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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Joanna Weiss

Still waiting for a heroine of confidence

LITTLE GIRLS need role models. So do grown women. Instead, they get characters like Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss, if you haven’t heard, is the bow-and-arrow-wielding teenage heroine of the film “The Hunger Games,’’ based on a best-selling young-adult trilogy that is deeply adored by teenage girls and women substantially older. In cultural terms, it’s the successor to the “Twilight’’ series of vampire romance books. By most accounts, Katniss is the opposite of Bella, the protagonist of “Twilight.’’ Bella is the classic damsel in distress. Katniss is strong and strong-willed, capable of more than being swept away by a handsome boy.

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But if girls on movie screens are also metaphors, then Katniss is a problematic heroine, too: yet another young woman who shoulders burdens and fulfills other people’s desires, instead of bending the world to her will.

OK, a direct comparison isn’t entirely fair. “Twilight’’ was meant to be escapist romance, a tale of a teenaged Everygirl and her sparkly vampire suitor. Suzanne Collins, who wrote “The Hunger Games,’’ was struck by the juxtaposition of real-life wars and reality TV. So she concocted a dystopian future where teenagers are chosen by lottery and forced to fight in an annual televised death match. Katniss becomes one of these fighters when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place.

The books are deeply violent; the movie, screened for reporters on Monday, sometimes feels like a horror flick. The Katniss character stays alive through both her skill and her ability to be what others want her to be. She wears a flaming dress at her stylist’s request. Over the course of the games, she reluctantly plays up a budding romance, knowing viewers will lap it up. In truth, though two boys vie for her affections, Katniss barely cares; she’s too busy surviving. If she feels a surge of love, she promptly pushes it away.

In this way, at least, she’s a far cry from Bella and the loosely literary figure she inspired: Ana Steele, the protagonist of the erotica novel “Fifty Shades of Grey,’’ which has lately been topping the New York Times bestseller list. “Fifty Shades,’’ which started as “Twilight’’ fan fiction, transforms the “Twilight’’ metaphor into something literal: Instead of a bloodthirsty vampire to represent male sexuality, we get a handsome billionaire who happens to be into bondage.

The fact that these books are written by women - and that women are lapping them up - speaks to a deep ambivalence about women’s role in the modern workplace, political debate, and domestic arena. “Fifty Shades’’ takes imbalance to its carnal extreme: Ana is literally the submissive in the relationship. At the end of the book, she gets spanked with a belt as a punishment for backtalk, and isn’t entirely sure that she’s right to complain.

This is an old idea - that men’s desire is a burden that women must simply endure - and it’s the same one that leaves erectile dysfunction drugs untouched amid the current efforts, in Congress and various states, to curb insurance coverage for birth-control pills. Props to the Ohio state senator who proposed a bill forcing men who want Viagra to provide an affidavit from a sexual partner, submit to a cardiac stress test, and listen to some lectures on the dangers of a four-hour erection. I’d like to say she pulled a Katniss move.

But, sadly, I doubt Katniss would have put up the same fight. She’s too much like Bella and Ana in a crucial way: she’s oddly under-confident, given her inner strength. She’s not fomenting revolution or following some master plan; she’s just constantly reacting to circumstance. If she’s stirring, it’s not by design. If she’s an object of desire, it’s because other people are telling her what to wear.

This is the easy way to draw a likable heroine. Someone who’s constantly fighting, as countless political campaigns have shown, runs the risk of looking shrill. On the other hand, the ongoing political assaults on women’s health have unleashed an angry spark among activists and voters, something that’s noticeably absent in the Katnisses of the world. Maybe the next hot trilogy will feature girls who are true leaders - and send the passive heroines to the cultural remainder bin.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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