Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is classified as a young adult book. There are several characteristics that define a book as young adult literature, but the strongest characteristic is the main character’s ascension to adulthood as he or she grapples with issues of power. While Katniss initially appears to be the ultimate girl-power figure, it is a concern to look at how she fights the patriarchal system. Katniss wins the games by exploiting her femininity.
Femininity, for the purposes of my essay, will refer to the white, patriarchal image of the “ideal woman” in that she is beautiful, desirable, sexual and vulnerable. Femininity in my essay will also adhere to feminist writer, Laura Mulvey’s, theories on the male gaze. Mulvey states that a large aspect of the male gaze is scopophilia, which “arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation”(60). The male not only finds pleasure in looking at the female on display, but also suffers from castration anxiety which can be relieved one of two ways: The first is “preoccupation with the reenactment of the original trauma… counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment, or saving of the guilty object,” and the second is the substitution of a “fetish object” so that the figure becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (62). Katniss Everdeen represents both an ideal woman and a victim of the male gaze.
Katniss is a young woman who exploits her femininity to keep her friend, Peeta, and herself alive under the reign of the Capitol. She first does this by exploiting her beauty. Katniss has been working to keep her family alive during the many years since her father’s death. She is a tomboy. She is strong, well fed and knows how to use a bow and arrow. She has many of the survival skills that her peers lack. When she volunteers for the Hunger Games, she looks as if she has a good chance of winning; however, to survive, Katniss must first win over sponsors, who can provide her with life-saving deliveries of water and medicine during the game. Her prep team waxes, plucks, and scrubs her. Her designer, Cinna, dresses her in fire and precious gems to make her as beautiful as possible. Cinna gives Katniss a huge advantage. She says, “No one will forget me. Not my look, not my name. Katniss. The girl who was on fire” (70). She is beautiful and therefore more likely to survive.
The second tool that Katniss uses to fight patriarchy is desirability, which, of course, is directly tied to beauty. Haymitch and Cinna pair Katniss with the boy from her district, Peeta, and make them look like a happy couple. This is a designed to make the audience fall in love with both of the tributes from District 12. When Peeta confesses to his crush on Katniss during an interview, Katniss feels angry and betrayed. Katniss says, “He made me look weak!” to which Haymitch counters, “He made you look desirable” (135). Katniss needs sponsors. It is not enough that Katniss shot an arrow at the game makers and scored an eleven in training. It is not enough that she sacrificed herself out of love for her little sister. She needs to be desirable and beautiful. This is what is going to make people like her. Once Katniss overcomes her initial shock at this strange plan, she continues to exploit her desirability in the arena by pretending to be hopelessly in love with Peeta. Katniss knows that Haymitch wants her to put on a show and play the star-crossed lovers routine. She says, “I’m not really sure how to ramp up the romance. The kiss last night was nice, but working up to another will take some forethought” (300). This image that she is creating for herself and Peeta takes planning and brainstorming. It is as if Katniss has taken on an alter ego.
Katniss is not only beautiful and desirable, but seemingly innocent and harmless. When Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games by defying the Capitol, they are both in danger. To save themselves, Katniss employs her femininity once more. Cinna dresses her in a short shimmering dress and flat sandals. Minimal makeup. Katniss states, “I look, very simply, like a girl. A young one. Fourteen at the most” (355). It is a calculated look. She is girlish, innocent and vulnerable. Katniss curls next to Peeta during their interview and hides in his shirt. She is the epitome of vulnerable, and it seems as if there is no way that she is a risk to the Capitol. She evens says so herself. Katniss says that when she was going to eat the berries, it was not an act of defiance. She was so overwhelmed with love that she could not bear to live without Peeta.
In addition to meeting the requirements of the ideal woman, Katniss is subjected to the male gaze. Katniss is being constantly viewed on television by all of Panem. While the twelve districts view the Hunger Games as a warning and a message of the Capitol’s ultimate power, the Capitol views the Hunger Games for pleasure. The Capitol has an anxiety that its people will rebel and Katniss is the fetish object that reassures their power. Katniss does not fight the male gaze, she plays into it, knowing exactly how she is being seen.
Based on the evidence above, it is clear that Katniss is exploiting a patriarchal conception of femininity in order to beat the system. The reader could look at this in several ways: First, the reader could argue that the female protagonist is upending the patriarchal ideal of femininity. She is utilizing it to defeat the patriarchal system that created the ideal, which is ironic and clever. Second, the reader could argue that this is not how female protagonists should try to obtain power: by being beautiful, desirable, innocent and harmless. After all, what example does this set for young girls reading these books? Will the readers feel as if they need to meet the feminine ideal as well?
In Laura Mulvey’s book, Fetishism and Curiosity, she quotes Nietzsche as saying, “Reflect on the whole history of women: do they have to be first and above all else actresses?” (85) When Katniss fights patriarchal power by assuming the patriarchal ideal of femininity, she is only acting. While Nietzsche states that acting is an art, Mulvey counters him and says that it is an artifice. While Katniss does upend the patriarchal system, does she serve as good role model for young female readers?
Collins, Suzanne. TheHunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008.
Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, 1996.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism:Introductory Readings. NewYork: Oxford, 1995.