With the advent (and subsequent global takeover) of the Twilight Saga and Team Edward/Jacob – I feel like we were left longing for a time when Team BELLA might have meant something. Or, maybe we were longing for a Bella that merited having a team to begin with….I don’t know. But, the extreme popularity of Bella and every terrible stereotype she represents (as well as shows like 16 and Pregnant) have made my desire to find a worthy role model for teenage girls & young women that much stronger.
So, when I heard about The Hunger Games Trilogy & its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, I was excited….and also a little cautious & skeptical. I finished all three books in 10 days. Moving through each chapter, getting more attached to the characters, I kept expecting some egregious misstep by author Suzanne Collins. The more I appreciated her obvious attempts to create such a worthy role model as I sought – I just kept expecting the whole thing to result in disappointment. Well, much to my utter delight, surprise, relief & joy – that moment never came.
In Katniss, Collins created a young heroine who truly deserves the respect and adoration that – up ‘til now – has been given to the likes of Twilight’s Bella. Katniss is a 17 year-old girl living in a place called District 12 (a dead ringer for the poverty stricken Appalachian region of the U.S.), a division of Panem, the remnants of the United States post global warming & civil war and about a hundred years after the latter. Without giving away too much of the story – The Capitol (which is at once a metaphor for a dystopian United States, its excesses and imperialism) has created The Hunger Games to keep the Districts (an obvious metaphor for the developing world, as well as working class America) in check after an uprising 74 years earlier. For the Hunger Games, The Capitol chooses two “tributes”, who are children between the ages of 12 and 18, from each one of the Districts, they lock them in an arena, and have them fight to the death. The one left alive is the victor. Obviously, you can assume Katniss becomes one of the tributes from District 12.
Collins’ portrayal of Katniss is that of a strong, capable young woman-hunter who is left to provide for her mother and little sister after her father passes away. Collins allows her this strength & will without the cliché of her also being emotionally distant and/or a bitch. Katniss is simultaneously self-effacing, humble and amazingly confidant. She is wise and capable of making her own decisions (and always does – unlike Bella), but also faces doubt and is sometimes haunted by the consequences of her decisions. Katniss refuses to marry or have children in a world where they are certain to face the ominous threat of The Capitol and the Hunger Games. She is the most holistic, responsible and deserving role model the media has created in recent memory.
Collins consistently presented genuinely diverse representations of gender. Aside from Katniss herself, Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow tribute and potential love interest, does not fall inside of normative gender stereotypes. He is a baker’s son who enjoys frosting cakes, making cookies and painting. He is portrayed as often in need of Katniss’ protection and does not bear her ability to hunt and shoot. He is perpetually the voice of peace and reason in the midst of war and chaos. But, he has his own strengths; Collins is careful to present diversity without just reversing the expected male/female gender roles. Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, who at one point she openly admits having had preconceived notions of flamboyance and ostentation about, is the same. Cinna is a talented mid-to-late twenties, heterosexual fashion designer who dresses casually, takes pride in his work, and creates masterpieces.
Collins also openly questions the value of social beauty norms and plastic surgery throughout all three books (the first two especially). Taking Katniss from District 12 in preparation for the Games she is tweezed, waxed, plucked, tanned, tarred and feathered all the while wondering why the people of The Capitol take such foreign and painful measures to ensure the look of youth when youthful is the farthest thing from what they actually look. Collins presents Katniss’ perspective as that of an outsider making the ways in which we “beautify” ourselves seem even more arbitrary and arcane.
Like the Twilight Saga – there is a love triangle. Unlike Twilight, that love story is not the heartbeat of the story. Katniss is often too busy living her own life (and trying to stay alive) to worry about who is pursuing her….romantically, anyway. But, again, Collins lets us see the real human dichotomy in that Katniss is aware of their love for her, but not irresponsible with the power that gives her; the way in which Collins has Katniss deal with her potential lovers is something to be applauded. She weaves a love that is slow burning and earned, never rash and disposable; she builds a union that has a foundation built on love, experience and mutual respect – not just on the flighty whims of a teenager who wants to be a vampire.
In addition to being successful within my own feminist paradigm (I’m sure there are those who will disagree), politically Collins presents her points of view with grace and ease. She builds her story on the often slow realization that our own personal history is entwined with political decisions and individuals in positions of power. The Personal is Political. Katniss’ decisions promote the struggle for ideal democracy and we see the transformative force that one, simple act of rebellion can be on society as a whole. When rebellion births war – we are privy to the side effects of the media’s portrayal of (and sometimes fabrication of) events inside of the battle. Throughout the story Collins ponders the merit of a life lead without struggle. She manages to weave in Buddhist philosophy and makes it seem so naturally a part of her story. She also presents the very basic existential dilemma each member of society is faced with in a time of war: participate (if only complicitly by way of tacit approval), leave, or commit suicide. The latter is presented as a valid and preferable option on a few occasions.
With the Twilight Saga coming to a close, Hollywood is hungry (no pun intended) for the next teen, moneymaking machine phenomenon. The Hunger Games is presently in the process of being cast to be made into a series of movies. Let’s hope that they are able to leave the integrity of Collins’ story intact and that Katniss isn’t just turned into another Bella-for-the-Masses.