I think one of the things that I love most about the Hunger Games series–Suzanne Collins’ riveting dystopian trilogy that everyone seems to have either read and loved or is currently reading and loving–is that it stars a girl. Not just any girl, mind you. It stars Katniss Everdeen–as resilient and competent and scrappy and flawed as any hero in pop culture that I can remember. She’s 16 years old. She’s not silly nor love struck nor a hand-wringer when it comes to boys or her appearance. She is a fighter, without ever seeming cartoonish.

“It’s an amazing character for a girl,” says Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson. I asked Jacobson if she could name any other girls in pop culture with Katniss’ mettle and she paused for a minute. “Lisbeth Salander,” she finally said, referring to Stieg Larsson’s marvelously resourceful and spectacularly whack hacker heroine in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “And I think that’s the only one you can really point to and it’s not YA literature. So she’s much more scary than Katniss. She’s more damaged than Katniss. She’s a really dark character, and she’s the backbone of that book as well. But other than those two characters it’s a very short list.”

I’d like to add two more to what remains an inexcusably short list: First, there’s Ree from Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel and then the breathtakingly good movie adaptation of Winter’s Bone. It’s a classic quest story, though in a neat twist the hero at the center of said quest is a girl. As played by stunning newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, Ree is the tough, flat-mouthed big sister trying to hold her family together in a meth-soaked Ozark mountain town. She stares down some dead-eyed villains without sacrificing her core of strength and goodness.

And then there’s stoic, no-nonsense, quick-tongued Mattie Ross from True Grit, played by a similarly delightful find Hailee Steinfeld. Mattie is a girl intent on avenging her father’s death; she’s the truest and bravest of the posse that sets out to find his killer. I found it fascinating that in the end her character never marries. In the brief flash we saw of Mattie as a grown woman, she struck me as deeply funny and unfussy and practical—a blend of who I’ve always imagined Allison Janney and Cherry Jones to be, two women I’d want in my life boat by the way.

Steinfeld and Lawrence have a shot at Oscars in a week’s time. The Hunger Games goes into production this spring, though which actress—and she better be good and tough if she’s going to represent District 12—will play Katniss remains a mystery. Rooney Mara is going to put her own spin on Noomi Rapace’s blistering turn as Lisbeth Salander in the David Fincher adaptation of Dragon Tattoo. So many interesting young women to root for and wish well. They offer some sweet relief in a culture where every hour-long crime drama opens with the shot of a mutilated woman and every tabloid salivates over a starlet gone wrong. More please. More of these girls who would make Clarice Starling proud.

Well PopWatchers, who am I leaving off the list? Is this the sign of something new and exciting or just a lucky run of interesting characters? What do you think of either Hailee Steinfeld or Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss?

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Book)
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