Katniss vs. Bella: Female Empowerment in YA Fiction

by Anitra Cottledge

So the intrawebz are all aflutter with chatter about the film version of The Hunger Games. I’ll be going to see it, because it’s my pop culture duty to keep my finger on the zeitgeist. Or at least that’s what I tell myself when I’m sitting in the movies behind tween girls (and their moms) who just can’t contain their oohs and aahs when Robert Pattinson enters the frame. I’ve read The Hunger Games trilogy, just like I read the Twilight Saga, and my feelings about both series are fairly similar: in a nutshell, they didn’t need to be series. Both authors could have wrapped up those stories much sooner, and with a much lower word count.


That aside, I’m particularly interested in the comparisons that have arisen between the two heroines, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen. I’m going to return to that in a second.

What I find fascinating about both of these series is the sheer amount of writing and cultural critique that’s been generated about them. You, dear reader, already know how I feel about Twilight by now (where is Buffy when you need her?), and maybe you’ve read about its abstinence porn narrative. I’m totally squicked out by the wistful conversations I hear after a Twilight movie, and I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues about why folks are so swoony over a book about a stalker who looks like he just got home from a rave.

I’ve been equally fascinated by the writing about The Hunger Games: the casting debate, particularly in regards to race, and recent discussion about similarities between The Hunger Games and Japanese movie “Battle Royale.” In short, the books and the movies have become so much more than books and movies. They’ve become locations of cultural symbolism and messaging.

Back to the discussion about Bella vs. Katniss. There seems to be this need to pit the two heroines against one another and to ask people to decide who’s stronger and more empowered.

“Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob, the werewolf who vies with the vampire for her affections; Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister. Bella is one long, quivering bowstring of frustrated lust (at least until the fourth book in Meyer’s series); Katniss, about the same age, is unstirred by adolescent hormones, despite the two cute, sweet guys who proclaim their love for her.”

Yes, it’s really great that Katniss Everdeen can “incidentally shoot a man’s eye out through his windpipe” (which is indeed a handy skill), whereas Bella seems to pout a lot, but I don’t actually find either of them all that empowering in the end.

But (SPOILERS AHEAD) in the last book of the Hunger Games, we find Katniss taking up a more Bella-like existence with Peeta. (I think I was rooting for her to end up with neither Gale nor Peeta.) All that windpipe puncturing, and we’re left with a very traditional “let’s get married and settle down situation” (although not necessarily a HEA). In that respect, does it make a difference that Katniss spent most of the series running and fighting for her life? Maybe. Maybe not. It just would have been refreshing to have a different narrative: Katniss, as opposed to Gale, in a more prominent leadership role at the end of the book.

This, of course, is an oversimplification of each character, and of the conversations surrounding both books. If I consider the overall picture, both books and both characters are good food for thought, particularly in regards to what they may communicate in terms of female empowerment, gender roles, as well as class and sexual politics. In the meantime, I’ll just search for alternatives to both Katniss and Bella. They’ve got to exist, right?

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  • http://kristendomblogs.com Kristen Abell

    Anitra, perhaps you and I should write another book that is more Buffy-like – I’d be up for that!
    Also, if you haven’t read the Vampire Academy series, you really should – not saying the writing is a great improvement over Hunger Games (although Twilight, well, is there ANYTHING that’s not a great improvement over that?), but the female character, Rose, is seriously kick-ass.

    • http://www.sawomentalktech.com/blog Anitra

       Kristen, I’m down to write the book if you are. :) I haven’t read Vampire Academy, but I’ll add it to my to-read list.

      • http://brendabethman.com Brenda Bethman

        We are all three going to write that book! :-)