Half-hearted Heroines in Modern Media

By Evelyn Gonzalez '18
Feminist Columnist

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games franchise. Photo courtesy of fanpop.com

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games franchise. Photo courtesy of fanpop.com

With the emergence of franchises like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” came a new wave of young female heroines that captured moviegoers’ attention. Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior seemed like a nice change of pace to the usual films made about young girls and women.

Female moviegoers, based off of their earnest interests in these movies, seemed to be tired of the typical portrayals of women and therefore would be open to any type of change that resembled better representation of women. Katniss and Tris became the epitomes of good representation, as their characters showed that women were more than capable of exuding strength and being in charge of their own lives. These female characters are authoritative and unapologetic as they move through the scene with courage and power not only over themselves, but also over others around them. Katniss was the main breadwinner for her family, doing things like hunting and selling on the black market while Tris was put into positions much like Katniss in which she must fight in order to survive as physical strength and bravery are traits that become highly valued. Female viewers everywhere sighed with relief at not seeing yet another princess who constantly needed to be rescued. However, The “Strong Female” character, as emulated by these two characters, emerged as another problematic attempt at representation of women. These representations became detrimental in that they forced woman into yet another one-dimensional form, encouraging young girls to view their femininity as a sign of weakness.
 

Tris Prior from Divergent. Photo courtesy of http://justkillingti.me

Tris Prior from Divergent. Photo courtesy of http://justkillingti.me

The ways in which women are portrayed in blockbuster films often mirror society’s ingrained perceptions and showcase certain stereotypes as realistic portrayals. These portrayals are predictable in that they continue to pigeonhole traits into neat boxes, forcing viewers to fixate on one specific sort of character. For example, when appearing in films or television women can usually be easily categorized into certain tropes such as: the Femme Fatale (played by Dr. Elsa Schneider in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) or the damsel in distress (played by characters like Princess Peach.) As a result, this “type” becomes the standard, thereby normalizing the idea of an archetype as an accurate depiction of people. Women in film, especially, are compressed into mere husks of themselves and their characteristics are often singled out to create one-dimensional characters. Women are treated as mere stock characters that could be inserted into the film at any time without needing a well thought-out storyline or background. We are, as viewers of these films, not allowed to delve into the rich inner lives of these women because of the strict parameters set around what a female character is and should be.  Tropes like these are centered around the idea of stereotypical gendered features as unvarying aspects of a person, which creates a uniform set of characters. These tropes therefore do not treat women as individuals but rather group them together based on the false premise of the similarities between them.  In this sense, Katniss and Tris were a positive addition to the silver screen since they did not adhere to the “damsel in distress” trope but rather fulfilled their type as “strong females” by exhibiting traits in a stereotypically masculine way. According to an article written by Planned Parenthood, “Gender and Gender Identity,” words usually used to describe masculinity are “aggressive, non-emotional, hard and rebellious,” while words commonly used to describe femininity are “emotional, passive, nurturing and weak.” Categorized in this way, the strong female character highlights the discord between society’s perceptions about strength and femaleness. Since even particular characteristics of personalities are assigned a gender, those that fall within the range of masculine are often highly regarded. When viewers picture the “strong female character,” they picture one who is not positioned in situations that highlight society’s ideas of femininity; rather, she is found in those in which she exhibits characteristics associated with masculinity, meaning the idea that females can only be strong if they act in a masculine manner is reinforced.

While these characters are a step in the right direction, the reason The Hunger Games  and Divergent were so successful is because viewers responded positively to their masculinity. Katniss and Tris are perceived as strong because they don’t adhere to the stereotypical female characteristics.The idea that strong isn’t the typical state for a female forces the feminine to become a characterization of weakness, and as a result discourages young girls from exploring their femininity.  Since viewers have been conditioned to only put value on masculine characteristics, this misplaced value has the ability to affect young girls’ perceptions about their own feminineness.

To achieve representational female characters in film requires a level of complexity. A female character should not be a great character simply because she matches what viewers want to see in a male character. It’s almost like we should be treating these female characters like real human beings in order to develop towards more realistic portrayals of women in film. Good female representation means allowing young girls to traverse the lines between masculinity and femininity. All genders should be allowed to show a full range of feminine and masculine emotions and traits while avoiding the idea of attaching more value to one over the other.