I haven’t followed all the hype and I haven’t read the book, but I did go to see the Hunger Games movie. And I thought it was pretty good. A lot of people were celebrating the fact that the main character was female and the book was written by a woman.
Then I read an article called “What’s Wrong with the Hunger Games is What No One Noticed” saying that all of us feminist women had been duped. That Katniss, the main character, was not strong at all, and she was just a new version of an old female fairy tale character that appeared strong, but that in reality, it was still all about her clothes and what boy she would pick, and that all the choices around her were made for her by men, and that she had no agency.
The article got me thinking, and quite a bit. And though I do see the author’s points, I related to Katniss’ character differently. The phrase “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” comes to mind.
I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency. I saw her as doing what a lot of us women (and men) do: playing the game just enough to get by; recognizing that we are playing the game; retaining our dignity and values whilst appearing to play along; and carefully picking our battles in terms of those times when we refuse to play at all, because seriously, sometimes you just don’t have the energy to fight everything all the time. It can be exhausting.
The Hunger Games is reflective of the world we actually live in, not a film about the world we’d ideally like to live in.
In this world, the powers that be force us to play the game. We can stupidly play it, without thinking; we can buy into the commercialism, the sexism, the racism, the violence and the consumerism, with no regard to what is going on around us and no reflection on what we are doing… Or we can consciously recognize our own frustration that our values and principles are not reflected in the game, yet see that we are not strong enough individually to massively change it, and we have to navigate and negotiate within the system while keeping ourselves and our values intact if we want to survive. We have to find ways to work around the system, to confront it when we can’t take it anymore and to exploit those times that we see chinks in its armor. We also need to find allies to join hands with to help us survive and change things. We need to be smart sometimes and approach those who already hold power but have not totally been consumed by the system and its [evil] ways. Or find people who have infiltrated the system but haven’t sold out to it — and maybe we ourselves are those who have infiltrated but not sold out or sold out fully. Sometimes, though rare, we can convince power holders that the system needs to change. Or through stealth, smarts or just plain ethics, we can force systemic change. This is how revolutions and social change happen.
Once the Games started, Katniss disappeared from the fray. I didn’t see this as weak or lacking agency. Instead, she decided to leave the scene and wait things out as long as possible. This was a strategic decision and a smart individual survival tactic (yes, suggested to her by a man, but so what?), but it was also an avoidance tactic. I saw her as rejecting the game itself and the violence and competition that most of the rest of the group embraced. She distanced herself from it and refused to play. As often happens in real life, she’s punished by ‘the system’ (with fireballs and other manufactured obstacles) to force her back into the game. (Notably it’s another smart and creative woman who creates the situations that force Katniss back into the game. And yes, most of these situations are in the hands of men and being directed by men, but that’s kind of how the real world works these days and has for centuries, isn’t it?)
Katniss opened herself up to alliances with other players in the game. She did this not to aggressively kill as some of the other youth who formed alliances did, but rather for mutual support and patient survival. The last thing ‘the system’ wants is people organizing and supporting each other to reject it, it prefers to pit people against each other, to foster mistrust. Katniss didn’t engage with others in that way. She opened up to Rue on the basis of trust. We see her flipping back and forth with regard to Peeta and it’s fairly obvious that she is feigning a storybook lovestory to the mass media and outside world in order to survive and game the system by momentarily giving it what it wants, yet also forming an underlying friendship with Peeta based on trust. (NB: I was reminded of People Magazine covers and survival tactics of stars whose fame is ebbing – give the public what they want. I’m also aware that mainstream media has hyped up and sexified the actress who played Katniss. I haven’t been following the Hunger Games collateral but I’ll assume we have happy meals and clothing and other such crap… and there is the ridiculousness of this… which kind of proves my point about the world we actually live in and the evil systems we can’t get away from…)
Early in the movie it was clear that Katniss hadn’t bought into the Hunger Games. She wasn’t friendly or likeable. She’s living in a man’s world and the women in that world are relegated to roles of fashion, emotional overreactions, false statements and bad make up. The men are evil manipulating power seekers in most cases. People are pitted against each other. It’s dog-eat-dog.
But it seemed to me that Katniss, as a smart young woman, recognized all of this. She didn’t want to play the game but understood that to survive and keep the values and goals that she had in life — her love for her sister and her own survival — she needed to appear to be playing by the rules of the Game. My sense throughout the film is that she does so with a clear understanding of what she is doing, and she has not sold out, she’s kept true to herself. That is real agency and internal strength. She refuses to kill, perhaps a harder thing than joining into the violent game young people are forced to engage in. She shows us that we can reject that world and that system we don’t wish to belong to. We can find like-minded people and together move, struggle and survive within the mainstream systems that are destroying us as a whole and, one hopes, eventually change or topple them. Sometimes we can even game those systems using guerrilla tactics because the systems do not expect us to maintain our values, ethics and solidarity, because those running them think we are not smart or strong enough to overcome, or because the systems don’t understand us or our way of thinking.
At a personal level, I related to Katniss. I often feel trapped in systems whose values I don’t share and whose games I don’t want to play. I prefer to reject these systems and play by my own rules when possible. When I get tired enough of fighting, or I know I simply can’t win because the system is too big, I’ll bypass it, ignore it, avoid it as much as possible, and do my own thing, or just curl up mentally into a fetal position and let it kick me, knowing inside that it may think it has won, but it hasn’t because I’ve held to my values and been true to myself, and once I’ve regrouped, and when it’s least expected, I’ll be back, hopefully with some other like-minded people.
We all take something different from books and films. We bring their messages into our own experiences. I didn’t see Katniss as a weak character with no agency, I saw her as living out the struggle that many of us do and making choices I could relate to within the limited space that was available to her.