Bella vs Katniss – role models for girls in teen fiction?

When it was published in 2005, Twilight was an instant sensation. Hundreds, no, thousands of teenage girls devoured the series, delighted by twin heroes Edward and Jacob, both driven to desperation and dangerous acts by their love for damsel-in-distress Bella Swan.

Throughout the novels, Bella is torn between vampire Cullen and werewolf Black; both would do anything for her. Edward pleads with Bella not to sacrifice her humanity to be with him, even going so far as abandoning her in the belief that she will be better off without him. As a result, she is pushed towards Jacob, who as a werewolf despises vampires in general, and Edward in particular, for the same reason – Bella may choose to lose her life in order to be with Edward.

Now, these things have a way of working themselves out in the end – and they do – but in the meantime, Stephanie Meyer had hit the jackpot. What teenage girl wouldn’t dream of two ardent, handsome and (mostly) virtuous young men competing for her favour? But there’s a problem here. What about Bella? What about her hopes and dreams for the future? What did she want to do when she left high school? Did she want to go to uni? Have a gap year? Travel? Have a career? Bella is supposed to be a relatively normal teenager, albeit a bit clumsy and strangely attractive to fantasy creatures, but she seems not to have thought about any of this. I realise, of course, that Meyer might not have felt this was particularly relevant amongst the whirlwind of danger and romance but I tend to disagree. As soon as Bella meets Edward, any thoughts of independent plans for the future go out the window. Edward actually tries to get her to think about these things but she brushes away his concerns. None of that matters any more.

What bothers me is that we’re left thinking it’s absolutely fine. She loves him. She’s completely mad about him. Without him, she is nothing. Her life would be meaningless if it were not for him. Without him, she might as well be dead. Hold on – let’s think about this for just a second. Where is Bella’s self-esteem?! Her view of her own value as a person depends entirely on Edward’s continuing affection for her. And even with all his protestations of love, she still doubts him – in New Moon, she suggests he’ll no longer want her when she’s old and wrinkly. Good grief, girl – get a grip! Just like airbrushed supermodels in fashion mags, this is an insidious sort of brainwashing: women, get yourself a man. Then you’ll be happy.

So, if Bella is no sort of suitable role model for teenage girls, could Katniss Everdeen be a preferable alternative? It seems odd at first glance to advocate someone who kills other children as part of a barbaric ritual intended to subjugate the plebs, but you can’t deny that, in Katniss, Suzanne Collins has created a much more rounded, balanced, flawed but self-aware character.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss is presented with a no-win situation: kill or be killed. it’s an impossible choice, because Katniss has a strong moral core. She knows right from wrong, she has known personal tragedy in her life so she knows what it’s like to lose someone. But equally, she values her life and will do what she has to in order to survive, so she can get back to her family. The only option left to her is to defend herself and kill where there is no other option. With the influence of Peeta, she develops, moving on from simply surviving to working as a team, caring for him as much as she can allow herself to, and realising she can make a difference by taking a stand against the disgusting voyeurism of the Games.

However, she’s not perfect. Having relied on herself to keep her family going for many years, Katniss is prickly, difficult and mistrustful. She can be shortsighted, impulsive and demanding, and is quick to lose her temper. She finds it nigh on impossible to be diplomatic at times, and thinks of herself before others. But Collins’ heroine differs in two very important respects from Bella Swan: firstly, she’s aware of her flaws, she feels bad about them and wants to change. Secondly, she’s aware of her strengths. Katniss is determined, independent and motivated, at times by anger, at times revenge and also love. She has talents – hunting, knowledge of nature, survival skills. She feels something for Gale, and also for Peeta, but those feelings neither define nor cripple her. And, she sees the alterations to her appearance when she’s readied for the Games – plucking, shaving, make-up, clothes – as at least to some extent strange, unnatural and unnecessary. Whenever she can, she wipes off the make-up and goes back to just being herself.

“I know which one of these young women I’d rather teenage girls admired and emulated”

More and more frequently, we hear of girls, and also boys, lacking in self-esteem as they’re pressured subconsciously, through advertising and images in mass media, towards fitting into what Society sees as acceptable forms of beauty. In that context, I know which one of these young women I’d rather teenage girls admired and emulated.

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