Defining and Defying Female Stereotypes: A Comparison of Charlotte Temple and Katniss Everdeen
In today’s society, women are frequently thought of as helpless “damsels in distress,” or that they must rely on a man to rescue them from difficult tasks. This stereotype is furthered by television, literature, and Hollywood. An article by Salma Yaqoob speaks of such stereotyping among Muslim women. She says, “The perception of Muslim women in the west is invariably as… victims,” (Yaqoob). Most feel that these women are “in need of rescue.” In the same way, women are often treated as inferior to men, and in need of their guidance. The famous 18th century work, Charlotte Temple, is an early example of the stereotypical view of the helpless woman; while Suzanne Collins’, The Hunger Games, goes against the grain and attempts to abolish the gender roles put in place by our society, featuring a strong female protagonist.
The character of Charlotte in Charlotte Temple is portrayed as an innocent and helpless fifteen year old girl. This character is not merely a fictitious girl imagined in Rowson’s mind, but is representative of women during that time period. Charlotte is symbolic of a proper young lady of her time and in her expected role. American and European women were not educated and, “Casualties of a patriarchal society…” many “…would seek to demonstrate the intellectual inferiority of women,” (Barton). Women were subject to an oppressive patriarchal rule. As a result, Charlotte has not been touched by the corruption of the world, and often surprises her mentor, Mademoiselle La Rue, with her lack of worldly knowledge. Charlotte’s innocent nature is first exposed after she and La Rue return from an evening outing. Charlotte says, “…I thought the gentlemen were very free in their manner: I wonder you would suffer them to behave as they did.” La Rue insists that it was Charlotte’s own foolishness to expect otherwise and says, “…if your delicacy was hurt by the behavior of the gentlemen, you need not go again,” (Rowson 18). This dialogue is used by the author to shape the character of both Charlotte and La Rue; one as an innocent, but ignorant young girl, and the other as a woman who is socially adept, and very familiar with worldly behavior. Charlotte’s feminine helplessness will be exposed later on in the novel. Yet it is this helplessness that society has determined that the proper young lady should possess, not as an aberrant behavior that the author, Rowson, wrote into the character of Charlotte.
Charlotte endures many hardships throughout the novel, and is unable to do anything about it. She cannot help herself. She foolishly travels with Montraville to America, who shortly thereafter leaves her. Upon discovering that Montraville has left her, she immediately accepts that she is doomed to live a life in which, “…shame, remorse, and disappointed love will henceforth be [her] only attendants,” (Rowson 45). She has no idea what to do, and frequently bursts into tears thinking of her misfortune. She does send a letter to her parents, begging forgiveness for running away, but only after Mrs. Beauchamp instructed her to do so. Charlotte is utterly helpless. Not only is she unable to save herself, but she is entirely subject to the will of men. Upon leaving Charlotte, Montraville says to his companion, “It was I seduced her, Belcour. Had it not been for me, she had still been virtuous and happy in the affection and protection of her family,” (Rowson 54). Charlotte’s life is sculpted by this man, and she has no power to change it. Modern readers would view Charlotte’s behavior as ludicrous, because no one in the current era would conceive of a woman behaving in such a silly manner. Today’s readers would not relate to her helplessness, or her lack of control over her own well-being. However, this is still the expected role for a woman, to be secondary to men and to depend on men for the happiness and well-being of society’s female population.
In contrast to Charlotte’s helplessness, Katniss Everdeen is resourceful and fends for herself in the poverty-stricken District 12. “Katniss functions as a subversive character in that she goes against traditional feminine stereotypes,” (Graf). Her character contradicts the gender roles that have been put in place by society, and have been promoted through television and literature. Katniss’ father died when she was young, and her mother became completely overwhelmed with grief. Her mother did not get a job to provide for the family, “She didn’t do anything sit propped up in a chair… eyes fixed on some point in the distance,” (Collins 26-27). With her father gone and her mother mentally unstable, young Katniss was left to take care of herself and her younger sister. “…she did not follow society’s expectations for females because she became caretaker for her mother and younger sister Prim after her father’s death. Her role in the family differs from typical expectations,” (Brooks). In all respects, Katniss became the mother and the mother became the child that she needed to care for and comfort. Katniss was thrust into a “do or die” situation, and handled it well. She hunted for food to feed her family, and sold the extra in exchange for other necessities. Rather than turning to a man to save her from misfortune, she takes care of herself without complaint. It is Katniss that offers the sacrificial protection of Prim by deciding to go to the games in her place. Even when she is forced to participate in The Hunger Games she refuses to show weakness or beg for sympathy. She takes charge in the arena and eventually wins.
Collins did not do something new by creating an incredibly strong female character. Hannah Blankenship of the University of Idaho’s Women’s Center says, “Women defying typical gender roles or being perceived as ‘tough’ isn’t anything new, but the representation of this in society are few and far between,” (Blankenship). Collins’ first book was very successful and widely read; however, she does not stop after one book. In the two final books of the trilogy, Katniss’ strength is tested time after time. She endures the death of loved ones, is sent into the arena a second time, and becomes the face of the rebellion. The rebels look to her as their leader, once again breaking the mold of gender roles. Katniss leads them to the Capitol’s doorstep and rallies them to victory.
Collins has crafted her heroine, Katniss to become a strong model for modern men and women. Society will often honor those who fight against steep odds, to gain freedom, and this is what attracts the reader to Katniss’ fight even though she fights contrary to society’s social roles for women. The fact that she can hunt and kill both animals and humans, in order to survive and protect her loved ones is as aberrant as Charlotte Temple’s lack of action, and both authors present shocking and memorable characters.
These two novels are very different. The main difference, however, is that one conforms to stereotypes and one breaks away. Charlotte Temple creates a fairly typical female character. She makes poor decisions and must be rescued by a smarter and stronger man as a result. She is a helpless damsel in distress. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, features a female character that is far from typical. Katniss not only provides for her family, in the place of her father, but she also liberates a nation and topples an oppressive government. The contrast of these two characters and novels provide a commentary on stereotypes in media and forced gender roles in society.
Barton, Paul. “Narrative Intrusion In Charlotte Temple: A Closet Feminist’s Strategy In An American Novel.” Women & Language 23.1 (2000): 26. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Blankenship, Hannah. “‘The Hunger Games’: Hope for Women in Pop Culture.” University of Idaho Women’s Center. N.p., 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.
Brooks, Roze. “May the Odds Be Ever in Your Gender: Women’s Center Discusses Subtext in ‘The Hunger Games'” University News. N.p., 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.
Graf, Joseph. “Using The Hunger Games to Question Gender Roles.” The Preface (2012): n. pag. 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.
Rowson, Susanna. Charlotte Temple. N.p.: n.p., 1791. Project Gutenberg. 12 Mar. 2006. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
Yaqoob, Salma. “Doing It For Ourselves.” New Statesman 139.4988 (2010): 40-41. Literary Reference Center. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
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