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:
- In the beginning of the first book, Katniss chooses to take the place of her sister, Prim.
- At the end of the first book, she defies the Capitol’s control and forces them to change the rules through decisive action.
- 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.)