The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 sits at the top of the box office, to no one’s surprise, for the second weekend in a row. As I sat in the theater on Friday night staring up at Katniss as she rummaged through the rubble and remains of her home in District 12, I found myself wondering, is this the empowered female hero we’ve all been waiting for? In a film world where most female protagonists are ass kicking sex symbols with little depth and character development, or incapable damsels in distress created solely to empower the male hero, a truly heroic female icon for audiences to cheer on and become influenced by is a rare treasure. Katniss makes a mockery of all the typical tropes that have become the standard of what makes a hero (male or female), and the defiance of these norms is what really makes her the girl on fire.
All is Fair in Love and War: If there’s anything Katniss is not, it’s a damsel in distress, but such things cannot be said about her sometimes fake, sometimes real love interest, Peeta Mellark. One particularly unique way this franchise subverts the typical dynamic between hero and the object of his or her affection is the reversal of gender roles. While we mostly see a male hero continuously wooing his female love interest by rescuing her from harm’s way (Spider-man and Mary Jane, Spider-man and Gwen Stacey), we occasionally see an instance where the male at least meets his match (Princess Leia in Star Wars, Black Widow in the Marvel franchise), but we almost never see these roles completely reversed. Katniss isn’t a Bella Swan with two teenage heartthrobs battling over who gets to save her life; she’s a tough, capable independent girl who can take care of herself, and you’re lucky just to be able to keep up. Peeta’s role of the damsel in distress allows Katniss to show young girls (and adult women) that not only do they not need to wait around to be saved, but they’re also capable of doing the saving, too.
Although fans of the books are already aware that in the end Katniss does make a choice, there’s something to be said about how little emphasis these films have placed on the love triangle itself up to this point. She’s too busy trying to be the leader the people need and keep her loved ones alive to waste time on jealousy and boyfriends and romantic feelings and decisions. In other words, there are much more important things. Wait, you mean she cares more about her community and her family than who makes her heart go pitter patter the most? In this regard, Katniss may not be the hero every teenage girl wants, but she is most certainly the one they need.
The Girl on Fire: As we watch the rebels rise up to follow her and the Capitol scramble to smother her flames, it’s important to remember how Katniss ends up here. She wasn’t born into importance, she wasn’t accidentally bitten by a radioactive something, she doesn’t have any superpowers, and she wasn’t the “chosen one.” Katniss is more than just a reluctant hero, she downright doesn’t want to be a part of it, and she certainly doesn’t want to be anyone’s hero. It’s her heart, her selflessness, her bravery, and well, maybe her mad skills with a bow and arrow, that inspire everyone to follow her. She emerges as a hero as a result of acts that were meant to save the people she cares about at the expense of her own safety, not to earn any kind of credit or status for them. When Katniss volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place, it’s because she wants to protect her family, not because she thinks she can win. In the games, she’s motivated by a desire not to die rather than to win, and even that goal takes a backseat when it comes down to her own life versus someone she loves. And it’s because she doesn’t want the glory that she deserves it.
Miss Everdeen doesn’t perform for an audience or put on a show for the camera, she can’t even do that when it’s for the right reasons, which is plainly evident in Mockingjay Part 1 when she fumbles and fails to put in a scripted inspirational speech. In The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, when Katniss is primped and pressed and paraded on display for the visual stimulation of others, it’s an obvious thumbed nose at the way society devours anything with a glossy sheen at face value. When the rebels attempt to parade her in a similar manner with their propaganda ad and its fake special effects and hollow words, it fails. Haymitch pinpoints the source of the propo’s flop; the answer is one that should resonate with every viewer, young and old. Katniss’s actions and words make the most impact when they’re her own, and the truly heroic moments that inspire people to look up to her occur when she’s being herself.
So, the time has come for a final verdict. Do we think Katniss Everdeen is worth all the fuss? Let’s see, an empowered female with independence, selfless bravery, an inability to be anything but completely genuine, and a huge heart. Our Mockingjay indeed.