In Katniss of ‘Hunger Games,’ a lasting heroine

March 22, 2012

Katniss Everdeen, hunter-hero, sinewy hope onto which the nation can Pinterest its hopes for modern girlhood, arrives in theaters Friday.

Those who have followed the success of Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy know that the character has been subjected to mass inspection and dissection. As an impoverished region’s representative to a state-sanctioned death match, Katniss is Robin Hood meets Ellen Ripley, a literal and metaphorical straight shooter who protects the weak, outsmarts the wicked, kills when she has to.

There’s a love interest, sort of, but he’s a delicate flower. Peeta bakes, paints, talks about feelings and languishes in a cave while Katniss storms off to find him lifesaving medicine. She’s not typically feminine even under expanded definitions of what that useless word means.

All of these traits have led critics, thinkers, mothers, to declare Katniss a new breed of heroine and a new kind of role model.

Pish.

She’s exactly the kind of role model whom reading girls have loved for years.

More than 30 years before Katniss, a Yupik teen was fighting for her arctic survival in “Julie of the Wolves,” conquering the tundra rather than submitting to a bad marriage. More than 40 years before Katniss, Karana alone defended the “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” making spears, slaying packs of wild dogs.

“Here you have a strong, macho type,” Jan Susina, a professor who teaches young adult literature at Illinois State University, said of the Katniss phenomenon. “It’s quite the interesting gender reversal.”

But then, Susina said, just look at Katniss’s great-grandmothers. Was there no Katniss in Jo March, rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal and deciding to become a writer in New York instead (“Little Women,” 1868)? Was there no Katniss in Avonlea as orphaned Anne Shirley insisted she could be every bit as good as the boy her foster parents had expected (“Anne of Green Gables,” 1908)?

It’s an interesting facet of either literature or psychology that classic boy heroes (the Hardy Boys and those in “Treasure Island”) are esteemed for behaving in classic “boy” ways — swashbuckling, gallivanting, adventuring — but that classic girl heroines are esteemed for bucking the traditional entrapments of their gender.

Well-behaved women rarely make history, and it turns out that they rarely make recommended-reading lists, either.

Sure, they existed. When the modern young adult genre first emerged around World War II, many of the books for girls were chaste romances. First kiss. First drink. “Sue Barton: Student Nurse.” One of the most popular authors, Rosamond du Jardin, wrote domestic, devourable novels that rarely contained more drama than whether or not Marcy would go with Steve to the prom — and this was just a few years before the release of “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

“There hasn’t ever been one way that female characters were depicted,” said Suzanne Keen, a professor of English at Washington and Lee University who has studied young adult fiction. The job of fiction hasn’t necessarily been to prescribe how girls should be, but to illustrate how they could be, and they could be a lot of different things.

But has anybody born after 1960 read much Rosamond du Jardin?

It is not that Katniss is new. It is that her champions hope that she will be a post-vampire palate cleanser to another heroine: Will Katniss solve the Bella Problem?

For five years, the nation has been grappling with it: the obsession surrounding a fictional character whose primary physical attributes are her weakness and clumsiness, whose primary emotional attribute is her devotion to a brooding, 109-year-old undead being. “Twilight’s” defenders will point out that Bella Swan’s actions are the definition of feminism: It is her choice to get teen-married, skip college, have a baby. But whatever you think of Stephenie Meyer’s series, it’s hard to deny that the most pervasive representation of a teenage girl in recent years has been one who faints at the sight of blood.

Katniss’s well-intentioned defenders seem intent on their heroine stamping out all memories of this swoony, moony vampire groupie. Right now, she must take her bow and arrow and shoot Bella straight through her simpering heart.

The real question, though, isn’t whether Katniss could crush Bella in hand-to-hand combat, in bestseller rankings, in box office receipts. There’s room for both of them, filling different roles, triggering different pleasure centers. The real question is which one of them will be on the bookshelves of the future. Not who wins. Who is remembered.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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