Since I’m butting into various topics in literature, what’s one more, even if it’s about feminism? I read a really interesting essay by Rachel Stark over at Tor.com; she focuses less on the physical strength of the protagonist of The Hunger Games and proposes that Katniss cultivates positive relationships, playing to a feminine strength while also relying on and encouraging the strength in others, especially other females. My thoughts about Katniss are about the same; I thought that she is a strong role-model, and like Ms. Stark, I did not think that her physical strength and resilience were the only traits to recommend Katniss.
In The Hunger Games, Peeta plays the traditional damsel in distress and moral compass roles. The most obvious examples of this is that he is rescued by Katnis and nursed back to health by her. He is a moral compass because he continually chooses to sacrifice himself for Katniss. In a subtle, almost toss-away, scene, Peeta also shows this when he says to Katniss that he wishes to somehow stay true to himself during the Games. He isn’t sure what he meant by it. After all, they are fighting to the death. Perhaps he simply desires to acquit himself honorably, killing not out of joy but to survive. Or maybe he does not want to run, abandoning Katniss. Katniss snickers. Katniss isn’t one for talk, but later in the Games – and in the rest of the series – her actions show that she stays true to herself. It is for this that the character struck such a chord with me.
A lot of this was covered by Ms. Stark, except I interpreted Katniss’s actions differently. Rather than thinking of Katniss as a strong female character, I thought that she is a strong person with traits that are generally identified as feminine ones. My take on Katniss is that she is a positive role model for anyone because she did not buckle to the desires of those around her.
In a sense, I think that is what feminism is about: the woman has desires and wishes and has the freedom to pursue them, some of which may contradict what society has determined to be appropriate for a girl or woman. I had thought the end point of this is that it should no longer surprise society if a woman decides she wants to become a scientist, an engineer, a nurse, a business woman, a politician, or even a stay at home mother.
Naturally, we might be curious as to why she made such a career choice, but the questions are “How did your circumstances and experience lead you to this choice? Where do you see yourself going?” We are then dealing the woman as she is – and yes, she may decide to work a family into the mix. But we are essentially placing her interests above those of society. The wrong question that a not-quite-post-feminist society asks is usually, “How will you fit a family around that?” The problem here is that one is implying a proper society view that should be imposed on the individual. It’s as if the questioner is now a proxy for society with a vested interest in maintaining some social mores.
That’s goal I see of identity politics is, ironically enough, to de-identify the individual from some obvious affiliation. Sure, one might still choose to be a vocal member of a minority, gender or sexual group. And I might still ask them questions that reflect how society perceives and has treated him or her. But I would place that person’s story above the group. What one is born with is probably the least important part of one’s story (at least to me). I’m more concerned with what one has accomplished, what one thinks, and how one has responded to difficulties.
Whether Suzanne Collins meant it this way or not, that’s how I saw Katniss. Not as a heroine, but a hero who happens to be a teen-aged girl. Actually, I do think Ms. Collins intended this; I don’t think she dwells on Katniss’s gender (or Rue’s race) so much. There’s a cursory description, and then she moves on with Kat’s thoughts and deeds. Yes, Ms. Collins does focus on the looks of the Capitol citizenry and the subjugated populace in the Districts, but that is a way to show how superficial beauty can mask mental vapidity and unconsidered cruelty. And even that isn’t such a huge point; after all, the Districts watch the Hunger Games. Probably the worst are the Vichy collaborators, in District 2 who supply eager contestants and also the troops used to pacify the other Districts. A few others are well-off enough to train Careers, teenagers who vie for the honor to volunteer in the Games.
The plot, themes and motifs are well-trodden. Where the book shines is in the first-person narration. We know what Katniss thinks, and yet her conclusions can still be surprising. And this goes to my point: Katniss does not merely act the way a female would. She acts in the best way possible, the way all of us wish we would act when faced with such life-or-death situations.
The reason I buy into Katniss’s heroic stature is due to the skill of Ms. Collins. Ms. Collins did a fantastic job of showing us Katniss’s inner monologue. She thinks logically consistent and coherent thoughts. She does the right thing to support her family before the Tribute happened. Her reactions to how others treat her seem appropriate and sensical. She is quite intelligent, shown by her ability to play to the cameras and deduce what Haymitch might be communicating to her. Even in the later books, we are always aware that Katniss is constantly thinking, trying to figure out her best move, and questioning the motives of those around her. We also see her grow more understanding towards her mother. Thus none of Katniss’s behavior come off as dramatically expedient (despite some questionably convenient plot devices). We can generally see how specific acts follow from coherent, fully formed character.
More so than any other reason, that is why I see Kat as strong and worthy of admiration. She is a person first and foremost. While I am glad that she can serve as a feminist role model for girls, I would not hesitate to tell my sons that Katniss can be equally admired by them.