'Twilight' vs. 'Hunger Games': Why Do So Many Grown-Ups Hate Bella?

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The two series have very different heroines—and critics overwhelmingly prefer one

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Summit Entertainment, Lionsgate

If Bella fought Katniss, who would win?

This isn't a Superman-vs.-Hulk stumper or anything; if you have even a passing acquaintance with Stephanie Meyer's Twilight or Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, you know that, unless Edward or Jacob came to her rescue as they are wont to do, Bella is going to get stomped. Bella's main distinguishing characteristic is her clumsiness; she can't get out of gym class without getting injured, much less survive a fight. Over the course of the series' four books, I'm pretty sure Bella never kills, or even injures, anyone. When she does resort to violence, it's always ineffectual and comical, as when she hits Jacob and injures her fist. Katniss, on the other hand, is an extremely competent hunter and archer, a born survivor who is deadly when cornered. Through the Hunger Games series, she racks up a body count that would impress Dirty Harry. Thumb-fingered Bella wouldn't stand a chance.

Critics have expressed the Katniss-would-beat-the-tar-out-of-Bella dynamic in various ways. Tina Jordan at EW.com says that "compared to Katniss, Bella is simply the more passive character." Meghan Lewitt here at The Atlantic compared the "swoony Bella" to the "tough-as-nails Katniss," and enthusiastically welcomes the latter as a return to heroines like Nancy Drew and Buffy: "the tomboys and the rule-breakers, resourceful, whip-smart girls who were doing it for themselves with minimal parental supervision." Alyssa Rosenberg laments, "Bella's overriding passivity," while Yvonne Zip at Christian Science Monitor enthuses that "Katniss is too much of a fighter to go serenely to her death." Bella, on the other hand, is stereotypically girly, and as Melinda Beasi argues, even women and feminists (especially women and feminists?) are neverous about being "associated with anything 'girly.'" Thus the appeal of Katniss, who is a badass. Because whether it's in a fist fight or in the hearts of critics, butch beats girly every time.

The relative discomfort with Bella, then, can be seen as reflecting a larger discomfort with femininity. That discomfort is prevalent not just among men, but (as Melinda Beasi says) among women as well. In fact, feminists have long struggled with how to think about and value femininity. Second-wave feminists (to generalize wildly) tended to be down on the feminine; they saw frills and pink and bows and childishness (or even, in the case of radicals like Shulamith Firestone, pregnancy itself) as part of the patriarchy's effort to infantilize and denigrate women. Third-wave feminists, on the other hand, have been (in general) more interested in reclaiming the feminine. For writers like Julia Serrano in Whipping Girl, the negative association with femininity is just another way through which the patriarchy devalues women.

Comparing Twilight and The Hunger Games, it's easy to see why second-wave feminists, and adults in general, find a girly teen so much less attractive than a tomboyish one. Bella is, as the critics say, passive, hapless, and an utter mess. Not only is she physically inept, but she has no particular talents or even distinguishing characteristics other than her desperation for romance. Katniss sees everyone she loves die one by one and still manages to fight on. Bella's boyfriend dumps her and she spends most of an entire book in a deep, infuriating depression. She wants wants WANTS sex, rides motorcycles and jumps off cliffs maybe for the adrenaline rush but also maybe just because the boy she's interested in jumps off cliffs and rides motorcycles. She gets knocked up and refuses to abort. She won't go to college. And she decides to become one of the living dead. She's emotional, out-of-control, mopey, makes horrible decisions, and is generally the nightmare troubled teen: a girly girl who rides her aimlessness and hormones straight to damnation.

And then there's Katniss: an extremely competent, tomboyish young woman who is athletic, focused, responsible, and able to take care of herself. She's not especially interested in boys and doesn't have sex, or even really think about sex for almost the entire series. She's also politically engaged, especially as the story moves on. She is, in other words, the ideal second-wave feminist daughter; smart, fierce, independent, and sexually restrained.

And yet, for all the critical accolades...is masculinity really categorically better and more feminist than femininity? Would we really rather have our 17-year-old daughters kill dozens than have them carry a baby to term? Certainly, there are aspects of The Hunger Games that make the butch ideal seem problematic at the very least. The series is organized around a bloodthirsty yearly ritual, in which children are thrown into a high-tech arena and forced to battle to the death. The analogy with reality TV is obvious—and if the Hunger Games competition is reality TV, that makes the readers part of the audience, enjoying the adrenalin rush of watching the wee ones kill one another.

The book, of course, never acknowledges the parallel. It can't explicitly embrace violence—which means that Katniss can't embrace violence either. As Laura Miller points out in a smart review at Salon, "In some ways, Katniss is more passive than Bella, allowed to have all kinds of goodies [nice clothes, political power] but only if she demonstrates her virtue by not really wanting them in the first place." Bella, like any good girly girl, is in touch with her desires—she wants to marry and screw Edward, not necessarily in that order, and she spends the series trying to do just that. Katniss, on the other hand, spends The Hunger Games unleashing mayhem on behalf of other people—the evil government, the maybe-evil rebels, the readers. To be masculine, she has to be strong, but to want to be strong is to be bad. Power and desire have to separate. Katniss has the first only because she doesn't have the second; Bella's got the second only because she doesn't have the first.

At the end of Twilight, Bella actually does get power. She turns into a vampire who has the physical and magical wherewithal to save her entire family from death—not to mention flatten Katniss with a flick of her perfect pale sparkly wrist. Katniss, conversely, finds that what she desired all along was domestic bliss with her nice-guy suitor and a bunch of kids running around the cottage. Explaining why she chose Peeta for her husband rather than the more swaggering Gale, Katniss says, "what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring." When you're butch, you want your lover to give you flowers. When you're a girly girl like Bella, you want a lover who will give you the ability to run down and slaughter wild animals with your bare hands.

I don't know that Bella and Katniss would necessarily like each other much if they met. But I think they might understand each other's desires and each other's strength. In any case, I doubt they'd fight. Masculinity and femininity isn't a duel to the death. The many tween fans of both books know that, even if adult critics occasionally get confused.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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