Not a Witch but a Hero: The Image of Strong Females in Contemporary Fiction

Thursday, February 25, 2016

by Rachel Gross

The previous article established the role that popular fiction plays in human culture: to comment upon the larger issues of contemporary society and connect each unique individual to this society. For example, exploring a strong feminist identity in a world far from gender equality is a topic written throughout history. From ancient texts to early nineteenth century novels, bold female characters frequently appear as monstrous, insane, or confined by the domestic sphere. Characters that did challenge rigid gender roles were often demonized in critical review and labeled as feminists. More modern female characters such as Katniss Everdeen now reveal changing norms and reflect a more empowered femininity. This essay analyzes the representation of female strength that Suzanne Collins portrays in her popular novel The Hunger Games. Just as modern society is recognizing the empowered female, so too does Collins portray this image through her strong female protagonist.

Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist in Collins’ novel, develops her own sense of character while battling a world built on ordered societal roles. Living in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian society, Katniss challenges the preordained social factions, desiring to find her own divergent self in a highly organized world. For example, the beginning chapters of the novel open the Reaping ceremony for the drawing of the Games contestants. Katniss contains her emotions and refuses to cry on camera in order to not give in to the entertainment and spectacle the Games represent to the Capitol. The reader sees the feminine strength Katniss holds within her to resist her depressive emotions and show courage to all. Furthermore, Collins presents a strong female protagonist whose power instigates others to become independent. The particular moment in the novel when Katniss dresses Rue’s body (a contestant in the Games) shows an independent will and defiance to be herself in the face of others’ contempt. She violates the rules by exhibiting compassion for another. This compassion is felt throughout the other Districts, and the people begin to revolt against the Capitol leaders in Katniss’ image. The character’s strong female narrative voice transforms the past, domestic woman into one more assertive. Glennis Stephenson, writer on female authorship, states that this new voice was one “willing to address women’s problems directly and openly” (Stephenson 17). Katniss’ strength allows her to guide male and female individuals crying out against all oppression, not just the gender created.

The Hunger Games plot emphasizes modern society’s desire for equality between the sexes and freedom from gender oppression. The female character’s power breaks the boundaries previously set on what female strength is pictured as and confined by in society. Collins displays women’s sovereignty as further reaching than domestic influence. The entirety of the novel opens with the image of Katniss hunting to provide resources for her family, far from the domestic sphere. This image is one many would link to a male role: being the breadwinner and provider for a family. Yet, Katniss is the one to defy this predetermined gender role in order to care for others. A reader can apply this image to the modern world as particularly male roles are being filled by females and vice versa. Though facing hostility from those afraid of the unknown, Collins’ fictional female illustrates that divergence from fixed gender characteristics can lead to social change and growth.

Victorian Literature professor at the University of Alberta, Susan Hamilton expresses that “in the very act of writing,” female authors create a character whose portrayal of strength “helps to produce a public, professional identity for women as social and political critics” (Hamilton 13). Collins, in her writing career, helps to generate a strong female identity within her audience through a single character’s narrative. Virginia Woolf is an English author of the twentieth century, known for her nonlinear prose. Writing on the topic of women and fiction in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf makes a connection between strong women of the past being seen as witches, not as prominent and forward thinkers. Katniss represents a society that is finally recognizing these strong females not as “a witch being ducked, a woman possessed by devils” but as leaders of a new world (Woolf 699).

With an audience that spans various ages and nations, this work finds popularity in more than just the excitement and suspense the plot creates. The Hunger Games thrives in the opportunities it allows for each individual to find him or herself in society. Collins writes characters that connect each individual reader to his or her unique identity within the larger framework. However, her push towards a stronger female voice in the world is unmistakable with characters such as Katniss and Primrose Everdeen. A reader can identify with the empowered female role Katniss portrays throughout the novel. She emotes. She empathizes. But one is far from labeling her as just an emotional girl in the world. She fights. She stands up for those oppressed. In a single character, Collins is able to inspire action against gender inequality and express to women everywhere that they are important and powerful.

Another identity awakened within the post-apocalyptic world is a girl maturing to adulthood with a strong heart for change. This identity lives within the character of Primrose whose life has been led in the Games society. She desires a healthier, brighter world and uses her skills to help the cause. Though she is young, Primrose inspires readers of all ages to recognize and use their talents. Collins works to advise women to not be ashamed for where their intelligence lies. A woman can hold a job as a teacher, a caregiver, or a nurse. She can also hold a job as an engineer, a lab technician, or a political leader. She should not be held back by society’s prescribed gender images nor should she fear stepping outside of these boundaries. These and other female identities within the book express how any individual, female or male, can fight against global oppression.

Female characters grow stronger and louder with each passing decade. The presentation of female strength as a feature to be applauded can be seen throughout modern novels such as The Hunger Games. Collins’ work is a contemporary novel inspiring women to be themselves in all aspects of society, to find themselves not held back by gender roles but motivated to fight against them. Powerful females are no longer insane or monstrous in fiction or in reality. They garner respect and attention outside of the domestic sphere and inspire many to take action against persecution. The feminist identity can find a voice within a novel, and the novel can find itself as a societal message within the knowledge commons. However, what is the feminist mindset which inundated classic novels? Is the image of an empowered woman new to modern fiction or does it live amongst the Austens and the Eliots of the past? I will explore this topic in the following article in order to present a classic piece as a true guiding light for strong females everywhere.

Happy contemporary reading, everyone!


Works Cited

Hamilton, Susan. ‘Criminals, Idiots, Women, and Minors’ Victorian Writing by Women on Women. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1995. Print.

Stephenson, Glennis, ed. Nineteenth-Century Stories by Women. Peterborough: Broadview Press,1993. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “Shakespeare’s Sister.” World of Ideas. Ed. Lee Jacobus. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 692-704. Print.


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