Feminism in YA Literature: Katniss Everdeen
Written by Grant Goodman, 9/26/2014
You cannot ignore the roles of girls and women in literature. I mean this both in terms of fiction and in real life. For starters, women read more than men do. In turn, it should be reasonable to expect that there are more female leads in literature than male leads. So how are some of the more popular YA lit titles treating their leads?
Full disclosure, people: I am not a scholar of feminist theory or literature. I am also a man. I took one course on feminism in science-fiction when I was a senior in college. Occasionally, I engage in conversation with those who know a TON more about the subject than I do. That does not make me any sort of authority figure. So if you can add to the discussion and further my education, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
Since the YA blogging world is going to be driven by Mockingjay discussion for the next few weeks, I figured I should start with Katniss Everdeen.
In the first novel, this is a little of what we learn about her: she is the sole provider for her family, she is the mother figure for her sister, she is a hunter, she has a male best friend with whom she does not have romantic involvement, and she does not suffer fools gladly.
I don’t want to use the generic “Is she a ‘strong female lead?’” approach, because I think that term has been kicked around far too much.
Instead, I’d like to simply examine Katniss’ status as a role model.
- Katniss understands that adulthood and maturity are defined by your ability to take care of others.
She hunts for food. She looks out for her sister. She (grudgingly) looks after her mother. These roles eat up an enormous amount of her time and energy. Yet, she does them. She carries on.
- Katniss understands the true meaning of sacrifice.
This operates on two levels. First, she has sacrificed her adolescence in order to keep her family together. As a teacher, I can tell you that there are few things more heartbreaking than learning that one of your 12 year old students is having to take up the role of mother or father in the family due to negligence, disappearance, or illness.
Second is the literal sacrifice she makes, offering herself as a participant in the Hunger Games, rather than letting her sister be chosen. This second type of sacrifice also comes into play during the games on several occasions.
- Katniss struggles with her media portrayal, in which she achieves extra attention once a romantic entanglement with Peeta surfaces as part of the games.
This is a complicated one to navigate, folks. Not just for her, but for the readers. At one point in the games, her hopes for survival hinge on selling a love story to an audience. And so you are rooting for her to pull through, but I also hope that you understand how twisted that situation is. The inner monologue pieces, in which Katniss isn’t sure how she feels about Peeta (is it real? Is it manufactured?) were some of the strongest pieces of writing in that first novel. She recognizes and admits the confusion, she grapples with it rather than simply accepting and blocking it out of her mind.
Okay, I’m struggling to find a proper way of concluding this. Because, honestly, like any human being, there are traits she carries that aren’t worthy of admiration, too.
But what I can say is that by presenting a character who is a mixture of shadow and light, responsibility and rejection, Suzanne Collins gives us someone realistic who we can discuss intelligently, and in my mind, that is a victory.