***Note: in this post I use “femininity” as shorthand for qualities that have been designated feminine in the United States for the last century or so. I do this to keep the sentences from becoming an unreadable length due to Politically Correct phrasing. Men can and should possess these qualities as well.***
I will warn you right now, here there be spoilers. If you have yet to read The Hunger Games, hie thee away!
There’s a lot of “Won’t somebody please think of the children!”-type talk around the internet about women in the media and the lack of strong female characters in entertainment. At least in the parts of the internet that I frequent. I disagree about this lack, I believe that these hand-wringers are simply looking in the wrong places, and when they look in the right ones they misinterpret what they are seeing. Ready for some shock and awe?
When it comes to the heroine of The Hunger Games, I am of the same opinion as Maggie Stiefvater. Is Katniss a capable woman? Absolutely. Is she a nuanced and well-written character? Without a doubt. Would I want my daughter to grow up to be just like Katniss? Not on your life.
Katniss can run, jump, bow-hunt, and strategize with the best of them (literally, in Catching Fire). She is the ultimate survivor, she’ll do whatever is necessary. Including pretending to love, which is what’s so sad about her. Katniss experienced first the loss of her father followed by the (emotional) loss of her mother, with the result that she trusts absolutely no one. Trust is essential to love. I would argue that Katniss doesn’t even truly love Prim, she is merely co-dependent. She has made herself responsible for Prim’s happiness, and Prim’s survival is her reason for living. Her sister is her charge.
Beyond being able to love, Katniss has fully rejected her femininity. Her mother is feminine and her mother is weak, and so Katniss rejects any of this weakness in herself. She is crippled: denying her nature and suffering a debilitating injury to one of her most fundamental abilities (and needs). Katniss takes no interest or pride in her appearance, she holds herself apart from her community in mind and deed, she discounts her artistic abilities such as singing. Why is it that when called upon by the Capitol to display a cultivated interest, she has to make one up with Cinna? She has no interests. She has no spirituality, only the physical world of survival. Even Bella Swan liked to read.
This is why I would not wish Katniss as a role model for my child, male or female. Hers is a barren and blasted emotional landscape. I would hope more for the future than the barest survival. I would hope for joy, love, trust, a rich and varied experience, to find everything interesting and delightful. To nurture and be nurtured. Community. Aspiration. Ambition.
…but Sailor Moon is.
I can hear the shocked squawks already. Let me explain:
Sometime in the summer before seventh grade I was staying with my grandmother in Port Angeles, Washington. In between Doris Day movies and running around in the forest behind her house, I would catch a new and interesting program on the television, beamed in from Canada. One day I saw a cartoon, with magical girls who ice-skated and wore cute outfits and talked about boys before being attacked by a supernatural monster. Then they transformed into snappily dressed warrior women and kicked its ass.
I. Was. Hooked. The only problem was, I lived in California, which is not a Canada-adjacent state. I searched in vain for this wondrous program for more than a year before it appeared on mainstream American TV. Sailor Moon. The opening sequence was pop-rock mishmash of falling roses and twinkling stars juxtaposed with fanged monsters. Every episode featured the Sailor Soldiers (senshi if you’re a hard-core fan) in typical teenage situations: auditioning for a play, making a new friend, arguing over a cute boy; but by the end they would be battling it out with a monster sent to eliminate something precious from the world. Someone with a passionate heart, or a great artist. The show came on while I was at school, so I set my Dad’s TV to record the episodes on tape and watched them when I came home every day. My brother became hooked too, those girls were just as badass as anyone on Dragonball Z.
Usagi AKA Serena is a total ditz. She’s an absentminded klutz who can only seem to focus when stalking a cute boy. She is also fourteen. For all of these reasons she finds it hard to believe that she is destined to protect the Earth from a cosmic threat, she is Sailor Moon. Over the course of the series she connects with girls who represent all of the planets (even Pluto, which was still a planet then), and the guy who represents Earth. So what makes Sailor Moon, all of the Sailor Senshi really, a better role model than Katniss Everdeen?
These girls are as powerful and courageous as Katniss, while fully embracing both their femininity and their ability to love. Each one has her own strengths, hobbies, and skills: Mercury is a computer whiz with the best grades in school, Mars is a priestess with the ability to prophesy, Jupiter is an amazing cook. They are an interdependent community, almost always fighting as a team and supporting each other despite petty arguments and competition. They wear awesome clothes, they giggle over boys (or girls, in the case of Neptune and Uranus). Over the course of the series they all mature together as they face ever greater challenges.
That is what I would wish for in a strong female character and a role model. A woman who presents herself well, is confident, powerful, and loving. Who does not see her femininity as a weakness. A women who can rely on those around her and support them in turn (not go cry in a duct). Who survives the crisis with more than just her physical being intact.
Katniss is a great character, but not a great woman. The Sailor Scouts are both.