As an avid urban fantasy reader, my guilt-free pleasure the young adult sub-genre, I was beside myself when I started reading The Hunger Games. “Finally, a young female lead who is not pining over a boy or a vampire/werewolf/angel/fairy,” I thought to myself.
Katniss Everdeen appears to be a strong young woman with goals and dreams independent from her romantic interests. Katniss was eagerly embraced as an example of a modern feminist icon and contrasted with the likes of Bella Swan, the swooning heroine of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. “Katniss is not Bella!” exclaims Natalie Wilson in her Ms. Magazine blog; Wilson hopes The Hunger Games series will be the start of a new trend of politically-themed narratives with rebellious female protagonists more focused on revolution and cultural change than a romantic pursuit of the latest hot male lead (Wilson, Ms. Magazine).
Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes evident that both Wilson and I would be disappointed. Katniss is just a remix of the same old tune of self-sacrificing female characters so prevalent in young adult fiction. Through exploring Katniss’s gender and sexual identities, family life, and personal relationships, one can clearly see how how Katniss’s personal identity becomes subservient to her role as caregiver and a symbol of rebellion.
The Hunger Games (2008) by Suzanne Collins is the first installment in a trilogy of dystopian young adult novels set in the post-war nation of Panem. Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine, is the older of two children, left as the sole provider for her family at the age of 11 after her father died and her mother sank into a deep depression. Young Katniss learned, with the help of her friend Gale, how to procure food and commodities from the wilderness to ensure her family’s survival, and feeding her family becomes her only goal. Even as she finds agency as a hunter, she never had the opportunity to choose an alternative identity.
Panem is a nation forged on the ruins of North America after a rebellion, and is now divided into 12 Districts, ruled by the Capitol. The Districts provide for the Capitol while living under oppression and poverty, and Katniss lives in the poorest part, the Seam, of the poorest District, District 12. Every year the Capitol puts on a contest, the Hunger Games, to remind and punish the Districts for their unsuccessful rebellion. On “reaping day”, one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each district to be a “tribute” in the games, which are broadcast live across the nation.
“Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy,” Katniss says, describing the Hunger Games on reaping day (Collins, The Hunger Games, 18). The Hunger Games are a fight to the death and only one can survive. This year marks the 74th annual Hunger Games, and Katniss’s sister Primrose’s name is drawn in the Hunger Games raffle. Katniss volunteers in her stead, and along with Peeta Mellark, her male fellow tribute, they are loaded on a train to the Capitol, and thus the story is set in motion.
Katniss sacrificing herself for her sister is easy to interpret as her first and most important act of sacrifice. However, she made a far greater sacrifice five years earlier when she surrendered her life to her family. District 12 is a class society within a class society, and Katniss’s family is among the lowest, poorest class in this hierarchy. When Gale suggests to her that they could leave District 12, she dismisses the idea as ridiculous: “Who would fill all those mouths that are always asking for more?… Leave? How could I leave Prim, who is the only person in the world I’m certain I love? We can’t leave, so why bother talking about it?” (Collins, The Hunger Games, 17-18).
Katniss has given up on hopes and dreams for the future before she has even had a chance to develop any individual goals. When she volunteers for the Hunger Games, sacrifice has become such an intricate part of her personality that her only concern is how her family will stay fed without her. The extreme poverty and desperation have preemptively stripped her of the freedom to choose.
Author: Suzanne Collins
US Publication Date: 2014-06
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/h/hungergamestrilogy_boxart_200.jpgKatniss is in a position usually reserved for male characters: she is the breadwinner of the house, and her dreams are not of boys and marriage but of security for her sister and mother. She is also not preoccupied by her appearance: she only takes interest in that when it becomes crucial for her survival in the Hunger Games. In their essay “‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover Boy’ Peeta”, Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel describe Katniss as a male-identified female character “who balances traditionally masculine qualities such as athleticism, independence, self-sufficiency, a penchant for violence with traditionally female qualities such as idealized physical female beauty and vulnerability” (118) and claim that she gains autonomy and independence through her protective instincts manifesting as protection of others and preservation of the self (123).
Rodney M. DeaVault points out that in District 12, the female characters are nurturing, dependent, and emotional, and Katniss is the only female character that is not confined in the domestic space (191). How independent is Katniss, though, if her autonomy comes from her sacrificing her agency as an individual? Despite her freedom from domesticity through hunting in the woods, she is bound to her family without a possibility of escape. Her identity is so intertwined in her role as caregiver that she does not even entertain the fantasy of escaping the situation. Poverty has reduced living to survival, and individuality does not reach very high on the list priorities when there is no food to eat.
Perhaps Katniss is not so much male-identified as she is genderless, her female identity unformed under the pressure of the caregiver role. Katniss remarks on the rumors circulating about her and Gale (who is very obviously in love with her), “There’s never been anything romantic between Gale and me… It makes me jealous [the thought of Gale finding a wife] but not for the reasons people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find” (Collins, The Hunger Games, 10). Katniss’s assumed role as provider for her family trumps her romantic urges, and she is very adamant in not wanting to have children, due to the threat of the reaping.
She is, for all intents and purposes, the parental figure for both her sister and mother, so she is not without nurturing instincts. It seems, then, that she cannot bear to be responsible for bringing children into this world she lives in: she has been preemptively stripped of the possibility to grow into an adult woman, and is stuck in her prepubescent stage and an androgynous existence as a hunter and provider.
Once transported to the Capitol, Katniss is stripped of her “male-identified” character. Not only has she, in all likelihood, sacrificed her life, but she is also sacrificing her already slim independence and autonomy once again. A team of stylists in the aptly named Remake Center transforms her from the hunter into a seductress: “They erase my face with a layer of pale makeup and draw my features back out . . . The creature standing before me in the full-length mirror has come from another world” Katniss describes, and this new creature is then cast in a role of Peeta’s love interest for the purpose of gaining popularity and sponsors in the game (Collins, The Hunger Games, 120).
When Peeta professes his love for Katniss on live TV in front of the whole nation, Katniss is furious: “He made me look weak!” she exclaims to her mentor, Haymitch, who replies, “He made you look desirable” (Collins, The Hunger Games, 135). Amy L. Montz talks about “the purposeful exhibition of the female form” in her essay “Costuming the Resistance”, explaining how appearance becomes part of the message, especially for women. She explains how Katniss is groomed both literally and figuratively to become a spectacle for the resistance. Due to the public nature of the games she becomes an object (139).
This statement can easily be expanded to Katniss beyond her body. She has sacrificed her personality for the sake of survival not only in the games, but years before in her role as a provider. Her body and mind are tools for survival: to stay alive and continue to keep her family alive, she has to become domestic and feminine, and let go of the only thing that has provided her with a sense of agency.
As the games start, Katniss regains some sense of independence. She sets off on her own, armed and dressed in practical clothes and turning to the skills she has learned from her father and Gale. Two instances, however, unravel her independence: first she is injured, and Rue, the youngest tribute, has to take care of her while she lies helpless, and later Peeta is injured and she has to take care of him. She hates, in particular, the role of a nurturer she has to take with Peeta: “I want to run away. Disappear into the woods like I did that day when they brought the burn victim to our house,” she thinks, but she has no choice but to stay and help him, or let him die (Collins, The Hunger Games, 256). Once again, she sacrifices herself, risking her own survival for the sake of others.
Katniss starts using the set up of star-crossed lovers to her advantage, as she, aware of the cameras, starts playing out the suggested romance. Before the games, Katniss had no experience with romantic relationships. She and Gale had hunted together to provide for their families, but the relationship never surpassed friendship, at least not on her part. Katniss’s priority has always been Prim above all, and she works so hard on her own to help her family and survive the games that there is no room for anything else.
Sacrificing Everything, Freedom Included
Growing up in the Seam taught Katniss the importance of survival and the shortness and vulnerability of human life, and this life did not encourage romantic love. She abhors the possibility of having children, of producing more Tributes, which is likely to turn her away from entertaining romantic notions. For the sake of her and Peeta’s survival, she kisses him: “If I want to keep Peeta alive, I’ve got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance,” and her actions are instantly rewarded with a gift of food from the sponsors (Collins, The Hunger Games, 260). Survival comes, as always, at the price of sacrificing her natural instinct and her identity.
After Katniss and Peeta find themselves the two survivors, the winners due to a rule change of two tributes being crowned winners if they are from the same district, they anxiously wait for the games to end—and then the new rule is revoked. There can be only one survivor. For a second Katniss considers killing Peeta, but is unable to do it and devises instead a plan for a double suicide with lethal berries, nightlock.
As they are about to swallow the berries, they are announced winners. This is a curious string of events: first Katniss goes against her kill-or-be-killed instinct and resorts, instead, to a yet another act of self-sacrifice. This act is interpreted by both her and the Capitol as an act of rebellion, but she is forced to strip it of its meaning. She plays the role of a helpless female at the mercy of her feelings when she proclaims to the cameras “I don’t know, I just . . . couldn’t bear the thought of . . . being without him” (Collins, The Hunger Games, 369).
In the second installment in the trilogy, Catching Fire (2009), Katniss is exploited by the Capitol in an attempt to squash the impending rebellion of the Districts. “I will have to travel from district to district, to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed . . .” (Collins, Catching Fire, 5). Panem’s President Snow threatens her family and friends to get her to comply, and the prep team arrives to her house to groom her once again for the role of a foolish girl in love for the sake of keeping up appearances.
Her created identity is yet again a tool for others’ survival, and she has to suppress her own desires to keep her loved ones alive. “My chest tightens as I think about how, on the Victory Tour, Peeta and I will have to present ourselves as lovers again” (Collins, Catching Fire, 9). She now knows that both Gale and Peeta are in love with her, and she has been deprived of both friendships due to the role of lover she was forced into. The 75th reaping introduces a rule change, and Katniss and Peeta are transported back into the arena along with other victors for a special game, the Quarter Quell.
Katniss vows to keep Peeta alive at the cost of her own survival. In the beginning of the last book of the trilogy, Mockingjay (2010), she finds out that the rebels have also been using the romance and Katniss’s persona as Peeta’s chosen woman to their advantage: she has become the icon for the revolution. She never has a chance to examine her true feelings towards either man since both the Capitol and the rebels are constantly exploiting her sexuality.
In Mockingjay, Katniss’s old prep team is brought in by the rebels to transform her into the Mockingjay, a superhero-like figurehead for the rebellion. They choose a new female image for her, that of a warrior instead of a girl in love, and shoot footage of her repeating lines designed to inspire the rebels and undermine the Capitol. Once her purpose is served, she becomes expendable: “Dead or alive, Katniss Everdeen will remain the face of this rebellion,” the insert on TV declares. “Up comes a heavily doctored photo of me looking beautiful and fierce,” Katniss describes the imagery. “No words. No slogan. My face is all they need now” (Collins, Mockingjay, 294). The false martyrdom Katniss was bestowed with has reached its height: her identity no longer belongs to her. It has been ripped from her and lives separate from her.
The Hunger Games generated vast interest in this new kind of heroine Katniss seems to portray, and instead of looking at scholarly definitions of feminism and gender performativity, it is more interesting to see what discussions The Hunger Games trilogy evoked in popular media. Beyond academic interest, this popular trilogy speaks to the people, the target audience, and offers a position in their culture, which suggests that the trilogy has evoked something strong in the population at large.
Fandom website Hypable has a blog post entitled “Katniss Everdeen: Feminist on Fire” by user “frizzlefree” exclaiming how Katniss is a feminist character because her sex has nothing to do with the story and that one could change the female pronouns to male without losing any aspects of the plot.
On her co-authored web magazine The Sexy Feminists, Heather Wood Rudulph tries to take an objective look at Katniss’s characteristics in an article called “Feminist or Not?: ‘The Hunger Games’”. Her strongest argument is that Katniss is a hero because she is not a sex object swooning over a boy: she is brave, loyal, and focused on saving the world. Roxane Gay, in her essay “What We Hunger For”, sees Katniss as a young woman forced to find her inner strength in near-unendurable conditions, and gushes over how Katniss is flawed but brave, and unaware of her own strength.
However empowering these interpretations may sound, all of this hyperbole is missing the target. It is true that Katniss finds the strength to endure and conquer the hardships she encounters, but that alone does not distinguish her in any way from the literary heroine canon. I claim that this praised new female heroine is just like all the other fantasy heroines, whose personal identity and goals are subservient to the cause she is being harnessed to serve. Katniss’s portrayed independence and deviancy is nothing but the emperor’s new clothes. The strength writers like Gay and Rudulph see in Katniss is merely the strength pasted on her image by the Capitol and the rebels, and the real identity of our heroine never has a chance to form. Montz says that Katniss reclaims her female agency by becoming the Mockingjay, the spectacle of herself, but I disagree (Montz, 140). By the time she is sculpted into the rebel warrior, she is so far removed from her subjectivity that she simply accepts the role as another survival tool, and the realization that she has become expendable is met by fatalistic resolve.
The end of the trilogy leaves Katniss living in District 12 again, her sister Prim dead, her mother and Gale living somewhere else, unable to bear the losses they have suffered. Katniss is incapable of forgiving Gale for the role he played in Prim’s death and they become estranged, and so she loses the one person who knew her before she was the “Girl on Fire.”
She marries Peeta, and they have children: “It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree [to have children]. But Peeta wanted them so badly” (Collins, Mockingjay, 389). She is physically and mentally ill during both pregnancies, but she does this for Peeta. After everything she has been through, she sacrifices the last piece of her identity: her resolve to never have children. Montz sees the end as Katniss staying true to herself: an intelligent woman who understands the power of a girl made spectacular by a good performance. “She is the resistance. She is the revolution,” Montz enthuses, apparently seeing the emperor’s new clothes like so many others. I contend that Katniss’s identity is so far removed from her that she does not see her numerous roles as part of herself (146-7).
Gay interprets the ending as offering hope through Katniss creating a better life for herself: “a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn’t expect her to compromise that strength.” But I see no such thing. Never in the trilogy has Katniss even dreamt of any of the roles she ended up with. She did not want to marry, she entertained no notions of romantic love, and she certainly did not dream of children. She ends up having sacrificed all of herself, and all but one of the people close to her, and she sacrifices the last piece of her sexuality to bear Peeta’s children.
Her last goal, yet another goal that has arisen from her sacrifice, is to protect her children from the shadow of the Hunger Games: “How can I tell them about that world without frightening them to death?” (Collins, Mockingjay, 390). Her personality has been destroyed beyond repair even before it had a chance to truly form, and she goes on for the sake of others, plagued by nightmares: “[O]n bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away” (Collins, Mockingjay, 390). She is surviving but not living.
In an essay boldly named “The Hunger Games’ Feral Feminism”, Katha Pollit characterizes Katniss as a “complex character with courage, brains and a quest of her own . . . the lead, not a sidekick.” The question, however, is how much of Katniss’s quest really is her own? The only real choice she makes is volunteering for the Hunger Games, and even this choice is not made in pursuit of a personal goal. This act of sacrifice also seems predestined at the moment of her father’s death: she has cast aside her individual hopes and dreams for the sake of her family. All her actions are reactive, and are done in an effort to save someone else: even her self-preservation is subject to the preservation of others. Her sexuality becomes a tool for her survival, and her motivation only arises from her initial sacrifice, never from her own goals.
As the trilogy progresses, she becomes more and more the sacrificial lamb as she is peddled off to be the icon for a rebellion, further stripped of any chance of forming her identity. She never has real agency over herself in any aspects of her life. Katniss Everdeen is perpetuating a trope of self-sacrificing women who sacrifice their personal desires to their roles as mates, mothers, and caregivers.