Bella Swan vs. Katniss Everdeen: agency, strength, and what we value in female protagonists

The Twilight Saga’s Bella Swan has been accused of being a passive protagonist lacking agency. This claim is easily refuted by the text. Stranger, to me, is the fact that the other reigning young, female, YA protagonist, The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, is not similarly attacked. In her case the charge would be justified.

Bella makes choices throughout the Twilight series. She chooses to pursue Edward despite her fears. She chooses Edward over Jacob. She chooses to become a vampire. She chooses to keep her baby. And all throughout she makes the choices she views as necessary to protect those she loves.

While a case can be made that Edward is a controlling boyfriend — he goes so far as to disable her car at one point to try to keep her home-bound — it must be recognized that Bella never allows Edward to succeed in controlling her, that she always manages to do what she sets her mind to despite him. This is a consistent pattern, from the first book, in which she manages to elude both him and Alice, who can see the future (no small feat on Bella’s part!), in order to try to save her mother and confront James on her own, to the last book, in which she independently makes arrangements for her daughter, Renesmee, to go into hiding without Edward’s knowledge, and many points between.

The only time when Bella deigns to compromise with Edward on anything it is when Bella agrees to marry Edward and wait a year before becoming a vampire in exchange for Edward agreeing to “turn” her himself, and as a result of Bella getting her way on their honeymoon half of that compromise is soon voided by necessity.

Katniss Everdeen, on the other hand, is almost completely lacking agency. She makes only three choices, two which bookend the first book and then a third which, with her first choice, serve to bookend the trilogy:

  1. In the beginning of the first book, Katniss chooses to take the place of her sister, Prim.
  2. At the end of the first book, she defies the Capitol’s control and forces them to change the rules through decisive action.
  3. At the end of the last book, she makes a choice at the execution of the President (which I will not spoil).

Between these points, she is a pawn, manipulated by one power or another, completely robbed of self-determination. While Katniss recognizes that she is a pawn at various points, she is almost completely unable to free herself.

Before the contests, Katniss does not choose where she will go, what she will wear, how she will train. After the contests the same is true. During the contests she is killing people because the Capitol is forcing her to do so and every attempt to resist is met with rule changes and imposed complications which bring her into line with their wishes. When she escapes them she is again a pawn, told where to go, what to wear, and how she will train. She is a symbol for both sides and she knows it.

Like Bella’s triangle with Edward and Jacob, Katniss must choose between Peeta and Gale. But she never does. She cozies up to whichever one is convenient but never commits to either, never chooses. Even in the end she does not choose; the controlling powers place her and one of the boys in the same place and place the other boy elsewhere, so she ends up with the one that is at hand. Even after her last, grand act of defiance at the end of the last book, Katniss allows herself to be controlled.

That is, I think, my biggest complaint with The Hunger Games. The ending left me utterly cold. It was one thing to go along through a trilogy in which the protagonist has no agency, but in the end, when she finally makes a choice and acts for herself and for everyone, she allows the controlling powers to spin the act for their own end, never attempts to get her story out, and allows herself to be exiled, hidden away like an inconvenience so that they can continue to use her image to their own, populace-controlling ends.

Bella takes charge of her destiny and shapes her life as she chooses, while Katniss allows herself to be used and controlled even in the end. Despite this, Katniss is viewed by most as a “strong” protagonist while Bella is regarded as weak. Why? Katniss is skilled at bow hunting and surviving brutal murder contests. Bella demonstrates unheard of levels of self-control as a vampire “newborn” and survives multiple confrontations with more powerful forces intent upon taking her life. Both Bella and Katniss survive through their own ingenuity and because they surround themselves with allies. Yet the former is decried by many as a horrible role model for young women and the latter is not.

What does this say about our cultural values when it comes to protagonists, and perhaps particularly young female protagonists in YA lit? That physical strength is valued over the strength of self-control? That pining for love, and feeling depressed at its failure, is an unforgivable weakness? It’s hard not to see the condemnation of Bella as a form of self-loathing, in which in attacking her the critics attack their own human weakness as evidenced by her, wishing instead to be outwardly strong and heroic like Katniss, even at the cost of being an empty puppet of stronger forces.

UPDATE: My friend Eden brought the following to my attention. (Apparently I am not the first to have these thoughts.)

‘Twilight’ vs. ‘Hunger Games': Why Do So Many Grown-Ups Hate Bella?

Girls on Film: ‘The Hunger Games,’ ‘Twilight’ & Teen Heroines

“The Hunger Games” vs. “Twilight”

Monika Bartyzel on Bella, Buffy, Katniss, and Femininity

Our Bella, Ourselves

This entry was posted in pop hermeneutics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Bella Swan vs. Katniss Everdeen: agency, strength, and what we value in female protagonists

  1. Tinuvielas says:

    Thanks for these thoughts – very interesting and enlightening! I was disappointed with the third book as well. I guess I expected some kind of crisis and change of the protagonist, a waking up to positive action and heroine-status, according to the rules of fiction, one might say. Instead, the tendency went from Katniss “reacting” in the first book to “acting” in the second and then to passiveness (with the connotations of “passion” perhaps…?) in the last.
    Anyway, while the last book of the series failed to deliver emotionally (to me), it certainly draws a precise picture of the mental and emotional trauma which is a realistic result of the experience of violence such as depicted in the first books. This rather depressing realism may be the reason “The Hunger Games” is hailed by critics while “Twilight” is not: It’s not really a hero-story, in the end, much less one of deliverance…

  2. Father says:

    Thanks for the comment!

    I am right there with you in that I was expecting some kind of greater change by the end of the third book. I wanted Katniss to, as you say, wake up to positive action. She starts out oppressed and fearful, though defiant to a degree, and after many tests and trials and deaths she ends up… oppressed and fearful and still just a little defiant.

    I think that, if anything, Katniss realistically would have been far more traumatized. But that would have been entirely too depressing.

    I think that you’re right to say that The Hunger Games is more a story of survival, whereas (I would say) The Twilight Saga is a story about coming into your own and the bonds of family.

  3. sdfsd says:

    The reason why people hate Bella is because she is a Mary Sue/author insert with no personality who throws away her entire life to be with her sparkly boyfriend. She’s selfish and whiny. She’s doesn’t care about anyone besides herself and Edward – not even innocent people (hell, she just sat in Edward’s lap twiddling her thumbs while the Volturi slaughtered a bunch of tourists in the next room). She can’t function without Edward being around her. She manipulates Jacob, looks down on her fellow classmates, and treats her father like a villain. She is not a good person.

    • Father says:

      Bella doesn’t throw away “her entire life”, she willingly gives up her old life and embraces a new one with Edward, her husband. That is what marriage is about.

      Bella isn’t selfish. She makes provisions for her daughter’s survival, and Jacob’s, even though she is furious with him, knowing that she and Edward may die. She does not run from her likely death, or his. She slices open her arm in order to distract Victoria so that Edward, and the wolves, and who knows how many others, will be saved.

      Bella was busy running away from the Volturi when they slaughtered the tourists; it’s nice like she was sitting around, “in Edward’s lap[,] twiddling her thumbs” while it happened. It would have been nice if there had been something that she, or he, could have done to stop them, but that would have been suicide.

      Bella is really torn up when Edward leaves her, but she survives. We should not heap hate and scorn upon an accurate depiction of teen angst, lest we ostracize all those who identify with it.

      Jacob the mouth-rapist deserves every bad thing that happens to him, IMHO.

      Bella doesn’t treat her father like a villain; she willingly takes on the role of villain herself in order to protect him, hurting him in order to drive him away so that he will let her go and take the danger with her.

      Bella acts to benefit those she loves at her own expense again and again.

  4. liza says:

    oh please people, bella swan is an evil bitch because the first part of twilight when bella meet’s edward for the first time and then when they start getting to know each other bella ignors her family, friends she claims to love and care about so much for edward and his family and she even willing to lie to their face. bella wasn’t trying to protect anyone in the first part of twilight until the ending which is her and edward deman baby they are protecting only and why suit’s them the best. because if bella was trying to protect her family and friends when she finally realize that edward and his family life is dangerous then she would end things with eward and cut ties with him and his family for good but she didn’t even when she knows he being with edward puts her family and friends in danger but she didn’t care it’s only when it’s ease what ever little guilt she his feeling at the moment. 1. when bella is with edward she ignors her friends and doesn’t notice them until edward decided he want to sit beside her friends which is something edward never done because he has no friends and he doesn’t want one and you notice when bella got with eward , we never sees her with her friends until she get’s pretty lonely by herself at school and thats when she starts notice her friends again. when edward dumps bella in the woods bella ignors her friends for about maybe about 6 months. then she reconnects with Jacob only because she fells lonely without ewdard because he all knows that bella consider Jacob as her friend unless she getting something out of being friends with Jacob. my number 2 prove of why I think bella doesn’t consider Jacob as her friend unless she get’s something out of it and it’s because it is true. the frist part of twilight bella never hangout with Jacob the way she does in twilight elicips and that because eward dumps her and you notice in twilight newmoon , when edward & bella got back together , bella went back on treating Jacob like a no body, by the ending of twilight new moon bella cold heartlessly told Jacob that if she has to choose between him & eward that he wouldn’t like it because she would always going to choose eward over him and you could see the pain and hurt in Jacob eyes. even in part one of twilight movie when bella dad calls her because he was worried about his daughter , bella on her death bed told her dad that she is fine when she isn’t and she didn’t even told her dad that she is pregnant or that she is pregnant and all those other horriblely stuff happenes in twilight make it a reason why the whole thing of twilight full of shit.

    • Father says:

      the first part of twilight when bella meet’s [sic] edward for the first time and then when they start getting to know each other bella ignors [sic] her family, friends she claims to love and care about so much for edward and his family and she even willing to lie to their face.

      Bella’s only local family is her father, Charlie. I don’t think that she ignores him. She probably does neglect her three pre-Cullens friends.

      bella wasn’t trying to protect anyone in the first part of twilight until the ending which is her and edward deman baby they are protecting only and why suit’s them the best. because if bella was trying to protect her family and friends when she finally realize that edward and his family life is dangerous then she would end things with eward and cut ties with him and his family for good but she didn’t even when she knows he being with edward puts her family and friends in danger but she didn’t care

      Even if she’s acting out of selfish self-interest, that’s more than I can say for Katniss, who takes almost no initiative.

      even in part one of twilight movie when bella dad calls her because he was worried about his daughter , bella on her death bed told her dad that she is fine when she isn’t and she didn’t even told her dad that she is pregnant or that she is pregnant

      Because she’s trying to protect him and save him from worry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>