WARNING: 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 Tor.com 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.
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.