The release of "Mockingjay - Part 2" later this week will signal the official end of the "Hunger Games" franchise -- but even after the movie's over and Katniss Everdeen has liberated the districts from the rule of President Snow, her legacy will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of thousands of fans all over the world who've grown up reading and watching her story.
My experience with Katniss began not long after graduating college, when I picked up a copy of "The Hunger Games" thinking that a YA novel might be a nice way to dive back into reading for fun. I wasn't expecting to feel for Katniss so strongly at first, but three days later I found myself sobbing over the final chapters of "Mockingjay" on my mom's Kindle, realizing that I hadn't related to a female character so strongly since reading "Harriet the Spy" in middle school, and wondering what my life would have been like if I'd had Katniss to look up to back then, too.
In YA lit, you tend to see certain tropes played out over and over and over again, and admittedly Katniss buys into them as well to a certain extent; she's the girl who doesn't know the effect she has on people, who's innately special and beautiful despite thinking herself plain, who has boys fawning over her for her strength and courage.
But I was also struck by how Katniss's story so closely paralleled the scrutiny that famous women can be subjected to in our culture -- how she was required to look pretty and act charming so she could gain sympathy, and how she was forced into becoming a symbol while simply trying to survive. Despite all the pressure she faced, though, she never once willingly gave up her her independence. That wasn't always a good thing, of course, as she often shut herself down emotionally and dismissed the people trying to help her. But it also made her more than just an empowered ingenue. It made her human and real and alive, which is not something female characters get to be all that often in fiction.
Obviously Katniss is more than just her gender and has the power to inspire everyone, men and women alike. But we also live in a world where only 12% of the top 100 grossing movies last year featured a female lead at the helm, and it's truly, truly remarkable to me that Katniss has become such a powerful figurehead for proving that women can be these flawed and powerful leaders -- and can dominate the box office on top of that. It's almost as if she's clawing her way through the real world the same way she did Panem, and hopefully our media landscape will be the better for it.
To celebrate how Katniss Everdeen is breaking barriers, we put out a call for other young female fans of "The Hunger Games" to share their stories of how the Girl On Fire has inspired them, too. Here's just a small sample of what we got back.
"She is so powerful and can change the world."
"I am 16 years old, and I am a really big 'Hunger Games' fan! I went to the 'Mockingjay - Part 2 premiere in London, and became a little bit famous with my bag of Doritos Cool Ranch.
I wanted to give it to Jennifer Lawrence but she didn't come to me so I never had the chance to meet her. But here is my story of why I love Katniss.
"Katniss really inspires me because she is a really strong person. She is so powerful and can change the world. I love how this female hero is so great that she can lead a whole country, even though she doesn't know she can do so much. And of course, [Katniss] is played by an amazing actress, Jennifer Lawrence. I really think there is no one who could have done a better job." -- Lena V.
"This generation of young women needs Katniss."
"Katniss Everdeen inspires me to be a strong and brave woman...She volunteered her life for her sister's, she fought for her life in the Hunger Games, and nurtured and cared for a fellow district 12 tribute, Peeta.
"This generation of young women need Katniss to inspire them to be like her. Katniss doesn't care what she looks like, nor [does she] care what anyone else thinks of her. She only motivated herself with the determination to free the districts from the capital and create peace across the land." - Lindsey M.
"Women can also have this kind of power."Lionsgate
"Katniss Everdeen inspires me for many reasons. For example, she became a symbol of hope for her people. When society was plummeting and suffering, she was that spark of hope to inspire them to keep going, to go against the system... She took a stand, the first person to do so, and rebelled against her government, to prove that she was not another piece in their games. It's inspiring especially to teens, as they sometimes need to speak up about issues, to prove that what is happening around them is in fact wrong, and Katniss is a figure who represents this. She is an amazing and strong character, and the fact that she is female makes it even better, showing that women can also have this kind of power and show this courage rather than the typical male protagonist/hero." -- Isabel C.
"If Katniss could get through everything that she went through, then I can get through this."Lionsgate
"Katniss Everdeen inspires me every single day, and not in the way people would imagine. She helps me get through simple things... like homework. I struggle a lot in school, but I always say to myself that if Katniss could get through everything that she went through, then I can get through this. It might not seem like much, to have a hero help someone on a daily basis, but to me it's the most important thing. I love her and everything she stands for." -- Susan
"She inspired me to stand up for what I believe in."Lionsgate
"I was 14 years old when I discovered 'The Hunger Games.' I picked it up and the book intrigued me. I fell in love with the story, and read the two other books that same weekend. As a 14 year old girl, you're still trying to find yourself. You absorb any little thing and obtain it in some form in your own personality traits. Katniss did that for me. I was bullied a lot in 6th grade for the way I looked. I was a fat kid. Katniss taught me to not care [about] what others thought about me. She inspired me to stand up for what I believe in and taught me how to be an independent woman.
"Now, as a 17 year old senior in high school, I live by what Katniss taught me. She isn't some fictional character to me. She is more like some sort of big sister that inspires me every day. Even as I gradually pass the age that Katniss is in the books, she will always be the big sister I've always dreamed of having. (Don't tell my real big sisters. I have 5.) Katniss inspires me to be myself. I hope to get the 'I am not pretty. I am not beautiful. I am as radiant as the sun' quote tattooed one day." -- Leanne M.
"My sister means the world to me."Lionsgate
"I relate to Katniss heavily, since her entire motive throughout the series was to protect her sister and her family. Katniss and I are similar in the way that we would both do anything to protect our sisters, with whom we both have strong and inseparable relationships. My sister means the world to me, just as Prim does to Katniss.
"Katniss's determination and strong will to do the right thing also reminds me of myself. I find myself [to be] an honorable person just as Katniss is. However, a more human aspect of Katniss is that she has faults, and not only that: she is aware of her faults! I feel like this is an extremely important aspect of a protagonist to experience: an acknowledgment of their own faults. This is something I can heavily relate to as I am aware of my faults as well as she is.
"Katniss is the fictional, stronger version of me: hence my eternal love for her and her story! She embodies the fact that her life is nowhere near perfect and despite this, she remains strong and does the best she can to do the right thing whilst protecting those she cares about." -- Hansika R.
"She always manages to have the courage to fight back."Lionsgate
"Katniss is more than a fictional character, she is an inspiring figure. As we see the story of her life through the 'Hunger Games' series, we can see how much she suffers in her life and all the bad experiences she had to go through. But even though her life has been full of hard times, she always manages to have the courage to fight back, and be strong for her loved ones and herself. She demonstrates that it is possible to move on even though it is not easy.
I believe that any female who is familiar with 'The Hunger Games' can agree on the fact that she motivates other women to stand up for herself, to fight for what is right, [and] to know that women are strong and capable of doing great things. So thank you, Suzanne Collins, for creating such a powerful and inspiring character like Katniss!" -- Cory F.
"If you want things to change, you have to make that change yourself."Lionsgate
"As a girl, I always loved how fiercely Katniss spoke her mind, and lived her life... She's doing everything with her guts, and that's so amazing. I consider myself as assertive, and that's [not considered] a very good thing in our society. Katniss, she doesn't apologize for that. I love it, it's really inspirational.
"As an artist, Katniss inspired me too. I will be forever stuck on the 'Girl on Fire' imagery. Burning is great, if you do it with and for love. I made this faceless portrait of her two years ago, and I felt like I caught that fiery desire to make a change.
"If you want things to change, you have to make that change yourself.
"Be your own girl on fire." -- Audrey G
"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2" hits theaters November 20.