For a couple years, I’ve been hearing that I should read The Hunger Games Trilogy. These suggestions from friends, conference attendees, and students were always prompted by a discussion of my work on The Twilight Saga. Having read The Hunger Games, it became pretty clear to me that the suggestions were in hopes of showing me a central female character in a young adult series who is strong, independent, and has a rich interior life not primarily motivated by the quest for a boyfriend. For the most part, I was pleased.
I don’t really like Katniss though. I think she is a fantastic character for adolescent girls to read because, off the top of my head she is:
- strong and resourceful
- resilient physically and emotionally
- not in a codependent relationship with any boy, vampire, or teen wolf
- parental (I say parental, not maternal, because Katniss is loving and nurturing to Prim and Rue, but not in necessarily feminine ways. She is more closely like her father than her mother, even down to her singing.)
- able to think critically about her subjectivity and political resistance
- self-aware, conscious of her strengths and limitations
- driven by a sense of duty, commitment, and honor
- clever and a good problem solver
- compassionate, even toward enemies (for the most part) and stray cats
- grateful in the rare cases someone does something kind for her (this could verge on an over-emphasis on the repayment of debt though)
- stoic, but still capable of vulnerability when the time and situation are appropriate.
- awesome without anyone saying that she’s good “for a girl”
- a total, unapologetic badass
I mean, really, I could keep going. She is a strong character and admirable. I respect her. I just don’t like her.
After this morning’s Midnight opening of The Hunger Games, I turned this reaction over in my mind. As I got ready for bed in my cozy, feminine apartment, it hit me that I probably don’t like Katniss because she’s kind of cold. But it absolutely does not matter one bit that I don’t like her.
In fact, I appreciate her character more, because I don’t like her. There is actually a consistent pressure put on Katniss while she is in the Capital to be more likeable. Haymitch openly dislikes her at first and continually reminds her that she has to be well-liked in order to get sponsors. She doesn’t internalize the pressure too much. She recognizes that the need to be popular is situational and does not reflect who she is outside the context of this effed-up game. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t get frustrated or hurt by all the reminders that she’s a sourpuss. I think her relationship with Cinna is helpful here as a balance. He’s a reminder that there are people who like and respect Katniss for who she is. Further, I think this focus on her likability is important because of the way it makes popularity explicitly political. She’s not trying to be a Queen Bee, she’s trying to stay alive. The politics of young women’s popularity (i.e. Mean Girls) are sort of blown out of the water.
Also, it is noteworthy that Katniss gets as much help from her audacious moments as she does for the moments when she plays the game. “Playing the game” comes to pretty much mean going along with the star-crossed lovers story. But she gets her impressive 11 score for her stunt with the apple and she gets a loaf of bread from Rue’s district after the (very political) gesture of adorning Rue with flowers. Even if she does win Haymitch over, Katniss is not really succeeding because she’s likable, she’s succeeding because she is a thoughtful and compelling competitor. I think this is a really important character, then, considering how much emphasis is put on young women being likable. We are raised to be good and friendly and to put others’ feelings before our own. We are conditioned to believe that we have to be well-liked at any cost. I think there’s something really really awesome about this heroine because it doesn’t matter if I like her. Instead, I unquestionably respect her. I know not everyone will like me, but knowing my own mind and earning the respect of others should be enough, even if I am a girl.
And I might ask, did we have to reduce an adolescent female character this low socially, politically, and economically to free her from all the other trappings of femininity?
- Jennifer Lawrence is amazing.
- How did Josh Hutcherson make bewilderment look so cute?
- I thought it was interesting how the film dealt with the tension between Katniss and the makers of the Hunger Games. In the book, we read so many juicy bits of her thinking about resistance or subversion or about how the Capital manipulates things for arbitrary reasons. I miss Katniss’s interiority in the film, but I think the addition of the behind-the-scenes parts depicting the production of the Hunger Games does a nice job of showing how this event creates/reflects such a disparity between the poor tributes and the wealthy people of the Capital. In a way, I am bummed that the moments of non-violent resistance (the flowers, the bread, the kisses) were overshadowed by riots and conspiracy, but I can see that the filmmakers were trying to make the power dynamics more visible in the adaptation.
- I also think the addition of the behind-the-scenes action could be a really useful way to discuss media literacy. At one point, Haymitch does point out to Katniss that the Hunger Games is a TV show, which makes the whole situation all the more effed-up. It also, however, creates a space for thinking about the games as entertainment in a way that is accessible to young people. What does this spectacle mean? How does it correlate with media in our own culture? Do we need to be more aware of the messages and political agendas underlying our spectacles? (yes) Gale works nicely here as a figure of resistance, although I’m not sure that just not watching would put the Capital in its place if everyone there was still enjoying it.
- What really irritated me about the film, however, was the way the potential love-triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta was emphasized. In the book, it is present, but Gale is not as significant. Katniss wonders about him regularly, but I didn’t like the way that was translated in the film to him watching her developing relationship with Peeta aghast. This all feels like a stupid ploy to draw in the Twihards. I’ve done previous work on the Twilight Saga tracking the love triangle as representing the young woman torn between her tomboyish, free childhood (Jacob) and a more constrained type of femininity (Edward), reifiying really old tropes about womanhood. I was kind of upset to see another love triangle, especially in a situation already so politically charged and in which the female could die at any minute. I mean, let her be strong and independent without having to worry about the boy back home’s heart, okay?