Katniss Everdeen, Female Action Heroes, and the American Tradition

I’m still annoyed at Manohla Dargis for thinking that Jennifer Lawrence isn’t starved-enough to play Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, but her conversation with A.O. Scott about where Katniss fits in both the American literary tradition and in the world of female action heroes is excellent. And I want to zero in on her observation here:

By suggesting that Katniss occupied feminine and masculine positions (and is therefore not locked into either), I was inching toward the idea that gender absolutes are less confusing than inapt. 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.

Katniss does evoke the American Adam, and she charts her own course. She’s a rugged individualist who picked herself up by her fashionable bootstraps, but at the same time she’s rooted to her home and to her friend Gale, who gives her companionship, and to her sister, Prim, who gives her love and a reason to live. And while the Hunger Games register as the ultimate social Darwinian nightmare, Katniss triumphs by changing the rules and by forming bonds with other tributes, specifically Rue and Peeta. Last, Rue (who’s played by a biracial actress in the film and is described in the book as having “satiny brown skin”) may narratively function somewhat like Leatherstocking’s Indian companions, yet she is far from the clichéd “noble savage” type.

I found the way the movie handled Rue’s death extremely striking. Rue is speared, Katniss shoots and kills Rue’s attacker, she puts Rue to rest in a striking act of political symbolism — and then she cries, hard, in a way that involves her entire body. The scene was striking because it’s so contrary to the way we’ve tended to frame female action heroines in recent years. They handle acts of violence calmly. The depictions balance out the theoretically masculine skill of competently executing violence is not to make female characters feel the cost of that violence, but by emphasizing that their sexual desirability isn’t compromised by that competence. Black Widow can wear a corset and be tied to a chair and still wreck a bunch of men. The ability to defend themselves or their country doesn’t render men obsolete for these heroines — in fact, it’s violence that heats up the dulled sex lives of the characters in Mr. & Mrs. Smith.


By contrast, the feminine attributes that Katniss is given in addition to her ability to kill, be it animals or people, belong to her. She may be a skilled hunter, but she feels the weight of her murders, which is what they are, no matter how justified. Like Hermione Granger, who does her hair for the Yule Ball and then goes back to her normal routine on the ground that it’s too much trouble afterwards, The Hunger Games is acutely aware of the work that goes into conventional female beauty. Katniss’s appearance is a construction, the work of a stylist and a a prep team, and one she has a complicated and ambivalent relationship with. Unlike many makeover narratives, which are actually about the moral improvement of men who realize they have overlooked women with physical and intellectual value, neither Peeta nor Gale is transformed by the revelation of a stylized Katniss.

And I wonder if that positioning is why, as A.O. Scott puts it, The Hunger Games has upended the accepted wisdom that: “It’s generally assumed that girls can aspire to be like Harry Potter or Spider-Man, or can at least embrace their adventures without undermining their own femininity. But at least within marketing divisions of the culture industry, it is an article of faith that boys won’t pretend to be princesses.” If a character is set up to specifically be not you, and if that character is offered up for your approval and consumption, for the reassurance of your fears and anxieties about what happens when women are empowered, it’s much harder to identify with them than it is to watch a character and wonder what you would do in their situation.