Katniss and Bella vs. Gender Roles and the “Cool Factor”

We have seen a phenomenon in the media and social world in regards to YA books as of late—such a phenomenon that has resulted in strongly voiced opinions and cultish fan clubs. In two of the biggest and most recent YA literary phenomena, the female protagonists of each could not have differed more in character or in the audience’s reaction towards them. While the majority of reviews and readers admire and favor Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, there is much negativity surrounded around Twilight’s Bella Swan. How do two incredibly popular series differ so much in female protagonists? What is it about Bella that make some people have such low opinions of her? Are the only admired female protagonists ones who defer from the stereotypical feminine role? What does this say about gender versus womanhood and manhood?

The hype surrounding The Twilight Saga is unreal. In young people and adults alike, it is seen in the media that people go crazy for these books and these characters. “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” shirts are worn by relentless, die-hard fans, who creepily feel a personal ownership towards their chosen man. These near-obsessed readers have dubbed themselves with the name of “twihards”, yet as much excitement as there is over the books, there is so little talk of fans of the protagonist of them. In fact, the more voiced opinions of Bella are ones of dislike and detest. Bella is a seemingly bland character, especially in comparison to the other auxiliary characters in the book. Her character follows the traditional and stereotypical role of femininity, where her only dream is to be with Edward forever. Unlike Katniss, she has no real sense of personal agency in the novel, and this is where they differ. She allows her entire, young life to be surrounded by Edward—which is not an incredibly inspiring characteristic. Edward has total control over her and she does pretty much everything and anything he tells her to do. He tells her to drink and she obeys without question; he tells her to eat and she does so even if she isn’t hungry. He is entirely in power because she gives him that power. She cannot figure why he would be interested in her, disclosing to him her self consciousness when she tells him, “’look at me…I’m absolutely ordinary…and look at you,” as she “waved [her] hand toward him and all his bewildering perfection” (pg 210). Bella does not see herself as anything worthy of the greatness that she sees in Edward, though all she desires is to be with him. This is depicting of the traditional role of womanhood, where her only achievement in life was to be married and be a good wife, and not have much of a chance to grow and succeed individually. By desperately wanting to be turned into a vampire, Bella is literally handing over her personal agency and thus losing her identity as a being, in order to fit in with Edward’s world.

Part of the reason for such ill feelings towards Bella could be of jealousy—because she is the girl who gets to stay eighteen and beautiful forever, not to mention her unbreakable partnership with hunky Edward—but I would say that my problem with her is boring demeanor combined with her too quick desire to give up her identity and individuality for a boy. Our second female protagonist up for discussion is Katniss Everdeen, who, in a word, I describe as: rad. She is relentless, passionate, and tough. With understood responsibility, Katniss takes charge of her house after her father dies and her mother’s mental state becomes inadequate to run a household, straying away from “womanhood” and the stereotypical feminine role. Disregarding the laws of District 12, Katniss hunts animals to keep her and her mother and sister from starving, which one might think to be typically unladylike. While the majority of Bella’s actions in the novels involve watching Edward from afar and becoming over come with depression when he is not there, Katniss is always in action. Her personal sense of agency only develops more and more in the novel, which makes her a likeable protagonist. In Judith Halberstam’s article entitled “Gender”, she discusses gender and its social roles and constrictions. One point made in the article I found to be relevant when thinking about the female protagonists in these two works. Halberstam does mention that gender has created social constructions of womanhood and manhood, when she states that gender has been a social relation that “names a primary mode of oppression that sorts human bodies into binary categories in order to assign labor, responsibilities, moral attributes, and emotional styles” (pg 118). However true this may be or has been in the past, there has been an effort in recent years “dedicated to shifting and rearticulating the signifying field of gender” (pg 118). This reevaluation of the supposed roles of each gender is a current issue, as the world becomes more progressive, people too become more varied, and society must change to accommodate to those changes. Katniss is symbolic of this change. She takes on the masculine role to help her family survive the terrible living conditions of their district, and later takes on a robust, aggressive demeanor in order to survive herself in the games.

The major difference between Bella and Katniss as female protagonists is their personal sense of agency. Bella loses her identity and agency to Edward when she allows him to become her entire world. Her life plot line consists of being a wife to him for eternity, with no other passion driving her own personal development. Katniss’ “coolness” as a protagonist comes from her being an example of the shift in gender that we are seeing in our current world. She does not adhere to the typical “womanhood” that her gender subjects her to, and instead takes on a more masculine role, because she does not see that specificity to be pertinent to her life. The YA fiction reading community praises this change through their heroine protagonists, acknowledging that gender does not necessarily determine social roles.

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