emotionally, it is not with irrationality or loss of control, but with empathy, believability and grace. It is without sexualization, with flaws and with multifaceted gendered traits that Katniss becomes the "strong female character" who stands out against Hollywood’s army of female action characters which fail to empower. She is The Girl on Fire, the Mockingjay, and the leader of a revolution.