Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Girl on Fire: Katniss Everdeen as Feminist Icon

Thoughts, Perfumey and not, on Suzanne Collin's The Hunger Games, Pt. 1

For those of you living under a rock, the first film adaptation of Suzanne Collin's killer trilogy, The Hunger Games, released this past weekend, and brought in the third biggest U.S. box office opening in history. Though I will tread carefully to avoid film-related spoilers, I do want to talk a little about Katniss Everdeen as a role model for young women everywhere.

This post got so long, I'm splitting it into two parts.

Katniss as Feminist Role Model

To start let's talk about Katniss, the role model. I was listening to Jennifer Lawrence talking about why she took the part of Katniss on NPR last Friday morning and I feel like she summed it up nicely.
Q: What draws you to the character:

JL: She's not a hero. She's not a James Bond or Laura Croft that's done this a million of time and she has all the tools and knows how to do it and we're just going to watch her win. There's never really a point in the Games where she thinks she won't die. She's just trying to survive for her family and then becomes this Joan of Arc by starting to fight for her people.

Q: When you think about the young women who are going to be in these audiences, what do you want them to take from this character?

JL: I think the most important message that this movie has and what Katniss has is how powerful one person can be and the power that we have as the people because we're being manipulated by whatever we're being manipulated by -- reality television, the news, the president... And also, on a simpler note, she's just a girl whose standing up for what's right when something's wrong when it's hard and when it's scary.

Q:What were the doubts? If [your mom, who introduced JL to the books,] had said there could be a potential down side, what was it?

JL: I was just worried about, you know there's not a lot of decisions you are faced with that will change your life forever and it'll never go back. I was afraid nobody'd ever be able to lose themselves in another character I did. It would always be, you know, Katniss is doing a period drama, Katniss is doing .... But then I realized that if I was going to known for any character, this is the most incredible character that I could ever... you know, I would be honored.

JL on Katniss' costuming:
"I want to make sure I can run
and jump and climb.
[...] The dresses I don't care about.
Just put them on me.
 It's like Oscar season again."
FN1. "I would be honored."  Just reading that gives me a little lump in my throat.

Listening to Lawrence's interview, I found myself crying. I think what moved me about Lawrence's interview, in part, is that this film is coming out at a time when a lot of power structures are moving against women's rights to autonomy in this country. And whether you are talking about a presidential candidate or a religious leadership council or a state government, it is hard not to feel like your right to make choices about what happens to you physically isn't being increasingly restrained. Speaking out is punished. These decisions are being made for your own good. Dissent will be met swiftly, and with ugliness and, frankly, hatred.

When Lawrence describes Katniss as "just a girl," she's right. Katniss is only a girl struggling to survive. While her situation is far more dire than most first-world women, the principle that no government or religious organization has the right to restrict your autonomy, personal safety, or right to live remains the same.

I know I sound like a boring, broken record lately, and I apologize for that. Believe me when I tell you I want to write about something other than reproductive choice and politics. Hell, I want to think about something other than reproductive choice and politics. But I cannot stop, because I am inundated on a daily basis with the message that my choices are being constricted and my life is less valuable than someone else's and my judgement is suspect. And if I speak out, I will be cast in a negative light because we must never forget that it is wrong for women to enjoy or want physical intimacy and that if women become pregnant, it is always and exclusively, their responsibility, their fault. FN2

Activists protesting for
reproductive freedom in Virginia.
I went to a history lecture last week at my alma mater (yes, I'm one of those people). In it, one of my beloved professors, Dr. David Campion, spoke about feeling lost in your life. "Who am I? Where am I going? Am I making wise decisions? What will happen if I fail? What will happen to those who choose to follow me if I do?" Though he spoke of many extraordinary people -- Eisenhower and Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Tolstoy -- his point, over and over, was this: no one knows when or if they are destined for greatness. Eisenhower, before he was President or Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was a man with an unremarkable military career headed for retirement. You just never know when life is going to suddenly expect you to be extraordinary. So the best plan is to make decisions based on what you think is right, consult the examples of those who have gone before for inspiration and guidance, and surround ourselves with people smart and trustworthy in case you are called on by force of circumstance or chance or choice to become something less than ordinary.

This is one of the things that makes Katniss an extraordinary example. She doesn't want to be a leader, she doesn't ask to be an icon. She becomes ones because she refuses to lie down and die when she's told to. She acts of love and bravery, not fear, even when it might come at the cost of her life, or the lives of those she loves. That is extraordinary, and I think it is part of what has resonated with a lot of the books' readership.

I'm also pleased the directors chose to include Katniss' aversion to having a family in the beginning of the film and her feeling of responsibility as stand-in parent for her sister. I think it is rare in this world that women who don't want children are portrayed as sensible or likable though given how awful the world, even the first world, can be, sometimes I wonder if these men and women aren't making the wiser choice. Mostly, I'm glad that the sheer work it takes to feed and cloth and house oneself and one's dependents is shown as a real and limiting factor for both Katniss and Gale in the first book, because it is an important aspect of the intersection of poverty and reproductive choice rarely explored in media.  While this was explored more full in the book, I am really glad the film included it.

Gale: "Maybe if I didn't live here."
Katniss: "Yeah,but you do live here."

I like that it is okay for Katniss to express that she does not want to have children and for us to like and understand her choice far more than Gale's reaction to it. I like that the one who seems irrational isn't the person who does not want children; too often, the social norm of 'wanting to have kids' is so overpowering that the idea that no children is a (possibly more) rational choice gets overlooked entirely. FN3.

The other thing I wanted to comment on is that I am thrilled the film reflects one of the things I noticed most in series' first book: if most of the men who make it to the final rounds do so on brute strength, the women survive due to their own cleverness. Rue, Foxface, Katniss -- each has moments of brilliance that keep them alive, and it is because they are smart and thoughtful and clever, not because they are the biggest, strongest, or most inclined to success in conflict. What a great message for young female readers! It isn't your looks or your physical prowess or your ability to be likable and feminine that is your most valuable asset: it is your intellect! FN4. FN5.

I wrote a piece a while back talking about my hope that a result of the current proliferation of women-written, female-character-centered young adult novels would be a generation of women inundated with a message that their voices matter and their strength matters and that they can change the world. Like Lawrence, I hope young women in film audiences will take the message from The Hunger Games that they don't have to be special to become special. They don't have to feel brave to be brave. That simply doing the right thing in the face of fear and difficulty can make all the difference in the world, be it this one or Panem.

It isn't easy, as any fan of Katniss knows. It can cost you plenty.

But in the end (and for those of you who haven't finished the series, you should), it can mean a much better life than any you could have imagined, one that contains -- if not comfort -- love and self-respect.

Stay tuned for Part Two, wherein I talk about perfumes and music I associate with the world of The Hunger Games, and do a give away that contains both, plus so much more [SPOILER ALERT - HG SWAG YOU CAN WIN!]!

May the odds be ever in your favor.
FN1. You can hear the full interview with Lawrence and the director, Gary Ross, here.

FN2. This did not stop me, of course, from offering myself up for criticism as the only pro-choice female speaker an abortion discussion panel at a Catholic University. They could not locate a pro-choice female faculty or staff member willing to do the panel for professional reasons, so a former co-worker and professional associate reached out to me. went because (1) someone needs to; (2) I don't like intimidation used to silence speech; (3) I'm a glutton for punishment. The hate mail in the aftermath has been....challenging. To the credit of the university, it wasn't their community members who attacked me (they were all very respectful), but some audience members who seem unrelated to the school, and whom I suspect are attached to the anti-choice organization who was represented on the panel as well.

FN3. Bella Swan, Bella Swan, Bella Swan.  Sorry. Had to get that off my chest.

FN4. Okay, so yes, there's the underlying current that Katniss, much like Bella Swann of the Twilight franchise, are beautiful and have an effect on men they are unconscious of. (My husband pounced on this similarity before the credits had finished rolling.) Aren't they humble about their looks and isn't that amazing, that they are beautiful but only occasionally engage in using it as a tool and then feel really bad about their guile? I think the difference between them is that (a) Katniss has more to offer than her looks and almost never relies on them, or on anyone else, to solve her problems. In point of fact, trying to be a 'pretty girl' is something she can never grow comfortable with and is an aspect of her personality used more by others than by her.

FN5. Though it is obvious that Panem, as a society, does not value intellect the most, which is made equally clear in the book and the film. Katniss' intellect is a liability, it attracts negative attention, it saves and simultaneously endangers her because her ability to think for herself and to resist mass messaging makes her a target, figuratively and literally. Katniss is only safe when she sticks to scripts that serve traditional male dominance/appeal to the male gaze.

Haymatch: "He [Peeta] made you desirable!"

Because remember, Ladies, it's not your inherent beauty or strength, personal charm or intelligence that makes you attractive to others, it's that the male gaze values you. Peeta makes Katniss 'desirable' (i.e. an object of value within the confines of 'things men want to possess') and that makes her worth sponsoring, not her skill score or anything she does on her own. The only people who sponsor her for her own value are the people of District 11, and they honor one of the best things about Katniss during the games: her ability to maintain her humanity even at the worst times.


Ines said...

I love your thoughts in this post.
And honestly, I didn't get the feeling that Katniss is aware of her beauty and uses it. I mean, I know they do her make-up and clothes and she is stunning in them, but most women would be.
I'm at the moment reading book 3 and I love the series. The only thing I have a bit of a problem with but can understand the point, is that Katniss is sometimes slow in understanding people's statements, but I guess at 17 it's normal and she does understand in the end.
I can't wait to finish book 3 and see how it all ends - that's my favourite part of the series, I can't even begin to guess what will happen next. :)
The best thing about Katniss is she's of strong character but doesn't know it, compassionate but not aware of it, reasonable but not lost in it, and smart even though she doubts herself.

Diana said...


I don't think Katniss is aware of her beauty, but she is meant to be beautiful. Hence the "she has no idea the effect she has" line, which is almost a mirror of statements made about Bella in Twilight. The fact that people around them were motivated by their physical beauty but both girls were unaware of it was the similarity I (well, really, my husband) was trying to highlight.

While I think it's true that most young girls do not realize how beautiful they are (I sometimes look through my high school year book and feel overwhelmed by how pretty we all were compared to what we thought and felt), I also think plenty of women know that they have physical beauty and are careful to wield it. I don't discount or hate on those women -- sometimes I think it is all the power the world offers a woman willingly, and I'd much rather her consciously wield it than pretend to ignorance if she is otherwise aware.

I agree with your assessment of Katniss: "[S]he's of strong character but doesn't know it, compassionate but not aware of it, reasonable but not lost in it, and smart even though she doubts herself." Just because shes unassuming, though, doesn't make her passive or an object. I feel like Katniss is always a subject, always an actor, even when those in the movement want to make her a two-dimensional icon. She resists being a symbol in favor of humanism, whereas Bella has a tendency to remain an object, rather than a active subject within her own narrative.

I'm so glad you decided to read the books.

Thanks for reading!


Ines said...

Diana, I completely agree Katniss is an actor and people react to her actions, but she sometimes is the last one to understand how some of her actions provoked a situation.
I'm planning on writing a review about the last two books - I was amazed by the power of Mrs. Collins' words and writing. She had me by the heart and I wasn't even aware of it until I burst out crying.

P.S. I'm all for women wielding power given through their looks in case they are not harming anyone. Power should never be taken for granted or abused.