Jennifer Lawrence As a Girl with Gut With In The Entertainment Industry
Girl meets boy…and even though she’s all of 16, she swears it’s love at first sight. Girl ends up in danger, and boy rescues her. Boy kisses girl. Girl becomes his wife, or a princess (or, more recently, a vampire).
It’s the basic synopsis of a thousand books and movies aimed at adolescent girls, the plot of nearly every Disney film. Such stories feed the prevalent “tweenage” fantasy of finding a love so instantaneous and true that it pulls you right out of your mundane life and makes you feel like royalty, but they certainly leave a lot to be desired. Especially for all those girls (and I include myself in this category) who grew up wondering why the princess could never fight the dragon, why the cookie-cutter high school girls portrayed on TV were all about as intelligent as my pet goldfish, and why Disney bothered to name Sleeping Beauty after the titular princess when she spends a good portion of the film asleep, waiting for a prince to rescue her.
In 2005, a generation of girls raised on Disney princesses, The Princess Diaries, and the seemingly fairytale lives of tabloid stars discovered Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga – and despite the addictive passions that smolder inside the four-book series, as well as the original novel’s adept use of its “socially awkward girl falls in love with a vampire” premise as an apt metaphor for the all-consuming agony and ecstasy of a first love, it’s hard to imagine that even the most devout Twihard did not get annoyed with protagonist Bella Swan’s insipid mooning, constant refusal to take action without boyfriend Edward’s approval, and passive acceptance of whatever she is told by Edward, or Jacob, or any other man in her life.
So it comes as a relief that pop culture and media geared towards young adults seems to have suddenly caught on to what science fiction and fantasy fans have known for ages – that female characters are far more memorable when they are doing something besides looking pretty and waiting for a man.
Katniss Everdeen, the fierce heroine of Suzanne Collins’s brilliant The Hunger Games trilogy, is a prime example of this new paradigm for female characters – a complex, entirely relatable young woman beloved by adolescent girls, adult readers, and entertainment critics alike. With her self-sacrificial love for little sister Prim, her stubborn refusal to accept the nearly certain death she is sentenced to as a tribute in the vicious teenage-gladiator contest known as the Hunger Games, and her wicked skills with a bow-and-arrows, Katniss reveals herself to be a fighter with a soul, a survivor and a champion, a not-so-ordinary girl entirely unaware of her own charisma – the anti-Bella Swan, if you will. Rather than letting others transform her, as Bella and so many animated princesses do, Katniss battles to transform the sadistic dystopian society she lives in, even when that society is powerful – and sick – enough to turn 24 of its children into glamorized celebrity killers each year.
Of course, Collins, like many authors of young adult fiction, recognizes that romance is an essential element on her protagonist’s path to self-actualization, so she gives Katniss her own Bella-Edward-Jacob love triangle, weaving an angst-ridden web between the Girl on Fire, fellow tribute Peeta, and hunting partner Gale. But while Bella spends a good deal of her pre-vampiric life wrestling with her romantic dilemmas, Katniss realizes that she has far more pressing matters to worry about first – namely, the survival of herself, her family, and the two boys she has reluctantly come to love in her own damaged way. As a matter of fact, in the second book of the trilogy, when she is contemplating the best way to ignite a forbidden revolution, Katniss memorably declares to herself, “I really can’t worry about kissing when I’ve got a rebellion to incite.” Like most teenage girls, Katniss does not know her own heart, but she never lets doubt stop her from acting to protect those she cares about.
One of the great things about The Hunger Games is that all of Collins’s female characters, from snarky Johanna Mason to sweet, mentally scarred Annie Cresta, are complicated and multifaceted – real women in lieu of caricatures. None of these characters are the stereotypical “nerdy single girls,” either; instead, they each possess talents, flaws, pasts, and personalities that render them attractive in unique ways that extend beyond the superficial. Heck, all of Panem might think that Annie is insane, but she’s the only woman who manages to win the heart of handsome playboy Finnick Odair, who chooses her natural beauty and pure heart over all the shallow Capitol socialites who constantly throw themselves at him, flaunting their dyed hair, expensive fashions, and plastic, surgically enhanced figures. Similarly, and quite tellingly, it is Katniss’s tenacity, independence, and characteristic bluntness that draw others to her, Peeta and Gale included.
Wait a minute – does this mean guys actually like girls who fight their own battles, speak their minds, and aren’t afraid to get a little mud on their shoes? Someone go tell Disney, quick!
Apparently, somebody did, and Disney finally seems to have gotten the message (albeit about 30 years too late). Recent Disney films have featured a long-haired Rapunzel who knocks out her thieving would-be prince with a frying pan, a hardworking, royal-scorning New Orleans girl named Tiana, and the spunky hula-dancing Lilo, a little girl who befriends an unruly blue alien. Disney’s latest animated feature, Brave, created in collaboration with Pixar, stars the fiery (and fiery-maned) princess Merida, a teenage tomboy furious at her ladylike mother’s insistence that she follow the age-old custom requiring her to choose a suitor when she comes of age. Merida, with her wry wit, love of horseback-riding, and aptitude for rock-climbing and archery, is like Katniss’s red-haired Scottish cousin, right down to her knack for swiping food and her strained relationship with a mother who doesn’t quite understand her. Being a Disney film, Brave doesn’t thrust Merida into a fatal reality show in post-apocalyptic North America, but the film does send her on an incredible journey of her own, an adventure through the mystic highlands and bear-ravaged forests of Scotland that requires her to rely on her bow-and-arrows, her grasp of medieval statecraft, her courage, and her ingenuity to keep her country safe and heal the rift she has torn in the fabric of her family.
Merida is the first Disney princess who remains happily single throughout her movie, a drastic departure for a studio that previously gave us the stories of a sea siren who gives up her tail – and her voice – to win a man (The Little Mermaid), an apple-poisoned princess who comes back to life only after a prince kisses her (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), and an obedient, submissive servant girl who dreams not of defying the stepmother and stepsisters who torment her but of dancing at a fancy ball (Cinderella).
In truth, however, vibrant, layered, gutsy female characters like Katniss and Merida are nothing new in fiction – consider, for instance, scientifically minded Meg Murry in A Wrinkle in Time, leather-clad, karate-chopping Trinity from the Matrix films, hard-edged Na’vi archer princess Neytiri in James Cameron’s Avatar, and the heroines of pretty much any Judy Blume novel. Such feisty females just seem like such a sudden phenomenon due to the young adult market’s habitual emphasis on catty revenge sagas and saccharine love stories that all too often portray girls as one-note stereotypes – The Loser, The Dork, The Cheerleader, The Good Girl, The Dumb Blonde.
More writers and filmmakers producing entertainment for young adults today should look at the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games and the critical acclaim of Brave and take the hint – adolescent girls (and boys, and full-grown men and women, too) don’t want Bella-bland anymore; they want believable, sympathetic, complicated heroines not unlike today’s teenage girls – girls with attitude and energy, spirit and sass, relatable problems and complex desires. Oh, and giving them bow-and-arrows doesn’t seem to hurt, either.