Katniss Everdeen Is a Strong Female Protagonist. So What?

Women aren’t helping themselves earn equality by pretending that tough female characters are anything other than the norm.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran yet another piece about the strength of Katniss Everdeen, the female protagonist in the hugely popular Hunger Games series. (For more on Katniss’s strength, check out Wired, HuffPo, and every feminist blog ever.)

While I take the lyrics of Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” to heart and I appreciate ladies who kick some serious butt as much as the next liberally minded chick, I have to wonder if these peppy little pieces are doing more harm than good. If we want to be treated equally by idiotic politicians and archaically-minded religious institutions and paid equally for busting our tails at work in a down economy, perhaps it’s time to stop acting as if strong female characters are an anomaly to be celebrated.

Women are tough. They are smart. They are capable. And they are totally screwed when it comes to health care and money in America.

But they are not under-represented (or under-respected) in pop culture.

Sure, free-thinking Mary Magdalene may have been painted as a hussy in the Bible, but there have been bad-ass female characters in literature (and later in film and television) for eons. Take The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century: The counter-culturally feminist wife of Bath uses dirty jokes to argue for female dominance and the right to control her body. (Perhaps our current Republican leaders should revisit AP English class.) In the Scarlett Letter, set in the 17th century, the inspiringly resilient Hester Prynne thumbs her nose at conventional society. Jane Eyre is a straight-up feminist.

These female characters were not damsels in distress, they were free-thinking, wise women who made decisions for themselves. And to think: All of this before the phrase “Roe vs. Wade” meant anything to anyone!

Fast-forwarding through the cultural encyclopedia to something a little more modern, here’s some more recent tough-as-nails female protagonists:

1. Ramona Quimby, an elementary-school-aged free spirit in Beverly Cleary’s popular series. She made it all right for every little girl to be weird and zany.
2. Lisbeth Salander, from the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series was an inspiration to geeky girls everywhere.
3. Uma Thurman’s The Bridein the Kill Bill movies. I’m pretty sure if Katniss had access to a DVD player, she would’ve taken a few pointers from the murderous Uma before the Hunger Games began.

Strong female protagonists are not in any danger of going extinct. I’m not suggesting we should stop cheering for them—from Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen to the Canterbury Tales’ Wife of Bath and everyone in between—but continuing to act if if they are unique is wrong. Celebrating the strength of fictional women gives credence to all the men who want to treat real-life women with fewer rights and less respect than all men.

And don’t we have enough battles to fight?