Mar 21 2012 5:00pm

Why Katniss is a Feminist Character (And It’s Not Because She Wields a Bow and Beats Boys Up)

Why Katniss Everdeen is a feminist characterWARNING: If you haven’t read the books yet (and really, what have you been doing with your life if you haven’t?) this post contains spoilers.

When The Hunger Games hit shelves in 2008, its feisty main character quickly earned the “strong female character” seal of approval from fans of young adult lit. Hot-tempered, bow-wielding Katniss is fiercely independent, scornful of feminine frills, and barred off to any emotion that could render her vulnerable. Essentially, as one blogger pointed out recently, she’s the anti-Bella Swan, a golden girl for all those YA readers who like their female protagonists to do something more worthwhile than choose between two men.

But amidst the flurry of excitement over Katniss’s complete and utter BAMFness (to use the technical term), it’s easy to forget what keeps her alive is not superior strength, speed, or intelligence, but rather a characteristic that no one else in the arena embraces. Ultimately, it’s not the weapons Katniss wields but the relationships she nurtures that save her life.

And I’m convinced that she’s a feminist character not because she wields a bow like Bella never could, but because while in the arena she learns to recognize, value, and eventually embrace feminine strengths. It’s her ability to find strength in other women — and to support them in return — that makes the girl on fire a feminist.

When Katniss befriends Rue, she forms an feminist archetype: an alliance of women who support each other in the face of oppression. And she does so not on the basis of practicality or mutual strength, but rather on intuition and emotion. Just as Katniss has always played a nurturing role in Prim’s life, she becomes a surrogate sister for Rue while in the arena — an act of blind emotion which, while atypical for Katniss, literally saves her life. It’s worth mentioning how the two nurture and heal each other, but the strongest affirmation of Katniss’s decision to partner with another woman comes at the feast when Katniss meets Thresh. Just as Clove is threatening Katniss and mocking Rue — her words almost catty and divisive compared with Katniss’s openness to the women she trusts — Clove is killed by Thresh. To Katniss, on the other hand, Thresh shows mercy, letting her escape in thanks for her kindness to Rue. The swiftness of Clove’s death after she makes her malice towards the other women in the arena clear, and the contrast between her fate and Katniss’s, almost seems to suggest that women who, like Clove, will not support their sisters are punished for it. And in contrast, for nurturing a supportive relationship with another woman, Katniss earns what no other woman in the arena does: the right to live.

But Katniss’s survival depends on her ability to form a bond not only with a girl much like Prim, but also with her strongest foil: her mother. While Katniss is analytical and focused on survival, her mother is so emotional that she’s often incapacitated by it. And while Katniss might be sympathetic to those who remind her of her sister, she literally flees the scene of any emotion that comes close to the strength of her mother’s grief — whether it’s the sickbed of a critical patient of her mother’s or the entirety of District 12, shrouded as it is in desperation and sorrow. And so she’s completely unprepared to partner with someone who loves her. It’s only through her mother’s example that she can find a way to work with Peeta and earn her escape from the games.

By forcing herself to recall the way her mother cured sick patients, Katniss saves Peeta time and time again — first recognizing his blood poisoning, then drugging him and seeking out the medication he needs, and finally tying the tourniquet that saves Peeta’s life in the game’s final hours. What’s more, to convince her sponsors she’s in love and earn Haymitch’s approval, Katniss learns to mimic the expressions, the tone of voice, and even the words her mother used with her father. Different as these scenarios are, they all force Katniss to empathize, for the first time, with her mother. Katniss is forced to imagine what she would do in her mother’s shoes, and the effect begins to show; by the novel’s end, Katniss is unconsciously relating to her mother, imagining that Peeta touches her the way her father must have touched her mother and even unconsciously adopting some of her mother’s phrases. It’s not a complete transformation, but nonetheless Katniss takes her first true steps towards a relationship with her mother just as she begins to form one with Peeta.

That transformation, from lone wolf to an empathetic sister and daughter, could have come straight from the pages of any number of essays by celebrated feminist philosophers. “For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive,” argued Audre Lorde in one such essay, “and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.” Both she and Luce Irigaray wrote extensively about mutual cooperation, nurturing, and intuition as acts of feminist defiance. And, like them, many feminists believe that it is only by working as a sisterhood — just as Katniss learns to do in the arena — that women can truly empower themselves as individuals.

Katniss builds an alliance of women who support each other in the face of the Capitol’s oppression.

Ultimately, Katniss is a feminist character not because she can put an arrow through an enemy’s throat as quickly and cleanly as any man, but because she learns to maintain that strength while opening herself up to the power of mutual support and sisterhood. It’s that, perhaps more than anything else, that makes Katniss an ideal role model for girls and an icon for feminist readers.

Though the BAMFness does help.

Rachel Stark is the Assistant Marketing Manager at a mid-sized children’s and YA publishing company. Despite her efforts to master kickboxing, she would probably die first in the Hunger Games. She feels much safer blogging at and tweeting.

This article is part of The Hunger Games on ‹ previous | index | next ›
John R. Ellis
1. John R. Ellis
Why do so many of the genre articles about YA fiction feel the need to invoke Twilight, even (or these days it seems especially) when the work really has nothing to do with Twilight?

Passive, annoying, bizarro female protagonists existed long, long before Bella Swann. I remember in my own middle school days girls were obsessed with the V.C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic books, featuring a female protagonist who endured insanely screwed up situations and dysfunctional relationships, but never changed a bit, no matter how old she got or what she did.
John R. Ellis
2. between4walls
I don't know. I'm veering between thinking this is an insightful reading and thinking it's examining only a few stereotypically female traits (nuturing, healing, emotion, and intuition) as feminine and/or feminist.

Good point about Katniss relating to her mom though
John R. Ellis
3. Foxdreams
@Between4walls I think it's still catering to 'femaleish' characteristics (nurture, feminine wiles, etc) and so is actually refuting the point of feminism. (why do we need gendered actions/sterotypes at all, katniss is a BAMF because she can hold her own and is powerful and knows herself and her mind.) Eh.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
4. EllenMCM
Does having feminine characteristics really refute the point of feminism?
William Fettes
6. Wolfmage
Not really a big fan of Carol Gilligan-esque tracts in feminism that create separate conceptions of moral development and moral psychology for women. Though I admit some appreciable differences are identifiable through behavioural science.

IMO it's less about distinguishing between the primacy of emotion/ intuition versus rationality, and more about a different emphasis in how autonomy is conceived: ie. through social embeddedness.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
I like this examination of the character. Wasn't the way I was looking at the story before but it's an interesting interpretation.
John R. Ellis
9. Improbable Joe
I always think it is an insult to women to claim that "intuition and emotion" are special traits that women have, as though they are too stupid to actually use their brains. I mean, she could use rationality and intelligence, but I guess women aren't capable of it?

My complaint is with the review, not the books. The books paint a character who leans towards pragmatic rationalism.
Jared Wright
10. J Town
@9 - Why is it an insult for anyone to have intuition and emotion? Why does that imply in any fashion that women are "too stupid to actually use their brains" as you so blithely put it? I think you're reading things into the review that are neither stated nor implied. That's why the topic of gender relations is so often difficult to discuss in a polite and effective manner. Everyone brings their own baggage along and invariably perceives what they want to perceive, whether or not those perceptions have any basis in reality. Intuition and emotion are not bad traits and possessing them does not mean that one cannot also be possessed of rationality and intelligence.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
11. EllenMCM
IMO, really good intuition and the ability to deal with strong emotions and intesely emtional situations are strengths regardless of who is exhibiting them. Those are a use of the human brain, and they are pretty important in some situations - when you are being hunted, for instance, intuition is often the key to identifying that problem. I don't think emotion and intuition should be dismissed as strengths or characters who use them (which I feel compelled to point out, Harry Potter does quite a bit, as do some other notable male characters in the SFF canon - leonard McCoy comes to mind) should be dismissed as feminists.

Rationality and intelligence are strengths too. Over the course of three books in which Katniss descends further and further into the grip of PTSD, I'm not convinced she exhibits those in anything approaching a consistent way (neither does her mom - Primrose might be best at those, I would have to think about it more).
Constance Sublette
13. Zorra
All these women around Katniss end up dead, sooner if not later.
Lauren W
14. laurene135
You are very right. When people hear "intuition" they automatically think of women. Intuition is just a softer sounding synonym of "instinct." Men have instinct and women intuition, but it's the same thing.
The strength of any person--regardless of gender--is to be confident in who they are, and be willing to trust themselves, but to also be open to others' advice/experience/ect.
Katniss does this. She does not allow herself to be manipulated and changed regardless of how much others (the Capitol and the Rebels, etc) try. She remains true to herself, trusting her own judgement, but is not so arrogant to think there is no room for growth. That is a strong person--again regardless of gender.
We see this with Peeta as well (although he hits a bit of a rough patch in Mockingjay).
The funny thing is when men do it, there is a bit more support. But when a women does the same thing there is a mixed reaction--from both men and women might I add! Some applaud her, others are uncomfortable with her inner strength, and some are upset with the way she chooses to define herself despite being "prowomen."
But I agree. It is nice to have (female) protagonists that aren't solely caught up in what others think, but are happy to be themselves
John R. Ellis
15. S.M. Stirling
"And she does so not on the basis of practicality or mutual strength, but rather on intuition and emotion."

-- y'know, that's sort of a Victorian stereotype of women -- that they're irrational, emotional, and preoccupied with personal relationships.

It doesn't become less of a stereotype by flipping the 'value sign'.

In the book (and the movie) Peeta is actually more stereotypically "feminine" than Katniss. He's driven by emotion and by a personal relationship throughout, and is a better manipulator. Katniss is rational, pragmatic, and focused on winning the contest.

Thus pointing out that these characteristics are not tied to our plumbing.

Essentialism is inherently reactionary.

"Does having feminine characteristics really refute the point of feminism?"

-- ah, actually I was always under the impression that the point was that women, like men, are human beings. And that splitting human characteristics up and assigning them to one gender or another was sort of like a Bad Thing.
Nathaniel Gulick
16. PresN
"Hot-tempered, bow-wielding Katniss is fiercely independent, scornful of feminine frills, and barred off to any emotion that could render her

Have to point out- she's scornful of feminine frills, but she does seem to genuinely love the beautiful outfits Cinna makes for their own sake after seeing them on her. She doesn't completly reject all traditionally feminine things, she just likes things that accentuate who she is, rather than making her into someone else.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
17. tnh
Long time no! Hello, Steve Stirling.
Rachel Stark
18. Rachel_Stark
@between4walls, @Foxdreams, @Improbable Joe & @S.M. Stirling Thanks so much for your comments and your feedback. Lately I’ve really found myself struggling with a lot of the questions you’ve raised, and I think I could have been clearer about my intentions in writing this article.

Let me start by saying that I in no way believe that characteristics can be split up and doled out to men and women by gender. I never intended to imply that intuition and emotion are traits all women naturally possess, or that only women can possess them; nor do I wish to imply that all men are logical or physically strong, and that all women are not. When I describe something as “feminine” in this article, I do not mean to indicate that it’s a trait that is or even should be shared by all women. Instead, I intend to say that the trait is something society has historically—for better or for worse—associated with women.

What I see happening in our society right now is a shift in which women as a whole are making progress, but femininity (as defined above) continues to be devalued in both men and women. In a truly equal society in which we don’t split traits up and assign them to a gender, people of all sexes ought not to be limited in what traits they can possess without being ridiculed. But nonetheless, I see readers praise characters—male or female—who exhibit physical strength and decry those who are more emotional. (Again, I want to clarify that I am using these as examples of the stereotypes that exist and around which society builds its value judgments, not as a blanket set of traits that apply to either men or women.)

And I think we can see the masculine stereotype being valued over the feminine one even here. I don’t believe—nor did I ever say—that reliance on intuition and emotion shows that someone is “too stupid to use their brain.” I view intuition and emotion as strengths, but if the words can be read to connote “brainless,” it's because we have been taught, on some level and at some point, to make the logical jump from one to the other—because once a trait has been stereotyped as female, it seems to forever be devalued by society.

I’m not trying to argue that Katniss is not intelligent, rational, or physically powerful. Rather, I think plenty has been said about it already—the point’s been proven and, while I celebrate that side of Katniss, I don’t think I have much that I can add to the argument there. But I particularly appreciate Katniss as a character because she, like real people, defies gender essentialism. She defines and asserts exactly who she is—and that person is strong not in one stereotypical way, but rather in a whole, realistic, human way, unconstrained by gender.
John R. Ellis
19. Why
Why does Twilight even need to brought up?
Do we really need to say "Katniss is feminist because she has a WEAPON and Bella has no weapons!!!"
That's a joke.
I'm willing to play devil's advocate and describe why Bella is a stronger feminist character than Katniss. I'd need a few weeks to read through both series once again, but once I finish them I can draw proper comparisons between the two and show you why a female doesn't need to be a warrior or have a weapon to be a feminist character.
John R. Ellis
20. DanielleSyracuse
I'm coming late to this discussion because a friend just sent me this link. I really like this analysis, it's very thought-provoking, but I must quibble with one statement: "she becomes a surrogate sister for Rue while in the arena — an act of blind emotion which, while atypical for Katniss, literally saves her life." I don't agree that Katniss is "barred off from emotion" or that she makes all decisions based on survival or practicality. When she volunteers for Prim, the deciding moment of her life, she is motivated by pure emtion, not survival. Her decision to protect Peeta in the Quarter Quell is also based on emotion, not survival instincts. In fact, her adoration for her father informs much of what she does in District 12 and in the Games - it's her connection to that love (and that deep well of emotion) that allows her to take a bow and start hunting and ultimately provide for her family. I would argue that it's that thread of deep emotion that makes the books so beloved, not her BAMF-edness.
John R. Ellis
22. Yinsi
@Why I would actually love to read about why Bella is a strong feminist character! I find it to be frustarting and annoying when people bring up Bella at completely unnecessary moments simply as an example of how unfeminist she is because she "does nothing". The fact of the matter is that both Katniss AND Bella have worth as characters. No need to compare one to the other or decide who's better. I for one thing it is brave for a women to be able to admit that she wants a man in this society that we live in. Connection with amother human being, especially a romantic one, is something that most if not ALL humans crave. Why is there this belief that if a woman wants to get married and be a homemaker then she's setting feminism back by 100 years?? For me, feminism is having the CHOICE of being a typical "girly girl" OR caring solely about career and being a "tomboy". I can proudly admit that I love "girly" things like heels or beautiful dresses and I do hope to get married and give birth one day on top of a caeer as a YA author. But that does not mean I'm any weaker than the next feminist.

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