Why Katniss Everdeen and Arya Stark Are the New Female Role Models

The tough heroines of 'The Hunger Games' and 'Game of Thrones' endure trauma and terror — and provide a template for how young women can survive in the real world

(L-R) Katniss Everdeen and Arya Stark. Credit: Murray Close; Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

If you tuned in to Game of Thrones this year, you may remember a scene in the Season Four finale when Arya Stark meets her would-be guardian, Brienne of Tarth, on a dank mountainside. Brienne tells Arya she's sworn to save her, but when the youngest of Ned Stark's offspring learns that her rescuer is associated with the House of Lannister, the child's face hardens. "I don't care what you swore," she spits out. (Attagirl, Maisie Williams.) Arya is determined to go it alone.

For folks who regularly peruse the greater pop culture landscape, however, this will be only one of two notable 2014 fail-moments in which savior figures come up short. Halfway through The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, Katniss Everdeen is standing on a pile of white roses and rubble, realizing that what she has been persuaded to do — become the photogenic face of rebel propaganda — will not save her beloved Peeta Mallark. In fact, it's resulting in his torture and probable death. Something in her shuts off. "He's going to kill Peeta," Jennifer Lawrence's unwilling Joan of Arc keeps repeating. And though surrounded by people, she's suddenly on her own again, just like Arya.

The situation for each character is horrible beyond measure — yet audiences drink up Katniss and Arya's sci-fi/sword-and-sorcery suffering by the thousands. Some people would see an irony in people retreating into fantasy, simply more proof that it's easier for people to obsess over a fictional world than deal with this one. But you could argue that Arya and Katniss are both mirrors for a certain type of real-world survivalism. Authority is viewed with skepticism and/or deservedly feared. Parents are either absent or useless, and those protective figures that would appear to be potential replacements — your Sandor Cleganes, your Haymitch Abernathys — are broken and unreliable. On both page and screen, these young-woman warriors have come through operatic levels of trauma. Arya recites a list of enemies to herself nightly; Katniss can't even trust the people who "rescued" her from the arena. The population of those folks who could genuinely comfort them is perilously small: Katniss really only has Peeta, and Arya her wish to find Jon Snow.

Being dubious about power is not merely the province of right-wing libertarians. (Salon's film critic, Andrew O'Hehir, has suggested that Hunger Games, however inadvertently, represents a sort of Tea Party view of the world.) But the individualism Arya and Katniss represent is not philosophical. It was not acquired from reading the collected works of Ayn Rand or the speeches of Rand Paul. It's the province of every woman who did not report a sexual assault because she knew she would not be believed. It is the province of every person of color who did not call the cops because they knew the police were not there to serve and protect them.

The young and the abused feel that tension heavily. The stories in the news about abortion access, domestic violence, sexual assault, and various other crimes against the females of the species don't have the promise of an ending. They just drag on, for years, decades, generations — never resolved, and also never battled directly. Arya and Katniss are left to live with their wounds — but they know they can live with them. (Those who've read/are reading the respective book series know that both of these heroines slowly start rebuilding their battered selves after going into isolation. Alone again, naturally.)

And though Arya and Katniss wield weapons well, they have no superpowers leading them through their physical and emotional minefields. They have only the will to get through this, a thing that ultimately, always, has to be done by one's self — something you don't have to live in a dystopic future or face dragons to see. For a lot of us, and young women in particular, imprints in popular culture stick. This kind of battle-weary heroine model feels new because it offers a kind of empowerment template for the Rookie magazine era, one that reassures people that you can live through anything, no matter how bad it gets, no matter if no one's coming to save you. It's a dark sort of self-esteem. But it can give you the will to go on.