MAY / JUNE 2012: BY CHARITY BISHOP
WOMEN IN FICTION have changed over time to reflect society. In modern times our heroines reflect three different aspects of femininity: Hermione the scholar, Bella the homemaker, and Katniss the warrior.
The most prominent writer of strong females in fiction is J.K. Rowling. Her books feature an assortment of unique women. While the main character is male, the deep underlining focus is on motherhood, embodied in Lily Potter, Molly Weasley, Narcissa Malfoy, and Nymphadora Tonks. Professor McGonagall also takes on a motherly role to the students at Hogwarts.
Among the younger set of heroines are more great literary females: Ginny is clever and funny, Luna is whimsical and quirky, and Hermione is logical and smart. She is a bookworm, a teacher’s pet, the girl Ron and Harry do not want as a friend until an incident with a troll changes their minds. Hermione catches on fast, comes up with the solutions to most of their problems, is opinionated, loyal, and not afraid to be seen as smart.
Rowling’s women are all different from one another but equally strong in their own way. Romance is not their primary goal nor their greatest success. This is different from Stephanie Meyer’s series, Twilight. She too explores the theme of motherhood. Bella is not interested in marriage (due to her parents’ divorce) or children at first but when she gets pregnant during her honeymoon, she soon discovers how much she wants to be a mother. She decides to have the child even though it endangers her health. Through this choice, we at last begin to understand Rosalie, who has treated Bella badly until now. Rosalie did not want to become a vampire because it meant giving up what she wanted most: motherhood. Bella’s child makes them allies.
Bella is controversial since she conflicts with the usual modern heroine in her status as a homemaker; she is happy to cook for her dad, and her ambition is to spend the rest of her life with the man she loves. That is enough to satisfy her; she requires no more. Eventually, she puts aside her feminism and shares Edward’s “outdated” and “old-fashioned” ideas. This shows a more scriptural definition of womanhood (submissive but not weak) than most fiction does, as well as reflects the deep inner yearning of many a female heart to be loved, cherished, looked after, and provided for. Bella is feminine but not weak; she makes mistakes and pays for them but in the end, much like Hermione, she finds happiness in being a wife and mother.
In Meyer’s world, love is the driving force in life. It brings Bella and Edward together and calms the lust for blood. This approach is different from Rowling’s; while she wrote strong characters and made them women, Meyer writes them as girls first and then gives them strength. Alice is formidable but loves to shop. Bella risks her life for her friends but is happy to cook and clean for them.
In a world where we are told that feminism means giving up being a mom, and there is no distinction between men and women, it’s no surprise that young readers are fond of a series where the heroine can be “just a girl.” Society tells us that it is not enough to be a wife and mother, but that we should aspire to much more than that. This leaves those wanting to be wives and mothers feeling as if their dreams are much less important than those who want a career instead.
In contrast to Bella and Hermione is the heroine of The Hunger Games, Katniss. A tomboy who hunts and forages, she has taken on the role as the protector of her family in the absence of her father. She has no interest in romance and must kill to ensure her own survival. Katniss is not without a basic mothering instinct; it causes her to look after her sister and Rue. Yet since her primary reaction must be to defend and protect, she pushes aside her personal feelings to do what she must. She is the most “un-feminine” of modern heroines simply because circumstances have forced her to take on a more masculine role, but it does not mean she isn’t a girl, that she doesn’t love the beautiful dresses she is given, or secretly long to feel safe. She lets go of her emotion because she must; she couldn’t survive if she did not shut off her basic female instincts. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have them, just that she can’t let them take over.
Katniss is a solitary force against the world. She does not express her thoughts much or let us into her head. She is an ideal modern feminist icon. Her need is not for the men in her life (she can do fine without either of them); in fact, she can take care of herself and others. She is intelligent and cunning, resourceful and at times merciless, but still has a sense of compassion. In The Hunger Games, the typical gender roles we expect are reversed: the girl is cold, emotionally stinted and doesn’t hesitate to kill to eat or survive. She has taken her father’s place as the head of the household; the boy (Peeta) is warm, emotional, selflessness, and romantic. His pursuit of her is shy and insecure but willing to wait.
These modern heroines appeal to a totally different set of readers. For the girls who want to be wives and mothers, Bella gives them pride in their dreams and honors the role of a home-maker as a worthy pursuit. For bookworms and teacher’s pets, Hermione makes it okay to be smart and assures us that even the know-it-all can have a happy ending. For those who feel like they are pitted against the world and must make it on their own, and who are happy to buck conventional gender roles, Katniss inspires them to keep fighting on, to stay strong, and to dream of better things.
Each heroine says a lot about what her author values and aspires to, but our reaction also reveals the truth about us. Who is your favorite? Why? What does she say about your ambitions, emotions, and innermost desires? ♥
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop would dearly love to spend all her free time mulling over, theorizing, and philosophizing on the vast spiritual / moral lessons of cinema and Victorian literature, but alas, she must make a living, so her days are spent doing editorial work. She devotes her free time to babysitting her bipolar cat, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life… when she isn’t editing Femnista!