The Hunger Games is one of the most popular young adult novel series rivaling Harry Potter and Twilight. As the first of its film adaptations was just released in March 2012, readers and audiences have been pleasantly surprised at this fresh, dynamic, young female protagonist. In this video I’ll explore Katniss’ character in the first novel as it relates to gender and portrayals of violence. Be sure to check out Part 2 where I compare the book to the movie.
Related Links and Articles:
- The Fan Art used in the video was made by Noelle Stevenson, Jenny Bach & Coraline Blue
- The Girl Who Was On Fire: The Most Amazing Hunger Games Fan Art Roundup at i09
- Yes, There Are Black People in Your Hunger Games: The Strange Case of Rue & Cinna by Roxie Moxie at Racialicious
- The Hunger Games, Hollywood and Fighting Fuck Toys by Caroline Heldman at The Ms. Blog
- Campaign against whitewashing of The Hunger Games by Racebending
- Everything The Hunger Games Movie Left Out at i09
- ‘Hunger Games’ author Suzanne Collins wrote for ‘Clarissa’ — what do Clarissa and Katniss have in common? by Stephan Lee at EW.com
** This video is available to be translated into other languages by volunteers like you. Please visit the subtitling page on Universal Subtitles and click TRANSLATE to get started.
It should come as no surprise that I’m always on the look out for dynamic, engaging, and strong female characters in pop culture and the latest fictional female representation that has everyone talking is Katniss Everdeen, the dynamic protagonist of the Hunger Games novels written by Suzanne Collins.
For those unfamiliar with the trilogy, the novels are set in a future dystopian North America, in a country called Panem. The title of the book is a reference to an annual event organized by the oppressive government in which 24 children are selected at random to participate in a televised death match.
In the Hunger Games, as they’re called, the children are forced to brutally murder one another until only one is left standing.
For the purposes of this video, I’m going to set aside the fact that some of the analogies Collins is trying to draw to reality TV, professional sports, and war begin to fall apart when scrutinized closely. I appreciate her attempt to critically comment on social issues, I just don’t buy that parents would passively give up their children to be slaughtered on national TV without a serious fight. The death match as spectacle theme is really only believable if the players have been dehumanized or othered by society, either as convicts or slaves for example, it doesn’t work when it’s just randomly selected children from the general population.
That said, in this video I’m going to focus mainly on the portrayal of Katniss’ character in the first book and the movie adaptation.
I thought the first The Hunger Games novel, published in 2008 was a captivating, engaging and riveting read and really I enjoyed being immersed in the science fiction world that Collins creates.
If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet fair warning.
The story follows Katniss, a 16 year old from a poor, coal mining community in district 12. She struggles to provide for her family in the absence of her father and later to survive the brutality of the Hunger Games. She is a tough, no-nonsense, responsible, young woman who uses her smarts to support her family in an oppressive, and seemingly hopeless situation. Katniss is not reduced to her gender, meaning her behaviours and actions aren’t attributed to her being a woman, she is not sexualized and she is not objectified in the book.
Her real world concerns and priorities of family and survival are put in sharp contrast to the superficial values imposed on her by the Capitol government as she is being groomed for the Hunger Games media spectacle.
These preparation scenes provide a critique of the beauty industry and also of the decadence of the wealthy in contrast to poor and working class districts who can barely afford enough food to feed their families. Katniss demonstrates empathy and compassion for those around her including her friends, family, and those oppressed and underprivileged in Panem. Later in the arena she also builds a trusting and supportive relationship with Rue, the young tribute from district 11. Later, when Rue is tragically killed, Katniss treats her death with honor and respect.
The romance elements of the first book were only slightly grating, much of it was Katniss’ uncertainty about Peeta’s feelings for her and her confusion about whether he was being genuine or just acting. It was clear Collins was setting up a love triangle between Peeta, Katniss and Gale ala Edward, Bella and Jacob.
This is nothing new in novels targeted at girls and women and I could look past the cliché of it since it wasn’t central to the plot in the first book. Katniss’ naivety when it came to dating and relationships make sense given her age and her difficult economic, social and family life, her naivety and confusion is an understandable part of her character’s growth, but only in the first part of the trilogy, unfortunately the love triangle takes a much more prominent role in books 2 and 3.
There’s been some understandable criticism of the rather extreme levels of violence in the novel, especially considering it’s marketed to young adults. I think this is a fair point however the way Katniss perceives and uses violence makes her somewhat unique. Especially in comparison to other so called “strong female characters” whose strength often stems from their ability and willingness to use violence. Although, Katniss does possess the hunting and tracking skills to survive in the harsh terrain of the arena, she remains troubled and disturbed at the idea of personally murdering another human being even within the context of the death match. Admirably she can’t bring herself to wish death on her opponents or even her enemies. Knowing full well that if they remain alive she can never return home. These moments illustrate that Katniss hasn’t become completely desensitized to violence and suffering even though she’s forced to participate in a horrifically violent system.
That said, I do wish Collins was more consistent in writing Katniss’ responses to death. When Rue is killed the event is written as deeply traumatic and emotional for Katniss. Katniss is not made to run off seeking revenge and is instead allowed to mourn in a really human way. We follow along as she struggles through the process of grief. She appropriately feels shock, pain, guilt and temporary depression. To Collins’ credit, she writes this emotional process as a testament to Katniss’ strength as opposed to a weakness.
Yet when Foxface is accidently yet tragically killed via poisonous berries, Katniss doesn’t even bat an eye. She shows no emotional reaction whatsoever despite the fact that this young tribute from district 5, hasn’t hurt anyone during the games. Although, Katniss doesn’t have a personal relationship with Foxface, her death should still be represented as tragic and upsetting. It should go without saying that in reality, violence is traumatic and it has very real and lasting consequences for everybody involved. So I’m not arguing for stories to be completely free of violence, but I am arguing for violence to be portrayed consistently and to reflect its emotional and physical repercussions. In a media culture that sensationalizes and glamorizes violence, it’s refreshing to see a character like Katniss, react to violence in a more honest and genuine way, at least most of the time.
I appreciate that Collins doesn’t have Katniss emerge from the arena unscathed. She experiences serious physical and emotional consequences and by the end of the games, her sense of safety and trust have been shattered.
When the game makers announce that there can only be one victor after all Peeta throws his knife away in protest and Katniss’ automatically assumes that he’s about to attack her, so she loads her bow and aims an arrow at his heart. Later when the Capitol doctors are operating on Peeta, Katniss has a panic attack, and believes for a moment she’s back in the arena. She imagines the medical staff as a pack of muttations attacking her friend.
These examples are evidence of the delusion and paranoia that Katniss understandably suffers as a result of the extreme trauma she experienced during the Hunger Games.
These scenes help to separate her from many of the so called strong female characters in popular culture who just replicate the stoic, unemotional, unaffected, macho archetype where somehow they go through extreme violence and trauma with no visible effect at all. So it’s refreshing that Katniss is allowed to go through a period of post traumatic stress and that the emotional experience ultimately works to make her a stronger character, rather than a weaker one.
Some people have been asking is Katniss then a feminist character? Because of her compassion, empathy, cunning, resourcefulness and intelligence, I think she embodies many feminist values, at least over the course of the first book.
In my next video I’ll talk about the movie in comparison to the book, especially in relation to its portrayal of gender and also violence. Whenever a novel is turned into a film, there are going to be some major differences, and I’ll discuss which of those changes were successful and which were not. So be sure to check it out.
The Hunger Games fan art I used in this video was made by these amazing illustrators.
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