Despite claims that The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen represents a step forward for women, her self-sacrificial streak reveals just how unfree she really is.
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.
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.