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Feminist fatales: young women become our movie heroes

In March 2012, The Hunger Games, starring then-22 year-old Jennifer Lawrence, opened with $152.5 million domestic gross, delivering what was then the third-biggest opening weekend of all time. The plot: a girl in a dystopian future must fight oppression in order to save those she loves.

Lawrence at the lead: "The Hunger Games" actress Jennifer Lawrence at Comic Con in San Francisco in July 2013. [Photo copyright: Gage Skidmore]

Catching fire: star Jennifer Lawrence at Comic Con in San Francisco, July 2013. [Photo © Gage Skidmore]

It didn’t take long before other movies with similar premises started popping up: Divergent, The Host, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and How I Live Now. Not to mention the next films in The Hunger Games franchise: Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2.

Many of these films are based on best-selling books. But what may seem like Hollywood studios just seeking a piece of Hunger Games success actually carries heavier connotations. More than ever now, there is a market for female heroes onscreen, instead of traditional “damsels in distress” stereotypes.

The Katniss effect

Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, has become a feminist role model—even being named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential Fictional Characters in both 2013 and 2014.

“What The Hunger Games did was put at the centre of this universe a very strong female character,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Rentrak, a media tracking company. “These movies have been able to combine a hybrid situation where they may have a movie that will appeal to females, yet also has elements of action, edginess, and not necessarily the most optimistic view of the future, which a lot of movies that are aimed at young people generally tend to do.”

Movie critic Richard Crouse agrees. “They’re putting young, good looking adults in perilous situations that are all kind of similar,” he says. “And there’s the underlying subtext about strength, loyalty, and family. It’s really basic stuff that is primal and appeals to people, and involves concepts that everyone can easily grab.”

Back to the future

These “perilous situations” often involve  futuristic, post-apocalyptic settings wherein the young heroines are thrown into conflict with an oppressive force: either a dictatorship, invading aliens, or a World War Three scenario.

“It’s escapist, which is maybe part of the draw,” says Kerrie Bible, a box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “Parts of fantasy, part of the illusion.”

But perhaps it is more than just a setting for moviemakers to distort reality and create unrealistic situations. Perhaps the dystopian setting of these films is commentary on our world today. 

Laura Horak, an assistant film studies professor at Carleton University, sees The Hunger Games as a class critique of the “one percent.”  

“It’s looking at consumption from the point of the view of the workers—like the miners and the loggers—and the people in the Capitol [the government] are sort of the ones who are using all the resources,” she says. “It reminds me of a critique of the way North America is using resources and providing them.”

Young women working together is more common on screens than ever before.

The concern about the future of our civilization extends globally. “I think that this concern about the dystopian future and the concern about class inequality is going to stay with us as we have all of these environmental challenges and class inequalities around the world and within every country,” Horak says.

Girls stick together: Saoirse Ronan (Daisy) and Harley Bird (Piper) must stik together to survive Wolrd War Three in "How I Live Now". [Photo courtesy: Magnolia Pictures]

Saoirse Ronan (Daisy) and Harley Bird (Piper) must stick together to survive Wolrd War III in How I Live Now. [Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures]

Girl power

It’s hard to ignore such movies’ message of female solidarity. Katniss during the Games finds her ally in Rue, a younger girl. In How I Live Now, Saoirse Ronan’s character, Daisy, takes guardianship of her young cousin, Piper, to try and unite their family. Young women working together without needing men to help them is more common on screens than ever before.

“It’s part of the new ‘girl power’ thing where it’s great to be spunky and independent, as long as you’re very young,” says Horak. “Those qualities might not be as interesting or as attractive in an older woman.”

And it’s not just the fictional characters whom audiences can relate to. The actresses who play them are just as quirky. Whether it’s tripping on the red carpet (Lawrence) or being a self-proclaimed environmentalist (Divergent star Shailene Woodley) or skateboarding (Chloe Grace Moretz, star of the upcoming The Fifth Wave), these actresses present themselves in ways that relate to female audiences.

“If you were a teenage girl and look at someone like Jennifer Lopez, you can’t really say, ‘Okay, she’s going to understand my life, and I’m going to relate to her,’” says Bible. “But look at someone like Jennifer Lawrence. She comes across, whether it’s manufactured or not, as more human and more relatable.”

Tough love: Actors Shailene Woodley (centre) and Theo James (right) star as Tris and Four, love interests in "Divergent". Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Tough love: Shailene Woodley stars with romantic interest Theo James in Divergent. [Photo courtesy of Lionsgate]

Typically these onscreen characters are just coming into their own in a world that (much like reality) seems unforgiving for girls trying to grow up. While in the films there are romantic interests and hints of young love, Horak points out that viewers don’t normally get to see how the characters progress as adults.

“Because they’re young, it plays on the tradition of the tomboy, that it’s okay and it can even be great and interesting for a young woman to be not that girly and be very independent,” she says. “But we don’t see what happens to them when they grow up. What happens when they enter a relationship or if they get old enough to have a career? That picture we see less often.” 

While moviegoers may not see any weddings or babies, these films arguably are breaking down doors for all female characters onscreen.

“Every time a Hunger Games does well where at the centre there is a strong female character, it changes people’s perceptions and they’re more open to accepting a character like Angelina Jolie in Maleficient,”says Dergarabedian.

Women haven’t completely won yet. But they’re getting there.

[Front page photo courtesy of Lionsgate. Photo © Murray Close]

The world of girl-hero films

The Hunger Games (2012) Based on the best-selling book series by Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen must compete in the “Hunger Games”, a televised fight-to-the death between teenagers. In sequels, she leads a rebellion against the evil “Capitol.”

The Host (2013) Based on a novel by Twilight author Stephanie Meyer. Saoirse Ronan’s character lives in a society beset by small parasitic aliens called “Souls.”

How I Live Now (2013) Also starring Saoirse Ronan.  Her character is sent to England to live with her cousins when war breaks out and their family is separated.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013) Set in a dangerous alternate world of New York City, Clary Fray (Lily Collins) learns that she is descended from a line of warriors who protect the world from demons.

Divergent (2014) Shailene Woodley plays Tris, who lives in a society divided into “factions” based on virtues. When Tris learns she is “Divergent”—meaning she has virtues in all factions—she is thrown into danger amid a government plot to destroy all Divergents. Sequel Insurgent will be released in 2015.

The Fifth Wave (2016) Starring Chloe Grace Moretz; currently in production; based on a novel by Rick Nancey. Moretz’s character struggles in a world invaded by aliens.

The Last of Us Sony Pictures has expressed interest in developing this popular post-apocalyptic game into a film. Rumours have named Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams to play Ellie, the 14-year-old protagonist. But no confirmed casting or production dates have been announced.