Heroine #1 sports a black leather jacket, punk-rock hairdo, and copious piercings.
Heroine #2 wears a soft chestnut-colored braid and lace-up boots good for scaling tall trees and evading homicidal adolescents.
Heroine #1 rides a kick-ass motorcycle and her super power is computer hacking.
Heroine #2 relies on her own two feet and her super power is archery.
What do these two rockin’ women have in common? They are smart and strong and fast, and I would love to have either of them in my corner.
They are also the latest leading ladies on the silver screen: Lisbeth Salander a.k.a. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and Katniss Everdeen, a.k.a. the Girl on Fire and indomitable tribute in “The Hunger Games.”
Both female characters were created first in literary form and then brought to life on the big screen. Both have suffered immense losses and hardships which have hardened them and given them the strength to take on the most intimidating adversaries. And both are sure to grab your attention from the first moment you meet them, whether that is on the page or in the theater. And lucky for all of us, they are both featured in page-turning trilogies because it’s hard to get enough of these powerful characters.
Lisbeth Salander is a woman of mystery, her past shrouded in child welfare proceedings and dictated by at times unscrupulous (a major understatement) legal guardians. At the end of Part I of the Dragon Tattoo triology, we know nothing about her parents or how she ended up in “the system,” only that Something Very Bad happened. She is small in stature but big in presence—she is invisible only when she chooses to be. She is tough as nails, smart as a whip, and never takes no for an answer. She is also a bit lacking in social graces.
Katniss Everdeen is physically quite different from Lisbeth, appearing tall and willowy with flowing hair and a creamy (unpierced) complexion. But much like Lisbeth, she has experienced heartache and parental loss and has had to land on her feet and make her own way in a hostile world.
Both women show moments of vulnerability but while those are few and far between in Lisbeth’s case, Katniss more often shows us her tender side, especially when it comes to her beloved kid sister, Prim. And while Katniss is less likely to cause total strangers to blanche from a combination of fear and revulsion as her Swedish counterpart has been known to do, Katniss is also a bit unpolished in the manners department. Neither women suffer fools nor do they find fussy social conventions useful or enjoyable.
One of the main attributes both heroines enjoy and which readers and moviegoers find most striking is their comfort using violence. Katniss weeps not for Bambi as she takes aim at a doe with her bow and arrow and you don’t want to be on the business end of a tattoo gun Lisbeth is wielding. Far from the sexy starlet or maternal roles in which Hollywood most often circumscribes their female counterparts, these modern characters are the action rather than the window dressing around the action.
Growing up on horror flicks like the “Friday the 13th” franchise, I was always disgusted by the teenaged girls who stood screaming in their sheer nighties while their boyfriends got hacked to bits with an ax. Maybe taking on the hockey-mask-wearing serial killer would have been a bit too much to expect but could these women at least learn to run? Like, before Mr. Machete is hot on their trail?
But even if we like our female characters to refuse to play the victim, do we wholly celebrate their roles as perpetrators of acts of violence? Put differently, why do we love the Lisbeths and Katnisses of the world now more than ever?
Maybe in an age of ever-threatened reproductive rights, we applaud women like Lisbeth who take charge of their sexuality.
Or at the same time, maybe in a time of over-sexualized images of girls beginning with pre-pubescent pageant divas and continuing on through menopause (at which time expressing one’s sexuality is suddenly frowned upon), we like seeing a tough girl like Katniss making the first move but only going to first base.
Maybe there’s something refreshing about girls in leather boots made for chasing bad guys instead of five-inch heels made for tottering.
Maybe a lot of us who drive SUV’s (or even mini-vans) and spend our days ferrying children here and there simply get a cheap thrill from watching Lisbeth whizz down dark curvy roads through the Swedish countryside.
Or maybe our hearts collectively sing when Katniss’s arrow strikes its target because there are so few perfect successes in our own workaday and somewhat muddled lives.
I think all of these things are true, but even more, these books and films satisfy the need we all have from the youngest age when we first heard our parents read us fairy tales: we need to see the bad guys lose and the good guys win. Only in this case, we get to see the bad guys lose and the good girls win, and that is especially delicious.