Paul Risker on Katniss Everdeen and the dystopian sci-fi role model….
Woman, says Caroline Williams, has been a “prize, there to be defeated, destroyed or possessed.” Regardless a number of female protagonists have provided a strong representation of femininity, from the inaugural “Final Girl” Jamie Lee Curtis, Alien’s Ellen Ripley, The Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice Starling, Terminator’s Sarah Connor to Pollyanna
McIntosh’s The Woman.
From the perspective of the narrative’s antagonists all of these women were a “prize, there to be defeated, destroyed or possessed.” In spite of this each has symbolised feminine strength, and served as cinematic role models; celebrated and reviled in equal measure. The same is true of cinema’s latest feminine role model – The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, who proceeds to contribute to this heritage of feminine strength – celebrated by the films young audience, male and female, and reviled by the antagonists of the film’s narrative.
Away from television’s feminine icons of The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and Spiral, Katniss Everdeen is film’s equivalent. Unlike the flawed female characters that have graced the television screens during Katniss’ rise to prominence, she is meticulously constructed to be an idealised role model.
Whilst distinguishing herself to the audience by offering a strong representation of femininity through more than just a physical prowess, which is typically attributed to the masculine, she exhibits maternal instincts and a propensity for self-sacrifice. By sacrificing her potential self-preservation she presents us with an image of Mother Nature embodied by woman. Equally she possesses an intelligent strategic and diplomatic mind through her engagement in the political and gladiatorial game, in which her actions will determine the continuation of a dystopian future, or the birth of a possible utopia.
Katniss’ representation incorporates a physical prowess which is complimented by personality and intelligence. Her journey’s starting point, the self-sacrifice is a brilliant piece of propaganda that along with her dystopian homeland is a pre-meditated creative orchestration to define her as victim. Therein we are deprived of the free choice as to whether she should resonate with us, as we are forced to project our empathy, sympathy and interest onto this victim and eventual reluctant heroine.
Katniss’ journey follows in the footsteps of Rollerball’s Jonathan E, becoming a symbol of hope, and emphasising the importance or value of the individual, which is then perceived as a threat by the ruling authorities. This unintentional anti-government and authoritarian stance by becoming a symbol of hope mirrors the anti-authoritarian leanings and rebellious and terrorist actions of Brazil’s Jill and V for Vendetta’s Evey. This latest cinematic role model is forged of previous dystopian science-fiction characters. She mirrors the stardom of masculinity, and the anti-authoritarian as well as the rebellious leanings of her female as well as male counterparts.
In contrast to previous dystopian science fiction dramas – Rollerball, Death Race 2000, Brazil, V for Vendetta, all of which were aimed at a mature audience – Suzanne Collins’ teenage fiction has served to buck this trend. Along with young rising star Jennifer Lawrence in the role of a young onscreen heroine, and the targeting of the 12A / PG-13 audience, The Hunger Games is dystopian science-fiction actively seeking to engage with a young generation of cinemagoers.
Outside of targeting this demographic, and indicative of a recent trend to target the 12A and PG-13 classifications to secure potentially lucrative box office grosses, The Hunger Games does nothing special other than manipulate us into projecting our sympathy, empathy and interest onto Katniss via established storytelling or character building techniques. Often the reasons given for this resonance, the meticulous construction of character and manipulation of the audience is overlooked.
Katniss is the outsider, the reluctant heroine, a victim of her world that robs the youth of its innocence. Through a deep rooted compassion for family and friends, her habitual sacrificial tendencies emerge. Katniss is fundamentally represented in such a way as to win the hearts and minds of the audience from the outset, though targeted at the adolescent audience both Katniss and the film should to all intent and purposes resonate with a young audience for both the films and character to achieve their endgame.
In its social or contemporary context The Hunger Games shows that dystopian science-fiction given the opportunity can impress itself on the young audience, whether it is Katniss maturing ahead of her age, which reflects a deep rooted habitual desire of all adolescents to grow up and act outside of their age. Therein perhaps Katniss’ struggle mirrors metaphorically at least the struggle of youth, the pressure from one’s peers and elders during the discovery of one’s identity and place in the world. Therein Katniss’ grand fictional battleground could be seen as a reflection of the personal confrontation facing her young audience which they have duly sensed.
Katniss like Harry Potter was a celebrity on the page prior to her on-screen debut, and despite not being a conventional heroine who transcends and leads her peers, her characterised perfection nonetheless brands her an idealised dream, who is not that dissimilar to a traditional hero perceived as an aspirational figure for audiences. Katniss’ less heroic stature affords her a more human and every person quality, and so this makes her more easily identifiable for the young audience. Katniss belongs to a cinematic dream, and as such just as previous heroes such as Wayne, Eastwood, Ripley, she is constructed as meticulously and consciously as those to garner a pre-determined response from the audience to serve both the story and create the desired experience.
Whilst Katniss Everdeen is important to the young contemporary audience and therefore holds a dominant place within contemporary culture, she is only this generation’s heroine, moulded like so many others who have long since stepped aside and who have made their home in the heritage of film, and who have since been succeeded by others.
Paul Risker is co-editor in chief of Wages of Film, freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth.