Strong Female Characters: Katniss Everdeen

For those of you that don’t know, Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series. Set in a dystopian future, the books deal with Katniss’s involvement in a series of tournaments where children are forced to fight to the death and nobody really objects to it until the last book. Phenomenally successful, the books have been made into a series of films, and crucially, Katniss has been hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

This question is actually a lot harder to answer than I thought it would be. In the first book, she takes her sister’s place in the Hunger Games, but she is constantly being controlled by the Game-makers. This carries over into the second and third books, where she is being manipulated by both the Capitol and the leaders of District 13. Katniss makes very few decisions that she can really call her own; for the majority of the series, she has been manipulated into making decisions that other characters want her to make.

However, I’m prepared to give her a pass on this one. Given that she’s living in a dystopian state, there’s no way she could challenge the Capitol on her own without getting shot, and for most of the books she’s aware that she is being manipulated, and goes along with it to protect the people she cares about.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Katniss doesn’t have many outside interests. Sure, she spends a lot of her time hunting, fishing and setting traps, but if she doesn’t do that the people she cares about will literally starve. Her lack of interests is really noticeable when she is forced to showcase a hobby to the Capitol: she fakes it rather than try and find something she’s genuinely interested in.

Equally, a lot of Katniss’s goals and beliefs are also more influenced by her situation than her personality. She wants to keep her family from starving, she wants to protect her younger sister, she wants to go back home to her family – but these are by no means unique to her character. Katniss rarely sees beyond her immediate situation, and even before she is dragged into the Games, she has no goals of her own beyond survival. While this could be a product of her hand-to-mouth existence, I don’t think this is the case: poverty doesn’t prevent people from having their own goals, beliefs and interests.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

oh my god she's going to kill me
She’s going to kill me (image: tumblr.com)

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

On the whole, Katniss is a pretty consistent character. She wants the same things all throughout the novels: to keep the people she cares about safe. From the very first page, she’s established as being a very good hunter, and her tracking, archery and general survival skills stay develop at a steady pace right throughout the novels. Crucially, she doesn’t forget how to use a bow and arrow so she can be conveniently saved by a love interest, so that’s another point for Katniss.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A smart, capable survivor determined to fight back against an oppressive government and keep her family safe.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

This is another slightly tricky question, because Katniss’s love life is pretty much what guarantees her survival in the first Hunger Games. She fakes a relationship with Peeta to win over her audience, but soon she starts to think that she might actually be developing feelings for him. To top it all off, she might also have feelings for her childhood friend, Gale, forcing her into a spectacularly uncertain love triangle that she spends most of the series agonising over. This is only complicated by the fact that in the movies, Gale is played by Liam Hemsworth.

Exhibit A.
Exhibit A. (image: pinterest.com)

However, while she does spend a fair amount of time dithering over boys, the majority of her decisions do not take her love life into account. When Gale asks her to run away with him she turns him down, afraid of what might happen to her family. When she fakes her relationship with Peeta, she’s doing it because she knows it’ll get her donations from sponsors, making her chances of getting back home that much better. Most of Katniss’s decisions are motivated by survival, and while this can get a little problematic, this does mean that she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Katniss does grow and develop throughout the series. The most basic elements of her character remain constant – she’s a survivor right up until the final page – but other parts of her personality do change throughout the novels. After her ordeal in the Games, she becomes more emotionally closed-off and develops PTSD – a very realistic character development for someone in her situation. She also becomes stronger and gains a better understanding of her mother, leading to a better relationship between them.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Katniss has a few major weaknesses, all of which contribute to making her a realistic, well-rounded character. She can’t deal with injuries; they make her feel sick. She can be very rash, making snap decisions that don’t always work out for her and her allies. She pushes people away more than once, and often expects them to act like nothing has happened, making her personal relationships very difficult. These are realistic, well-written and consistent weaknesses that she has to deal with throughout all three novels, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. Does she influence the plot (without getting captured or killed)?

I touched on this one earlier, but now I’m going to go into a little bit more detail, so get your analysis hats on.

sherlockdeerstalker2
Its just for the hat, I promise (image: BBC)

Katniss’s actions definitely influence the plot, but those actions are in turn influenced by her situation. She volunteers to save her sister from the arena and does her best to survive, but she’s constantly aware that she has to keep playing within the Capitol’s boundaries. Her actions are therefore dictated by the Capitol whether she wants them to be or not, and this is continued when she moves to District 13. The only times she really challenges this is when she threatens the Capitol to commit suicide at the end of the first book, and when she assassinates Alma Coin at the end of the third. However, these actions are undermined by the way that the other characters treat them: in both cases, her actions are dismissed on the grounds that she was mentally unstable when she committed them. This really undermines Katniss’s own agency. When she spends so much of the novel being manipulated by other characters, are her decisions really her own?

This is a really complex situation that brings up all sorts of interesting questions about the nature of free will (which is a real testament to Suzanne Collins’ writing), and I could happily spend all day talking about this, but then I wouldn’t get anything done. With that in mind, I’m going to award Katniss a half-point for her moments of rebellion and get back to avoiding my enormous pile of laundry.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Katniss smashes stereotypes about women into tiny little pieces, and it makes me so happy. She’s a teenage girl who’s uninterested in fashion, the main breadwinner for her family, and an active political player – a far cry from the traditional roles for women. She’s utterly her own person, and that is wonderful.

However, this does fall down in the epilogue, where she is married to Peeta and has two children. Throughout most of the novels, Katniss has been adamant that she does not want children, as she worries that they will be put through the same ordeal as her. She’s expressed no interest in leading a traditional family life, and has spent most of the series openly rebelling against the Capitol’s plan to force her to do so. It’s not that unreasonable to suppose that after the Hunger Games were abolished Katniss’s beliefs changed, but it would have been nice to actually see some of this development as opposed to simply being told that’s what happened.

That being said, the Hunger Games epilogue is less than 400 words long, so the point goes to Katniss.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Katniss has many different kinds of relationships with many different female characters, which is part of what makes her such an interesting character. She has a very protective attitude to her younger sister and Rue, a wary and suspicious attitude to Alma Coin, and a very rich and complex relationship with her mother, who she loves, resents, and eventually comes to understand.

You don’t always get a wide range of female characters in dystopian fiction. If there’s only one significant character representing half the Earth’s population, all sorts of attitudes about what it means to be a woman can get projected onto them. Crucially, this does not happen in The Hunger Games. Because there is such a wide range of female characters, no-one among them is asked to represent their entire gender, and the characters are that much richer for it.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Katniss Everdeen is a well-rounded character that develops over the course of her own story. While she lacks agency, she has depth, strengths and weaknesses. She is not solely motivated by her love life, nor is her character built from lego-brick stereotypes about women or teenage girls. All in all, she’s a great character, and she’s certainly passed my test.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the world of Harry Potter. Hermione Granger, I’m coming for you.

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The Problem with Strong Female Characters

It seems like I can’t go two steps without tripping over an ad for the latest instalment of The Hunger Games movie franchise. Granted, this may be because I still haven’t mastered the ability to avoid tripping over my own feet, but the point still stands. The Hunger Games is everywhere, and Jennifer Lawrence – playing the famously strong-willed heroine, Katniss Everdeen – scowls out from every poster with a determined look on her face.

Katniss's SRS BSNS face.
SRS BSNS. (image: screencrush.com)

This got me thinking. Since the book’s release, Katniss Everdeen has been widely acknowledged as a Strong Female Character. When critics point to examples of her strength, most of the evidence they present is based around the scenes that show Katniss kicking ass and taking names in the arena. This is by no means a trend that is limited to The Hunger Games – more often than not, the characters praised for being Strong Female Characters are the ones who can grind their enemies into paste.

But does this actually make them strong?

We live in a world where feminism is becoming more and more acceptable, and where writers, directors and artists are making more of a conscious effort to include women in their narratives. The easiest way to do this is to put a token woman in a team of male heroes – I’m looking at you, Avengers – and to make her really good at fighting.

This is not characterisation. We need more well-developed, realistic female characters in fiction, and martial arts skills are not a substitute for a personality.

So how many women in fiction are well-developed, well-rounded characters, and how many just have a really good right hook where their personality should be?

Well, I’m going to find out.

I’m going to be starting a weekly series of blog posts where I look at popular female characters in fiction and determine whether they’re really as developed and well-rounded as everyone says they are. To help with my analysis, I’ll be subjecting each character to the following questions:

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
  2. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
  3. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
  4. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
  5. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
  6. Does she develop over the course of the story?
  7. Does she have a weakness?
  8. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
  9. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
  10. How does she relate to other female characters?

If they get more than eight out of ten, they’ll have passed my test. If they don’t, I’m going to sit in the corner and cry.

Let’s get started. Katniss Everdeen, I’m coming for you.