Girls on Film: ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Twilight’ & Teen Heroines

Girls on Film: ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Twilight’ & Teen Heroines

Nov 17, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Katniss in Hunger Games

WARNING: the following contains some vague, spoilery references for both series. You won’t learn details, but you will learn overall arcs, vague references to happy endings, etc.

Long ago, on another site, I dared to note the similarities between Bella Swan and Buffy Summers. Naturally, this angered a number of fellow BtVS fiends. If the vampire slayer fandom was regulated, I would have lost my member card – no matter how many times I immersed myself in the world of Sunnydale, wrote papers about the show’s social implications, or bought memorabilia. I had dared to find the links between the biggest media heroine of our time and the most maligned.

I’m about to do it again, this time linking one Ms. Katniss Everdeen (who is poised to be one hell of a feminist icon and heroine) with one Ms. Bella Swan. But this time I want to add a little more context and question our ever-rampant habit of condemning human weakness and embracing the larger-than-life superhero, especially when it comes to the tumultuous world of teenagers.

Superficially, Bella and Katniss couldn’t seem more different. The Twilight Saga is romance and lust told through a blank slate – a heroine who is so vaguely defined that readers can slip into her persona. As such, Bella’s attributes (maturity, determination, intelligence, inherent genetic specialties) are deafened by the “*purr* *drool* Edward’s so hot” storyline. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, follows the journey of one particularly fierce young woman as she struggles to survive an oppressively sinister regime. The narrative is defined by her violent and determined ways, her impressive hunting skills, and her larger-than-life charisma.

Bella and James in TwilightPeel away any differences in the literary craft, however, and the starkly different environments, and the lines between Bella and Katniss begin to blur. Both girls continually put their loved ones before their own well-being. Bella would offer herself up as vampire food to save her mother, her love, her friends; Katniss offers to kill other kids to spare her sister, to give up her life for others. Both handle their uniqueness awkwardly, if not outright badly. They cannot recognize or accept their own obvious charisma, whether it’s Bella attracting every boy at school, or Katniss stealing the hearts not only of her two potential suitors, but also Panem. They both react with strong emotion and gut instincts, consequences be damned. They take unnecessary risks that could easily jeopardize their safety… (The list goes on.)

In their outer worlds, both are unwilling participants in a bigger picture. Bella is a normal schoolgirl pulled into danger repeatedly, practically magnetically. Katniss is a teen first pulled into a deadly game, and then manipulated by the governmental powers who want to take advantage of her charismatic edge. Their lives are dictated by others – bad and good vampires, werewolves, dictators, handlers, or even friends. Both are women whose personal world is dominated by men – once-absent or now-absent fathers, aggressive male best friends, male mentors, and lawmakers. They are facing deadly foes while filled with normal adolescent angst. They have emotional breakdowns (even if one is a lot longer than the other’s) and need to be re-jolted into action. They’re wary of bling, preferring to wear comfortable pants and shirts, yet they can’t help but be awed of fashion and beauty, and can’t recognize their own beauty. Both are prone to shortsightedness and complaints that fail to see the bigger picture.

There are more, yet we – as a critical public – cannot seem to allow them to be said, to add a touch of grey to a black and white dichotomy. Buffy and Katniss are lathered in absolutes whether they fit or not, and Bella is layered in condemnations that often fail to embrace the entire picture. We see critics wonder “what had happened to the Buffys of the world – the kind of girl who wouldn't flinch at stabbing her vampire boyfriend through the heart if he got out of line.” Buffy’s obvious power erases the fact that she did, in fact, spend a lot of time flinching at the thought of hurting Angel, or even Spike. She continually risked the lives of her friends for her passions. We see many commentaries that “Bella’s only distinguishing trait is her clumsiness,” but it’s just as easy to spot her love of reading, her studiousness, or her desire to care for her loved ones. We bash Bella, though she is a young woman who manages to find a distinct sense of agency over the course of the books, evolving from extremely weak to extremely strong, while praising Katniss, who ultimately embraces a softer, more passive, and almost ignorant role, distinctly retreating from her quest for public honesty.

What Stephenie Meyer wonderfully succeeds at, in spite of her very recognizable weaknesses (like how much more powerful Bella would seem if the whole tale removed half of the “Edward is perfect” montages) – is her determination to not make Bella a perfect, untouchable heroine. The faulty writing, the obsession with Edward, the snarky inner comments about fellow classmates, and the book-long depression are relatable. Teens, on the whole, are not super-snappy, super-charismatic heroes. Those kids are a product of the viewers who want to watch idealized people, as well as the older, more mature writer’s own educated motivations. The Easy A/Gilmore Girls easy banter isn’t reality; it’s fantasy in a real-world setting. Reading The Twilight Saga is like revisiting your old diaries rife with catty rants and condemnations, emotional explosions and angst, where what was once live-or-die is now embarrassingly hormonal. Bella is an unencumbered look into an adolescent mind that’s not over-polished.

Charlie and Bella in New MoonI read New Moon and remember the real teen during my youth who killed himself over his grades, and the other who committed suicide after romantic strife, and I think that Bella handled Edward’s absence pretty damn well. Her depression stemmed from being alone and lonely most of her life, moving to a place she hated out of a feeling of guilt, falling deeply in love with a too-good-to-be-true boy who loved her back and saved her life multiple times, who cared so much for her that he broke vampire rules to be with her, and then getting dumped. She doesn’t kill herself, though kids have for much less. She might be a shell of her former self, but she still goes to school and studies. She goes through the motions until her adrenaline-chase starts to heal her.

Do we hate Bella for the reality we don’t want to admit? There is, indeed, an importance in setting an example and showing a better, healthier adolescent life, but is it necessary to impose it on every creation? Must we abolish the darker part of youth completely? I would argue that it’s dangerous to ignore the darker impulses of teens, and rather than universally bashing Twi-hards, more critics should investigate the why behind the depths of this fandom. The Twilight Saga says a lot more about the desires and holes in a real-life populace than about Meyer’s talent or lack thereof – such as the suffocating desire for perfect, passionate love, for a supportive family free of death and divorce.  

In this piece, Joy DeLyria gets rightfully snarky with the series, but she also notes: “Art is the expression of our inmost psyche, our deeply-rooted desires, our secret yearnings which would otherwise be impossible to express.” Bella is, first and foremost, true to her feelings rather than how they’re perceived by others. She’s a reminder of the black-or-white dangers in adolescence, the folly of youth.

As Sarah Blackwood describes it, Bella “is a much more honest (though cringe-inducing) representation of adolescence. She doesn't know who she is or what she wants. She's clumsy, obtuse, and aggravating in her helplessness. … This is an uncomfortable place for feminists, because this heroine is not particularly good at actualizing herself. Bella waits, she wallows, she thinks, and feels, and worries, and wonders. She does not actualize in the sense we have come to expect from our heroines, an expectation that, I might point out, is quite often based on a masculinist understanding of what being effective in the world looks like.”

We clutch at the tough, dangerous heroines like Katniss because they offer an alternative to the bubbly romcoms and typically one-dimensional female characterizations. But it’s become too much of a black and white dichotomy that refuses the deeply flawed and all-too-human lead for the emotionally shut-off heroine who kills, and refuses to recognize any similarities in the two. I often hate to talk in terms of masculinity and femininity, but Blackwood is right that we tend to equate effectiveness with attributes that have been traditionally coded as male. I won’t go so far as to say Bella’s foibles are coded as traditionally female – they’re not. (As I noted above with my own memories – the most distinct weaknesses I see in Bella remind me of boys from the past, not girls.) But romance certainly is.

Katniss and Effie in Hunger Games

Katniss is one of the most interesting heroines I’ve come across in a long time – a tough-as-nails woman who survives unthinkable horrors and delightfully isn’t defined by a sexualized male eye – but it’s still at a price. The Hunger Games is a trilogy that completely destroys its heroine in every way, giving her a qualified and happy ending, a bit rushed, incomplete, and without the evolution of self you’d hope for. She’s always, eternally, emotionally distant and damaged. Strong and powerful, but never with full agency – over her body, home, or public image.

In other words, there are dangers with any heroic character – problematic points, inspiring aspects, and hard-to-face truths. I don't particularly love Bella, but I can appreciate her purpose. Each heroine has their place, and quite often, they will have very distinct similarities. One day, maybe there won’t be such a deep line in the sand. But for now, we can at least recognize the value in two very opposite, and very similar, portrayals. Going back to Blackwood’s essay:

“The really interesting conversations start to happen when we stop circling the wagons against ‘bad example’  and ‘passivity’ and start exploring not only what we want our heroines to be like, but why.”

Interesting alternative read on Bella v. Katniss

Also be sure to check out Noah Berlatsky's comments on the pair here and another piece where he dares to find similarities between Bella and Andrea Dworkin.

Categories: Features
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