Feminism and The Hunger Games

**** 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.

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15 thoughts on “Feminism and The Hunger Games

  1. Maybe Katniss herself isn’t a feminist character, but she is clearly a product of a writer who values feminism. I don’t think looking at the novel without “the distorting lens of our own society” is a good idea because the book was written by an author who lives in that society. Collins made choices as all authors make choices and she chose to write a female protagonist who is kickass and not overly sexualized, whose first priority is not about finding love. In my mind, that makes The Hunger Games a feminist novel.

  2. No, I absolutely agree with you. I just find that calling it feminist without further discussion can pigeonhole it, implying that gender is focused on in the book, with women fighting against male oppression and expectation. Not because this is the definition of a feminist novel, but because most of the feminist books we’ve had exposure to in the past have been handled in this way. Whereas The Hunger Games is much more subtle in portraying a society that completely transcends that, and the fact that it seems feminist in the context of today’s society really forces us to focus on how UNfeminist our world is, not how feminist the book is.

  3. What a great post! I’ve been trying to gauge whether to get about to reading it – if it was anything like the Twilight series in teeny-ness – I wasn’t going to bother. Your post has really engaged me. I wonder about the possibility of a world with little / no gender bias. It sounds worth the read now. Thanks HEAPS! I love your last comment. *big smile*

  4. Hello, there!

    Your post is great. It actually sums up a few ideas I’ve been gathering to compose a master degree’s project in literature. I think The Hunger Games goes to show how you can make a political statement without making any statement at all. Katniss does that in several ways, in her society and in ours. Collins could have chosen to represent tv coverage wondering if her lack of womanly ways could be subversive, but no; she chose to make even her vilains non sexist. Beautiful.

  5. Just came across this – such a great post! I wasn’t aware of the gender-neutrality of the Hunger Games & it’s a brilliant decision on the author’s part, allowing class dynamics and other character aspects to emerge clearly, while silently presenting a damning critique of our patriarchal culture, as Amanda so eloquently points out.

    I recently had a conversation with a man who trolled me asking if he was a feminist because he believed in gender equality. I sensed what was going on and I said “feminists recognise that women experience structural disadvantage and sexism”. He plunged into his pre-prepped denial that sexism exists, while I felt strengthened in my understanding – feminism might have Panem-like gender-neutrality as an ideal, but it starts with a critical analysis of unjust power relationships, so of course Katniss can’t be a feminist, exactly as you point out.

  6. I agree except there are still nods to the sexism of our society. For example, Katniss bemoans the fact that she has to get up early to be waxed from head to toe while Peeta who, she is told by Effy ‘doesn’t need as much prepping as you’, is allowed to sleep in.

    • That’s interesting. At the time I read it as a comparison of Katniss’ and Peeta’s personal grooming habits; Katniss is perceived to need more ‘work’ because she’s untidy, outdoorsy and generally doesn’t bother with her appearance, whereas Peeta, the baker’s son, usually keeps himself neat and clean anyway. But you’re right, I don’t think Peeta (or any of the other male tributes) is ever subjected to total-body waxing..

      • Actually I think you’re wrong in that, the boys never grew beards etc. so they did have some ideals that ought to be followed also.

        Also I’m pretty sure if Katniss was not a girl, there would not be any of that awful love-triangle business with Gale and Peeta.

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