Hunting Girls:
Patriarchal Fantasy or Feminist Progress?

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2013, Volume 12, Issue 1


Kelly Oliver
Vanderbilt University

Several recent blockbuster Hollywood films feature teenage girls hunting and killing animals (Hanna, Winter’s Bone, The Hunger Games, Twilight: Breaking Dawn II).  These films figure tough girls who stand up for themselves and who demonstrate their fortitude and no-nonsense attitudes by hunting animals. What does it mean that Hollywood’s latest girl protagonists are more comfortable in the forest chasing animals than they are amongst their high school peers? And, how has Hollywood gone from Disney princesses who have a special bond with their animal friends to these Artemis figures wielding bows and arrows to take down their prey?  It is noteworthy that these girls also are being hunted. And although they are not killed, they are beaten and subjected to violence. They are both hunters and prey. How should we interpret these representations of strong girls who are also abused?  What is the relationship between their hunting animals and their being hunted? 

Conventionally, hunting has been associated with men and masculinity, while loving animals has been associated with women, or more especially with girls, and femininity: “men may be attracted to hunting because of their need to provide for the family and show masculine prowess, and women may be attached to animals due to maternal instincts” (Gaarder 58-9). Feminists such as Emily Gaarder and Carol Adams have argued that in American culture, “real men” eat meat, while it is more acceptable for women to be vegetarians and animal activists, which is why far more women than men are vegetarians or animal activists (see Gaarder). Adams shows connections between meat eating and our ideas about masculinity; “Boy food doesn’t grow. It is hunted or killed” (Adams 92). Eating meat is seen as essential for strength and substance. Even more than eating animals, it is macho to hunt and kill them, especially big game. The bigger the animal, the manlier the hunt. Hunting is associated with masculinity because it is a way of providing for the family; and because it is a blood sport that confirms man’s position at the top of the food chain.

How can we explain the dramatic shift in popular film from girls loving animals to girls killing animals? Certainly, one way to establish that these girls are tough, fearless, and can provide as well as a man, is by showing them hunting.  In Hanna, The Hunger Games and Twilight, killing animals is a rite of passage for these girls on the brink of womanhood. As I argue in this essay, their relationship to animals is complex insofar as they hunt them and still are seen as more akin to them than their male counterparts. Indeed, in some ways, the fact that these girls stalk the forest makes them more like animals, rather than proving their position in the hierarchy at the top of the food chain.  At the same time that hunting prowess makes these girls more masculine, it also reinforces their connection to nature and to animals.

As we will see, in these films there is nostalgia for this connection to nature and the loss of innocence signaled by technological advances that separate us from nature. I argue that the girls in these films represent our lost connection to nature. Furthermore, their loss of innocence represents the loss of innocence associated with high-tech culture. In addition, their hunting prowess is a precursor to their sexual prowess.  The tension between their virginity and their budding pubescent sexuality is part of their fascination and appeal. In these films, the girls’ hunting prowess is not only what enables them to survive in a hostile often high-tech world, but also what makes them both attractive and dangerous. 

The Sarah Palin Phenomenon

Perhaps some of the recent fascination with hunting girls could be attributed to Sarah Palin.  In 2008, the media had a field day when then Vice Presidential Candidate bragged about being able to hunt, kill and gut a moose. Trying to compete in the man’s world of politics, Palin used her hunting skills to show that she is tough. While many Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates have been shown hunting, it was unusual to see a woman hunt.  With her beauty queen looks and what her daughter Bristol calls her prom queen hair, Palin didn’t seem like the typical hunter. Yet, she spawned a whole den of “mama grizzlies” hunting to provide for their families, while using whatever means necessary to protect them. Like other political hopefuls, she wanted watching her kill and gut a moose to instill confidence in her abilities as a leader, particularly as Commander in Chief. Since then, Palin has hosted her own reality television, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which features her fishing, hunting and killing various animals in Alaska, along with camping and mining for gold. Her children, especially Bristol and Willow, are featured camping, fishing or shooting guns. In one episode tagged “Mother-Daughter Bonding,” Bristol and Sarah go halibut fishing, but the camera cuts away just before they club the giant fish on the head to kill them. In another, Sarah hunts caribou with her dad for some Father-Daughter bonding; and after taking so many shots at an unsuspecting caribou that just looks at her while she continues to miss to the point that it becomes embarrassing, finally, she kills and guts it.

Perhaps the Palin girls gone wild have inspired other girls and women to get outdoors in pursuit of wild game. Although nationwide hunting is on the decline, the one demographic on the rise dramatically is women: “Over the past 50 years hunting, as Americans call game shooting, has generally been in decline, as the television remote control has lured people away from outdoor pursuits. But the number of women hunters has surged” (Economist 31). Some hunting federations have started targeting women to get more recruits.  For example, the Arizona Wildlife Federation hosts a workshop called “Becoming an Outdoor Woman”; and the state”s Fish and Game Department has various classes on hunting tips geared towards women.  There are even courses on how to cook game, with recipes for “No Fail Quail” and “Sweet-and-Sour Bunny” (Economist 31). Perhaps not surprisingly, there are now numerous websites devoted to “Hot Girls Hunting.” These buxom “hot” hunters usually are wearing make-up, some of them in bikinis or very tight clothing. Girls with guns have fueled the imaginations of men who find them sexy.  Indeed, an Internet search for “girls and animals” yields more pornography sites than anything else. Apparently, the combination of girls and animals, along with girls and guns, is titillating; and even girl hunters are made into sex objects.

In the fall of 2012, the popular television show America’s Next Top Model had an episode devoted to college co-eds featured as big game trophies. The photo-shoot for the episode shows young women students posing as trophies, with their heads mounted on the wall.  Shot in a room with one wall completely filled with mounted animal heads, including deer, antelope, elk and moose, the girls stick their heads through wooden wall mounts, and mimicking the animals on the wall, they stare wide-eyed into the camera with their mouths slightly open, as if surprised to be “dead.” This contemporary example of the connection between girls and animals could not be more explicit in making girls prey and considering them big game trophies.  Girls are not only the hunters, but also the hunted.

From Princess to Hunter

Even Disney and other animated princesses have become hunters in the persona of the feisty bow and arrow shooting princess Merida in Brave (2012). Certainly, Disney princesses have changed over the years to accommodate changing attitudes towards gender roles (see Rozario). Early Disney princesses like Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959) were demure and feminine; they waited for a prince to rescue them from their ordinary lives, a prince whose love and charm would transform them into a princess.  Decades later, Team Disney’s princesses were still waiting to be transported by love, but they were a bit pluckier and quite a bit sexier, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992), and Pocahontas (1995). More recently, both Disney and Dreamworks have given us more assertive and physically stronger princesses. With Mulan (1998), Shrek’s princess Fiona (2001), and Brave’s princess Merida (2012), among others, we have active, even athletic princesses, who enter a man’s world as equals (cf. Rozario). Princess Merida shuns her suitors, preferring to win her own hand using her archery skills so that she can continue to spend her free time in the forest riding her horse, shooting arrows, and hunting (although we only see her kill a salmon to feed her queen mother who has been turned into a bear by an inept witch). With Brave, even the youngest audiences are served an Artemis style princess who prefers hunting to boys. 

From early Disney princesses through tongue-in-cheek sends ups of those princesses in Shrek and Enchanted (2007) with spunky willful girls who are doing it for themselves, all of these girls keep company with animals that figure as important companions, friends, and even kin. Like their live action counterparts in films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), National Velvet (1944), Andre (1994), Whale Rider (2002, which isn’t a Hollywood film, but its young female lead, Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for a Best Actress award), and Avatar (2009), these girls have special bonds with animals.  One way to interpret these girls’ closeness to animals is that traditionally girls and women have been seen as akin to animals, or at least closer to their animal instincts than men. Various horror films capitalize on this animalistic connection between women and animals, films in which women turn into animals, usually sexual predators (for example, Cat People 1942, She-Wolf of London 1946, The Wasp Woman 1959, and more recently The Brood, Species, and Splice, among others). One recent film, Splice (2010), is noteworthy because it features a pubescent girl creature who is a genetically engineered human-animal hybrid named Dren; she enters puberty and has sex with her human “father” and then kills him, changes her own sex and rapes and impregnates her human “mother.”  Before she becomes sexually mature, Dren kills a rabbit and eats it raw, to the horror of her vegetarian mother; and she befriends a kitten that she later kills as a sort of revenge on her human mother. 

Returning to the question with which we began, how can we explain this move from girls loving or being animals to girls hunting and killing animals in recent films? Is this move to represent girls as tougher and more self-sufficient feminist progress or yet another patriarchal fantasy? Certainly, fairytales need to adapt to current gender norms. Yet, these bloodthirsty teens killing game large and small, along with other people – or in the case of Twilight’s Bella, vampires – seem to go beyond gender parity at the movies.  Moreover, their popularity indicates that these nervy girls have hit a nerve. Both the Twilight films and The Hunger Games are among the top grossing films of all time; and both have held the place as biggest box-office hit ever; Twilight held the spot until The Hunger Games eclipsed its sales. Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans and the occasional vampire so appealing? In the rest of this essay, I turn to three recent Hollywood films, Hanna, The Hunger Games and Twilight: Breaking Dawn II in order to begin to answer these questions.

Hanna: The Little Mermaid

The protagonist in Hanna is the sixteen-year-old girl for whom the film is named. Raised by her rogue C.I.A. agent father (Eric Bana) in an isolated Artic forest, Hanna (Saorise Ronan) has learned not only to be self-sufficient, but also to speak several languages, operate complicated weaponry, and to kill. The film opens with Hanna hunting a caribou in a tense chase scene that ends with the animal falling, moaning and gasping its last breath in close-up. Hanna brought it down with a bow and arrow; but since she “just missed” its heart, she finishes it off with a pistol. This scene foreshadows her showdown with the evil C.I.A. operative, Marissa Weigler, who orders her death and her father’s death once she finds out that they are alive. For, in the final scene of the film, Hanna kills Weigler (Cate Blanchett) with a makeshift arrow, again just misses her heart, and repeats the same words she said to the dying animal.  

As the film progresses, we learn that Hanna’s mother was part of a C.I.A. experiment run by Weigler who convinced pregnant women who wanted abortions to participate in a study that enhanced their fetuses with heighten intelligence, strength, agility, and tolerance for violence.  The plan was to create a genetically modified C.I.A. special force designed to kill, an elite military unit made up of enhanced soldiers. But, Erik, the agent assigned to oversee the pregnant recruits, falls in love with Hanna’s mother and they try to escape. Weigler kills Hanna’s mother, but Erik and Hanna get away and hide out north of Finland until Hanna is ready to carry out the assignment for which she has trained all of her life – avenge her mother’s death and kill Marissa Weigler. On her sixteenth birthday, Erik presents Hanna with box shaped device adorned with a big red button.  He tells her that once she presses the button Marissa Weigler will find them and he can no longer protect her; she will have to leave their forest hide-out and enter civilization so that she can kill Weigler. 

Like The Little Mermaid, Hanna longs to emerge from her secluded forest and see the world of real girls.  Actress Soarise Ronan who plays Hanna says, “The structure of the story is basically…about a girl who’s lived in the castle her whole life and suddenly she breaks out and is introduced to evil and beauty and ugliness and all these different things…The Little Mermaid who is breaking to the surface and wants to be a real girl.”   The centerpiece of the film is a wide-eyed Hanna experiencing the human world for the first time, including making friends with another teenaged girl Sophie who tells her about make-up and boys. But, she also discovers that the world is a dangerous, even cruel place where doesn’t belong. Director Joe Wright describes Hanna as The Little Mermaid who discovers that the real world is cruel: “The Little Mermaid is the story of Hanna. The idea that she grows up under the surface and images the world above as this beautiful, romantic place. And of course she gains legs and they are painful, and she discovers the world is quite cruel.” While at the end of the film, Hanna is alone in the real world without friend or family, in the screenplay, she goes back to her isolated forest cabin to find her fox puppy waiting for her there. This original ending suggests not only that this is where Hanna belongs (not in the real world) but also that her real family may be the animals with whom she shares the forest, perhaps even the ones she eats.

Rather than living under the sea and wishing for legs so that she can walk on land, Hanna lives in the forest close to animals but longs to join the human world.  For her, the tension between the under and over worlds becomes the tension between nature and technology, heightened by the fact that Hanna herself is created through both. She is a genetically engineered child designed to kill – we might say, designed to kill like an animal without remorse. Hanna, like other girls in recent films running through the forest, represents the innocence of nature. Yet, her innocence is also threatening when “unleashed” on society.  Like a predatory animal, she is both innocent and dangerous. Her hunting prowess gives her the edge when fleeing and fighting her pursuers. Like many animals, she is both predator and prey.  She not only hunts, but she is also being hunted. While in the case of men, their hunting animals might be seen as proving men’s superiority to, or dominion over, other animals, in the case of these girls, hunting brings them even closer to animals.  Hanna feels more comfortable in the world of animals than in the world of humans.  (Indeed, the original screenplay has her leave civilization to go back to the world of the animals where a fox cub is her only companion). And aside from training her to kill men, her hunting skills appear superfluous, even in appropriate, in civilized society, evidenced in a scene where she throws a freshly skinned rabbit on the breakfast table of her newly found friend’s campsite and the whole family is disgusted. 

As in the other films that I will discuss, in Hanna, there is nostalgia for the natural world untouched by technology.  Hanna and her father live in a world both before and beyond technology. Aside from Hanna’s strict and demanding training routine, they have an idyllic life. It is only when Erik digs up the locator beacon with the ominous big red button that their peaceful life turns into a deadly nightmare. Technology interrupts nature and brings chaos to the seeming natural order of things. And while the film leaves Hanna alone, mourning her father, and stranded in the human world, the screen play places her back where she belongs, living simply within the natural chain of being, hunting some animals and befriending others. 

How is it that nostalgia for lost natural habitat and the loss of innocence go together in these films? Do these girls represent the lost innocence of nature, now corrupted by technologies of destruction? Their position on the cusp between childhood and womanhood seems threatening, perhaps more threatening than the fully mature femme fatale, precisely because of their innocence. In other words, there is something attractive about these pubescent warriors who bring together fantasies of innocence, innocence lost, and phallic women shooting arrows and guns. They are more dangerous because we don’t expect them to be violent gun or arrow slinging “tough guys.” They look as innocent as kittens, but their claws do more damage. If these girls are particularly menacing because they don’t look dangerous, that is in part because stereotypes of girls, evidenced in their Disney predecessors, play on their supposed passivity, helplessness, and pure hearts.  While our new princess warriors may still have good hearts, they may not be as pure as they once were.

These dangerous girls signal anxieties about lost innocence along with the excitement of that loss, represented not only by the move from nature to high-tech culture but also by the loss of virginity and the loss of purity. In these films, technology and loss of virginity come together, as if it were technology that deflowers the girls at the same time that it introduces them to the thrilling yet cruel world of adult sexuality. These girls’ transition to womanhood is paralleled by the transition from nature to culture. As they move out of the forest and into society, they begin to experience their (human) sexuality. In different ways in all of these films (Hanna, Avatar, Twilight, and The Hunger Games) human sexuality replaces or supplements animal sexuality. The innocent yet erotic relationship that the girls have with the forest and the animals in it gives way to a more properly human sexuality. Still, in Hanna and The Hunger Games in particular, the girls’ interest in animals and the call of the wild is always in tension with their interest in boys and the tug of civilized society. Indeed, their closeness to animals, even when – or especially when – hunting them represents the joy of youth, while the lure of kissing boys signals their transition to womanhood. While this lure is a curiosity for them, they also remain wedded to their earlier pleasures in the forest with animals. The world of boys and kisses is also a dangerous world – not only for these girls but also for the boys brave enough to try it. 

The New York Times
film critics A.O. Smith and Manohla Dargis suggest that Hanna’s training and killer instincts may be a way of keeping her chaste as well as safe: “In ‘Hanna’ the teenage heroine, raised in arctic isolation by her father, experiences her first kiss and then executes a swift, complex series of martial arts moves on her unsuspecting beau, who winds up flat on his back, gasping for breath. Hanna’s finely tuned, self-protective reflexes, drilled into her over the years by her C.I.A.-renegade daddy, have overridden her amorous impulses. Is that a byproduct of the training, or part of a patriarchal program to keep her chaste as well as safe?” Unlike the other tough girl protagonists in recent films, Hanna does not get the boy; and more to the point, no boy gets her. She ends up alone, a misfit in a world that she doesn’t understand. Hanna is more like The Little Mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, who ends up sacrificing herself for her beloved prince than the Disney versions who end up living happily ever after. Hanna succeeds in avenging her mother’s death – and her father’s – but at what cost to herself?  The shining world she longed to see turns out to be even crueler than the harsh artic wilderness she left behind. 

The Hunger Games’
Katniss: Cinderella

Like Hanna, The Hunger Games also opens with a scene of a girl in a forest chasing an animal; this time it is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) hunting a deer. Katniss is an avid hunter who survives and wins the hunger games through her prowess with a bow and arrow and her experience navigating the forest. During the hunger games competition, she manages to hunt to eat and to feed her newfound friend Rue. Katniss describes snaring a rabbit that she takes back to cook for Rue during the games: “I’m about to take off when I think of my snares. Maybe it’s imprudent to check them with the others so close. But I have to. Too many years of hunting, I guess. And the lure of possible meat. I’m rewarded with one fine rabbit. In no time, I’ve cleaned and gutted the animal, leaving the head, feet, tail, skin, and innards, under a pile of leaves.”

More than the other hunting girls in recent films, Katniss lives to hunt. Throughout Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy Katniss is constantly dreaming of getting back into the forest to track game. She is happiest when she is on the scent of her prey. And, she kills animals large and small – mostly small – to survive and to feed her family, at least in the beginning.  She describes the wood as “our savoir, and each day I went a bit farther into its arms” (The Hunger Games 51).  But, even after she wins the hunger games and her family receives all of the bounty they could ever hope for, she continues to hunt and still thinks of almost nothing else. In the subsequent novels, Katniss negotiates hunting privileges in exchange for serving as the Mocking Jay, a mascot for the revolution. She is identified with an animal – or more accurately with a bird – and like a bird of prey, she craves the hunt and the kill. Since her family doesn’t need food, she brings game to those who do; and eventually, she supplies meat to the rebel kitchen.  Discussing her role at Katniss in the Hunger Games movies, Jennifer Lawrence says, “Whenever Gary [Ross, the Director] and I would talk about Katniss, it was ‘[You’re from] District 12 and you’re a hunter.’  I didn’t feel like an action star, I didn’t feel like a superhero. I felt like a hunter…she’s a 16-year-old girl who happens to be great with her senses” (Valby 30).

As in Hanna, there is a sharp juxtaposition between the innocent animal world of the forest and the high-tech human world. In The Hunger Games, the decadence of human culture and advanced technologies are manifest in The Capital where people alter their bodies in grotesque ways using the latest technologies and where the Hunger Games create technological replicas of the forest and tant animals that threaten rather than reassure. The worst tortures of the Hunger Games tournament are genetically engineered or technologically enhanced hybrid creatures that are far more deadly than anything in nature. Indeed, in the film and more so in the books, nature offers Katniss her only respite from both the poverty of her pre-games life in district twelve and the technological nightmares of the Capitol and the Games. In the third book in the series, Mocking Jay, Katniss discovers an additional district, thirteen, the seat of the revolution against the Capitol; district thirteen is entirely underground and fully mechanized. Again, there is a stark contrast between the expansive freedom of the forest and the claustrophobic world of district thirteen, which is why Katniss insists on the privilege of leaving the underground bunker to hunt in the forest. 

Like Hanna, The Hunger Games exhibits both nostalgia for natural innocence and anxiety over technological sophistication. The forest is a place where Katniss is safe, even on her own. It is a place where she can survive. The Capitol, on the other hand, is a dangerous place with booby-traps and genetically engineered killers around every corner.  If the innocence of nature is represented by Katniss’s own sexual innocence and her sweetness towards her younger sister, then the threat of technology is represented by the ugly “muttations,” genetically engineered attack dogs, which nearly shred Katniss in the games. Like those of the lovely Hanna, close-ups of our fresh-faced heroine seem jarring juxtaposed with violent fight scenes, especially those in which these teenage girls are beaten, battered, and bruised.  One movie poster for The Hunger Games shows a close-up of Katniss with a split lip and a black eye. (I will return to the issue of battered girls at the end of this essay.)

Like Hanna, Katniss is a virgin who has never been kissed. For both, the transition from the forest into the high-tech world parallels their transition from girlhood to womanhood. And both have their first kiss on the run from those who want to kill them: Hanna is running from deadly C.I.A operatives; and Katniss is running from the “career” contestants in the games, the favorites to win. For Katniss, as with Hanna, the first kiss is a complicated event that confuses our heroine with ambivalent desires. For Hanna, her killer instincts become entangled with her sexual desires and she throws her suitor to the ground. While Katniss’s first kiss may seem more traditionally romantic, it is vexed by the publicity of the games that motivates it. Although Peeta, the recipient of the kiss, is in love with Katniss, she is only pretending to be in love with him on instructions from her coach in order to get the sympathy of the audience. Part of the narrative of the film and the books is that Katniss herself doesn’t always know why she is kissing Peeta.  Does she kiss him merely for show or does she love or desire him? 

It is interesting that in the books (and presumably in the film sequels) Katniss is torn between two potential mates, her hunting pal Gale, and her fellow district twelve Hunger Games tribute Peeta. The love triangle theme is a mainstay of tween lit aimed at girls. As in the Twilight Saga, the female protagonist must decide between two boys who love her.  Unlike Bella in Twilight, however, Katniss’s world does not revolve around either boy.  To the contrary, she is never sure that she is attracted to either one of them. And she is always sure that she prefers hunting in the forest and chasing animals to chasing boys. In the end (of the trilogy), she chooses the baker boy over the hunter because, as she says, “what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That is can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that” (Mocking Jay 388).  What drives Katniss to Peeta is the same thing that drives her to the forest and to hunt: survival. She needs his hope and optimism to go on. And perhaps she also needs some good bread to go with her rabbit, venison, and squirrel meat. 

Like a dystopic Cinderella, in the course of The Hunger Games’ film and first and second volumes of the triology, Katniss goes from rags to riches. As the winner of the Hunger Games, she becomes a celebrity who is lavished with riches. Like Cinderella, Katniss grows up amongst the ashes. In her case, it is the ash of the coalmines that are the stable of district twelve and in which her father was killed in an explosion. By the opening of the third book in the trilogy, she stands among the ashes of her former life, which was burned to ash by firebombs from the Capitol. The title of part one of that book is “the ashes,” and there are fanfiction pieces called Ash and Beneath the Ashes. Katniss, the girl covered in coal dust becomes the girl on fire, only later to discover her entire world has been burned. Like Cinderella, Katniss is pulled from the ashes of her world by the love of her “prince,” who in this dark fairytale needs her for survival as much as she needs him.  Indeed, rather than the traditional fairytale in which Cinderella is rescued from the ash pile by the handsome prince, Katniss comes to his rescue many times during the Hunger Games. She chooses the baker Peeta over Gale because she needs rebirth, the Mocking Jay become a phoenix, who can rise from the ashes renewed no matter how badly burned. 

Bella: Beauty and the Beast

Of all of these animal-hunting animalesque girls, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) of the Twilight Saga is the closest to an animal. Indeed, by the end of the series after Edward turns her into a vampire, she becomes like an animal in that she hunts, kills, and eats (or drinks) other animals with her bare hands and bared teeth. Paradoxically, her vampire body is not an animal body; in leaving behind her human body, she leaves behind the mortal animal body that gets tired, needs sleep, and eventually dies. She becomes an immortal with crystals in her veins instead of blood. Yet, like an animal, her sense of smell is heightened to the point that she can smell the blood of other animals and track their scent. Although she does not have a living breathing body, all of her senses have become more acute. 

Like the other girls who are more at home in the forest than they are among their peers, Bella is at home among the vampires and their forest stalking ways than she is among her high school classmates. In fact, once Bella marries Edward, her high school friends are absent from the films or the books, which focus on her new family of vampires and wolves. In the third installment, Breaking Dawn part I, when Jacob imprints on Bella’s newborn daughter Renesmee, the wolves and vampires form a close alliance, so much so that they risk their lives for one another in the final film (and book). Bella lives among animals and animal-human hybrids. And, she ends up hunting mountain lions and deer with bloodthirsty lust. In the book, much is made of the fact that she shreds her dress during her first hunt and Edward finds this very sexy. In fact, Bella’s hunting seems to turn him on. And, she finds it sensually exciting too: “My jaws locked easily over the precise point where the heat flow concentrated…my teeth were steel razors; they cut through the fur and fat and sinews like they weren’t there…the blood was hot and wet and it soothed the ragged, itching thirst as I drank in an eager rush. The cat’s struggles grew more and more feeble, and his screams choked off with a gurgle. The warmth of his blood radiated through my whole body, heating even my fingertips and toe” (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 422-3). The last installment of the Twilight Saga is filled with jokes about Bella’s strength and the force of her appetites, both sexual and thirst for blood.

Throughout the Twilight Saga, Bella has wanted Eduard to change her into a vampire.  She longs to leave behind her pubescent female body and exchange it for a stronger, bloodless body. Of course, blood is a central character in this vampire story. It is noteworthy, however, that the most blood we see is Bella’s (see Oliver 2012). She bleeds in every episode, whether it is an accidental paper-cut that sets Eduard’s vampire siblings aflame or a purposeful ruse to lure evil vampires in the wrong direction. And perhaps the bloodiest moment in the series is the birth scene in which Bella gives birth to Renesmee thanks to Eduard chewing through the amniotic sac with his teeth, after Eduard’s vampire sister Rosalee begins to perform a C-section with a scalpel but has to leave the room because the sight of Bella’s blood is overpowering. Bella’s womanly blood is too much for the vampires, who are constantly challenged to control their urges to taste it.  More importantly, Bella’s womanly blood is too much for Bella herself who wants to overcome her awkward bleeding body by dying and becoming a vampire. She would rather be undead than a living breathing teenage girl who bleeds. Throughout the series, she comments on her clumsiness and awkwardness; and it is only in the last installment after she is a vampire that she says, “After eighteen years of being utterly ordinary, now is my chance to shine.”

After becoming a vampire, Bella joins the Cullen Clan, which is unique in its refusal to drink human blood. As Eduard says, they are “vegetarian vampires” who only drink the blood of animals. And it is their consumption of animal blood that makes them family.  Their family bond is not just formed through their vampire status since there are different vampire clans, but also through what they eat. Bella is part of the clan both through marriage and through meals. It turns out that she is better than most at resisting human blood in favor of animal blood. Everyone is impressed by her hunting skills, especially for a “newborn” vampire, not just because she is good at killing large animals but also because she is good at not killing humans. Her hunting prowess involves self-control, even self-sacrifice. Like Katniss, her family is her first priority, in Bella’s case, Eduard and their daughter Renesmee. And, her vampire “superpower” turns out to be a traditional motherly power, namely the defensive power to protect her family.  

In terms of the tradition role of the female lead and its endorsement of traditional romance and family values, Twilight is the most conservative of the three films that I discuss – even if that family is an extended family of vampires. It is also closer to traditional fairy tales in that Bella marries her prince (even if he is a prince of darkness) in what has been described as a fairy tale wedding. Bella’s is a familiar story of Beauty and the Beast. Even her name, Bella, means beautiful in Italian. But rather than Beauty’s love transforming the beast into a handsome prince, the Beast transforms her into a beautiful, if also beastly, vampire. Bella becomes both beauty and the beast. In this updated version of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast is also already beautiful and Beauty wants nothing more than to become a beast. The union of beauty and beast, of human and animalesque creature, creates an everlasting bond, an eternal romance for a couple destined to be forever young and beautiful; and it creates a beautiful daughter, who we learn at the end of the film is also an immortal. Bella gives birth to an eternally beautiful fairy tale family. 

The actress who plays Bella, Kristen Stewart, also starred in another fairy tale reboot, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). In that film, Snow White is rescued from a dark and deadly forest by the huntsman sent to kill her. In this dark remake of the classic story, Snow White is surrounded by threatening violence in a story told in black and blood red.  As in more traditional versions, Snow White has a special relationship with animals, evidenced here by a rare sighting of a unicorn that allows her to approach him. Although she doesn’t hunt or kill any animals, like other hunting girls she does run through the forest, learning to fight and fend for herself. Interestingly, Kristen Stewart is not the only actress who plays two forest dwelling girls. The Hunger Game’s Jennifer Lawrence also plays a teenager, Ree Dolly, taking care of her family in the Ozark Mountains in Winter’s Bone (2010). In that film, she hunts, kills, and skins squirrels to feed herself and her younger siblings. When asked about P.E.T.A.’s condemnation of the squirrel-skinning scene, reportedly Jennifer Lawrence said, “I should probably say that it wasn’t a real squirrel, but screw P.E.T.A.” Like other hunting girls, Ree is also hunted down and badly beaten by criminal elements involved with her drug-dealer father. Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, Ree in Winter’s Bone has to look after her siblings because her mother is mentally and emotionally unavailable and her father is missing and then dead.

A Girl Is Being Beaten

The beating scene in Winter’s Bone is extremely violent and young Ree is badly injured.  While Ree doesn’t “give as good as she gets,” the teenage girls Hanna, Katniss, and Bella can hold their own with the worst villains. Hanna and Katniss are particularly well served by their hunting skills, taught to them by their fathers. Like other girls in recent films, particularly Hit Girl in Kick Ass, these girls are shown beating and being beaten. They carry weapons (or in Bella’s case, with her super newborn vampire strength she doesn’t need a weapon), guns, and arrows. These are hot girls are packing heat. Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz) and Hanna carry huge guns and they aren’t afraid to use them. Katniss and Bella are ready to fight for survival and for their families. Yet, in some scenes it is difficult to watch these young girls suffering abuse at the hands of others, especially adult men. One of the final scenes in Kick Ass features Hit Girl fighting with the head of the mob, who beats her until this twelve-year old prepubescent girl is lying bleeding and moaning on a table. It is shocking to see a little girl beaten so brutally in a mainstream blockbuster film.  Perhaps more so because this scene is shot like any other in the film, and her abuse is shown in the same light as that of gangster on gangster. Have these little girls grown up and entered the man’s world of violence as equals? Or, are these films in part justifications for taking pleasure in the abuse of girls? 

Although Lisbeth Salander is older than these girls, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo she not only is still considered a girl as the title suggests, but also is beaten, abused, and violently raped in the course of both the Swedish and American film adaptations of the book. As film critics Scott and Dargis argue: “It is in the nature of the moving image to give pleasure, and in the nature of film audiences – consciously or not, admittedly or not – to find pleasure in what they see. So in depicting Salander’s rape by her guardian in the graphic way he did, the director, Niels Arden Oplev, ran the risk of aestheticizing, glamorizing and eroticizing it…The risk is not dissolved but rather compounded when the answering, avenging violence is staged and shot in almost exactly the same kind of gruesome detail, since the audience knows it is supposed to enjoy that” (2011). Scott and Dargis maintain that Sucker Punch (2011), which also features tough girls fighting with men, “gains in sleaziness by coyly keeping its rape fantasies within PG-13 limits and fairly quivering with ecstasy as it contemplates scenes of female victimization.” In Sucker Punch, Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a teenage girl trying to escape a mental institution where her stepfather has wrongly imprisoned her; she uses her fantasy life to cope with the trauma of her abusive stepfather and abusive orderlies, and to plan her escape from the hospital before her scheduled lobotomy. 

The fantasy of a girl being beaten has become increasingly popular, evidenced by the popularity of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series along with The Fifty Shades series in which the female protagonist is subjected to her lover’s sadistic sexual tendencies and learns to enjoy them. With film, these fantasies take on a visual dimension that further eroticize and anesthetize images of abuse towards girls. As Scott and Dargis argue, insofar as these images of girls being beaten are staged and shot in the same way as other violent images in blockbuster films, they become part of the entertainment. Watching girls getting beaten and abused becomes enjoyable. Indeed, these films satisfy a perverse desire to see girls abused and beaten, perhaps as punishment for becoming tough and independent. In other words, within the logic of this fantasy, because these girls give as good as they get, they deserve to be punished. While the images of young girls being beaten may be staged and shot in the same ways as villains fighting, the sounds of girls crying, moaning, or whimpering is not. The brutal scene in which young Hit Girl is beaten bloody and left unconscious is unsettling not only because her attacker is literally twice her size but also because of the sobs of a little girl are not the same as the cries of an adult man. In that moment when she starts to cry, we are reminded that she is a little girl and not just a trained assassin. 

Perhaps it is also the case that abuse is part of the coming of age stories of these girls.  Their transition into womanhood is marked by violence. And, their first sexual desires are surrounded by danger: Hanna’s first kiss in just an interlude in her chase and being chased. Katniss’s takes place in the Hunger Games with danger on all sides as she fights for her life. And Bella’s sexual desires for Eduard constantly put her in danger, not just from the forces of evil vampires or the Volture (the vampire police that condemn the union) but also from Eduard himself; sex with Eduard while she is still human could kill her; and childbirth with his human-vampire hybrid baby does kill her.

In addition, our fascination with girls with guns, phallic virgins, who are packing heat, signals anxieties about the pubescent sexual desires of girls. Is the girl is being beaten fantasy a response to the combination of innocence and budding womanhood that makes these teenage girls so attractive? Within this fantasy, is their abuse or punishment warranted by the fact that these girls excite sexual desires in men, boys, and the audience? Critics Scott and Dargis’s analysis of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Hanna in various ways applies to all of these films: “what fuels these fantasies is also a deep anxiety – an unstable compound of confusion, fascination, panic and denial – about female sexuality, especially the sexual power and vulnerability of girls and young women.”

The sexual power and yet vulnerable innocence of girls is a heady blend at the theater. In the case of our pubescent and prepubescent heroines, they may not be sex objects in the way that their adult women counterparts are (think of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft), but that makes them all the more fascinating. They are not exactly sexy. But they are appealing. They are strong and they wield weapons. At the same time, they are innocent, even naïve (think of Hanna). There is still something open-ended about their power and their innocence as they make their way into womanhood. There is a still a question of whether or not they will follow the traditional path circumscribed for women, namely marriage and family. And this in-between space is exciting, even titillating, a space full of promise. It is also a dangerous space given that what happens here determines whether or not girls will break free of patriarchal stereotypes and restrictions and go their own ways. It is here that the road forks and they can either break out on their own like Hanna, or embrace traditional values of marriage and family like Bella. And who is to say which is the more dangerous? It seems that if the most popular films, The Hunger Games and Twilight, are any indication, marriage and family are the safer bets. (We will see if The Hunger Game sequels have Katniss marry Peeta and give birth to two children, a boy and a girl, as she does in the epilogue to the book trilogy.)

In sum, with Hanna, Katniss, and Bella, we have new fairy tale heroines who are tougher and more violent than their predecessors. They are no nonsense girls-cum-women who prove their strength and prowess by hunting and killing animals. With these powerful girls, the fairy tale sustains itself.  To quote the tagline from Hanna, “Adapt or Die,” the fairy tale itself adapts. The question remains, however, whether these equal opportunity killers are new feminist role models or patriarchal fantasies of phallic girls with guns and arrows. My aim has been to show how they are both. These hunting/hunted girls prove their strength in the traditional manly way by hunting and killing animals. Yet, in their pursuit of animals, they are portrayed as closer to animals, even identified with them.  These girls on the cusp of womanhood represent the lost innocence of nature now threatened by the corrupting violent, even cruel, influence of high tech culture. In the cases of Hanna and Katniss (along with Neytiri in Avatar), their sexual transformation from girls to women is paralleled by the transition from innocent nature to threatening technological culture.  

If these films that feature hunting girls are the latest adaptations of classic fairy tales, then they undermine traditional ideals of femininity and romance even as they idealize our teenage heroines. Hanna discovers that the real world of real girls is not her world; moreover, it is cruel and more painful than the forest where she grew up. Katniss discovers that both the Capitol and the rebels are corrupt and power hungry. She settles for Peeta because she needs his calming presence. Unlike her idealistic princess predecessors, Katniss is a realist. She doesn’t believe in the rhetoric coming from either side of the war. And she doesn’t pine for a prince. Rather, in the end of the book trilogy, playing a game they developed to get through the traumas of the war, when Peeta asks Katniss, “you love me, real or not real,” she replies “real.” These are two traumatized bruised souls confessing their love for each other, which is not the traditional flower petals and wedding dress romance of classic fairy tales. Bella’s is the only truly fairy tale romance wherein the girl is swept off her feet (literally) by her prince. Even so, the forces of evil that threaten to keep them apart are more deadly and violent than ever. And Bella is the one who ends up protecting her prince and not the other way around. In this generation of fairy tales, these girls can take care of themselves. 

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