As I sat in anticipation for Twilight: Breaking Dawn, my popcorn bucket flew from my lap as the logo for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire flashed on the screen. My sister turned to me in disgust, asking why I was so excited for yet another movie chronicling a young female self-navigating in a fantasy world. Though a fan of the novels, my sister’s question got me thinking…why am I so drawn to this, at best, mediocre film? And more importantly, why am I so drawn to Katniss as a character? It’s not like I haven’t encountered similar, slightly tomboyish characters in other novels; in fact, I absolutely have. I can’t help but compare Katniss Everdeen to Jo March from Alcott’s Little Women—both young females struggle to provide for their lower-class families, have absent fathers and subsequently take on paternal roles, and both can be considered more masculine in their nature, behavior, and actions. The comparisons abound, yet one similarity between these two characters distinctively stands out—both Katniss and Jo are considered desirable despite their manly attributes. Both young women rebel from their gender norms and societal ideals of femininity, yet still win the affections of multiple hunky men in their respective novels. Not only do both women become the object of these hunk’s affections, but they have also managed to win the hearts and admiration of female readers over many generations, leading fans to imitate Katniss’ hairstyle or look up to Jo’s defiant personality. Pondering my sister’s original question raised a question of my own—do Katniss and Jo’s desirability reflect Young Adult novels’ common theme of characterizing rebellion against gender norms as appealing, and even sexy?
The short answer to that question is, yes. It’s no secret that the “being bad is good” theme has grown increasingly prevalent, especially in YA literature where the lines and labels of gender have become progressively blurred. In an article by Judy Halberstam, she explains that “gender is understood as a marker of social difference, a bodily performance of normativity and the challenges made to it.” Hence, gender is more than just the sex you were assigned—gender is rooted in societal expectations and is recognized because of its adherence or resistance to its normative standards. And despite the one hundred and forty year gap between Little Women and The Hunger Games, both novels depict their main characters resisting their normative gender constructs of being ladylike and domestic young women. It is this rebellion that draws male admirers as well as female readers to them, making their rebellion from society seem excitingly dangerous, and their acceptance of a masculine persona oddly sexy.
In all fairness, it is not just her rebellion from gender norms that characterizes Katniss as appealing. Described as tall, thin, and olive-skinned, Katniss’ natural beauty contrasted with her tough-around-the-edges personality is what causes both Gale and Peeta to initially fall for her. She never pretends to be anything she’s not, and even when The Capitol dresses her in a lavish get-up, she stays true to the simple yet tough girl from District 12. In fact, it is her progressive toughness that Gale, Peeta, and Panem eventually fall for; Katniss is adored primarily because she is “the girl on fire,” or the girl who rebels. Katniss lives up to this erogenous title by out-smarting the Gamemakers and thriving in a predominately physical and stereotypically masculine field, making her masculinity strangely arousing. Unlike Effie, who performs her gender role, Katniss accepts and embraces her more masculine traits, using them to save her life and to develop relationships with Gale and Peeta. Secure with her masculine identity and unaware of how sexy she is, Katniss has an appealing, non-threatening air of confidence, yet another reason both Gale and Peeta fall for her.
Much like Katniss, Jo displays full confidence in her masculinity, resisting familial and societal expectations for women while still attaining the affections of the rich boy-next-door and the scholarly professor. Jo does not merely resist her gender norm however; in the beginning portion of the novel, Jo fully identifies, dresses, and styles herself as a man. Claiming she has a “gentlemanly manner” and stating “‘I don’t mind being a guy if I’m comfortable,’” Jo embraces her instinctively non-feminine demeanor. However, this only enhances Jo’s appeal to the men in the novel. Laurie finds Jo attractive because of their mutual masculine ambitions, and similarly, Bhaer falls for Jo through their shared love of literature—both men love Jo because she deviates from her gender norm. Unlike Katniss, Jo is not described as physically beautiful, but she is still appealing to male suitors because of her fiery, independent spirit. She may differ from her ladylike sisters, but it is Jo’s rebellion against social, female norms that causes her to be desired.
This rebellion may not be the only reason so many female readers admire Jo and Katniss, but their opposition to conforming to stereotypes has definitely factored into their female fandom. There are thousands of websites devoted to Katniss, detailing how to copy her infamous, non-feminine braid, or debating which guy she should end up with. Likewise, readers have long admired Jo for her spunkiness and argued which man is right for her (my favorite article on this matter stems from a website, http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com!). These characters are so easily likeable because they are selfless, brave, and openly flawed, but what truly is appealing about them is how different they are. Characters in their novels and readers throughout generations are drawn to these women because they can play with the boys while still presenting themselves as attractive, a rare quality many women strive to attain. Katniss and Jo serve as exemplary models of this ideal duality, but more so, present young adult literature’s theme of characterizing non-typical-attractiveness as sexy. Both young women—and novels for that matter—make the point of depicting rebellion against norms as appealing, making hunks in literature and fans like me swoon for their heroic and un-normative sexiness.