The problem with feminist characters

During the past few days, I have read at least two or three separate articles on why Katniss Everdeen is such a great female role model. Katniss is the lead protagonist of The Hunger Games series of books and films. She is a very human character with flaws and vulnerabilities. She is also determined, strong and she does things on her own terms. In her fictional dystopian universe, a futuristic imagining of the United States, inequalities between social classes are a bigger problem than inequalities between gender.

The most recent movie, adapted from the book, focuses partly on revolutions and uprisings in the twelve districts which are controlled by the totalitarian regime of the Capitol. And Katniss’s refusal to define herself by relationships with men, unlike some other mainstream franchise characters (Bella Swan, I’m looking at you), has led to her character being acclaimed as a pop culture feminist role model.

Photo credit: © 2013 - Lionsgate Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

Photo credit: © 2013 – Lionsgate
Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).

The issue of gender discrimination in film is nothing new. The Bechdel test was developed in 1985 and it scores movies and other works of fiction based on the criteria that “it has to have at least two [named] women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man” (Bechdel Test). Recently, a few independent Swedish cinemas have started rating the movies they show and giving them a grade based on whether they pass the Bechdel test. I think there are flaws with this: a movie can still be sexist or demonstrate gender inequalities even if it contains two female characters who talk about something other than relationships. But it does highlight the fact that a lot of movies are based on models of gender bias which do not fit the feminist ideology of equality. Perhaps needless to say, The Hunger Games passes the Bechdel Test with an A grade.

However, the fact that we need to make a point out of having strong female characters demonstrates that we have a problem. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is great to have feminist characters, especially in mainstream franchises. But I think the fact that we have to make such a big deal out of it is representative of a wider problem: of inequalities which still linger. It highlights the issue, at least in my eyes, that it is necessary to define characters by feminist and non-feminist. By all means, we still need to work towards equality but I hope that it will become standard for women to be represented in all forms of media without gender discrimination. Only then will we know that true and meaningful progress has been made.

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11 thoughts on “The problem with feminist characters

  1. I love this, Grace! One of the other feminist issues I’ve been thinking about with Katniss is that in order for her to be strong, she is masculinized. Not all feminists agree on this, but is it okay to ask women to become like men in order to be worth something? Also, is there a way to value and promote “feminine” qualities as worthy of attention? Obviously, not all women or men are the same or share the same traits, but I think that balancing our perceptions of masculine and feminine traits as equally valuable, no matter who holds them, is another way to move toward equality.

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    • Thanks, Emily! I did some reading on the web before I wrote this post. The idea for this post has been floating around my brain for the past week but I wanted to see if other people had written about this topic. And I found an interesting quote from Natalie Portman in this PolicyMic article, Enough With the ‘Strong Female Characters’, Already, which ties in with your thoughts about the masculinization of female characters. It’s a very thought-provoking point that Hollywood’s idea of feminism is merely making women more like men.

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  2. Your thoughts can probably be extended to other issues as well, not just gender but race, disability, etc. I think what your saying is that something should be judged on it’s merits, not how well it overcomes stereotypes. There always needs to be a qualifier added to certain groups of people, which is unfortunate.

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  3. I LOVE this. I agree wholeheartedly. Even though female leads have stepped up leaps and bounds in the past few decades, I agree that there’s an emphasis on women like Katniss. Women can be strong in so many other ways. My favourite example is Sydney Sage from the “Bloodlines” series by Richelle Mead. She’s strong, but in a different way: intellectually. Not only that she has to cope with being loyal to a system she starts to lose faith in partway through the series. She looks after everyone around her despite her deeply ingrained fears and prejudices. But eventually she proves that she is morally strong enough to question these prejudices when evidence starts to say that her prejudices are wrong. (This may be a totally lame explanation but I don’t want to give away any spoilers, just in case you want to buy it!)
    And I found this awesome article that talks about the four roles for women that female characters HAVE to fit into on a blog called The Collective. I think you’ll really enjoy it! http://acollectivemind.com/2013/12/05/lets-talk-about-that-b/

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    • Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      I think Katniss is a much more well-rounded character in the books but the movies, while they are relatively faithful to the books, have changed quite a few aspects.

      Intellectual strength is another key issue and that definitely applies to the real world. I think that women who make their careers the main priority in their lives are often seen as having to use stereotypically masculine attitudes in order to achieve success. The glass ceiling isn’t completely broken yet!

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      • I completely agree! Though I was completely impressed by how loyal the movies were to the Hunger Games books, but that’s a whole other issue.

        And that whole career thing reminds me of this interview with Scarlett Johansson and I think Tom Hiddleston. He was asked an insightful question about the nature of his character in the Avengers saga, that let him give an intelligent answer. Johansson was asked how much she had to work out to be the Black Widow. She just looks at the interviewer and asks “why did he get the good question?”. Because of course a woman would be expected to give a shallow answer. I hate that. The Black Widow was a pretty complex character as well!

        I can’t wait ’til we shatter that glass ceiling!

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  4. Excellent post, Grace (and sorry I’m just now getting to it–This was during chemo and I was too brain-dead to read it!). Nothing irks me more than seeing a “strong,” super-macho female character in a movie who runs around punching people while wearing the smallest amount of clothing possible. That’s not feminist, that’s some guy’s idea of sexy, and sex sells.

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    • Thanks, Angela. Please don’t apologize — I’m not surprised that you didn’t feel up to reading and commenting on blog posts when you were going through chemo!

      I completely agree with you. I don’t tend to watch a lot of action/adventure movies (my preferred genre is drama) but I think the “strong super-macho female character” is very prevalent in those types of movies. There’s an interesting article called “I Hate Strong Female Characters” which I found when I was doing some research while writing this post. It’s a lengthy article and the basic conclusion of it is pretty much what you wrote in your comment but I found it quite thought-provoking, especially the line about needing to “get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type”.

      Thanks for reading! 🙂

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