Katniss Everdeen is Not Nearly As Cool As Briar Wilkes

The following contains spoilers for The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, the full length of which isn't really worth your time, and the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest, the full length of which definitely is, twice.

But if you're really that hung up about spoilers you shouldn't be on the internet anyways.

I used to be baffled by society's apparent obsession with 'strong female characters,' but then again, I also used to be a sexist asshole. If a character is capable, reasonable, and respectable, what did it matter whether they were male or female?

But then I grew up and realized that, not only are females vastly underrepresented in all mediums, but that men and women are different enough that that could be a problem-- and it's okay to say so. Hollywood, that industry that will having me gritting my teeth in frustration and disappointment to my dying day, very rarely handles the roles of strong female characters well. In an industry populated, dominated, funded and directed by men, it's not a surprise that when a movie cranks out a 'strong female character,' they're usually just a teenaged boy's fantasy dressed in leather pants and saying 'fuck' a lot.

There are plenty of decent role models in movies, though. Not every movie protagonist uses the typical Hollywood problem-solving method of, "Punch Them First, and Shoot Them If That Fails." There are plenty of decent, level headed good guys out there.

But... not really a lot of good girls, dontcha know.

There's another side to this issue. You can argue all you like about whether men are smarter/faster/better than women, but you can't argue that empowering and educating women is not absolutely the best way to lower crime rates and improve societal conditions for everyone, since they spend much more money on family members and their communities than men do.

No, stop. You, who were about to argue with me. I'm not being hyperbolic, it really is true. When women are educated, employed, and have money to spend, crime, poverty and other unsavory aspects of society go down. Really.

Anyway, knowing this, you can see how important it is for young girls to have relatable female characters to look up to, emulate, and be inspired by, isn't it? When there are nothing but grizzled men punching nazis, there's not a lot out there to encourage young ladies to do better at school and get good jobs.

That's why, when the Hunger Games books came out and sold a bazillion copies, Hollywood soiled itself with glee. Not merely because they could stand to make buckets of money from the movie adaptation, but because they could finally roll out The Hunger Games' strangely-named protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, and say, "Look everyone, we can make strong female characters! WE'RE IMPORTANT!!!"

They like to think that a lot.

But if you ask me (and the fact that you're here means you did), Katniss Everdeen is not the best choice for inspiring young ladies. While she starts off as a mature, capable teenager caring for her family, she certainly doesn't remain that way. Over the course of the three Hunger Games novels, her character development becomes character regression, and she ends up a broken, complacent emotional wreck of a human being who'd sooner commit murder than make a friend.

Hey, that does sound like something Hollywood would come up with, doesn't it?

Contrarily, there's Briar Wilkes. She's a 35 year-old single mother living in 1870-ish Seattle. She's twice as old as Katniss, but she's ten times more cool.

Both Briar and Katniss live in equally improbable worlds. Katniss lives in a dystopian future where a comically evil ruling class signs their own death warrant by ritually murdering the children of the very people they depend upon for their riches and comforts, inadvertently training the survivors of said ritual for guerilla warfare. Briar lives in an alternate past where the American Civil War kept on going years after the real one did (despite the fact that both sides simply ran out of bodies to fight it with), because the Union and the Confederacy kept prolonging the conflict with increasingly more impossible Steampunk war machines. Also, there are zombies.

You're more likely than not familiar with Katniss' story. Her little sister gets drafted into the Hunger Games, a ritual, annual, sacrificial Olympics where children aged 11 to 17 are forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the ruling class. There can only be one winner, and that winner is showered with riches and fame for the rest of their lives. Katniss volunteers to go on behalf of her younger sister, and she's carted off to the capitol city to train up and murder her peers. She wins the competition and even sows the seeds of rebellion by saving one other person, despite the aforementioned "there can only be one" rule.

While the series has some decent ideas, it's been done before. But this ain't no book review. I'm here to tell you about Briar, and why she's better.

Briar Wilkes married young to a brilliant inventor named Leviticus. Leviticus was commissioned by the Russian government to build a state-of-the-art digging device (dubbed the Boneshaker) that could plow through the rock-hard Klondike ice to reach an otherwise inaccessible pile of gold there. The device malfunctions, downtown Seattle gets torn to shreds, and a toxic gas starts leaking from the ground, bestowing all that inhale it with a slight case of zombism.

Briar manages to escape to the city (though Leviticus, father of her child, doesn't), and a giant concrete wall is erected around the ruins, trapping the zombies inside. She bears a son and raises him well for sixteen years, despite suffering constant torment and abuse from her peers and co-workers for the crime of marrying the mad scientist who broke Seattle. The story kicks off, though, when her son Zeke decides to venture off into the walled-up death zone to prove his father's innocence. So what does Briar do? Does she go to the police, pleading for their help while sobbing into a hankie? Does she sit at home, rocking back and forth while sobbing into a hankie? Does she wail and moan in despair and loss (between sobbing into a hankie)?

Nope, she grabs a gas mask, a gun, and a coat, and goes in after him.

Katniss, by comparison, stops being proactive the moment she gets back from the Hunger Games. It's a traumatic experience she goes through, for certain, but instead of holding her head up and taking charge of her own destiny like Briar does, she becomes aggressive, unfriendly, and noncommittal. She continues supporting her family through hunting, but mostly because she gets bored if she doesn't. She becomes complacent, shirks responsibility and tries to stay below the radar, which is exactly how the despotic government wants her to be. And even as the inevitable bells of revolution start to ring, she only joins the fight to topple the evil (but not very forward-thinking) government because the revolutionaries have forced her into it, since they need a pretty face for the cameras.

When Briar Wilkes arrived in the ruined Seattle city streets via zeppelin (because Steampunk) however, the prognosis did not look good. There's no breathable air, the aboveground streets are filled with zombies, and the few people living there in underground catacombs are all under the thumb of a genuine Steampunk Dr. Doom. What's worse, they know who she is: The former wife of the man that broke Seattle. However, she manages to befriend a few of the locals and joins the fight against the mad scientist in order to find her son. It's starting to look like the mad scientist is actually her former husband Leviticus, the man who started this whole mess. And if she knows anything about Leviticus, it's that he takes what's his, which in this case is her son, Zeke.

Back to Hunger Games, Katniss is now on the front lines of a full-blown revolution. The leaders of the revolution have grown tired of Katniss' constant subversion of authority and abrasiveness, and almost don't let her fight on the front lines. But they need her charming pseudo-smile for the cameras, and they let her go. This turns out to be a mistake, because she makes an objectively terrible military decision that gets some of her closest friends killed and actually doesn’t accomplish a single thing. In fact, the last third of the book just follows Katniss' starry-eyed circle of friends get picked off one by one... for no reason. If she had done nothing at all (like she did for most of the rest of the book), they would have lived. When the evil (but, I can't stress this enough, very, very stupid) government finally falls, she at last does exactly one proactive thing by murdering someone who, admittedly, needed to be stopped. But this action causes her to spiral into depression and uselessness from which she never recovers. While she did go through terrible trauma and had to make some pretty heart-wrenching decisions, she ends up a broken human being who’s unapologetic about her shortcomings and makes no effort to remedy them.

Not a very inspiring figure for young girls, is what I’m saying.

Meanwhile, Briar Wilkes ventures into a broken world, rescues her son, and saves its denizens from Steampunk Dr. Doom. Then, she dusts off her coat, examines the ruined, shattered city that is also swarming with zombies, and she says, “Yep, I think I’ll stay. And I’ll be the Sheriff.”

Indeed, after all that, she stays in the destroyed city to rebuild society and raise her teenaged son, all while strutting her stuff as the sheriff of Zombieland. Now that’s a story for the ladies.


“No problem. I got this.”

There’s room in this world for both The Hunger Games and Clockwork Century, but only one of them has a true strong female character in it. Besides, Clockwork Century is much more beautifully written, in my completely correct opinion. In fact, what are you still doing here reading this? Go get Boneshaker, already.

Thanks to Alex Pelayre for the excellent drawing of Briar Wilkes.

  • erica
    Comment from: erica
    07/16/12 @ 12:12:26 am

    Um, yes. Though I admired Katniss and her survival skills in book one, by the time I got to book three I wanted to punch her in the face. On one hand, I think hers was a very true-to-life tale in that men and women who go through traumatic experiences often do not recover and certainly do not rally to be an inspiration. However, for a work of fiction, I want her to rally and to lead a freakin’ revolution. And I want her to do it with zeal and smarts. Isn’t that what escape fiction is for? So. Disappointing. But, now I’ll have to go read Clockwork Century. I mean, strong heroine in her thirties AND steampunk alternate universe? Yes, please!

  • cat
    Comment from: cat
    08/23/12 @ 07:51:58 pm

    oh heak yes! Another Boneshaker fan who agrees with me on BOTH the terms that Katniss Everdeen does not in any case, turn out to be the greatest heroine, and that Briar Wilkes just. Plain. Kicks. Ass. Also, i think Angaline made a very good strong female character as well, and so did Lucy O’Gunning- hell, all of the Boneshaker chicks are awesome! ^^

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