Power, Public Life, and The Hunger Games

Panem map by Aim My Arrows High and Bad Guys.

As a feminist blogger who writes about the significance of the ways we present ourselves, I’m required by law to write about The Hunger Games. This, reader, is that post.

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I devoured the trilogy in a week, and endured the three days of slow torture between the film’s release and my having a chance to see it. I’m usually the curmudgeonly snob who comes in and says that anything so wildly popular can’t possibly merit the hype. I read, then filleted, a handful of pages from Twilight; I saw part of one of the Harry Potter movies and felt a wave of gratitude for my IUD ensuring I'll never be forced to watch such things against my will. But The Hunger Games had exactly what I wanted, and once I got over myself enough to admit that Suzanne Collins had squarely and accurately targeted me, I gave in wholeheartedly. In a nutshell: Love the books, liked the movie, don’t think the film would have nearly as much value for those who hadn’t read the books. And my thoughts here probably aren’t anything new, which I’m glad for; I’m thrilled that these books have provoked such levels of cultural analysis.

What I have to say boils down to this (and if you’re determined to avoid any and all plot points until you’ve finished the trilogy, stop reading now): The Hunger Games masterfully explores the division between the self and the public self. We see various ways characters cope with this enforced gap—Peeta doesn’t just grin and bear it but thrives, Cinna plays his cards so close to the vest that it takes two books before we learn what he’s really about, and even Cato (in the movie, at least) is shown as finally questioning if he even has a private self, being trained since birth for his death.

But it’s Katniss’s grappling with the ways she’s presented, both by herself and what amounts to her PR team, that’s front and center. She feels like a failure for not being able to adopt a persona as easily as her fellow competitors (which ultimately winds up working in her favor, as blatantly stated in the third book when everyone does a rundown of Katniss’s Greatest Hits). She winces as she’s shoveled into her evening gown, and what in most YA books would be a “makeover moment” becomes a moment of assurance mixed with stunned fear that she’ll still fail to charm. She’s consistently unsure whether she’ll be able to perform desirability well enough to save her life, and it’s a legitimate fear. (From the first scene of both the book and movie, she breaks one of the key rules of femininity by openly disdaining a cat.)

And here’s what I think is so remarkable about the trilogy: The division between public and private life is framed through a manipulation of Katniss’s femininity, but that femininity is seen as a means to an end. The books aren’t so much a critique of the construction of femininity as a critique of the ways it serves the existing power structures. It’s a Marxist/anarchist feminist critique, and though I consider myself neither a Marxist nor an anarchist, I’ll say this: The more material illuminating that feminism exists not because men want to keep women down but because the status quo has an investment in keeping people divided and with diffuse power so as to keep power concentrated where it already is, the better. Katniss is taught to use her “feminine wiles,” but those wiles are exposed for what they are: favor-currying tools that keep women scrambling over false power while the real power lies elsewhere. The manufactured Katniss-Peeta romance only gets the pair to the point where they have to rely on their actual strengths—ingenuity, solidarity, and rebellion. The currency of compliant femininity, in the end, is worth little.

This excellent post from Subashini gets into this, but from a somewhat different angle; in the same way I’m reading Katniss’s false adherence to conventional femininity as being exposed, she’s reading it as a set of rules Katniss is ultimately punished for not adhering to, “precisely because she has demonstrated what is apparently meant to be understood as an unfeminine lack of vulnerability throughout.” She is punished, to a degree, but again what’s striking here is that constructed femininity is seen as but one expression of subservience to power (the almighty Capitol). The female characters throughout are on various places on the spectrum of conventional femininity: Prim shows a quiet propensity for healing, Clove and Glimmer are primed to mercilessly kill, Foxface uses traditional female strengths of cunning and agility to advance in the game. Their adherence to femininity is secondary to their adherence to the existing power structure: Prim is conventionally feminine but has the bad luck to be born in District 12, so she’s in constant danger of starving to death. Meanwhile, Glimmer and Clove, favored competitors who haven’t had a life of hardship, show few signs of conventional femininity except for their names and their willingness to wear girly dresses at their interviews (which all female competitors do). They’re ultimately punished by their deaths, of course, but given that that’s the point of the Games, I can’t read that as being tied into their gender typing. (Book fans: I’m eager to see how Johanna is portrayed in the film adaptations of the second and third books—she’s the one character who seems to actively and willingly use her femininity to get what she wants, though “what she wants” is ultimately exposed to still be at the mercy of another force larger than her.)

Critiquing the power structure behind femininity is a clever ploy on Collins’s part, both as a writer and as a businesswoman, for the simple reason that it seamlessly reveals how women’s issues aren’t solely of concern for women. I couldn’t find information on what the gender breakdown of the book’s audience is, but I can only imagine that a greater number of boys read—and just as important for Collins, bought—The Hunger Games than have read any other book featuring a female protagonist in recent years. (As for the film, the New York Times reported that 39% of the film’s audience in the opening weekend was male.) I absolutely don’t want to devalue literature aimed squarely at girls, so I’m not trying to say that The Hunger Games is somehow better because of its appeal to boys. But not only does it do its part to balance the gender history of great YA lit and expose boys to some feminist issues—that prettiness is constructed, and that serving as decoration isn’t natural to girls any more than it is to them—it also casts light upon the ways our assumptions about day-to-day behavior and personality can be shaped to serve a purpose that isn’t our own. 

It's a lesson in how manipulation of our public persona can wind up muddling our true intent, something that "the kids," boys and girls alike, are now forced to be keenly aware of because of their own ability to create public personae. As Rob Horning writes at Marginal Utility: “It’s not clear even to [Katniss] in the end whether her emotional reactions are real or strategic performances.” One of the trickiest parts of examining emotional work is that it can be difficult to know what we’re doing because we’re expected to do it as opposed to because the situation or our temperaments call for a certain action. The allegory of the games as the constant surveillance of social media makes sense, and Collins skillfully uses the romantic story line to illuminate the ways the manipulation of our own emotions can alienate us from them, which has a long history of being gendered but which is also endemic to the self-branding necessary to social media.

As Subashini pointed out, it’s interesting that Peeta is better at not being alienated by his emotions, since it’s women who are often thought to be both more in touch with our feelings and better able to manage them. My hope is that The Hunger Games can create a chink in that idea, exposing the ways in which calculated self-presentation can muddle what is thought to be innate and true. And the more we all recognize the price of those calculations—not just women, but anyone at the mercy of a larger state power or under surveillance, which is to say all of us—the better we may be able to figure out whether we’re actually willing to pay it.