Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Tonight the masses are packing into the theaters to watch Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen volunteer for the 74th annual Hunger Games, where 24 tributes ages 12-18 fight to the death for the amusement of the all-powerful Capitol and the subjugation of the 12 districts of a post-apocalyptic United States. The story has caught on like wildfire, breaking box office records with Fandango selling out more than 2,000 showtimes by mid-week. Like Bridesmaids, it’s yet another example of the power of female creativity and front-and-center heroines. But the film is also provoking a fanatic irony digging into the very depths of media fanaticism and hero worship.
Arriving after the advent of the Twilight phenomenon, The Hunger Games is considered the antidote to Bella Swan’s romanticism. Katniss is a strong woman who toes the lines of both masculinity and femininity. Upon her father’s death, she became hunter and caregiver to her mother and sister, repeatedly risking her life for their well-being and ultimately choosing to battle fellow teens to the death in order to save her young sister, Prim. Yet, Katniss is also feminine, the mother-figure of solace and warmth for Prim in District 12, before becoming a softened and gorgeously charismatic media darling of the Hunger Games. She’s a monomythic figure actively engaging in the fight, eliciting heaps of praise as a fledgling feminist icon and heroine.
But it’s praise that, while understandable, can never live up to reality. A relief and exuberance born out of this all-too-rare character has set up a problematic fan culture, one not all that different from the cult of personality created in the trilogy. Katniss becomes a false emblem of revolt from the moment she acts kindly towards Rue during the games, which increases throughout the series. Likewise, she is seen by our real world as a feminist hero and icon of strength, while her portrayer, Jennifer Lawrence, stands poised to watch her real life irrevocably changed by media fervor. Our real-world reaction is a fork of the problematic media culture Suzanne Collins outlines in her novels – one being the hero worship of the character, and one being the potential hero worship of the actress who plays her.
There are many aspects to Katniss’ character that provoke attraction. She’s a figure of immediate action, whether it be caring for her family, volunteering for the Hunger Games, or even her final act of defiance that helps wrap up the series. Outside of an orchestrated romance, her character is blissfully free of gender politics. When necessary, she takes matters into her own hands as the pseudo-supernatural everywoman. FangirlBlog is right that Katniss is “an extraordinary girl” who becomes a hero, but she isn’t completely devoid of “magical powers” as the piece suggests. Her survival depends on her archery in every facet of her life, a skill so unbelievably and perfectly honed that she always kills her prey with a clean shot to the eye – even when it’s a small and skittering squirrel. This little bit of magic allows her to survive and become the “big sister hero.”
She is, however, mostly a symbolic hero. Save for a few impetuous actions, she’s a puppet of greater political systems. It’s a theme established when she enters the Games, and lasts the length of the series. As much as certain aspects like an attractive lead and two attractive love interests can beautify the story and give it a glossy cover, Collins’ trilogy is about the politics of war and media. The series recognizes that myriad viewpoints motivate these causes, and happily ever after is never as simple as one person’s heroism – especially when that person is treated like a puppet. Katniss is the very reluctant media-manipulated hero, and as much as she goes through every stage of the monomyth, other motivations come into play. Recognizing this, Katniss is never truly free, never truly powerful. In fact, just as Bella Swan (who she has multiple similarities with) finally gets to be a powerful force in the second installment of Breaking Dawn, Katniss sets on a path where her power seems to erode bit by bit, her impetuous strength being one of the only things she can rely on.
We’re rooting for a hero who can never really be a hero, from a text that explicitly tells us that heroism and public perception are the media’s game. Like usual, the Hollywood circus is reframing this political commentary for their commercial purposes. You can buy tracker jacker toner, or train like a tribute in New York City, though these saps won’t have to fight to the death. Katniss is also being pegged with all manner of idolatry that she cannot hold up to. For example, Katniss herself is rather ambivalent to love (even when she ultimately chooses), yet we have Team Peeta and Team Gale. (Though, thankfully, some are reminding the masses about Team Katniss, as crazy as that seems.)
There are aspects of Katniss that should, and are, respected, but she isn’t an icon and role model of feminist strength. She cannot be when she has no control over her own life, or those of her loved ones (and cannot earn it). She cannot be when even her heroic actions are tainted by the impulses of political powers. She cannot be when she rarely has control over anything but her impulsiveness. To be sure, she is a dynamic and worthy character to enjoy, to study, and to discuss, but not one to push into some unrealistic, unnatural, and extreme ranking. She is a symbol.
Just as Katniss finds that reality television and fame leads her to the many tribulations of living in the spotlight, Jennifer Lawrence is preparing to lose her life for the sake of Ms. Everdeen. A recent piece in the LA Times covered how the actress prepared to say goodbye to her life when she took on the role, and how “just a few weeks ago, paparazzi began hiding in the bushes around her house.” The hero worship that worked a frenzy around Kristen Stewart (and the many other big-name stars out there) is now descending on the actress who had to strip for roles not too long ago.
As she explains in the Times piece, Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone stalled her career because blind casting types couldn’t see beyond her
fifteen hairy moles, excessive body hair, and scabby skin frumpy clothing and sans-makeup face. She couldn’t even score auditions for feminine characters because of her gritty performance, so she slapped on a bikini and posed for Esquire. As the actress explains, “that’s exactly what I had to do so I could keep working.” She stripped, and she won her gig as Mystique in X-Men: First Class. “Beautifying” her made her Hollywood-accessible, ultimately helping her get Hunger Games, which in turn puts her life in the system’s and the audience’s control. She’s a puppet for our pleasures like Katniss, who was ripped out of a rugged, woodsy land and beautified into a gorgeous and worshipped celebrity.
As Donald Sutherland (President Snow) rightly noted to Movieline, the film has “the possibility to change everything – to motivate, to catalyze, to activate whatever revolutionary instincts there are in what is, essentially, from my point of view, a dormant generation.” The actor was primarily speaking to how the youth control our future and can be a force of change, but it begins with how we absorb the message.
In many ways, Katniss is the typical super-strong heroine that’s always been easy for the masses to ingest – the girl with such strength and internal force that she becomes much more than a normal woman, the girl who acts as the conduit for male motivations. What saves her from that typical fate and reading is her humanity – that she’s often not that heroic and perfect being. Readers “ache” for her to be kinder and appreciate that she doesn’t know who she is. She’s a-typical, and just different enough that she doesn’t completely fit into any archetype or set of expectations, though she’s similar to many, whether it’s the typical tough heroine, the more passive romantic girl, or the traditionally male hero.
But while Katniss displays heroism, she’s not a hero to worship. She’s a figure to question and contemplate, a step or piece of a greater whole. In the realm of The Hunger Games, she’s the all-too-important frame of Panem’s mirror, reflecting some of our worst modern traits (let alone repetitive, historical patterns obvious in her many nods to classic literature and ancient Rome).
To idolize her or shower her with hyperbolic praise is to miss the point.