What Is “Feminist” Media?

The Hunger Games is everywhere right now, especially since the newest movie came out. Because it’s a movie with a female lead, there is of course a great deal of commentary about whether or not it’s a feminist movie. There are the shallow critiques that say she shoots stuff so she’s strong, the ones that say there’s too many men, and then there’s one that suggested that she is not a feminist icon because all of her choices are deeply constrained and influenced by men. It says that her only real choice is to volunteer for her sister and how much of a choice was that anyway? Sure she threatened suicide and forced the Capitol’s hand, but they stole even that from her by keeping her alive. Not enough autonomy, not feminist.

But this leads me to question: what makes something feminist? Is it when women have power to enact change around them? Is it when women are complex human beings? Is it when women are physically strong? Is it when women when women are able to choose what they want to do without interference?

Of course there are elements of all of these, but I would assert that the most important thing for a piece of media to be feminist is for it to be realistic in its portrayal of women. And let’s be straight: The Hunger Games creates a very believable and realistic character in Katniss. While she does have talents none of us could dream of, she is loyal and responsible, conflicted about her romantic feelings, and making the best choices possible under constrained circumstances. All women live in a society where their choices are heavily constrained by the influence of men. Katniss is intensely realistic in that she attempts to make the best choices possible while living in a world that limits her choices and does not allow her to always follow through on the choices she would make.

But through all of this, Katniss manages to make choices that affect things. Her choice to honor Rue deeply affected the people of Panem, and reflected a very human sentiment: usually we only see men burying fallen comrades. We see that she has a relationship with someone, cares for others in a way that is realistic.

When I look for strong female characters, I’m not looking for someone whose life works out in all the ways they want it to, who has unlimited power to fight back against the baddies. I’m looking for someone who has complex motivations, who makes real relationships with others, who acts like people act, and who does her best to make autonomous choices through difficult situations. I look for someone who’s real, not a hero.

This is why we can have feminist characters across genres and styles, with all sorts of backgrounds, doing all sorts of things: because that is a realistic representation of women. These red herrings about strength, power, and creating change are unhelpful: media that portrays women that women can relate to is important and should be recognized as such.

One thought on “What Is “Feminist” Media?

  1. Chelsea says:

    I got into a debate with another woman over this once. She argued that feminist media can only be feminist if it ‘supports’ other women (i.e. the female characters have to help each other, etc). I was arguing something similar to yours, that a realistically flawed female character was more feminist then an idealized “strong” or “independent” woman. Female characters don’t need to embody all feminist ideals to be considered feminists, they need to be portrayed as people in their own right.

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