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

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


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.

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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 the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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