Our Girls on Fire: Successful Young Adult Protagonists

As The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part I settles into its theatrical sovereignty, I’ve been reflecting on how centralized fictional Young Adult (YA) heroines have become to our lexicon of female empowerment. Katniss Everdeen is the quintessential girl role model because we want girls to kick ass and take names! (At least, we want girls to strive to be the ass-kicking and name-taking type.)

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I’m quintessential!

Under a heavy-handed cultural push for YA protagonists like Katniss to be female role models, there lies an insidious cultural ideology that goes by the name of postfeminism. In my biz (the teaching students biz and the blogging biz) I spend a lot of time talking about how postfeminism has permeated the female success story, and how it’s a dirty faker: its sexism and sexual objectification wrapped up in the liberalism of girl power. We love Katness because she’s a badass female. We are also invited to love Katniss because she’s a badass female who’s sexually wanted.

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It should come as no surprise to you, dear readers, that I am a YA fiction junkie. I’ve read The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Uglies series. Aside from each having been (or rumored to be) the next book-turned-blockbuster franchise, these YA series share a common feature: a scrappy, tenacious, sixteen-year-old girl protagonist who is, ahem, not pretty. Yes, even Katniss.

Suzanne Collins describes Katniss as underdeveloped and malnourished. In Divergent, Veronica Roth characterizes Tris as plain, flat chested, and scrawny. As for Scott Westerfeld’s protagonist Tally, well, he named his book The Uglies.

THIS SHOULD BE AWESOME! In the midst of our culture ranking women’s beauty and sexualizing their bodies at ever-younger ages, it should rock that some of the most popular female characters don’t have beautiful faces or curvy figures. Unattractive-yet-awesome protagonists mean that girls who don’t feel pretty can relate to these characters. Moreover, it enables girls and young women to place value in traits like tenacity, problem solving, and an adventurous spirit. Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the hunger games, Tris chooses to become a Dauntless initiate, and Tally treks through hundreds of miles of backcountry to find her friend. These qualities as not only valuable in the stories, its clear that we should value them.

This should be awesome. But Katniss, Tris, and Tally don’t stay not pretty, they get makeovers. Katniss is stripped of her body hair, her scars are removed, and she’s puffed into a Capital dream. Plain and modest Tris is made to look more Dauntless with some shoulder-baring dress action, dark eyeliner, and untamed hair. I mentioned that Scott Westerfeld named his first book The Uglies. His second book is The Pretties. These makeovers don’t take away from the ass-kicking and name-taking qualities of the characters. In fact, their makeovers make them more awesome because they get noticed a lot more for their badass-ness. But that’s a problem. See, there’s a very popular mainstream belief that women have it all—that is, they have achieved ideal social value and worth—when they kick ass and take names, and they do it while wearing Louboutins.

Lets review postfeminism, shall we? Postfeminism is the idea that we’ve already attained gender equality (hooray?). It goes a little something like this: “if women have the same shot at education and jobs, then they have the same shot at success.” It becomes more complicated when we define what success is. Donald Trump is successful because he’s got power, he’s got money, and he rules the boardroom (at least on TV). The postfeminist woman is successful because she’s got power, she’s got money, she rules the boardroom and, oh yea, she’s super fucking hot. She’s not Hilary Clinton. Don’t get me wrong, Clinton’s got some mad power, but we rarely hear that she’s an ideal female figure.

It’s not the prettification of the YA protagonists that I object to per se, it’s how we are invited to see the makeover as a step in their becoming the whole package of success. Successful women are awesome, they are pretty, and, most importantly, they inspire sexual desire.

News flash: femininity is tied to beauty and beauty is tied to sexiness. A while back I wrote about how this costume…

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…reflects a pervasive postfeminist trope: smart ladies get PhDs; successful ladies get PhDs while bringing the sexy. In contemporary U.S. society, women are valued—and expected to feel self-value—by being sexualized. This is why it’s mandatory that I smile and thank some creep on the street who catcalls at me and tells me I’m pretty: he’s just given me the ultimate compliment.

The badass YA protagonist becomes the real deal of female empowerment and success when her makeover coincides with (better yet triggers) male romantic interest. Pretty Tally gets a Pretty boyfriend. Capital Katniss suddenly becomes the public recipient of Peeta’s (heretofore private) longings. And it’s not until Tris’ makeover that Four feel compelled/at liberty to drunkenly stagger over, press his lips to her ear, and whisper “you look good.” This confront-compliment is creepy on many levels: it’s lobbed at her by a drunk man, an older man, a man who is her teacher, and a man who has power over her future. But rather than reading this interaction as creepy, we’re invited to see it as Tris sees it: a romantic endorsement of her desirability, both sexual and social.

A trope is a recurring media theme that circulates around long enough to infiltrate our reality. One kick-ass female protagonist who gets a makeover and becomes the “the whole package” of sexy, feminine empowerment probably won’t influence girls and young women. But postfeminist messages about female success circulate across books, movies, and TV. This accumulates. So we might notice how Katniss and Tris and Tally are kicking ass and taking names, but we begin not to notice how their strength and cleverness are only precursors to their finished selves, the sexy and sexually desired ones. We don’t want classic Disney Princesses to be role models anymore because they’re unattainably femme and they’re obsessed with male romantic attention. Katniss kicks ass, yes, and and she’s pretty, and she’s the object of two men’s romantic attentions. I heart Katniss Everdeen, I do. But sometimes the liberal characters we pat ourselves on the back for valuing are not as valuable as we want them to be.

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About Meredith Heller

The Saucy Scholar is Faculty Lecturer of Queer Studies in Women's and Gender Studies at Northern Arizona University. She holds a Ph.D. in Theater Studies and a doctoral emphasis in Feminist Studies from UC Santa Barbara, and specializes in performance and entertainment, gender studies, and queer theory.
This entry was posted in culture, gender, popular culture, postfeminist, sexiness, young adult. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Our Girls on Fire: Successful Young Adult Protagonists

  1. A.D. Martin says:

    In the Hunger Games Katniss’ success required her to cater to the masses to gain their support (by getting her makeovers and, more or less, faking a romance), but Collins seemed to portray a lot of that as society’s problem. After all, she essentially wrote the series as a critique and comment on how Americans take in our media (primarily the obsession with reality TV and desensitized view on war, but I figured she was also taking a jab at our standards of beauty, particularly with the way she made the Capitol’s fashion sense sort of a hyperbole of our own).

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