[For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I am going to only address the characters and events in the first book in the Hunger Games series. ]
The Better Girl is a subset of the Smurfette Principle (or the Fighting Fuck Toy) where a single female (usually the main character) is elevated above other female characters in the story, often at expense of authentic representation of women. Where a Smurfette character is the only woman in a world of men, The Better Girl is the only worthwhile woman among a cast of female characters, many of whom embody sexist stereotypes. The Better Girl shows that she alone can rise above the faults and failings of her gender, and she does so by exhibiting idealize masculine behavior.
She isn’t just a girl, she is THE GIRL! Every guy want her, and every girl want to be her, because the Better Girl is the only woman worthy of male attention and respect. Ironically, a big part of the reasons she’s held in such high regard is the Better Girl is essentially a male character, in the body of a woman. This stems from the misogynist ideal that believes men want (and thus the a ideal woman should be) a man with a vagina.
The Characteristics of The Better Girl:
- She is not a girlie girl. The Better Girl defies gender stereotypes in dress and/or behavior, but she is still considered traditionally beautiful and appealing to men. She doesn’t need make up or pretty dresses to outshine other women. [Note: If the Better Girl is a Fighting Fuck-Toy she can be both sexualized and still emulate stereotypically masculine behavior, because she is the ultimate male fantasy, a sexy version of himself.]
- Her mentor(s) are men. Whether it’s her father, an older brother or some unrelated male in her life, the Better Girl needs a man to teach her how to be better. Sometimes even to counter act the negative female influences in her life. Her story sometimes even revolves around avenging, finding or proving herself to her male mentor/father figure.
- She is only friends with boys. This idea is closely tied to the male mentor cliche, in that it values relationships (even platonic ones) between men and women more than relationships between women. It’s often done in an attempt to make the Better Girl appear more relatable to men, aka a male audiences/readers. Which feeds an age old stereotype that the ideal woman (or Better Girl) can be “one of the guys” while also being an object of men’s desire.
- She is so much cooler than those other girls. The Better Girl is often noticeably so because she stands out from a crowd of other, undesirable female characters in the story. Whether they’re shallow, vain, slutty, ugly, nerdy, awkward or the worst of all, angry, outspoken (straw feminist) man-haters. The Better Girl will cast in a better light, by comparison, because she will appear to be the only female character who isn’t a negative stereotype of women. Though she will openly hate other women, sometimes more than the male characters in the story. She will be the first to slut shame, and victim blame other female characters, to help reminds us of how much better she is than “those other girls.”
- She always gets her man, and everyone else man too. The Better Girl is the object of desire, whether she wants it or not. Men are unable to resist her charms and often fall at her feet for inexplicable reasons. This is usually a big pain in the ass for the Better Girl who just wants to shoot arrows, fight monster, or do whatever masculine idealize activity that’s so much more important that girlie stuff. This also further proves she is better than other girls, while justifying why she has no close female friends (unless they are lesser to her in beauty, physicality or is a relative), because she’s the target of other women’s jealousy. Because secretly every girl wants to be the Better Girl.
- She is a protector, but not a caretaker. Much in the way the Better Girl is modeled after men, she too can only fulfill stereotypically male roles as fighters, protectors, providers, but few every display nurturing, or are real caretakers. Sure, she will fight and even die to protect younger siblings, friends, lovers, or even innocent strangers, but she is not shown actively being a nurturing mother, sister or female friend or any in any traditionally female role that is stereotypes as weak. Those roles are reserved for the other women in the story. [If a Better Girl is shown in these roles of mother or nurse, they’re awkward and obviously uncomfortable, much in the same manner stereotypically masculine men are often show to be out of place in female roles, aka Mister Mom.]
- Her story will pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. Which highlights one of the biggest flaws in using the test as an indication of whether a book or movie is feminist. The presence of women does not automatically prove the presence of a female stories, or even of women aren't just two-dimensional stereotypes created for the entertainment of men (See the movie Sucker Punch).
Many Better Girl stories feature familiar, and even cliched, themes already explored ad nauseam by stories with male leads, but they’re considered “fresh” and “new” because they simply replaced a man with a woman. However none of them actually tell female stories, or allow the female leads to be multidimensional and reflect the complex nature of real women. Not to mention these stories rarely bother to elevate any other female characters in the story. There are no mentoring mothers, strong sisters who fight beside the female leads. Other women are obstacles and burdens, because the Better Girl, like the idealize masculine heroes she's emulating, don't need women.
This trope is not isolated to the mainstream, or male-dominate genres. The Better Girl can be found in the lead roles of popular Romance, Erotica and especially in Young Adult novels aimed at girls. Actually, any genre aimed at women will feature the Better Girl trope, because sadly many women buy into this ideal. Even sadder, many of the authors of popular stories featuring the Better Girl are women.
While the stories aimed at women are usually romances told from a female perspective, they still revolve around and value men above women. The Better Girl has to overcome jealous haters, slutty adversaries and the inherent failing of being a girl to win her man. The male characters are the focus of the story, because they are the prize at the end of female version of the hero's quest. Often understanding, helping or developing the male character takes a great precedence over the female lead’s own character development. Any changes she does make is in the pursuit of become the Better Girl in order to get her man. This is how you make a woman’s story about a man, even when she’s the main character.
This is why there’s an inherent problem with comparing Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan. Though they appear to be different women with very different stories they are both prime examples of The Better Girl trope. Despite being the main characters in what look-like female stories, written by women, these stories perpetuate some of the worst stereotypes about women.
Ironically, Twilight is publicly criticized for it’s sexism and racism more often because of sexism in our culture that holds any female-centric media to be lesser. A romance about a teenage girl and a sexy 100 year old virginal vampire is easy pickings for feminists and misogynists alike.
While Hunger Games is marketed as a science fiction thriller ‘with romantic themes.’ A distinction that gives it an appearance of legitimacy in a market that cringes at female sexuality, but is content to watch the violent murder of children. The Hunger Games has action, death and a female lead who all but shames her own sexuality. Misogynists and feminists alike agree again, saying it isn’t as bad as Twilight.
Why would we openly mock teenage girls’ sexual fantasies, but applauds while they murder each other? Because remotely feminine or female oriented is often viewed as lesser than even by women. How else do we explain why so many women turn a blind eye to the plight of every female character in the Hunger Games who isn’t Katniss?
When you dissemble Katniss’ story you begin to see glaring signs that she is the quintessential Better Girl. Every important person in her life, who is an equal or better, are men. Her mentors, peers, enemies and (in the end her only true) family are men. Conversely when the other women in the series are set beside Katniss each one can be easily filed into one of two categories: Adversary or Lesser.
- Katniss’ mother is mentally weak and ultimately a failure as a parent. It was Katniss’ father who taught her to hunt, and gave her the biggest advantage in the Games. [Given the futuristic setting there is no reason to not make Katniss’ mother the mentoring parent. In fact, it would have made in an interesting contrast to modern expectation of men, that could have helped highlight Katniss’ role as a mother figure to Prim, for her father to be the mentally broken parent. Rather than perpetuating the stereotype that women are broken and lost without their men.]
- Prim is effectively Katniss’ child, but she serves little purpose other than an emotional focus, and a exploitable weakness for Katniss. [Prim is used as many female characters are for male characters, to complicate Katniss’ story, but never given a real, separate life/story of her own. She is a damsel in distress, waiting for her savior, Katniss.]
- Rue is a child who requires Katniss’ protection, who services as a living reminder of Prim, and who’s death services Katniss’ story. [Killing off a black girl to service the story of a white girl, is no better than killing a woman to service the story of a man. In fact, I personally feel it’s fucking worse. An ism is an ism.]
- Madge is a privileged, but ultimately weak girl. She served as a reminder of Katniss’ disparity, but also as her ‘superiority’ in strength and endurance to those in the upper classes. [Her character was little more than a plot device, and her over all impact on the story was so unimportant that her most significant actions were given to another, similarly lesser character in the films. She’s the cowardly popular girl cliche, the popular girl who is friends with unpopular kids, but is too afraid to acknowledge those friendships in public.]
- Effie Trinket is the first person from the Capitol Katniss, and by extension the readers, meet. She embodies the Capitol, as a naive, self-centered, vain woman more concerned with the Games than children who will die in them. [The choice to embody the Capitol’s shallow, ignorant opulence in a overly made-up, clownish woman in ridiculous fashion isn’t a new thing. It’s a classic misogynist narrative that casts the vanity of women as face of a corrupt society, rather than indicting the sexism within a society that only values women for their appearance. Collins could have expanded Effie’s presence within the story, made her a whole character and allowed her to form a relationship with Katniss based on respect and understanding that all the citizen of Panem are trapped in their own way. While there’s a weak attempt at this, it ultimately fails and she is relegated to be being a sad clown only deserving of Katniss’ pity.]
Clove, Glimmer, and Foxface (aka the Mean Girls) these three tributes can be boiled down into the the common high school stereotypes of popular girls. Each one is duly punished for her failings. Demonstrating that even adversaries are lessers in the end, because they’re women after all. /sarcasm [Note: While I draw connections with the movie Mean Girls, these sexist female archetypes have existed in media for a long time in many forms and are essentially embodiments of the classic sins of Lust, Pride, Vanity.]
- Clove is the Slutty Head Bitch, the Regina George of the Hunger Games. Using her sexuality to secure a male protector, Cato, and cold blooded calculation to form alliances to ensure her elevated position in the group. She is murdered by Thresh, who bashes her head in with a rock. [Do I have to point out how disgustingly racist it is that the most overtly brutal display of violence in the entire book is the savage murder of a sexualize white girl at the hands of black man?]
- Glimmer is the Pretty but Dumb one, most of the remarks about her in the book revolves around her beauty. Her death is the result of what’s presented as a blind panic and being too dumb to survive. [Literally, she lacked the basically flight instinct that almost every animal has, and allowed herself to be stung to death.]
- Foxface is the Conceded Bitch. Her sin is her arrogance. As a result she overestimates her intelligence and dies as a result. [The ‘irony’ is a purposeful lesson seen time and again to teach “intelligence” should be tempered with humility, i.e. an uppity women will be put in their proper place.]
There are so many simple changes that could have made to make the story more feminist. Making Katniss’ mother a mentor, rather than a burden. Making Effie a fuller character to shed light on the false face of the Capitol sooner, and showing that some women have to paint on a smile to cover their tears. Make Haymitch a woman, showing the burden of mentoring from a female perspective and give Katniss a mentor more like herself, who could explain how people (aka women) often have to play roles and do things they don’t like to survive in a world hell bent on using and destroying them. Make Madge and/or Prim empowered allies who help, support and maybe even teach Katniss a few things, instead of weaker, dependent women who add to her stress and burden.
Lastly, humanize the other tributes in the Games, male and female alike. So the reader and Katniss feels the full impact of their deaths, and never forget that they are children, to emphasis that ALL children not matter where they come from or how they were raised do not deserve to die for the sake of entertaining the Capitol or the readers/audience of books/movies.
It’s important to point out that these are characters in a book. They and this story were constructed by a person. How the women are portrayed and marginalized wasn't done by the fictional world, but by their creator, the author. While I don’t think that Collins is aware of sheer amount of sexist tropes she was regurgitating in these books, much in the way many readers don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they are not present and very potent.
Katniss isn’t a feminist role model. Hunger Games isn’t a feminist story. It is, however, a fascinating example of the much heralded "strong female character" is actually a very disturbing sexist trope, a straw feminist, whose story doesn't teach us to be courageous, and self reliant, but instead to be better than other women, by being more like men. Just like Twilight it perpetuates the lie that the love and approval of men is all any woman needs to be happy.
On the bright side, both Hunger Games and Twilight prove that women are a power in the literary and film markets. We buy books, and movie tickets, and we are hungry to see ourselves reflected in the media we consume. Despite my criticism and frustrations with both series, I have affection for them too. They are compelling, interesting and very entertaining stories, that remind me of what I used to be like when I was younger, and how far I've come. Because of that, I know we can do better.
We can build on this foundation, learn from Collins and Meyer’s mistakes, and write better stories.
Stories with lots of different, complex and fully realized female characters. Stories about courageous mothers mentoring strong daughters, and supportive sisters who fight side by side for a better life. Stories where women can be villains and heroes and every single point in between. Maybe even all of them at once, because real women are not simple, and their fictional representations shouldn't be either.
A feminist story shouldn't be about elevating one woman over other women, or even making women better than men. It's about treating female character and female stories with the same care, respect and effort put into male characters and male stories.