Desiring the Desired: Bella, Katniss and the Men that Want Them

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When Edward tells Bella that he plays the role of “the bad guy,” the reader dismisses this possibility as does Bella; however, what if there is truth to his statement?  Edward robs Bella from independently recognizing her own value as separate from him.  Instead of allowing Bella to turn into an independent, self-actualizing heroine, Meyer turns Bella into Edward’s “brand of heroin” in her novel Twilight.  Just as Edward brands Bella’s image as that of a desirable female lead, so too does Peeta’s interest in Katniss transform her into an attractive figure in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.  Why does the reader need this male gaze to actualize the female characters worth and desirability?

In claiming Bella as his “brand of heroin,” Edward unmistakably refers both to Bella’s desirability and to her role as the heroine of the novel.  It’s as if Meyer herself uses Edward’s opinion of Bella not only to establish her credibility as a desirable object, but also her importance as the novel’s heroine: if Edward wants her, then the reader should too.  Edward also literally places ownership over Bella by asserting her as “my brand,” thereby turning her into something that he both owns and labels as important.   In this instance, Bella’s “own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another,” turning her into the subject of both the male gaze and the gaze of the reader (Berger 46).

Once Bella sees herself as an object of desire, she forgets the image of herself as “sallo[w],” “unhealthy” and someone who “could be pretty” and instead sees herself as possessing “eyes too bright” with “spots of red across [her] cheekbones” (Meyer 10, 313).  Although normally this transformation of the self-image would mark a positive change and Bella’s assertion of her own value, it instead comes after Edward’s declaration of desire for her.  Bella does not “know [her] self” and says that the face in the mirror is a “stranger” to her, emphasizing the loss of her own image and perspective of self: she can only see herself through the gaze of Edward (Meyer 313).

The lack of positive female companions also prevents Bella and Katniss from obtaining feminine instead of masculine approval.  Bella does not admire her friend Jessica, a socializing female force, much as Katniss refuses the attention of her mother and Effie Trinket.  In fact, both Bella and Katniss categorize their mothers as whimsical and weak, devaluing their potential feminine perspective in favor of masculine approval.  Bella and Katniss gain approval of their abilities through the gaze of men: Bella seeks to please Edward whereas Katniss sees herself as a worthy hunter through Peeta and Gale’s praise, and as a beautiful woman in Cinna’s eyes.

In Haymitch’s own elegant words, Katniss was “about as romantic as dirt until [Peeta] said he wanted you.  Now they all do” (Collins 135).  Instead of merely being the object of Peeta’s desire, Katniss also becomes the desired object of all the spectators in the capitol, and even to the reader.  Katniss sees Peeta’s objectification of her as a threat, and responds by throwing a punch.  Although Katniss reacts to her desirable image with anger, she and Bella both submit to their desirable image because it gains them favor with their audiences.  In a strange way, both female heroines depend on their desirability to survive: Bella insists that she cannot live without Edward, making her desirability to him an imperative part of the story, whereas Katniss must maintain her desirability with the spectators in order to get supplies and survive.

Although Bella’s “survival” differs drastically from Katniss’s, both female leads feel compelled by the gaze of male characters despite their opposite reactions to it.  In a moment alone, Katniss showers away the paint and makeup from her body (Collins 139).  Without an audience, Cinna, Haymitch or Peeta around, Katniss cleanses herself from the “scent” of beauty in favor of feeling comfortable in her “thick, fleecy nightgown” (Collins 139).  Katniss removes herself from the gaze of men and the public in this moment of personal independence where her beauty cannot be smelled or seen by anyone other than herself.  In contrast to Katniss’s desire to remove herself from the public and masculine eye, Bella enjoys her influence on Edward as she becomes aware of her own beauty and scent.  Bella revels in her “appealing” new role as the subject of Edward’s temptation, even at the loss of her own identity under his controlling gaze (Meyer 268).    

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about Bella and Katniss’s popularity lies in their success with their readers and fans of both the books and films.  In reading both novels or watching the movies, the average reader undoubtedly thinks to themself: “why does Edward love Bella so much? I could be better than her” or “why does Peeta love Katniss? She doesn’t even appreciate him.”  The reader connects to the two heroines through their importance to the men, thereby placing his or herself in the position of being desired.  Essentially, the heroines become valuable because they allow the reader to fulfill his or her own wish to be desired and obtain validation through the male gaze.

Despite their different reactions to their newfound attractiveness, both Bella and Katniss submit to the control of the male gaze and the gaze of the reader.  Whether in the form of Edward, Haymitch, Peeta or the spectators, both heroines cannot deny that their value rests within their desirability.  As two entirely different books with dissimilar heroines, both Twilight and The Hunger Games are surprisingly similar in the way they work to gain the reader’s interest through establishing their heroine’s importance to men.

~Corinne Cunard

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