It is a truth universally acknowledged that a college kid in possession of five dollars will go see the midnight premiere of any major movie that comes out while she is supposed to be writing a paper. If this college kid goes to Bethel University, she will likely go to the same movie theater as more than half of the student body, subsequently freaking out any other community member who wanders in and wonders how eighty percent of the audience knows each other.
As the lights dim, the chatter and selfie-taking will die down. The college students will lean back in their seats, waiting for that one Coke ad that plays before every single movie. Finally, the beginning credits will roll, and names of stars will appear on the screen accompanied by the essential dramatic music.
One month ago, I went to the midnight premiere of the final installment of The Hunger Games series: Mockingjay Part 2. I couldn’t stop thinking about it the entire next day.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
What about the film had me so preoccupied? Was it the tragic deaths of the some of the series’ most lovable characters? No. Truthfully, I’d been emotionally steeling myself to deal with that since I’d first read the books years ago. Was it the angst-ridden Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle? Maybe a little, but that’s another blog post for another time. Was it my wish that Stanley Tucci would appear in every movie I see? Also no. But how great would that be?
It was the female leadership. But, what about it?
You’ve seen The Movie, right? That one with the Strong Female Character who has battled her way through layers upon layers of sexism to arrive at a Chief Leadership Position. Under her control are dozens of male minions, who kowtow to her every demand, not because they respect her, but because they fear and envy her unnatural Talent, Command, and Sex Appeal.
Of course, she does have a soft side—a key scene with an injured child will reveal her hidden Kindness, the kindness she must never reveal to her troops, lest they lose all respect for her.
Contrary to what you might think, the Strong Female Character is not actually the protagonist of The Movie. That role goes to your typical, Hollywood-handsome, average-Joe type, who, though he has no special training or particular skill, gains the respect of every single character in the movie through good, clean determination and integrity. Even Strong Female Character is softened by his manly heroism and well-rounded personality.
Strong Female Character is a unicorn in an army of skilled horses. Her power is supernatural, for no average woman could exist in this role. The audience is expected to be impressed by the forward-thinking, Progressive Director—how clever of him to find a way to empower women while still upholding patriarchal standards and values!
Here’s the really great thing about female leadership in The Hunger Games movies, the thing that all movies can take their cues from: it is not unique. Female leadership exists at every level, from the leaders of revolutions, to middle-level military officials, to medics. Women direct the propaganda videos and direct other people’s schedules. Women shoot guns and bandage children and take orders from other women. Female leadership is normalized.
The female leaders in this movie are not portrayed as “dominating” their male counterparts—because they don’t need to. They are respected by virtue of having the skills to be in the position they hold. No one female character has to be everything. Each woman can do her job, use her skills, and focus on the mission, without trying to heal from some intrinsic flaw in her character.
Female leaders in the films don’t have to demand unique respect from their peers. That respect comes naturally, without explanation for the remarkable way in which each came into her role. In fact, if that had been attempted, the movie would have been several hours longer, because there were just that many female leaders.
But wait, you say. What about the Divergent series? Women lead factions, use their skills effectively, seem to interact with each other without vitriol, and, oh right, the protagonist is a young woman with a variety of talents and personality traits. This whole “portrayal of female leadership” can’t be that big of a deal if we have Tris, right?
But Tris is a unicorn. The entire premise of the series rests on the fact that she is special. Yes, she has a variety of good qualities, and did we mention that she has them all in abundance? Her weaknesses are that she’s too courageous, too caring, and so multi-faceted that the leaders of her society are coming after her.
The trailer for the next movie in the Divergent series features a grave male authority figure informing Tris: “You’re not one of those people… you’re the only one.”
Katniss is an intriguing character because she is, on the whole, rather average. Her skills and weaknesses balance each other out in a believable way. Acts of great courage are followed by acts of misplaced anger. Kindness to her loved ones is followed by callousness to those she does not understand. Katniss, unlike female protagonists in most movies, gets to be flawed, because her flaws do not implicitly represent the flaws of all women.
Obviously, I am all for women being in positions of power. I’m all for women using their God-given personality types and skills to whatever extent they are called. If I had a problem with women in authority, this would be a very different article. I also don’t want to suggest that there aren’t special qualities needed by leaders in general. A leader, male or female, is not an average person.
But a woman doesn’t need to be the Chosen One to be equal to men. A woman doesn’t need to have superhuman strength, intelligence, or courage to be as competent as a man.
Writers and directors who include the Strong Female Character have a difficult task before them in creating a complex on-screen woman who is both powerful and believable. But as an audience, we’ve become too easily satisfied.
It’s not enough to let the Strong Female Character stand in for all of us. We need stories like The Hunger Games to show us that female leadership is not a far-fetched dream, accomplished only by those of us willing and able to claw our way up to the top. Normalized female leadership is a desirable and necessary element of the kingdom of God—a story that every day we are becoming a little better at telling.