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 kick ass.
When I first told my friends I was doing this column for Lip, I asked for suggestions of female film characters who 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 she 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 of people – primarily young adults – 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 is so unique and remarkable is that Collins chose to tell the story from the perspective of a regular teenage girl. Katniss is dealing with an extraordinary set of circumstances, yet The Hunger Games still maintains a certain authenticity, creating something that is somehow relatable and familiar. It also tackles huge, real-life global issues like class warfare, over-population, poverty and totalitarianism.
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 during an undetermined dystopian future in a would-be North American nation called Panem, The Hunger Games questions both morality and ethics of the human race. 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 are 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 the form of not just tributes from other Districts, but from her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who professes his love for her 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; I would say she is a so-called “complex” character, although I hate using that term. She’s multi-dimensional; possessing vulnerability and strength, intelligence and doubt, braveness and fear. In other words, she is a human being; a whole and complete person.
Unlike last month’s Kickass Feminist On Film, Beatrix Kiddo, Katniss is not motivated by revenge, nor does she derive any joy from killing her fellow tributes. Her skill with bow and arrow is not something she developed for use in the arena, but an ability she uses to survive in the real world to feed her family. It is a strength to have the bow and arrow in order to defend herself and her allies, but she never exploits her power.
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.
But this does not 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. But rather than having them rule and control her, she teams up with both of them in order to secure survival and safety. Her partnership 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. Towards the end of The Hunger Games, Katniss takes on the role of caregiver and protector of Peeta when he is injured, simultaneously assuming the stereotypical female and male gender roles in the relationship.
Katniss and Gale’s relationship 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 Hunger Games, she asks Gale to protect her family for her, fulfilling the traditional “male protector” role that Katniss had previously assumed in her family.
Much like a realistic teenage girl, Katniss is undecided as to what choice she should make. She feels guilty for being so mixed up in her emotions and 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.
One can see why this love triangle could be problematic in a feminist reading of the film, but this within itself is one of the major reasons why Katniss Everdeen is so clearly a feminist heroine. She’s a human being who has complex emotions, clear doubts about herself and fears about the future. 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.
The Hunger Games and 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. If we consider this popularity to be equated to love and admiration for the films, then this love the world has shown for The Hunger Games is incredibly important to feminism. Blockbusters don’t usually focus on the women in their films, but rather use them as sexual ploys or minor supporting characters. But society finally has a film series driven by a strong, empowering female character. Katniss Everdeen is just the archetype of a feminist character that we need right now and we should all praise “the girl on fire” for changing the world.
WARNING Catching Fire spoilers and violence in video:
This piece was written for and published on Lip Mag