Feminism in YA: Katniss Everdeen

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

9 thoughts on “Feminism in YA: Katniss Everdeen

  1. There’s so much to say about Katniss, it’s true. And I have some recs for background reading on women’s representation and “strong women characters” if you’re ever interested. I had to compile a lot of sources on that to talk about Starbuck for my thesis.

    Your point about sacrifice is interesting, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the assumption that women sacrifice themselves for others, especially their children. Her love and sacrifice for her sister is one of the only things that makes Katniss tender at first, but self-sacrificial mother (even by proxy) is a very normal role for women to play. And obviously we harshly judge Katniss’ mom for not being the one to do the sacrificing. Would Katniss have been likeable at all if she wasn’t a caregiver?

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    • That’s an excellent question, a huge “what if?”

      I feel that by growing up in District 12, she fully understood the suffering of others, so her empathy factor should still be there. And I still think that, even if she wasn’t Prim’s sole caretaker, she would have stepped in for her at the Reaping. It adds an extra dimension of hurt when Katniss does leave Prim in the hands of an incapable mother, so I guess that’s points lost if it never happens.

      This opens up a ton of new questions about character motivation and reader connection.

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  2. What an interesting and thoughtfully written post. I enjoyed reading it.

    For me, Katniss’s independence is a key character point. That gritty independence comes through very strongly, especially in the first book. Feminism has many meanings and definitions, but I think independence to make your own choices is part of how I would define feminism. When I read The Hunger Games for the first time two or three years ago, I was going through a very difficult time in my life (being the caregiver to my seriously ill mother while trying to juggle my college studies at the same time) and Katniss’s grit, courage and independence inspired me.

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    • Grace, I like how part of your definition of feminism is about how it is connected to independent thinking and decision making. For so long in human history, women have had limited choices regarding the direction their lives can take (and, sadly, in many regards, that can still be the case).

      I think part of what makes The Hunger Games series especially fascinating in the later novels is that Katniss realizes she hasn’t been making decisions on her own, she’s been controlled by both sides. She loses that (and wonders if it had ever really been there).

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      • True, most of Katniss’s decisions are out of her control. I’m re-reading Mockingjay at the moment, which highlights just how much she is molded by both sides, the Capitol and the Districts, to be what they want her to be.

        It’s interesting to look at the parallels between her and her namesake, Bathsheba Everdene, in Far From the Madding Crowd: they are different but they both value independence.

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