Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
In sitting down to write this post, I spent at least two and a half hours reading about “spleen” on Wikipedia and other sources. I’ve run the gamut on the subject. From Baudelaire to Mystery Men, I’ve got it covered. Most interestingly, swollen spleens are of keen interest when it comes to divining the future with the entrails of birds. Is that what the soothsayer saw when she warned Caesar about the Ides of March? With all our modern-day interest in metrics, it might do for an ambitious fortune teller to catalogue abnormalities in avian viscera to cross-reference with the events of the day—like statisticians charting corollaries between enlarged spleens and instances of betrayal. Who knows what disappointments we might avoid if we applied a little modern know-how to the ancients’ methods.
The deeper we dive into the modern body of SF literature, the more we apply our knowledge of what the ancients understood about character, the more we can learn about our own modern worldview and how it might be changing. I was reminded of this over the weekend when I went to see Catching Fire, and was once again struck by Katniss Everdeen and her similarities to the Greek goddess Artemis.
Looking at the Katniss character throughout the entire Hunger Games series, one sees that she is given virtues that are traditionally ascribed to young men: She hunts. She provides for her family. She is a protector. Yet through all this she remains feminine, displaying poise, empathy, and beauty even as she is almost indifferent to the tender sympathies of the boys in her life.
On television, Revolution’s young female protagonist, Charlie Matheson, follows that blueprint exactly (although I haven’t watched any of the second season). They even dress her like the image of Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss, right down to the bow and arrow, a hallmark of Artemis. But then, no one ever accused Hollywood of subtlety. They see that something works and they run with it, detractors be damned. But why does it work and where is it going?
I will not be the first to compare Katniss to Twilight’s Bella Swan. You can find any number of articles on the internet that do so with varying degrees of success, but the characters’ differences are important to point out precisely because they represent two very different concepts of the heroine. Bella represents the old guard—the awkward wallflower who realizes her worth vis à vis Edward’s adulation of her beauty. As she is drawn into his world, she assumes a subservient role. She enlists his protection. As I stated earlier, Katniss is the very opposite of that. She chooses her own path out of a desire to be the protector of innocence. Bella surrenders her innocence in exchange for protection.
But as the Twilight star fades in the wake of the movies, the Hunger Games is in full ascension. We could be looking at a turning point in the culture. Gone are the days of swooning maidens rescued by virtuous knights to live happily ever after. Be prepared for a new image of femininity that adheres to the more feral and independent qualities of Artemis, of young women who choose their own path with an agency that has mostly been reserved for young men.
Another YA series with a movie on the way that seems to live up to this ideal is Divergent. A coming-of-age story where the stakes are much higher, Divergent tackles the passage of the child into adulthood. The main character, Beatrice Prior, must choose whether to remain with her family and all that is familiar with the world, or to follow her inner truth into the unknown in order to find her true tribe—those people who think and act as she does. Choices are made, paths are chosen, but what has begun is what Joseph Campbell refers to as the hero’s journey. The Divergent series is unfinished, but one assumes that Beatrice’s journey will be one in which the various trials she endures provide her with knowledge and tools necessary to return to the place she began and break open the rigid caste system of her dystopian world.
Thankfully, portrayals of women with strength and agency are not limited to the YA shelves. Nicola Griffith, an author I have long admired, has a new book out called Hild in which she tells of the story of Saint Hilda of Whitby, one of the most pivotal figures of the Middle Ages. It is on my shortlist of books to read, but I haven’t cracked it yet.
Mostly it’s interesting to know that “adult” fantasy and science fiction is keeping pace with trends in YA. The popularity of Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games might signal a sea change in the portrayal of heroic women. Personally, I’m way more interested in Katniss than Bella and would love to see more characters like her.