I am going to break this into a three part series; with part one briefly looking at femininity and feminism, part two examining sexuality and relationships, and part 3 will examine issues regarding body criticism. I am not a book critic, nor was I ever a lit student, so I don’t really write well about books – even my literature reviews at University were painful to get through… so bear with me, and I guarantee by the third part you will be glad you did =). The reason I chose to do this series was because of the commentary that surrounds both the books and movies. Is Katniss a Feminist Character? Team Gale? Team Peeta? Why is Rue Black (but no-one has questioned Thresh)? Is Jennifer Lawrence too big to play Katniss? Those are some heady questions. Now, I won’t be dealing with Race. Many other writers have done it much better than I can hope to. As an Australian, I have a much different experience with race than Americans and the conversations we have are vastly different to that in the US and other countries. I will also include links at the bottom of each post which will show differing points of view.
What Are the Hunger Games.
Chances are if you are reading this, you already know that Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy centres on 16 year old protagonist Katniss Everdeen, and features a dystopian future revolving around the nation Panem- formerly the United States. Panem is comprised of the wealthy Capitol, and its 12 outlying districts – most of which exist in abject poverty. The nation bears many similarities to Ancient Roman society, and Versailles in 18th Century France, with the Author referring to this in the third book, where the secondary character Plutarch describes the Capitol as Panem et Circenses. Plutarch says that this “translates into bread and circuses” meaning “that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power”. For me, this bears a striking resemblance to Huxley’s Brave New World in which the central government keeps the population under control through pleasure (and hardcore programming). The Capitol maintains a dizzying line where its own people are governed through pleasure, and the districts are governed through fear – a sort of 1984 meets Brand New World.
The book is named for an annual event in Panem called The Hunger Games, in which the Capitol demands that each district offer two tributes, one male and female aged between 12 and 18, who are collected via a Reaping – similar to conscription. The tributes are forced to take part in a battle to the death for the entertainment of the citizens of the capitol, as a reminder to the districts of a time in the past when they rebelled against their Big Brother style totalitarian government. The Victors are rewarded with money and a house for themselves and extra rations for their district for a year. However, we learn later in the books that victory comes at a terrible price – which doesn’t just include the physical and psychological scarring.
The Hunger Games are televised to the Capitol, and all the outlying districts. Members of the Capitol place bets on tributes to win, and can even sponsor tributes to ensure they get food and medical supplies as needed. Haymitch – the mentor for Katniss’s District Twelve – makes it clear early on that what matters in the Hunger Games is how you are perceived by the audience, as it is” all a big show”. This means that along with cunning, strength, and agility, contestants have to ensure they are well liked by their viewing audience, and play up to them. Katniss does this by pretending to have feelings for the male tribute from her district, Peeta – though Katniss, at 16, has never entertained ideas of romantic attachment before. These ideas were forced on her with Peeta declaring his affection for her on national television.
Collins has taken her inspiration from Reality Television, and asks us to imagine a world where children are pitted against each other in a game where there can only be one survivor, and violence is celebrated. Here we see similarities again to Rome, and the Gladiators. Though many children in the games appear to try to survive without killing, such as Rue and FoxFace, others such as the tributes from wealthier districts, seem to revel in the barbarity of the games. For the most part, these tributes – called careers – have been trained to participate, whereas children from poorer districts have not. Anita Sarkeesian (see feministfrequency videos) questions the believability of parents allowing their children to participate, however it is made quite clear in the books that should a parent attempt to save their children, their punishment would be obliteration. This punishment would likely be televised to make an example.
In the first book, Katniss is a rare strong female character – not often seen in Young Adult Fiction, or fiction in general for that matter. Many strong female characters are often only given male qualities, or written through the Male Gaze. She is her family’s chief provider, and a skilled hunter. She is strong, loyal, and nurturing. Collins succeeded in creating a mostly well-rounded character, even including a level of angst and vulnerability that is common amongst teenage girls. Throughout the course of the books however, Katniss’s character changes and her growth appears to stunt as her agency is taken away from her. In the first book, Katniss continuously asserts her independence, though as is the nature of the games, this makes her pawn for the Capitol and she becomes confused as to her feelings and her role in the world. Katniss is placed in the middle of a love triangle, a subplot trap which many authors tend to fall into, including tedious lines such as “she has no idea. The effect she can have”. *facepalm*.
But, is Katniss a feminist character? For a moment, let’s go back to the fundamental meaning of feminism. Feminism is defined as the ideology that all people regardless of political status, economic status, and gender should be equal. After the death of her father it becomes apparent that her mother cannot care for Katniss and her sister Prim. At the age of 11 Katniss assumes the role of nurturer and provider in the family. Although Katniss nurtures her sister, she lacks compassion and empathy for her mother, harbouring only resentment. Katniss largely shuns the friendship of people from school, preferring the company of the people she trades with in the district’s Black Market, and her best friend and hunting companion Gale. Katniss is disinterested in conversation revolving around hair, clothing, and boys which she feels most girls her age are preoccupied with. Katniss’s strong nature is largely built around her will to survive. As I have already mentioned, Katniss is a strong female character, who embodies a wide range of traits which make her a complex character, as opposed to the two dimensional female characters we often see. But does that make her Feminist?
What exactly is a feminist character? Well, according to Jezebel, a feminist character is easily defined as a character who openly identifies as being feminist (and is often white and middle class, but let’s not get into specifics). This would immediately exclude Katniss from being a feminist character. Katniss is not aiming for equality, she isn’t defined by her gender – Katniss is aiming to survive. She works to keep the people she cares about alive. The fact that she doesn’t give a fuck about her hair or make-up doesn’t make her feminist either. There has been much made of the idea that Feminists should refuse to buy into patriarchal notions of grooming, however we all know this is simply a red herring. A woman’s own autonomy ensures that she and she alone can make decisions on how she presents herself, and this in no way indicates her level of awareness on feminist academia. Katniss is a strong individual, and a strong female character despite her faults (which make her all the more endearing). However, Katniss is not a feminist character. And that’s OK.
It is Katniss’s lack of femininity, and strength of character, that causes many characters within the books to openly despise her – only positioning her as likeable and endearing when she shows moments of softness. Katniss is rewarded for her gentler qualities, and hated for her stronger ones which begs the question – what message is being sent by the author? Well rounded human beings are able to be both tenacious and nurturing. They can show ferocious strength, and then switch to being fearlessly protective and loving – though these stronger qualities are often discouraged in women, and the softer qualities discouraged in men. It’s Katniss’s fire and skill that ultimately leads to her exploitation by both the Capitol and the Rebels.
Moving on from Katniss, her opponent in the arena, Clove from District 2, is another example of a strong female character. Clove is a career tribute; described as big, fierce, and deadly (we will talk about her appearance in a later addition). She has been raised to celebrate the fierceness of the arena, and take joy from the brutalisation of the other tributes. Clove is painted as an unsympathetic character in both the books and the movie – one we should despise for her ferocity and strength. We are encouraged to cheer when she is brutally killed by District 11s Thresh, and to hate her for being strong and fiercely determined to stay alive. Clove hated Katniss for her strength and cunning, and the starstruck lovers angle which Peeta had initiated before the games. It painfully reminds us of a tendency in the media to pit women against each other for petty reasons such as attractiveness, sexuality, and strength of character. Conversely, 12 year old Rue’s gentleness, innocence, and youth is celebrated. Repeatedly, the female characters in the series tend to only embody one set of qualities or another – with the exception being Katniss. There is a quiet strength in being a gentle, pure, and nurturing character, and these are not bad characteristics – but they are often not the sum of a whole person. Katniss is consistently punished throughout the series for her strength, and rewarded for gentleness.
At the very least the books, movie, and characters have enabled this discussion to be carried out in mainstream media, and if it is able to inspire more strong female leads, characters, then that could only be a good thing.
**I am well aware I haven’t touched on the male characters, but I wanted to focus on the female characters. Characters like Peeta and Gale are polar opposites with Gale embodying the idea of what it is to be masculine, and Peeta the sensitive yet strong type.
The Gender-Neutral Games. Tarina Quraishi.
4 Things The Hunger Games can teach us about the war on women. Jaclyn Friedman
The Hunger Games is no feminist manifesto. Kate Heartfield.
Response to my column about The Hunger Games. Kate Heartfield.
The Hunger Games* Feral Feminism. Katha Pollitt.
Working Women and Feminism – Katniss Everdeen. @ShoutOut! JMU
What is a Feminist Character? Jess McCabe
Race in the Hunger Games
The Bitchin Table- Hunger Games Edition. @ShoutOut! JMU.
Racist Hunger Games Fans are Very Disappointed. Dodai Stewart.
The Hunger Games Novel and Katniss Everdeen
The Hunger Games Movie vs. The Book.