Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl Power Hero

When I saw The Hunger Games on its opening weekend, I was really struck by something:

Although the sexualization of girls and women is rampant in the media, Katniss Everdeen is not sexualized. Not at all.

Take a look at these images from the film: The fact that Katniss is presented as heroic and strong without being made sexy is a big deal. Previous mainstream girl heroes have been defined by their sexiness. Consider the heroes of girl power, on shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. With dedicated fans of both sexes, their producers seemed intent on making the girls’ strength less threatening by presenting them as sexy and sexually available. Here are a few images from such shows, featuring heroines who–unlike Katniss–are impeccably coiffed and revealingly dressed:

In my analysis, the concept of “girl power” seemed to hinge upon the idea that girls could be strong AND pretty at the same time. It broke the binary that suggested “strong female” is an oxymoron, almost normalizing the idea that being girly doesn’t equal being weak.

But.

Girl power media targeting audiences of teens and adults presented strong-and-pretty as strong-and-sexy, with “sexy” narrowly defined (as illustrated by the above images). This link was so constant that it seemed you couldn’t have strength without sexiness, and that sexiness came to seem a natural part of being a strong female character on screen.

When Katniss appears in The Hunger Games in fancier, more feminine, more revealing attire, she looks uncomfortable. The performance of normative femininity is completely unnatural to her. It is an act, something she is forced to do–not a choice, and certainly not something she finds empowering:

This is probably why Hunger Games critics and fans have complained that Jennifer Lawrence is too “fat” for the role of Katniss. Because, seriously, by no stretch of the imagination is the woman shown above fat. She’s not as thin as Sarah Michelle Gellar or Alyssa Milano, but she’s nowhere close to being overweight.

No, they’re just not used to female lead characters who aren’t dished up to titillate a male gaze. If she’s not scantily clad in a super-sexy way, then she’s not attractive, which means she’s fat. Sigh.

In short, Katniss Everdeen is arguably the first post-girl power hero to grace the screen. Her presentation as a strong character who is not defined by her sex, and who is not sexualized, is a nice contrast to the message that “girls can be strong AND pretty/sexy,” in which pretty/sexy is ultimately obligatory.

Katniss Everdeen is a girl, and she is strong. But not in a girl power way.

And that’s a good thing.

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22 Comments on “Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl Power Hero

  1. Also, while Katniss is not sexualized, she is still wanted. Any time there’s a way to make women more than sexual object, it usually gets corrupted by sex somehow. Smart girls can’t just be smart anymore, they have to be pretty as well. Strong girls have to be strong and sexy. No matter what, woman’s worth is dependant on how they look.

    • Amanda, that’s true. I’m glad that Katniss is generally uninterested in being wanted, though, except as a survival tactic for the Game’s broadcast. In too many other stories, the heroine would be swept away by the fact of her being wanted and completely change her dreams and goals for romance.

  2. Actually the critics maybe be calling her ‘fat’ because in the novel, she is represented as being underweight and lacking in nourishment due to the restriction of food in district 12, not havign a go at the actresses physique. They say in the book she wishes she had managed to put on more kgs before syhe enters the games to have some energy etc..

    • Renae, I think some people feel it’s a believability issue, but other people really are presenting it as something more than that. I tried to find the links I’d seen a couple weeks ago that offended me but couldn’t locate them. I definitely understand fans wanting her to reflect the descriptions in the book, but it’s interesting to me that she’s the only one whose body fans are calling out.

      I loved the books and didn’t notice her body one way or the other, but I *did* think everyone was a little too good-looking to be believable! But that’s Hollywood for you, so I just suspended my disbelief and enjoyed the film. :)

      • It should be kept in mind that while she does think she needs to gain more weight to have a better advantage, that doesn’t mean she was skinny to begin with. She’s a hunter. Of all the people in District 12, she, Gale and those they help with their hunting are actually not starving…..yet.

        I felt that the fact she’s concerned with wanting to go in heavier was a good touch in the books. The message that having more weight could help her deal with both fighting and surviving the starvation in the arena is something that is quite radical in this day and age. And, of course, true. Being too thin is going to weaken you, make your survival chances in a situation like this far worse.

  3. Anyone calling Lawrence fat didn’t notice her waist in the movie! In one scene, it looked like she could be wearing a corset! I saw it with four female friends and we all commented on it. The other great part about Katniss is that Peeta loves her exactly as she is – he loves her when she is dirty, starving, and bull-headed.

  4. LOVE Katniss Everdeer and the possibility of future characters created by her inspiration! And one of the best things about Katniss is how her identity is never defined or qualified by her gender – her characteristics, traits, strengths, talents etc. all tell the tale of her as an individual.

  5. I think she’s sexy but that’s just cause I think girls that can hunt and do archery (like me) are sexy. She is an awesome character though, and the fact that she doesn’t know how gorgeous she is (which is totally is and NOT FAT) is what makes her so desirable.

  6. I went to see the film with my friends when it first came out, and the first thing I was struck by was how the film-makers hadn’t tried to sexualise Katniss at all, and I was very pleased with that. In relation to some of the other comments, I would like to mention that I read the second book in the trilogy first, back when not many people had heard of them yet, so I had no idea about the plot or characters, and for the first few pages I thought Katniss was a boy, until her name was mentioned and someone referred to her as a girl. This is only further proof of how Katniss’ personality isn’t defined by her sex, and I’m very glad the film-makers didn’t try to change that.

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  8. She is in no way fat… but for the part she was playing, an almost died from starving more than once. girl who has to fight for her own food, she isn’t really what I pictured. But that being said I think she did an ok job. There are things about the movie that I didn’t like but it was in no way because of the choice of Jennifer as the role.

  9. Thanks for this article! I was actually thinking about this when I saw the movie/read the book (within days of each other). Katniss is unconcered with her appearance and unsexualised, which I respect the filmmakers for keeping true to the books and resisting the idea that female characters MUST be sexy. I don’t think sexy women shouldn’t be able to be seen as powerful; sexuality should not be denied to women. That being said, I completely agree that, for the most part, it is not really the womens sexuality that is being celebrated in ‘sexy heroines’, but their sex appeal. Sexuality and sex appeal are very different things, sex appeal generally being very appearance-based, and aimed for external approval, and I completely agee, this sexual objectification of women softens their power – women cannot truly be dangerous or powerful if they are presented in a way that objectifies them.
    This is what irritates me when I read about Jessica Alba talking about how her character, Sue Storm, is empowering, and is a strong woman. Yes, she has some powers, but in what light is she given them? Sue Storm, and characters just like her, are nothing but a sexual objects, given only just enough power and intelligence, to prevent them from being overt stereotypes. If you’re going to sell us overt stereotypes, fine, we’re used to that. But selling objectification of women in the form of empowerment? That’s just downright immoral.

    Love live Katniss, and here’s too many more, complex, strong, unique female characters in the future!

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  13. What impressed me about The Hunger Games is that Katniss Everdeen is both a powerful complex character and no strong male character overwhelms or upstages her. It is so rare in popular fiction to find a story with a strong female lead or with a story line that revolves around something besides finding a man. Male protagonist have ”love interest” but for most female characters the love interest isn’t something served on the side. It’s the main course. What is worse when a book does have a female protagonist, her love interest is almost alway more interesting and compelling than she. Bella is nothing but she is in love with a vampire and a werewolf and even more importantly, they love her. Virgin Ana is nothing until a rich millionaire Christian Grey takes a sick interest in her in 50 Shades of Grey. Ick. The only thing special about Francesca Johnson was her boobs until she caught the photographer’s eye in Bridges of Madison County. I could go on and on. It seems sometimes that the weaker and the more bland the protagonist the more women feel they can identify. That is so sad to me. Katniss Everdeen is a breathe of fresh air. She is bigger than life and yet young women do identify with her.

    The actresses weight is so beside the point. Having dieted most of my whole life, I can assure you being as lithe as Jennifer Lawrence (past age 16) can involve quite a bit of hunger, depending upon your metabolism. If it didn’t more people would look like that. I think she was perfect as Katniss.

  14. Katniss is a very “male” character, which is good. It’s nice to see that girls don’t have to wear dresses or glitter or heels, etc.

  15. True for the Hunger Games, but in the books this is because she is too young to be sexy. This changes in Catching Fire at least in the way that Cinna envisions her being presented to the audience. I love Katniss’s strength but this makes Mockingjay so much harder to handle.

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