Why the most feminist heroine in YA literature is also the most feminine of all.
All quotes are taken from The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. None of these characters belong to me.
A look at mainstream media will reveal that Katniss Everdeen, protagonist of The Hunger Games trilogy is considered a bad-ass. With her grit, stark realism and unwavering aim with a bow and arrow, she is more Hawkeye than Cora Munro. In fact, an entire article can be dedicated to how she best represents the Romantic ideal. However, my interest here is in the way this now-iconic feminist figure is actually a triumph of the female archetype and a transformation of the heroic idea.
Traditional heroic narratives show an ordinary, even disadvantaged male forced, often against his will, to undertake a journey that compels him to act in heroic ways. This type of hero has invariably been male, motivated by a quest, ambition or power. All of these are considered to be male values. By definition, then, women have been left out of the quest narrative because the values represented by women in literature call to mind the image of Penelope, waiting patiently, attempting to maintain the integrity of her family in the face of an extended absence from a husband who himself has gone a-questing, believed by all to be dead. Her fidelity, love for home and preservation of her ideals are seen as noble, admirable but never heroic in the way the exploits of her husband, Odysseus are elevated. Dante does not put Penelope in the center of Hell as he does Odysseus (perhaps one of the greatest backhanded compliments in all of Western Literature!). This is because her values belong firmly in the realm traditionally reserved for women: love of family, protection of the weak and self-sacrifice.
How can anyone place Katniss in the company of such female ideals? And how does she subvert the heroic ideal to not only embody the male virtues of heroism but also preserve the traditional feminine? Let's take a look:
Love of Family:
Katniss demonstrates the feminine ideal of love of family throughout the three novels. When her mother descends into depression, Katniss takes on the role of provider to make sure her family does not starve to death and though she is resentful of her mother, this does not deter her from taking material care of her also. It is true that in Mockingjay, Katniss develops a political sensibility, as can be seen in the speech she gives at the Nut. However, from the very beginning of the trilogy, we understand that all of Katniss' actions, from hunting to feed her family to volunteering as tribute in the 74th Annual Hunger Games are motivated primarily by her desire to care and protect her family. She vows to her sister that she will win for her. Her desire to protect her family continues when she agrees to cooperate with Snow to cool the fires of rebellion that have stirred in the districts. She steps in front of the Peacekeeper's whip when Gale is being flogged in an attempt to save her best friend, incurring a terrible blow to her face. When her attempts to protect her sister Prim fail, she begins her descent into depression. This desire to protect the family at all cost is usually identified as a female concern.
Care and protection of the weak
Katniss consistently takes on the role of protector of the weak. In the arena, she takes Rue under her wing in a move that would significantly reduce her advantage as Rue does not have the skills necessary to fend off a Career and is barely able to feed herself. Rue reminds her of her sister and triggers maternal, protective instincts that lead her to ally herself with the small tribute from District 11. When this tribute tragically dies, she pays homage to her as an individual by singing to her in her last moments of life and covering her in flowers. The three fingered salute she pays to District 11 is not an act of political power and vainglory, but an acknowledgement that Rue had been loved by her, that her life mattered.
Katniss continues to be drawn to those she perceives as weaker than her, attempting whenever possible to protect them from harm. This is true in the case of Bonnie and Twill, Wiress, her own mother, Prim and at times, Peeta himself. Though Katniss suspects Peeta's motives throughout the arena, even as far as to consider killing him, when the rules of the Games are changed to allow two Victors from the same district, she proceeds to nurse him back to health at considerable risk to herself. She discovers her former prep team in captivity in District 13 and moves to free them, remarking that they are "like children…" and even observes that Coin's definition of "frail and infirm" varies significantly from hers. The final act of assassinating Snow is an act of intense protection for the future children of Panem by ensuring that the Hunger Games would not take place again.
The act that sets off the shattering events of the rest of the trilogy, the near double suicide by poisoning of Katniss and Peeta is also an act, not of rebellion as Snow misinterprets, but another example of her acting on behalf of what is good. It can be argued whether Katniss loves Peeta at this point – but it is moot to our discussion. That she is willing to risk death in exchange for committing cold-blooded murder to eliminate the last competitor that would have ensured her certain Victory is another example of her willingness to sacrifice herself in the preservation of her ideals, though it is not a purely idealistic act but a calculated risk-taking. Achilles would not have hesitated to send poor Peeta into the afterlife to reserve the glory of victory for himself. But because Katniss is a champion of the feminine, she prefers potential death by poisoning to murder.
This theme, one of the strongest in the novel, sees Katniss willing yet again to sacrifice herself, first for her family, then for Peeta and finally for the future children of Panem. Self-preservation is not her primary motivation – in fact, for a girl who is so good at surviving, she is extremely careless about her own self-protection, as when she attempts to fight the hovercraft in the ill-fated hospital of District 8, or the speech at the Nut that earns her a bullet wound. She is single-mindedly determined to save Peeta at her own expense in the Quarter Quell and takes steps that she thinks will keep him safe, including staying in an alliance with other Tributes when her instinct is to go it alone.
The act that motivates her to take on the persona of the Mockingjay is the least apolitical act in the entire novel. Katniss witnesses the reaction of the rebels to Peeta's call for a cease fire and, with the support of her sister, accepts the role of Mockingjay in exchange for his immunity and that of the other Victors. Because Katniss is a complex character, we could argue that she was also motivated by a desire for revenge but it is not her only motivation. She positions herself as the face of the Revolution, not because she feels the pride of such a historical moment, but because she is again trying to protect those she loves. When the rescue team is organized to liberate Peeta and the other prisoners from the Capitol, she wants to join them – this time to protect Gale also. She expends herself time and again to take actions that she thinks will lead to securing the safety of the "handful of people" she still cares about (Mockingjay, pg. 371).
Acts of valor in the service of love is an ideal greatly respected in the heroic literature, particularly in the literature of the Age of Chivalry. However, these roles have rarely been represented by a woman and certainly not with the exultation of female concerns alongside the heroic ideal. Katniss is a complex mix of all of these features – strong, fearless, resourceful, calculating, logical, head-strong, even selfish and manipulative – a hero against her will. But she is also maternal, loving, protective of the weak, unwilling to bring unnecessary harm, and willing to sacrifice herself for the people she loves. She is compelling because she has elevated the traditional traits of the female while preserving the characteristics of the heroic in one person, without losing anything to the other. She is fully human and not just the subordinate to the male ideal. Modern readers will be hard-pressed to ignore the uniqueness of this literary creation.