Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gender and Romance in the Hunger Games

I finished the last Hunger Games book this week. I tell you what, you want to get a big response on facebook? Post on the Hunger Games. Everyone wants to talk about it! Isaac is starting the first book today, and I can.not.wait for the movie.

I loved the series. It's not super deep or profound or intricately written, it's just really good entertainment. Jaimie was right, the third book is not as good as the first too. It was a little like watching the final season of Lost. The writer would develop a plot line and you'd think you're heading into a major event, and then Katniss is shot or knocked out or something, wanders around disoriented and angsty for a while, and you're right back where you started. I did like that it took a black and white story and added some moral complexity, because that mirrors reality. Are the good guys really good and trustworthy? Is the rebelling society really going to be better than the one you are rebelling against? Also, actually spending time developing the character of Gale was good, because he's just a vague figure in the first two books and you're never able to accurately compare Gale and Peeta. Unfortunately, Gale's developed character kind of sucked.

I was really fascinated by the character of Katniss and her relationships. Generally immensely popular characters like this both form and reflect trends in our society. I think the form heroines take in young adult literature says a lot about the way women are raised to think. Some of that is good - there is no need for a male character to come and rescue the girl for her to be happy and meaningful. On the other hand....

Katniss is portrayed as generally a stronger character than the male leads. She's smart, strong, a leader, and in the end, usually the winner. She's certainly portrayed as superior to Peeta, although Peeta has a good heart. I know there are still rampant problems in our society today with inequality in the treatment of women, we're also beginning to see the other side. I've seen workplaces and marriages and now scores of young women (and the YA literature that reflects them) that truly do generally think that they (the women) are smarter and more capable than the guys around them. Not equal. Better. Swinging from inferiority to superiority in this next generation won't do either side any good. The truth is that Katniss is actually an extremely selfish character that is gifted but very emotionally wounded and guarded. I hope she isn't the ideal that our girls want to be like.

Katniss sort of likes two guys in the story, and we readers have all divided over whether we're on Team Peeta or Team Gale (Team Peeta!!). Thing is, she doesn't trust either one of them. She never lets her guard down to truly love either one. She has to be self-sufficient. She never admits to loving either one unless they are dying, never when they are there to actually exist in a mutual relationship. I think this reflects what girls today perceive. They need to be self-sufficient. They shouldn't NEED relationships. They can enjoy the benefits of them, but never fully let their guard down.

The readers are wooed by the devotion of both guys to the woman that they love and will do anything for, even die to protect. They are at her beck and call, both just waiting for her to decide who she will choose. And this supposed to end up in a healthy relationship? I think this is the classic problem in chick stories today. The narrative is that we are pursued at any cost by a man who will change completely in order to win our hearts (that's one thing I like about the Gale and Peeta characters. They're waiting for her, but they're not changing for her. They are who they are). The problem with pursuit concept is that it never portrays an equal relationship or loving compromise. I think our young women are actually told never to compromise lest they lose their rights or miss the ideal that they deserve. End result: relationships based on a constant power play and women feeling useless when the "pursuit" stage of the relationship has passed.

I don't really know where the world is but I miss it now.

I haven't read the Twilight series, but from what I hear, much of this is true in that series as well. Am I onto something or am I off track?


Karli said...

I read Twilight and the whole time I was reading it, I was thinking "I would not want my daughter to read this! Bella is a TERRIBLE role model." I think she is the polar opposite of Katniss. She is needy, clingy, whiny, unwilling to picture her life apart from Edward. She thinks she is nothing without him. I wonder how much this reflects Mormonism's view of women.

Rach said...

Yes, Twilight is much, much worse than THG, both in writing style and likability of characters. But, they do have these similar gender issues going on.

Both books have two decent guys that like a girl...a lot. The love triangle thing totally fuels fantasies for a lot of girls, and thus sells books. Thankfully, Katniss is a much more complex and likable character than Bella. She has flaws, but she is also less insecure.

I'm sharing these good insights. I love THG, and can't wait for the movie.

Jaimie said...


Very strong opinion ahead. No hard feelings intended. This is just a book. You are a human being and more important and I respect you.


I think you're reading into the book a little much. (Ha, get it?) "Generally immensely popular characters like this both form and reflect trends in our society." I think what you misunderstand here is it isn't Katniss that is immensely popular. It's the gimmick of the story. The hunger games themselves. I never heard anyone put the book down, or pick up one of the sequels, saying, "I can't wait to hear more about Katniss." But that's my limited sample.

It's much safer to spot a romantic trend in a book like TWILIGHT, which is about the romance. The analysis you're giving of THE HUNGER GAMES is akin to an analysis of the mythology of vampires in TWILIGHT. It's missing the point.

"They are at her beck and call, both just waiting for her to decide who she will choose." No, they're effing waiting for the hunger games to end so she can think clearly for two seconds. And thank God, because if she were running around professing love for either character I would be like, "This book is rot" and have thrown it aside. I mean of course she says she cares for them when they might be dead. Looking at that situation and saying, "God Katniss is so flaky, she's really leading them on" is... not correct.

I know what you're saying. Suzanne Collins set up this situation in order to make a statement about how women should act in romantic situations, ergo you can analyze it on a metaphorical level. But I don't think you can. I really don't think Suzanne Collins set about to write how romance should or should not be. I think she wrote about violence and how it screws people up. Romance is way, way down the list of the book's themes.

If you want to read YA books that say something about romance, there are dozens to choose from. (I recommend GRACELING for its pure ballsiness.) This ain't it.

I'm going to write another comment now about why I hated book 3.

Jaimie said...

Book 3 fell apart for me because it directly contradicted the themes in book 1.

Book 1: Violence happens but you can do something about it. You can find beauty in spite of it. (See: Rue dying, Katniss choosing to remember and honor Rue, Katniss volunteering to save her sister's life.) Violence doesn't consume you.

Book 3: Violence consumes you, even the things you love most. (See: Katniss's sister dying, Gale turning into a monster, Peeta being destroyed from the inside out.)

It was just a mess, and I wanted to burn the book when I was done. It ruined the whole series for me. And maybe if Suzanne Collins had left the ending vague, we might have thought, "Well I'm sure Peeta eventually becomes himself again." But no, we're treated to this prologue where children are playing on everyone's graves and Peeta is taking Katniss's word for it that he loves her?

What. The. Hell.

Jaimie said...

Agreed about Bella. Stephanie Meyer's got issues. The most repulsive thing to me is Edward is this beautiful, powerful, glittery, immortal being but, "Bella, I won't make you like me because contrary to everything you've observed it would be bad for you to be like me." Believe what I say, not what you and everyone else observes? This is "protective"? This is "attractive"? Scary!

Rae said...

So I haven't read/seen either of the stories in question, but I think you are completely right about "relationships based on a constant power play and women feeling useless when the "pursuit" stage of the relationship has passed." Not long ago Josh and I had a conversation about how the Eldredge-model doesn't work for healthy, long-lasting relationships because marriage isn't supposed to be a constantly emotionally intense battle or captivation or whatever. And that is an issue even when the personality types of the couple involved match up with the ideals for "pursuit" which is apparently not the case for Katniss?

Kacie said...

Ok Jaimie, no offense taken. :) I'll jump in discussing your points. On comment 1, I absolutely don't think the books are about romance. They're about the games, the adventure, the violence. However, I'm always analyzing the relational dynamics in everything to see what it says about the author, our culture, etc.

So - I don't think I'm missing the point, because I'm not saying the romance is the point. I'm doing this analysis on the romance not because it's the point of the story, but just because there IS romance in the story... and I'm analyzing it. You can analyze what it says about the role of government in society, or how entertainment can be used as control, etc. This is just my analysis of one aspect of the book and what this relational trend in YA lit says about our culture.

Also - I don't think Katniss is leading the two guys on, she's specifically not. She tells Peeta to get away multiple times, but he's dedicated and unfailing. That's part of the dynamic I'm analyzing.

Also - it's not that she only cares for them when they're dying, because she really does care for them before. What bothers me is that when one is dying and she thinks all is lost, that's when she says, YES that's the one I truly love, not the other one. And then flip flops it for the other guy in the same situation later. Lame.

You're right, she's a flawed character that isn't in and of herself very likeable, which is fine in literature. It's actually better that way, because you can identify with her flaws and hopefully see the clawing process of self-analysis and growth and change. With the romantic dynamic, though, I hope that her role in those relationships is not idolized or copied by the girls (like my high school girls) that eat up that romance like it's cake.

You're so right about book 3. There is such a sense of hopelessness instead of the hope of book 1. I think it's right that violence has lasting effects, but there's this sense of total destruction and the loss of beauty and hope. And that... is no way to end a book.

Rach said...

See, I didn't take the end of book 3 that way at all. I see children, the ones Katniss didn't know if she could ever bring herself to have, as hope. Children who don't have to participate in the same violence that changed their parents. Cliche or not, I see happy, safe children as signs of hope, both realistically and in fiction. I liked the ending.

Erin said...

I haven't read The Hunger Games but as you were describing the love triangle I was thinking "Sounds a lot like Twilight." So much popular culture seem to be telling girls; you're only worth while if you have your pick of guys and that the woman should be calling all the shots. It's whats turned me off alot of popular TV shows/movies etc.

Kacie said...

Yeah, I do agree with the children being a sign of hope. But there was so little hope in the ending for Peeta and Katniss themselves. It was as if they were both old and worn from the war on, even while seeing hope for their kids.

Jaimie said...

I agree about the children thing too. Except, who bloody cares about the children? The thrust of the message lies on the outcome of the protagonists. That's what you take home. I think if she was going for a "But the children are now free!" she might have left Prim alive. That would have left us with the same message and we would have felt it too.

Kacie said...

Oh yeah, and that reminds me. WHY KILL PRIM??? That was so frustrating. It was at the very end and added nothing except tragedy. No character growth.

Jaimie said...

It reminds me of JK Rowling (God bless that woman) who was going to kill off Mr. Weasley but realized that would be just stupid. And didn't. There comes a point when it's just mean to kill off characters.

Unless it's Game of Thrones and then it's just awesome.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree.
I think Suzanne Collins wrote this book more as a study of the psyche almost. How people react in diffract situations, i.e. all the PTSD in the books; also, how Katniss is so guarded because of the stuff that has happened in her life. She has Never thought of having a family, that is just who she is. I have met woman who are like that. I don't think this is a statement on how woman are, it's almost just a statement on how everyone is different. and deals with situations in different ways.

Kathleen Basi said...

I love this discussion, and would just like to reiterate that the best literature resonates on multiple levels, so it is entirely appropriate for us to analyze the romance in THG even if it is secondary to the themes of violence and oppression. And I love your analysis. Very good food for thought, as someone who wants to explore romance, love, and "the rest of the story" in writing fiction.

Andrea Ward said...

I'm a new reader here and I LOVE this post! It is so encouraging to hear this discussion. The people I have previously mentioned these ideas to seem to think I'm crazy. It's good to know that other people have had them as well.

As for my opinion, I read part of the "Twilight" series and part of THG series. I couldn't finish either one because the relational dynamics bothered me. I felt that the female characters ended up very one dimensional. There was so much more psychologically that could have been discussed and wasn't. I realize it is YA literature, but I don't think that characters have to be underdeveloped.

Kacie said...

Thanks Andrea! I love the discussion. And I love developed characters. That's my favorite kind of book.