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02 November 2012

Three Teenage Girls: Bella, Katniss and Hermione (Film Criticism)

This is a crticism for the movies "Twilight," "The Hunger Games," and "Harry Potter," and not the novels.

Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” outranks Bella of “Twilight” in any given day. This is undeniable, right?  However, in a recent discussion with two members of “The Movable Circle,” Katniss may not be different from Bella.  Bella is all about being with her boyfriend Edward, and fighting for her love. Katniss is all about being a strong independent girl protecting her family so the two are very different. Unfortunately, that may only be the major difference between the two and if you deconstruct deeper, Katniss may just be as passive as Bella.  At least Bella never pretended to be anything else than a woman wanting to marry. 

Luckily, unlike Bella, Katniss is played by the charismatic Jennifer Lawrence, who can add complexities to an otherwise paper-thin character.  Lawrence was amazing in “Winter’s Bone,” for which she was nominated for an Oscar Best Actress.  I realized that the main reason that I like Katniss is because of Lawrence’s compelling performance.  If the role had been given to a lesser female actor, the deceptive strength of Katniss would have been more apparent. The second reason is that I immediately compared Katniss to Bella, in the light of my frustration for Bella’s popularity among teenage girls.  But after all the euphoric dust over Katniss has dissipated, the critic switch in me clicked.

“Why do I need to compare Bella to Katniss? Why do I have make the two compete? People never compare Tony Stark (Iron Man) to Steve Rogers (Captain America).  I have never heard anyone saying that Steve Rogers is a stronger and independent man than Tony Stark.  We do not have to compare the two men. Men never have to prove their worth.  They can go about in the world being moral or amoral.  They have no boundaries to break.  The world belongs to the likes of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. 

Stark and Rogers are dynamic characters. They act on their feelings and ideas. They build things.  Even if they are given added help, like the diminutive Roger being given a boost, they still act on their choices.  They get their hands dirty. They bruised. They are allowed to make decisions, make mistakes, and rectify them.  To be fair, these men are adults. Katniss and Bella are still in their teens.

The two girls are constantly being protected.  They never seem to act on their own.  They seem to make choices but not entirely on their own terms. 

Katniss is often perceived as a strong character. She delivers strong statements.  She performs one or two disarming gestures to show her rebellious nature. Shooting an apple with her arrow is one example.  She thinks and feels like a strong independent young girl.  Bottom line, she is an interesting character but that may be all that she is allowed to be. She wins the game because she gets sponsors but she never actually given much opportunity to manage on her own.  She buys the idea that she must get people to like her in order to win. Now, who hasn’t heard that statement before?  Inevitably, it is not about your skills, but your "likeability."  Life is after all a game.  Given that Katniss is merely maneuvering in a cage, she may just be exercising the limited choices that are given to her. In the end, her refusal to kill Peeta at the final scene may be her one true act of independence. 

I still consider Katniss to be one of the most interesting characters in pop culture today but like some potentially groundbreaking female characters, Katniss is betrayed by her creators; I mean the writers and director. [1] Unlike most characters in the movie, Katniss is blessed with fortune.  She is always given an escape route.  Men are always watching over her, making sure she survives and wins the game without her actually doing it for herself. The reason is obvious (although most of us missed it at the start).  Katniss is a token strong female hero. She is not an equal of Iron Man.  When Tony Sparks was injured, he actually made an artificial heart to save himself. When Katniss was injured, her creator did not give her the opportunity to fix the problem on her own. She was given support from the beyond.  Katniss must be protected.  Katniss must survive because the audience needs a woman to survive.  Let the other men die or live using their skills, but we need a token female hero.  If Katniss lives, then we can say “see, women can now compete equally with men and win” and that will distract people from thinking that she still lives in a man’s world.  She is still in a cage. 

I like “The Hunger Game” but for different reasons.  For me, the movie should be titled “How to Deceive People into Believing Women are now Equal to Men.”  Katniss is a truly strong character when she was left alone in her village. She can fend for herself (most of the times) and care for her family.  However, forcibly ejected from her town, she is manipulated and dolled up to be paraded in a market place where women, in order to be liked, have to pay attention to their looks and fall in love, even if she is just acting.  Katniss is a perfect example of a strong girl being manipulated for deception in order to hide the unchallenged status quo.    

Our only hope is Katniss makes her own decisions, acts on them and play her own game.

For me, Hermione Granger of the “Harry Potter” series is still the best female teenage character in film in recent history.  Hermione studied in an institution dominated by men.  She was marginalized for being a Muggle-born, or its derogatory term “mudblood,” but she fought head on.  She studied hard. She got into the action. No one gave her special treatment.  She helped herself.   She made mistakes. The people around her gave her chances to solve things on her own.  She did not spend her time looking for a boyfriend. She saw Harry as an equal and so did Harry. Her romantic feelings with Ronald Weasley developed naturally.  Of course, she did not get to kill Voldemort but simply because that was not her chosen destiny.  That responsibility was arbitrarily given to Harry for which he chose to undertake.

Hermione did get some help from Dumbledore when he gave her the “time turner,” a device that enabled her to time travel, but she used it to broaden her knowledge and assist her friends.  [F.Y.I. Dumbledore also gave special items to Harry.] Dumbeldore might have just recognized Hermione’s unfortunate predicament as a Mugggle-born, starting at a lower rank than most of the boys in school. Dumbledore might have also been in the same predicament as a young marginalized homosexual student but eventually becoming the most powerful wizard through hard work.  If the assistance had come from another, that would have been a different story.

I hope that we will have more Hermione Grangers and fewer Bellas in the future. As for Katniss, I hope she continues to kick asses and say, “who wrote this sh*t!” (She may also be referring to this article and not just the film script. Wink)

Notes: [1] Film is a director’s medium.  Even if a character is written as being regressive, in the hands of an adept director with a clear agenda, he or she can twist a defeatist character just enough to make the character more complex, less of a token and more victorious. 

(First published in “The Chair” Blog)

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