**** Warning – Spoilers ahead****
Before I begin I should make clear that I haven’t seen the movie yet, and my comments here are entirely based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
The Hunger Games — A twisted form of Survivor where participants are placed in an open space with limited supplies, play to the audience for popularity, and aim to be the last one standing. Only, instead of being voted out, you get killed. And instead of being willing adult contestants, they are 12 to 18 year-olds who are forced to be there. The action was so gripping that I stayed up all night reading it, absorbed in the world of Panem — its horrific dictatorship, its brutality, its class oppression. But although taken to a chillingly sadistic level, these themes aren’t all that new. We’ve seen them all before, in history books, in novels, in revolutionary plays. No, the one aspect which completely blew me away was the gender neutrality of Panem, and in this sense alone, their society is far more progressive than any the world has ever seen.
The Hunger Games has been labelled as feminist, though I find this label rather misleading. Of course it’s easy to see why it has been called so. The main character, Katniss, is a veritable force of nature, hunting in the woods, trading in the market, providing for her family, looking out for both herself and others (male and female) in the arena. But I can’t help but feel that our interpretation of the book as feminist says far more about our society than it does about the book. Katniss, in and of herself, without the distorting lens of our own experiences, is no feminist crusader, for the simple reason that she doesn’t need to be. Gender-based oppression just isn’t an issue in the country of Panem. In her world, she represents the lower classes, crushed down by the Capitol, struggling to survive and care for the ones she loves. She doesn’t represent women; her sex is purely incidental, and largely irrelevant to the plot.
In Panem, gender equality is taken for granted. The nature of The Games itself reflects this — 12 boys and 12 girls are pitted against each other in an arena, with zero commentary about the gender dynamics of this. It’s also realistic. You don’t see the physically smaller Katniss, Foxface or little Rue engaging in kickass hand to hand combat against massive male characters (think Fiona in Shrek); they survive by concealment, wit, knowledge of plants and hunting, and in Katniss’ case, attacking from a distance. Katniss’ gender is never even mentioned when the likelihood of her winning the Games comes up, and she is scorned by the Careers (3 girls and 3 boys) due to her humble origins, not her sex. Far from being an overly-sexualised, female action figure (Lara Croft, anyone? Final Fantasy?) Katniss is simply herself — courageous, smart, strong, and very, very human.
Zooming out from Katniss, we see that the entire gender landscape of Panem is happily neutral. There is neither a feminine nor a masculine ideal, with characters of either sex occupying all levels of the gentle/aggressive spectrum. Katniss herself may be tough as nails and shies away from showing emotion, but softer female characters, like the sweet, emotional Prim and the trusting, lovable Rue have qualities that are worth no less than hers. Strength, honour and bravery are expressed in traditionally masculine ways when it comes to Gale and Thresh, while the stereotypically feminine qualities of noble self-sacrifice in the name of love are found in Peeta. The fact that Katniss, a girl, rescues Peeta, a boy, countless times in the arena, makes huge waves in our society, but passes without comment in theirs. They take notice of the bravery in Peeta that we, so consumed by what we perceive as role reversal, miss, resulting in online comments about how shamefully useless Peeta is. If Katniss were male and Peeta female, would Peeta still be mocked as “useless”? Surely not. After all, he was instrumental to Katniss’ survival, by misleading the pack of Careers, and helping her to escape Cato.
Is Suzanne Collins a feminist? Very likely. Does The Hunger Games help the cause of feminism? Sure. But I think Katniss herself would be perplexed to hear herself called a feminist character, and surprised that The Hunger Games is sometimes described as a ‘girly book’, for the sole reason (as far as I can see) of having a female lead and a bit of romance. It is a book about political systems, class, oppression and survival, but feminist only because it contrasts so markedly with gender-limiting society as we know it.