In response to the many male critical voices who just don’t get it.
In which Bob Chipman argues that The Hunger Games codes the feminine as evil and the masculine as good, which is a thing movies have been doing for a long time:
The thing is, he’s completely right. He’s also argued recently on Twitter that The Hunger Games’ coding can be interpreted to suggest that the white, rural working class are the true heroes and the true victims of oppression while urban elites and effeminate fashionistas are actually evil. This would at least partially disqualify it from working as one of the cultural touchstone narratives that should have warned people against letting Trump get elected (others include Harry Potter and Star Wars, which are fine, but I seem to recall that Tatooine and Coruscant are making use of some coding and things as well but that doesn’t count apparently).
The Capitol is evil. The fashion and obsession with fashion demonstrated there are not the reasons why the Capitol is evil, but they are a part of the larger problem. The Capitol is evil because of how normal the Games are considered to be there.
Indulge me for a second; it’s shoehorn-in-some-animal-rights-stuff time.
This controversial post from a local Dog Rescue describes normalizing brutality for meat industry animals at Toronto’s Royal Winter Fair:
“What struck us most about the entire day was the sense of normalcy. Thousands of smiling visitors gazed adoringly at groups of tiny piglets, blind to the caged mother who stood in the corner, friends took group photos in front of chained cows while holding steak sandwiches, and crowds laughed and cheered as announcers joked that perhaps the pigs in the auction ring were squealing in terror because of the auctioneer’s bacon costume. It seemed as though none of these animals were viewed by guests as living creatures, but as products, photo-ops, and, in some cases, a joke. Making a spectacle of the suffering of animals and transforming it into a fun-for-the-whole-family event should not be considered a proud Toronto tradition. It should be considered a primitive black mark that a compassionate and civilized society must work together to remove.”
Imagine someone like Plutarch or Cressida, Capitol citizens, watching the Games year after year, knowing them to be wrong, horrified by how the media and average citizens are so willfully blind to the brutality. This could easily be a paragraph either of them would write on the Capitol’s version of Facebook while they watch the festivities leading up to the 74th Hunger Games, if they had been allowed to express a dissenting opinion without having their tongues cut out.
Fashion and obsession with fashion certainly play a role in the Capitol’s normalizing of spectacle child murder. But these things are more like distractions that would be considered completely benign if it weren’t for the Games, the fascism, the poverty, and the oppression Capitol citizens are ignoring and facilitating while they focus on what loud colour to die their hair (or skin) next.
The movies admittedly let the coding do the work for them, but Katniss’s inner monologue reminds us that the real mechanics the Capitol uses to normalize the Games are the celebrity culture and worship, in which Capitol citizens drool over the tributes while they live and drool over them while they die brutal deaths at the hands of other oppressed children.
Celebrity worship is a thing everyone does. When it’s men worshiping sports stars (heterosexually, of course) we don’t really equate it to women (and effeminate men, because you’d have to be an effeminate man if you care about non-sports celebrities, amirite) following whoever in gossip columns, but it’s all the same. The Hunger Games, I tentatively argue, meshes the two together, as everyone sits back and watches in anticipation as the tributes are graded based on their athletic abilities and survival skills. Capitol citizens don’t just love the tributes because of how their stylists dress them, but also because of their physicality. Remember that the two most prosperous Districts have special academies for kids to train in until they’re 18, at which point they volunteer. Their athleticism and weapons-mastery are required to make it a good show.
Of course, the fact that sports-worship is meshed in to the rest of celebrity worship in these stories still doesn’t change how fashion and celebrity worship are considered by culture to be feminine things and therefore perpetual targets for mockery and hatred. Here’s where The Hunger Games changes things up in this regard.
Katniss makes use of both fashion and celebrity worship to become The Mockingjay, beginning the revolution that will end the Capitol’s tyranny. She doesn’t do these things actively, because she’s Katniss. All Katniss wants to do is live in the forest and shoot things with her bow. Unfortunately she has greatness thrust upon her, literally at times, by Cinna, one of the most celebrated stylists in the Capitol.
Yes, Cinna’s clothes are comparatively muted (just look at Effie). But he does wear gold eyeshadow for special occasions, and his work is adored by the excess-loving Capitol citizens as much, and often more than the louder designs by his peers. This is probably because as a highly fashion-conscious people, they can appreciate the beauty in something more simple than what they are used to, they will love something that is to them novel, and they can certainly appreciate the statement of clothing catching fire (even if they don’t see it as a call to arms as the rest of Panem does). I even remember one moment in Catching Fire (the novel) in which Katniss’s prep team listen very respectfully, and even reverently, as her mother teaches them how she does Katniss’s trademark braid. Katniss is impressed by this, and it’s one of those moments that makes it clear that the problem is not how excited these people are about fashion and celebrities, but rather that it’s all they care about. They never consider, because of their privilege, that basic human rights and human dignity are being denied to the people in the Districts. The resentment Katniss and her peers have about their fashion and celebrity culture grows directly out of that real concern. To me, that’s less about slamming American urban culture for being too wrapped up in, well, urban culture to know what the concerns of “real America” are, and more about illustrating through this one particular allegory how the privilege afforded to those with wealth, and, underneath everything else, the privilege afforded to those who were lucky enough to be born in the Capitol, and not in a District being harshly oppressed by the Capitol, requires that people be given spectacles to keep them from thinking too hard about any of the systems that make them so lucky at the expense of others.
The Hunger Games is not deliberately apolitical. It is making a deliberate statement about how privilege works. I’ve seen it argued that it’s an indictment against American imperialism, and I think that’s probably the “most correct” way of reading the Capitol/District dichotomy. That still leaves the coding in the films especially but it’s certainly there in the books too. And if people are going to take advantage of the lack of spectrum politics to declare that their people and way of life are the real ones being oppressed because they dress like Katniss and coal mining is a thing, well, that’s just life imitating art. People are using The Hunger Games, a story about an upper caste using spectacles to distract them from the human cost of their affluence and power, as a spectacle to distract them from how their actions and inactions will hurt those in worse states of vulnerability than them. This is why we need to teach critical thinking in elementary and high schools. And all the time. Always.
So back to fashion and celebrity culture in The Hunger Games: there’s also the fact that Katniss genuinely loves the outfits and costumes that Cinna makes for her Being from District 12, she appreciates both how the Capitol’s citizens will interpret her outfits and how the people at home and in the other districts will. When her wedding dress burns and transforms into a Mockingjay costume, her role as the revolutionary hero is cemented. Fashion, typically a tool used in the Capitol as a distraction from their brutal government, is co-opted and used against them, encouraging people rigidly separated to unite, and people who would rather ignore the underside of the Capitol to face it honestly.
And real quick: the fire is activated by twirling. TWIRLING. There is nothing girlier than twirling.
Celebrity worship is the other part of this, and Katniss and her various handlers certainly makes use of it as well. Katniss believes that there are better contenders for the Mockingjay role. She thinks Johanna would have been great, as she is loud and impossible to ignore. Peeta, though, is the real contender. He can make anyone believe anything and is highly likable. Still, the role has fallen to her, awkward, sort of prudish, constantly deer-in-headlights Katniss. There are layers to why it has to be her:
- because it all started when she volunteered for Prim
- and then the riots all started because she stopped playing the role of survivalist competitor in order to grieve for Rue, breaking the illusion of the Games and calling District 7 to action
- and then she defiantly threatened to commit suicide with Peeta because it was the one act of true rebellion she was actually capable of as well as the only opportunity she has to save her own life as well as someone else’s
- Cinna put her in a dress that looked like it was on fire
- Peeta told the entire country that he was in love with her and thus everyone else fell in love with her
- Snow decided she was his number one target (villains need to stop doing this. I’m looking at you, Voldemort. And the Peacock from Harry Potter and the Kung Fu Panda 2)
- Cinna put Katniss in the fairy tale wedding dress everyone in the Districts knew to be a lie, only for the country to watch it burn into a Mockingjay costume
- The alliance of the victors decided Katniss was their priority
- Plutarch was like, “Yup, she’ll do.” And then he kept insisting.
Most of these layers have little to do with Katniss herself. Also, those layers that are just Katniss doing things because she must, or because she is self-righteously compelled to, are only as powerful as they are because the Capitol is filming and displaying her every move. Katniss spends most of the trilogy (quadrilogy if we’re talking the movies) deeply traumatized and damaged, sometimes physically as well as mentally. I’ll never forget how the opening of Mockingjay: Part 1 is a traumatized Katniss hiding in the dark, trying to remember what she knows for sure. And Mockingjay: Part 2 begins with the neck brace coming off, and I can’t express how horrifying it was to hear her try to talk for the first time. How many times in Part 2 does the movie pause to zoom in on Katniss’s injuries? Katniss faces the consequences of being made into a myth, which has been a joint effort but mainly the work of other people, more talented, strategic, and charismatic than her.
And thus, by Katniss herself and by other players who are better at the game, celebrity culture and fashion obsession are both co-opted to wreck the Capitol.
To be clear: the coding is still there, and Katniss’s outfits are not quite comparable to the things Effie and the like wear, but The Hunger Games can’t be easily dismissed as having just lazily used the most typical and problematic shortcut to designate good and evil in the book since black hats and white hats.
So the urban versus rural thing.
PSA: I am not an expert in any way, shape, or form. I’m still going to talk about it though because lol
District 12 are coal miners. This fact and the very muted fashion choices 12’s inhabitants have to make really do seem to invoke the city elite versus working class rust belt type disaster that apparently helps to elect Donald Trump.
This is because, yes, that’s what Suzanne Collins is doing.
I can’t really back up that claim because I haven’t asked her personally, but I’m going to assume that because she’s an American, the huge divide between urban and rural is a thing that she is hyper-conscious of. Creating a distopia where people are divided into classes geographically is certainly going to make the rural/urban divide the prudent choice for which obvious real-life class divide your fictional universe will resemble.
On the other hand, the District system is not the only vision of class divides and class warfare that we see in the books (and films, briefly). The Avoxes live among the Capitol citizens, waiting on them silently because their tongues have been cut out. The Capitol has found a way to dehumanize a group of people so as to justify using them as slaves. Some of the most horrific stuff that we see in the books has to do with the Avoxes (I’m recalling Peeta talking about listening to Capitol soldiers torture an Avox for information even though he couldn’t talk), and Katniss herself ponders more than once how horrible it would be to be made into one, empathizing with the Avox waiting on her.
So while poverty more like what we see in urban environments is not the focus of this story, disenfranchisement happens in plain sight in the Capitol. People are not automatically safe in the Capitol just because they’re in the Capitol. In fact, there’s a certain freedom in living in the Districts. Katniss feeds her family by hunting illegally beyond the electric fence. She sells to Peacekeepers who should be turning her in, but they don’t, because otherwise they wouldn’t get their occasional squirrel meat. This kind of liberty couldn’t possibly work in the Capitol.
I’ve read the argument that because these stories are “deliberately apolitical” anyone can decide to identify with the oppressed Districts – for example, a reasonably well-off white person could identify with Katniss’s struggle against those liberal elites in their cities. I actually like the lack of politics here (I am pretty political, but I feel like if you had the chance to defeat your tyrannical President who hosts an annual child murder fest, arguments about whether to set up a capitalist society or a social democracy or something more like communism would be sort of a secondary concern). I would argue that although there isn’t any invoking of the economic spectrum of left vs right, the Capitol is very clearly a fascist regime, and as fascism is about more than money (read: identity), we don’t need the Districts to be clearly identified as poor, oppressed progressives in search of a socialist democracy. We know they’re poor and starving, and we know that every year they face the prospect of their children being taken away for slaughter. We don’t need more than that.
Identity politics do happen in these stories, but it’s a tad subtle and race politics don’t really happen at all. I fully acknowledge that Collins could have been a little more careful with her handling of race and diversity. All of the main players are white in the movies for sure, which does make the larger oppression narrative a little less relevant to the real world it’s supposedly speaking to. In the books, District 12, which is racially homogeneous, could be any number of things: Katniss has dark hair, olive skin, and green eyes. To me, that suggests that 12 is a mix of all sorts of ethnicities. Because all of the Districts are racially homogeneous, racism isn’t really at play. It probably will be after the revolution, when all of these people forced together out of necessity have to start living with each other peacefully, but during the timeline we have it isn’t a thing. Misogyny, too, isn’t really at play. The Capitol is not a nightmare vision of the patriarchy. But identity politics happen nonetheless. And I will show you.
So the thing about woman heroes…
Think about The Lord of the Rings. There aren’t many women. One of the women is actually a spider. There is one woman who gets to do cool, violent things, but she’s also hopelessly in love with some guy who couldn’t care less and then she randomly falls in love with a different version of that guy and declares out loud that she’s giving up shield-maidening to be the wife of a steward. Fun times. (To be clear, I love Faramir, but gah.)
Think about Star Wars (the original three and the prequels. I don’t know what’ll happen in these new ones). Leia is amazing but a huge huge huge part of her story is being in an antagonistic love story with Han. I’d go so far as to say that the part of Han’s story that is being in an antagonistic love story with Leia is comparatively much smaller, because Han has Chewy to be friends with, Luke to disappoint or impress, and his own motivations in life to reconsider. Leia nes pas.
Amidala is my favourite. She deserved better than Padmé and stupid-face’s stupid-faced “love” story. But that’s what she got.
Think about Harry Potter. Hermione is one of the best things in the known universe and the most important female character in the Potterverse, but she’s also one half of the major romance of that series. And I love it. But. Romance.
There is nothing wrong with romance.
But there’s a reason Merida from Brave is so special, and a reason that the ending of Frozen, which, while it does include romance, emphasizes female familial love above all else, is so special. And that is because female characters usually have to do romance things.
Male characters, not so much. Luke kisses his sister and that’s it. Frodo is ace for life, or maybe he’s just hopelessly in love with his straight BFF but we never have to watch him brood about it. Harry and Ginny sure, but that’s barely a thing in the books and even less of a thing in the movies. And when female characters find themselves as protagonists, usually they’re the protagonists in what is, above all else, a love story.
Katniss, who very well may be asexual, is definitely starring in a love story, but the romance takes a back seat. In the first book, Katniss is positive that everything Peeta says to her is for the cameras. That’s why when Seneca Crane announces, “Whoops, you know how we said you could both be the winners if you made it to the end together? Well, never mind,” Katniss immediately whips out her bow. In the movie, I notice, she pulls out her bow at the beginning of the announcement, but in the book she very clearly intends to fight Peeta to the death, because she is naively sure that he intends to do the very same thing.
On the train home she discovers that Peeta actually did love her this whole time. Oops. Double oops, because the next book finds them barely speaking but having to pretend the fairy tale romance is a very real thing because unrest in the Districts. Triple oops, because it turns out Katniss’s BFF Gale actually loves her too. Quadruple oops, because it turns out that Katniss could really use Peeta’s presence and support the whole time so they have to sleep in the same bed for months but she isn’t sure how she feels about any of this because she does like Gale, but she does like Peeta, but she doesn’t like either of them like that (maybe) and she definitely doesn’t want kids because they might end up reaped. Quintuple oops, because the Capitol will basically force a Katniss/Peeta wedding whether they want to or not and can apparently HIJACK HER REPRODUCTIVE ORGANS to ensure that she has a baby and you’d better believe that baby will end up as tribute because the Capitol would just LOVE that. Sextuple oops because while we were worrying about all of that stuff a lot of other things happened and they’re both back in the arena again fighting against each other because they are both bound and determined that the other one is the sole survivor, but this is just platonic, maybe, but now there’s a kiss and it actually makes Katniss feel things she hasn’t felt before. Septule oops, Gale will be sad because Katniss kissed him once out of pity. Octuple oops, the Capitol got Peeta and psychologically tortured him into hating Katniss and now he feels an uncontrollable urge to kill her when all he’s been doing this whole time up until now is trying to protect her. Novuple oops, turns out even that madness can’t stop Peeta being primarily motivated by
making out with protecting Katniss. Dicuple oops, they end up together with kids because the war is over. And Gale sucks.
So. Look, I don’t know what to do with that summary of the romance in these books that I just made apart from reiterating that while romance is definitely there, and it is definitely a much bigger thing in the books than in the movies, it is not the defining thing. Katniss’s love triangle choice is not like Bella Swan’s between a freezing cold statuesque douche canoe and a boiling hot statuesque used-to-be-nice-but-is-now-a douche canoe, which is to say that it isn’t the centerpiece of the story, and the choice is a lot more intertwined with the themes. I used to know what Peeta and Gale represented, respectively. I seem to recall that Peeta represented a safe and secure future, and Gale represented an unsafe, unstable present, but those divides are clearer in the books and I haven’t reread them lately. In the films it’s less obvious because the romance was less featured.
What I do know for sure is that Katniss’s inner monologue allows for The Hunger Games to use romance tropes, and it allows us to enjoy them, but it also critiques them. The Capitol is enraptured with the romance between Katniss and Peeta but it’s a complete lie. They don’t actually get together until well after the war is ended. The Districts watch the romance play out and they don’t believe it for a second. It’s only those close to Peeta and Katniss who suspect that there might be a modicum of truth to the romance. Everyone else knows that Katniss didn’t offer Peeta the berries because she would rather die than live without him (cooooooooough New Moon).
Apart from enduring a love triangle she did not want, pursue, or enjoy, Katniss gets to play out female power fantasies that are really intriguing. Because Peeta makes Katniss desirable by confessing that he’s always loved her on compulsory TV, Katniss becomes something of a sex symbol. Her flaming dresses don’t hurt either in this regard. But she paradoxically reads to others as being “pure.” Johanna apparently strips in the elevator in front of Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch because Johanna knows what kind of a reaction it will get out of pure, incorruptible Katniss. The twirling conveys innocence, the fire conveys lust and power, the offering forbidden fruit to a male love interest conveys original sin but it is revolutionary in exactly how NOT motivated by sex or romance the act is.
Peeta tells everyone Katniss is pregnant in book two as an attempt to get the 75th Games called off, but it doesn’t work. In book three, Katniss and Peeta are pitted against each other in a propaganda war. Charismatic Peeta tells everyone to calm down and stop revolting. Katniss, who has, supposedly, suffered a miscarriage, stands resolute and calls for open rebellion.
In the background, Katniss is described as being moving only when she’s being genuine and empathetic. She’s also described as being psychologically broken and emotionally volatile. She describes herself as being bad at making friends, and not a nice person. But look at her with Prim, and even her mother as she begins to forgive her. She is a gentle and loving nurturer, but she also thinks with her heart (dangerous and impractical in the efficient District 13) and can’t be trusted to follow orders.
She kills animals for food and when it comes down to it, she kills other tributes in the Games. But she is squeamish about wounds, admiring her “delicate” sister and mother because they aren’t bothered by a bit of pus.
In the midst of being offered up as a sacrifice to the bloodthirsty appetites of an oppressive ruling class, she gets a genuine kick out of wearing pretty clothes.
She gets to play a lot of different roles as a woman with power, but it is the innocent, sexless version of herself that wields the most power in the end. What is nice is that even though eventually she always has to return to the inhuman Mockingjay symbol, along the way, she gets to play with fire. Reading the book, it’s almost always clear that the real Katniss is there under the outfit and the makeup. This dichotomy is not new for female characters (the one that immediately springs to mind is Hannah Montana) but The Hunger Games does a lot of interesting things with it, and I rarely see it get credit for that.
It’s been argued that a character like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider is just like any male protagonist, but female. It’s a difficult argument to chew on and I definitely think it has some merit, but the reason I briefly bring it up here is to point out that Katniss Everdeen cannot be honestly read like that. She isn’t a male action hero in female skin. She is very, very clearly a young woman. It is the character’s very rich, complicated performance of her gender that proves that.
Having the female protagonist live through multiple and contradictory female-specific power fantasies and romances that both are and aren’t romantic is huge. Trust me, girls didn’t just love The Hunger Games because Team Gale or Team Peeta and JLaw. Though we did of course enjoy those things.
The ending of The Hunger Games is a lie and pointless and blah blah blah
If you’ve decided that coding the feminine and the urban as evil is disqualifying, and that the setup for class warfare is woefully lacking economic progressive politics, and for reasons relating to identity politics you are less inclined to notice when a female character gets to do new and exciting things beyond romance and also gets to quietly discuss the multiple and contradictory realities of the female existence, you will probably have misread the ending of this series.
Let me help you.
So District 13 shows up in a surprise move at the end of book 2. They’ve been fighting a rebellion for decades – indeed, they’ve never stopped fighting ever since the Capitol nuked them underground. But now, as their reproductive abilities are visibly slowing down and the Mockingjay has stirred up rioting in the Districts, 13 has a chance to unite the other Districts and end the war.
To end the war, President Coin bombs a bunch of Capitol children, swiftly followed by the second, deadlier blast killing the medics and everyone else who rushed in to aid the children, using a Capitol plane. You see, war crimes are OK if your politics are basically utilitarianism gone extreme.
Coin then proposes a democratic vote on one final Hunger Games, this time with Capitol children, because if they do this, then the oppressed Districts will be less inclined to yell and scream for vengeance against every Capitol official ever. 23 Capitol children will die, many more will be spared. She has completely missed the irony of her suggestion, even though Beetee and/or Peeta points it out to her.
So Katniss pretends to go along with it so Coin will let her execute Snow. But Snow is dying and he has lost the war and Katniss knows this. Her real goal is to assassinate Coin.
The misreading of this states that The Hunger Games goes for lazy nuance by suggesting that both sides are equally evil, like any given episode of South Park. The mechanism of the misreading is that you are comparing Coin to Snow.
Snow is a fascist who lost the war, lost power, and is succumbing to a fatal illness. Coin is the utilitarian version of a fascist (… whatever that is). The reason she doesn’t make a lot of sense (besides the fact that the whole apolitical aspect makes her arc rather clunky, admittedly) is that she isn’t really meant as an alternative to Snow. She is instead a foil to the entire revolution.
Recall that Katniss started the revolution simply by volunteering as tribute in Prim’s place. Reinforcing the revolution was Rue’s death. There are plenty of images of older women sacrificing themselves for younger women. Mags volunteers for Annie and then sacrifices herself for Peeta, for Katniss. Johanna puts herself in danger multiple times to save or protect Katniss. Cressida places herself between Jackson’s gun and Katniss. In the movie, the Leeg sister who doesn’t get injured chooses to stay with her injured sister and they die together.
Coin deliberately sends Prim to the front lines, knowing that once the children are bombed, Prim will rush in and be killed in the second blast. Coin kills the younger sister to end all younger sisters, and she does this specifically to psychologically destroy Katniss, another younger woman, so that Katniss will fall in line and support her in the first democratic elections.
We are not supposed to compare Coin and Snow. We are supposed to compare Coin and Katniss.
What Coin will do to secure her own power is exactly the opposite of what Katniss does at the beginning of the uprisings. Katniss sacrifices herself, even though she is the breadwinner of the family, because her little sister is worth doing the impractical and right thing for. The spirit of the rebellion is that little girls are worth sacrificing ourselves to protect, because they are the future we have to safeguard. Practicality and pragmatism are for nothing if we can’t save them. That is bold and naive and beautiful. Coin is a traitor to her little sisters, to her gender, and to the rebellion, and she must die.
The bitter end
And that is where we are. I, an older sister, feminist, and awkward lady, will take my perfect awesome hero girl, thank you. I don’t have that many to choose from, but Katniss is more than enough.