Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (Scholastic Press, 2008) is set in the future, wherein apocalyptic America has been reduced to twelve districts and one reigning Capitol. While the Capitol thrives, the districts are full of waste, death, oppression, and famine, its people reduced to powerless and silent beings. As a punitive measure against the districts for previously waging a rebellion, the Capitol chooses one girl and one boy from each district to fight to the death, a brutal gladiator fight that ends with only one survivor.
As the chosen children are placed in the woods and kill each other for survival, Collins makes a very powerful statement not only to our potential for violence and savagery, but also to our reliance on reality television and our insistence on watching the most perverse, immoral, and degrading shows imaginable. It is in this way that Collins’ work sets itself apart from other books as well as in the fact that she gives us Katniss Everdeen, female heroine with which to place on a pedestal and revere. The problem, however, is that Katniss is not a remarkable heroine. She does not stand out, and her behavior throughout the book speaks to the way girls and women in our society continue to be inscribed upon, their bodies and gender wholly and fully malleable by society’s pressures and demands.
When we first meet Katniss, she is armed with a bow and arrow, hunting birds with which to feed her weak and demented mother and little sister, Prim. Katniss is a devoted sister who takes on the responsibility of caring for her little sister since her mother is no longer emotionally present to assume her maternal obligations. It is for Prim that Katniss volunteers to be one of the chosen children, taking the place of her sister. She sacrifices herself for the one she loves, as a mother-sister, and this is nothing new, for women are taught from birth to take care of others and to sacrifice for those they love. She shows great courage and resolve in sacrificing herself for her sister, but this is an old portrait of women, and Katniss only does what she has been taught to do. It’s an old script for women.
When Peeta, the baker’s son who is in love with her and whom she will fight against, tells her that he hopes this journey won’t change him, make him into a savage he is not, Katniss tells him that she cannot afford to think this way. The reason is, again, because she has to do everything in her power to come home alive so that she can care for her sister. Her statement implies that she will change, and the reader assumes that she will kill for her survival. And she does change, but not in the way we think. She changes only in the ways that society expects women to change, morphing themselves into iconic figures that are acceptable in the eyes of the public.
Katniss’ changes focus only on how to win the crowd, rather than showing her strength and skills as a survivor. Some say that this is surviving. But there is nothing feminist, nothing empowering in selling one’s self, one’s integrity just to stay alive. Women are taught to use their sex appeal as a means of survival. They are taught that it’s the key to how they will be perceived. Katniss is no different. Prior to being cast into the woods to kill for her survival, she relies on costumes and makeup that will get her noticed, and later on, she exploits Peeta’s feelings for her to win the crowd’s approval, kissing him and claiming love for him when she is in love with another. In terms of reality television today, that is how we love or love to hate the people who exploit themselves and others for ratings and fame. Katniss is learning how to wield power over her audience, but not as a superhero, not as an iconic feminist-in-the-making. She’s merely learning the rules that she needs to survive, and this places her in a disempowered position.
Once she’s in the woods, running for her life, the reader doesn’t experience a strong heroine, a resilient and formidable opponent. Katniss is smart. She knows how to climb trees and make a home in them, but again, she hides rather than take advantage of her situation. We experience a girl who is afraid, using her love of the woods as shelter, but who falls upon the ground, weeping and sleeping, more than anything else. And this was a great disappointment for a reader who wanted to experience power in a young girl.
More disappointing was that her survival is juxtaposed to Peeta’s, a boy, and the story becomes more about their relationships, his based on truth and authenticity, and hers based on a façade, a pretense for the sake of ratings and fame. When she is attacked by wild dogs and the antagonistic boy from another district set on winning, it’s Peeta who saves her. Not the other way around. The boy always comes to the rescue, and Katniss is presented as a damsel in distress who cannot fight the aggressor, the enemy, for her own survival. And it’s Peeta who offers his life to her, refusing to fight her to the death. He willingly sacrifices his life to her because he loves her.
Peeta does not change throughout. And even though Katniss does change, it is a manipulated kind of change that focuses only on shrewdery and wiles that women have used for centuries for their survival. In the apocalyptic world of Collins’ making, these feminine wiles continue to exist, and in giving us a female heroine that adopts them and uses them to her advantage doesn’t make her a heroine, a feminist, or a strong and decisive contender of empowerment. It merely makes her just another girl, a stereotype, a commonplace female that resorts to the age old wiles of femininity to get ahead. There is nothing new here. Nothing empowering. Just disappointment.