Katniss Everdeen is no Bella Swan. The lead character of The Hunger Games (opening Friday March 23) heralds a new dawn in fictional teenage heroines. As the lead of Twilight, Bella spent hours on screen mooning over a pale vampire who nearly tore her apart. She taught ’tween girls to give up their lives for a controlling, jealous bloodsucker. And when Twilight made over $2 billion, it threatened to ruin all future Young Adult books for girls who just don’t know better.
But help is at hand. On the horizon are a bunch of brave, headstrong teenage heroines—girls who actually save their dystopian worlds from tyranny. And the best of them all is The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen.
At 16, from the poorest district in post-apocalyptic North America, Katniss volunteers to take her young sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a competition where 24 teens must compete till their death for the entertainment of the rich Capitol. In the first of the trilogy, Katniss starts out as a surly hunter who only cares about her starving family, but as the story progresses (spoiler alert!) she emerges as a symbol of the revolution.
The best part about Katniss is that she doesn’t want to think about love—which is all Bella seems to do in Twilight. Katniss won’t entertain fantasies of a picket fence life in a world where the Capitol starves and tortures its people. Unlike Bella’s march toward marrying a vampire, Katniss goes on a real journey (you know, from point A to point C, like fictional characters arcs are meant to), ultimately learning that world is about more than herself and her immediate loved ones. In short, she grows up.
And that’s the theme of the upcoming YA dystopian fiction and their future films. In a world destroyed by war and controlled by an evil government, the narrator, a first-person female in the 14-17 year old range, is content to live in under the rules of her world, until something happens to force her to fight those in charge. The new heroines are still angst-ridden teenagers, but their identity crisis is that they don't know if they have the power to change the world. And examples abound.
*In Divergent, Veronica Roth’s book about a country divided into five factions according to temperament, 16-year-old Tris must stop one faction from taking over.
*In The Uglies, Scott Westerfield’s trilogy where every teenager is operated on to become pretty according to state-legislated standards, Tally Youngblood must uncover the secret behind the operation and save the world from inanity.
*In Blood Red Road, Moira Young’s Dustland series of a destroyed civilization, Saba must rescue her twin brother and save the world.
*In Scored, Lauren McLaughlin’s book about a future where children are hyper-monitored to receive a score that determines their lives, Imani must decide if she believes in this system.
*In Pure, Julianna Bagott’s series where people damaged from the apocalypse are used as targets, Pressia must decide if she wants to kill or be killed.
These futuristic worlds, of course, are a commentary on our own.The Hunger Games is an extended metaphor for how wars are created by the rich and fought by the poor. Yet the great thing about these imagined futures—despite the totalitarianism—is that young women are saving the world.
“Dystopian fiction is having a big moment right now with teens,” YA author Lauren McLaughlin (Scored) told the website girlslikegiants.com. She thinks it has to do with our “trying” times and “crumbling” society, with a difficult economy and democracy at risk from corruption. “Perhaps the authors of dystopian fiction are hoping to channel the revolutionary inside every teenager in hopes of turning things around. I know I am. I sincerely hope today’s teenagers do a better job of managing society than we’ve done. We messed some things up.”
Even entertainment media mogul Bonnie Fuller, who is known for her glamorous, star-like behavior, loves Katniss. “Which politician or celebrity in real, not literary life, do young women have to look up to today, who has the same strength of their own convictions and morals, but also has the genuine empathy for others that 16-year-old Katniss does?” she writes on her celebrity gossip website HollywoodLife.com. “Money, glamour, power or Hermes purses do not motivate her!” Well, certainly not the way they motivate Fuller, the former editor of Star, Marie Claire, YM (Young Miss) and Glamour.
Yes, the girls have help from a love interest—after all, this is YA. Like most fiction aimed at women, the girls must have someone to pine over. But it’s not the only thing these girls do. In Twilight Bella has no world to save. Sure, she is sweet and virginal (just as Mormon author Stephanie Meyers wants girls to be till they wed). But, come on! Even Sookie Stackhouse—the 20-something heroine of vampire-ridden True Blood—takes on the greater cause of fighting for vampire rights.
Thankfully, the Bellas of the world are done. At a time when parents and educators are searching for strong role models for young women—an alternative to the “princesses” and the “sluts” in film and on TV—Katniss Everdeen et al, heralds the beginning of our future female saviors of the world.