The Hero Games: Women vs. Dragons


ABSTRACT:  The roles of the Heroine and Hero are interchanging in modern film. In both The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games, the heroines drive the plot, but neither woman is truly successful.   A heroine cannot be held to the success standards of heroines when her tragic journey follows the pattern of a hero.  Examining Aristotle’s tragic hero reveals that these modern heroines in film are written to fulfill or mirror the role of the tragic hero but are insufficient as such.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara, who plays the heroine, Lisbeth Salander, has transformed herself into a genderless, gothic creature of sorts.  Lisbeth is a bisexual, motorcycle-riding, orphaned criminal.  In order to portray her character believably, Mara cannot resemble a fair damsel in distress, which reigned in classic Western art.  She must embrace masculine qualities to attract women and convince the audience of her gumption for felony.

Katniss Everdeen, heroine of The Hunger Games, hunts game and sells it to provide food and money for her family, essentially fulfilling a paternal role.  The feminine qualities of both Katniss and Lisbeth are untraceable, and their visible actions, unfeminine.

The calling of Aristotle’s tragic hero comes when the hero makes a personal, tragic mistake.  He then must offer himself to right his own wrong and often, to die for it.  It is not a voluntary act; he has no choice.  Katniss and Lisbeth’s callings seem unavoidable, but really, they choose their battles.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael asks Lisbeth to help him find “a killer of women.”  Since Lisbeth is a woman and victim of rape by men, she has motivation to respond to Mikael’s calling.  However, this response would be vengeful, to right wrongs done to her. The tragic hero rights wrongs he has committed.  Furthermore, the tragic hero wrestles with his own fate, rather than the fates of others.  Lisbeth’s calling from Mikael is not to avenge her own rapists; it is to avenge murders of other women.  In this way, Lisbeth actually resembles the antihero: revengeful for a just cause.

Katniss of The Hunger Games volunteers as tribute in the games in place of her sister.  Again, protecting her sister seems like a calling, but Katniss did not bring the harm upon her sister. Katniss’ sacrifice would only be essential if she put her sister in danger.  Katniss’ sacrifice is a voluntary act.

These vengeful callings distort the modern view of justice.  The tragic hero’s mistake could potentially wreak havoc on the community.   Lisbeth and Katniss’ motivations are not society-based; they choose their battles based on personal interests.  Katniss fights for her family, and Lisbeth fights to satisfy her anger against her rapists.

Katniss looks heroic because she only kills in the hunger games indirectly or out of self-defense.  Katniss drops a bee nest on another girl, making her murder inadvertent.  She kills two other times, once in self-defense and once to save her lover, Peeta.  Lisbeth tortures her parole officer after he rapes her.  Does vengeance retain heroism?  If they do not kill boldly, but only by default, then the tragedy of their actions is cheapened.

Both Katniss and Lisbeth do not allow love to grow and flourish.  Katniss kisses Peeta, and Lisbeth strips for Mikael.  Love is not a force that compels these heroines, but these heroines manipulate the force of love.  This cheats the plot standard for a heroine.  A heroine is successful when love befalls her in a true feminine state, at rest.

These heroines do not act as saviors alone but in competition with heroes.  In both films, these heroines are not the sole protagonists.  They only become protagonists when their male competition falls.

In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, only when Mikael, played by Daniel Craig, is poisoned in a gas chamber does the responsibility of killing the antagonist fall solely on Lisbeth.  In The Hunger Games, Katniss only forges the battle alone when Peeta falls sick; he acts as her ally in every other situation.  These heroines do not represent their own triumph, but rather, they represent their triumph over the hero, as the stronger protagonist.

Neither heroine finds true success.  Katniss does not find a way to win the hunger games.  She chooses to commit suicide with Peeta at the end, and the government saves them both from that fate.  Lisbeth does not actually get the privilege of killing her antagonist.  As she walks toward him with a gun, he catches on fire.  Lisbeth does not find true love, and Katniss’ love is more compulsive than lasting.

The strength of a heroine within any storyline comes from the accentuation of her feminine qualities, and her necessity in the storyline is her ability to solve problems in a way a hero could not.  Modern film portrays the heroine as the hero.  As the modern audience continues to accept this replacement, they accept a distorted set of values for those beautifully brought to light by Aristotle’s tragic hero.

This abstract originally appeared in the April 20, 2012 print edition.