The Handmaid's Tale and The Hunger Games - What Makes a Strong Female Character?

This month, my book club discussed The Handmaid’s Tale. This is one of the books that has been formative in my life as both a reader and a writer. It was the first piece of dystopic literature I read beyond The Giver, and it awakened a taste for much, much more. It also had an understated emotional resonance that I strive to emulate in my own writing. Atwood’s narrator, Offred, is a keen observer of her life, although perhaps not as active an agent in it as we’ve come to expect from our book heroines.

The book group I read it with consists of adults who like to read young adult literature. Many members expressed frustration, anger, or even disgust that Offred did so little to change her situation and to “fight back” against the system. They accused her of being passive. Comparisons to Katniss arose. One woman pointed to a scene in which Offred’s commander asks her if there is anything she would like to have. She asks for hand lotion because she’s been making do with butter for her chapped skin. The book club member said, “Why didn’t she ask for a bow and arrow? Why didn’t she do SOMETHING when she was alone with the commander? There must have been something she could have used as a weapon in that study where they played Scrabble.”

I’ve continued to mull over this conversation in my head. I thought about my own writing, and the characters I create. I thought about my relationship as a reader to Katniss, and to Offred.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve spent most of my working life in feminist media, and I love that the strong female character of Katniss has reached acclaim to rival Harry Potter’s. It’s pretty hard not to admire Katniss. She’s a survivor, yes, but she also, in many ways, has nothing left to lose. In both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, death in the arena seems almost a sure thing. It’s probably a bit easier to give a big ol’ FU to the authorities when they’re going to leave you to die, anyway.

But what about Katniss’s life back in District 12? Yes, she sneaked out to hunt, but that was more an act of survival than rebellion. From what we can see, she was strong before The Hunger Games, but she didn’t make much of a stir, or buck the system too hard. Only when the stakes got unimaginably high did she dare that — not cognizant of the fact that it would start her down a path that would be nearly impossible to walk away from.

Offred’s existence is more akin to Katniss’s before the games than after, and we see precious little of Katniss’s life before the games. Offred is living under a repressive regime, longing for her old life and freedoms, and never sure whom she can trust in a world where men hold all the power and women readily betray one another. Of course she wants to buck the system, but she also wants to survive, on the hope that maybe she’ll make it out to see her daughter again, or live to see the day when something changes. So she becomes a keen chronicler of her experience of oppression, bringing many of us to a place we don’t want to go, challenging us to examine how we might hold up under such sanctioned assaults upon our dignities.

I have a confession to make.

I’m an Offred, not a Katniss. Perhaps that’s why Offred captured my imagination in a way that Katniss just couldn’t. I admire them both — but I only relate to one of them.

Even though it’s much, much easier for people like Katniss to live in fiction, I’m grateful that people like her do exist in the real world. People who put it all on the line for the things they believe in. People who do the right thing, even when that might be personally disastrous. People who send a big FU up to “the system” even if they have very little power to change it. But when I read about Katniss or watch her on the screen, my thoughts run something along the lines of, I could never do that, and, I hope no one I love is ever that brave.

Because I don’t want anyone I love to take those kinds of risks. To live that dangerously. I’m honest enough with myself to know that I couldn’t.

But surviving, day by day, trying to find meaning in the disintegration of life as you know it, that, I understand. When I was an adolescent, I fell victim to bullies the way millions of kids do. I tried everything to make it stop, including standing up to the bullies and reporting it to the school principal. But at the end of the day, I had no power to change the situation, and the people who did have that power did not make themselves my allies. So I, too, fell into survival mode. I, too, went through my life doing the best I could to just lay low and get through it. Perhaps that’s why many of the characters I write show their strength in the same way — by making the decision, day after day, to just keep going. To just get through it. To look for hope and beauty in unexpected places and cherish it when it appears.

Most of the girls and women in the world live under some form of oppression, whether it’s a culture that discourages or forbids them from getting an education or one that expects them to attain unreasonable standards of beauty. Some girls are brave enough to take a stand against it. Malala Yousafzai comes to mind. But for most of them, it’s all they can do to survive and hope for the day when things will get better. And you know what? That is brave. Sometimes, that is enough.

There are many, many ways to be a strong girl or woman, in fiction and in real life. For many, myself included, acting like Katniss feels as unattainable as looking like Barbie.The characters we write and those we read and admire should reflect the fact that, sometimes, just getting through the day is brave enough.