Monday, August 30, 2010

Riot Grrrls: Katniss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander

Disclaimer: the following post may contain spoilers of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) and Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest).  You have been warned.

Every girl needs a heroine.

I don't want to be all "kids these days with the hippin' and the hoppin' and the bippin' and the boppin'" (though I've found myself increasingly so since I hit 30 last month), but when Miley Cyrus is twanging away like a southern-fried chipmunk, Heidi Montag's making sex tapes with a Playmate, and Lindsay Lohan's just . . . gone, I do worry a bit for today's young women and who's setting an example.

My generation had, among other pop culture staples, A League of Their Own, a female-driven sports movie that was empowering in its portrayal of women who were brave and powerful at a time when anything beyond marriage and babies was scandalous.  (It's also the movie that made eleven-year-old me a feminist, true story.)  When Whip It was released last year, I hoped its "be your own hero" message would ring in the ears of every teenage girl nationwide.  If the paltry box office figures are any indication, it didn't.

Also, I worry that kids don't read anymore.  (Granted, I remember my parents and grandparents saying the same thing,  and I was a bookworm from the word go, so maybe that concern will persist till the apocalypse.)  That's why I can't totally hate on the Twilight books.  They may be crappily written with a protag who resembles a wrung-out washcloth, but anything that gets young people excited about reading is a good thing.  One can hope they move on to better stuff, but at the same time, if they keep reading drivel, that's okay too.  Better reading than making sexy YouTube videos of themselves for their MySpace pages, ya know?  (God, I'm crotchety.)

However, two recent book series featuring young women who take charge despite less-than-stellar pasts are making waves in the publishing, and now the film, industry.  And though I find both of them imperfect and not always likable, I'm still glad they're out there.

Katniss Everdeen is the narrator and main character of the Hunger Games trilogy, the last of which, Mockingjay, was released last week.  Sixteen-year-old Katniss has come of age in a society like ours yet not, growing up poor and relying on her hunting skills to feed her mother and younger sister.  Each year, two young people from each of the society's twelve districts are randomly chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, a televised survival competition from which only one victor can emerge alive.  When Katniss' sister is chosen from their district, Katniss steps in for her--and as the books progress, finds herself in the Games twice and as the reluctant leader of a rebellion.

Lisbeth Salander of the Millenium trilogy is a little older than Katniss, in her early twenties, and shares protagonist duties with fallen journalist Mikael Blomkvist.  Like Katniss, Lisbeth's youth had many challenges; only in Lisbeth's case they involved abuse, rape and an unnecessary stay in a mental institution.  Just like Katniss with her bow and arrow, Lisbeth has an unusual but useful gift: she can hack into any technology system.  Throughout three books, Lisbeth and Blomkvist work together and apart to solve mysteries that affect their past and present, and eventually lead back to the Swedish justice system and its horrible treatment of women.

Both these young women are the anti-Bella Swan: brave, intelligent, and most of all active.  They do have love interests--for Katniss, it's her childhood friend Gale and fellow Hunger Games participant Peeta; for Lisbeth, it's artist Monique and at one point, Blomkvist himself--but romance and sex isn't the focus of their stories.  Not that there's anything wrong with love stories, but pop culture often projects that young women aren't capable of much else.

Not much is made about how gorgeous and/or thin they are, either.  When Katniss is made over by an entourage in preparation for the Games and later the rebellion propaganda, she sees it as weird and unusual, not as every girl's dream to look pretty.  Lisbeth is described as having small, doll-like features, but she dresses however the hell she wants, which often involves black leather.  And when Katniss is described as thin, it's because she's malnourished, not because it's desirable.  Both Katniss and Lisbeth are physically strong, with muscles.  Katniss is quick with weapons and strategic thinking.  Lisbeth rides a motorcycle and has a shitload of computer stuff.  Not exactly Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, and I love that.

I must admit, however: I never quite warmed to Katniss the way I did to Lisbeth.  Part of it was Collins' writing.  In the Hunger Games trilogy, for which Katniss is the first-person narrator, we get a lot of "then this happened," "then this happened," without really going into how Katniss felt about things, or why she performs a certain action.  It's hard to constantly be in someone's head if she's coming off like a machine, with human moments that are very few and far between.  I don't have to agree with the protagonist or like them 100% of the time, but I do need to feel compelled.  Katniss came off so cold at times that this could be a challenge.

Not that Larsson's prose, even in translation, wasn't without its issues.  (I hate to speak ill of the dead, but: dude, do NOT wrap up your A plot before you wrap up your B, C, D, and E plots.  Also, I don't need the exact brand names of what every character ate, wore or typed on.  It's a novel, not an Apple catalogue.)  However, third person narration was probably the best thing he could have done for Lisbeth.  It keeps her at a distance from the reader--we're in her head, but not completely.  Though it's never confirmed, it's speculated that Lisbeth has Asperger's syndrome, which also explains her erratic way of communication.  Even more motivation for her sometimes extreme actions is provided as Larsson reveals Lisbeth's horrifying past, which hasn't completely dissipated.  I didn't always like Lisbeth, but I felt that I understood her.

A sensation in its native Sweden way before the translation hit shelves Stateside, all three Millenium books have been made into films, which are gradually being released by Music Box Films (yay, Chicago!).  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is now on DVD, and I can't recommend it highly enough (and it's okay if you haven't read the book.  I hadn't when I first saw it, and was able to put everything together).  The movie is intense but rewarding, and the piece de resistance is Noomi Rapace's nuanced, brutal interpretation of Lisbeth.  I wish Rooney Mara luck in the upcoming American remake.  She's got some big Doc Martens to fill.

As for The Hunger Games, production for the first book's film adaptation will commence next year.  I hope, hope, hope Hollywood does not screw this up and gives us a complex, interesting Katniss.  A while back my friend Nikki suggested Sarah Hyland (best known as oldest daughter Haley on Modern Family) for Katniss, which I fully support--I think she's got the chops.  I myself kept picturing Ellen Page, but she's too old now, darn it.

In some ways, the copious action of The Hunger Games may make it a better movie than book.  Either way, however, I'm glad Katniss exists in print.  Lisbeth too.  Forget chasing boys and flashing their panties--these ladies aren't afraid to kick some ass in the name of family, friends and all that is right.

Girl power!

Oh, and just because, here's some Emmy amazingness from last night, featuring my top 2 celeb crushes:

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read the Millennium trilogy, but you know I'm head over heels for the Hunger Games. Have you read Mockingjay yet? You get much more in Katniss' mind, particularly the last couple chapters.