Friday, November 22, 2013

Katniss Everdeen: Feminist Icon, or Yet Another Sexist Stereotype?

Given how much has been written about how Katniss is a "strong female character," and given how invested a lot of women (both young and old) are invested in Suzanne Collins's trilogy, who am I to even ask this question? The idea that anyone could argue that The Hunger Games is a sexist fairy tale seems completely crazy. Katniss is the hero! But once I was presented with the evidence, I have found it difficult to unsee.

Let me back up: some time ago, I stumbled across a contrarian blog that has alternately challenged, maddened, and astonished me with its alien worldview. The writer's insights are always provocative and wildly defiant of expectations. And it was here that I discovered a lonely voice lamenting that, if the cause of feminism is being advanced by Collins's Hunger Games, then there has been no progress. Here is an extended excerpt from the essay to give you an idea of what this person could possibly be talking about.
[This is] a book about a post-apocalyptic killing game that spends zero pages describing how Katniss kills anyone but spends countless pages on how she is dressed, how everyone is dressed. What will she wear? What kind of jewelry? Hair up? Will the "sponsors" like her better this way or that? Her chief weapon isn't a bow, it's her appearance.

This is also a good place to observe that the real life, pre-and post movie release controversies about The Hunger Games have also been about physical appearances -- not just race, but is 'Jennifer Lawrence too tall? Hair too blonde?'

[Katniss] does not choose NOT to kill, she does not choose a pacifist position; she explicitly states in the book how much she wants to kill. But she never [premeditatedly kills anyone]. She tries to kill Cato at the end, twice, and fails. Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request. In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill -- it doesn't come up.

Katniss is continuously saved by men -- Haymitch, Peeta, Thresh -- but you don't notice that she saves no one***, including herself; you think she saves herself all the time. You think this because of the first half of the movie told you she's a badass, so you don't realize that during the second half she shows less agency than Princess Jasmine...

Haymitch, played by a man, says this to a woman, played by Katniss:
You know how you stay alive?  You get people to like you. Oh, not what you were expecting?
No, unfortunately it's exactly what I was expecting.  Thanks Dad.

...This is bigger than Katniss, this is the state of human progress. If it helps, imagine you have a five year old daughter you have to raise in the midst of aspirational images with long legs and no power of agency, and your worry is no longer "will she grow up and find a job?" or even "will she grow up and get married?" but [instead, your worry is] "will she be so conflicted about herself that she is unable to choose a career or pick a nice man from the hundreds of options that present themselves to her because she is ever anxious that any choice is the wrong choice because she only gets conflicting messages from everyone on earth?"

That's the world I'm stuck in, and though I haven't burned a bra in years I do somewhat rely on feminists to nudge the bar consistently higher so my theoretical daughters don't have to rely on penis or Prozac to live happily ever after. So where my girls at? I found about a million fawning feminist reviews of The Hunger Games which all contain some version of this paragraph:
Katniss, in this season of woman-hating, is a stunning example of feminism at its finest hour. She is compassionate, yet strong. She deeply about her family. While she is tempted to run away with Gale, instead of leaving her sister and mother to fend for themselves, she stays to support them.
...None of those things are feminism, those aren't even praiseworthy.  Those are basic, ordinary, unremarkable characteristics of every reasonable human being for 6000 years, and all animals. But that's the bar the reviewer has set for Katniss, for feminism.  That's the fantasy world she'd like to see women eventually get to. So either a) she has an unconsciously cynical view of women in general; or b) she has been tricked by the system about what it is to advance as a woman, i.e she's in The Matrix... If I was a 15 year old girl, and I'm not saying I'm not, then what is being communicated to me by the feminist praise of this book is that my future expectations are low.
Full disclosure: I never read the books; I only saw the first film (and I do plan to see all of them). Before I saw this critical analysis, though, I was content to join the chorus of admirers who point to Collins's work as a satisfying development in the portrayal of gender roles in narrative fiction. But the universal, explicitly pro-woman praise of this work has a big hole in it, and The Last Psychiatrist is the only person I've seen to point it out.
Please, please, don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against The Hunger Games, it's an entertaining story, I am not criticizing the book... If it won an Oscar or the world declared this the next Star Wars and made action figures and lunchboxes I wouldn't say a bad word about it, what's it to me if it makes people happy?  Enjoy what you like, it doesn't have to have deep meaning to be worthwhile.

But what makes me reach for the now empty bottle is how women have convinced themselves and each other that this is a pro-feminist story.
Anyway, go read the whole thing (there are actually two essays, but I'm linking to the second one, because it's a little more direct), and tell me what you think. A final warning, though: the writer is pretty in-your-face. I deliberately removed some of the language that is hostile to the reader.

I'll have more to say about The Last Psychiatrist later.

***Update: I had a very lively discussion about this post and about TLP on social media. No one who commented bought this reading of the story, and all strenuously defended Katniss as a strong female hero. In the course of the discussion, one commenter pointed out that Katniss does indeed save Peeta by retrieving the medicine from Cornucopia. So at least on that point, TLP is incorrect (though maybe he or she had an explanation for ignoring or excluding that instance of Katniss' heroism). Also, I added an important passage that was missing from my original excerpt.

Update II: one commenter on the thread suggested that TLP is simply an anti-feminist troll. TLP may be a troll (and I plan on talking about that if I ever get around to finishing my next essay on TLP), but I have a hard time believing that TLP is anti-feminist: no anti-feminist I know of uses critical literary theory, refers to "partial objects," deconstructs porn (as the writer does elsewhere), and name-checks Lacan. That's pretty heady stuff. If TLP really is an "anti-feminist," it must be said that underneath the sodden, confrontational humor of the prose, he or she has a pretty deep knowledge of feminist thought. 

Update III: TLP has a new post about Hunger Games that came out a couple weeks back, but somehow I missed it. It's the shortest and sharpest yet. 

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