March 23, 2012
A biblical heroine for ‘The Hunger Games’
Queen Esther is an easy heroine.
Beautiful, brainy, and the savior of a people makes her effortless to admire, though she barely set a precedent for modern archetypes. Today, young girls are screaming for Katniss Everdeen, the kid-killing heroine of “The Hunger Games”, a film adapted from the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Had the Queen been alive today, no doubt she’d be competing with movie stars to swell the circle of her influence.
“I’m just going to cry,” said one of hundreds of girls on line to meet 21-year-old “The Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence at a Barnes and Noble in Union Square, according to a report from the New York Times.
“Hunger Mania” as its being called, refers to the fandom madness previously seen with the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” franchises, though this time, the focus of all this adoration and idolatry is an unconventional female hero. Katniss is an unsentimental survivalist, who would probably not have chosen her savage destiny unless absolutely necessary (to heroically save her younger sister’s life), though she slips easily from domestic protector to wild, determined warrior.
In her review of the movie, the Times’ Manohla Dargis champions this rare bird, calling Katniss “[a] brilliant, possibly historic creation — stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation, armed with Diana’s bow and a ferocious will[.]” Though the story does have its romance, it is hardly the heroine’s main focus. The fierce Katniss prefers to fight, not flirt. And she does not, as Dargis proudly notes, need a man to save her. “Again and again,” Dargis writes, “Katniss rescues herself with resourcefulness, guts and true aim, a combination that makes her insistently watchable[.]”
To whom in the modern world might Katniss compare? Especially when the real-life hero for so many of the story’s fans will inevitably become the actors that bring the tale to life. Could a female stateswoman such as Hillary Clinton become the object of modern female fantasy, even if, she may not be her husband’s? Or perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who frightened away Liberian dictator Charles Taylor not with sword, but with smarts, savvy and song?
But the modern Esthers hardly elicit girlish screams of delight, or even legions of fans. Why does the warrior on the screen not translate to the warriors of the world?
Instead, even Dargis, who must have female idols of her own, resorts to a biblical babe in order to identify Katniss squarely in American cultural consciousness. “Unlike those American Adams who have long embodied the national character with their reserves of hope, innocence and optimism, Katniss springs from someplace else, a place in which an American Eve, battered, bruised and deeply knowing, scrambles through a garden not of her making on her way to a new world.”
It’s a compelling fantasy: the lone, strong-willed woman needing nothing from the realm of the heart on her strident walk through the world—her loveliness from love lost, her worldliness from devastating disappointment. She relinquishes her need for intimacy because nothing she’s ever been close to has she been able to keep.
Strange then, that in the same weekend in which this is the vision of womanhood most vaunted, a heroine of a different sort also emerges. In “The Deep Blue Sea” based on a play by the British playwright Terence Rattigan, Rachel Weisz plays a woman of immense depth whose sole ambition is love. “She is at once a sensible, capable, intelligent Englishwoman and a mad, keening martyr for love,” writes A.O. Scott in The Times. “Or at least that is what she wants to be.”
Is she less admirable for choosing love over ambition? Weak because her torment is internal and not externalized in some deadly dystopian wilderness? As if the strength required for survival is always physical, and not—even at a time when wars are being fought—located closer to the domain of the soul.
Because even a girl who wins “Hunger Games” is a body at best. The achievements of the measured world an ever transient feat. What of her character will survive when her spear gives out?