Girls on Film: Wearing Another’s Shoes – The Gendered Shift of ‘The Hunger Games’

Girls on Film: Wearing Another’s Shoes – The Gendered Shift of ‘The Hunger Games’

Mar 29, 2012

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.

Hunger Games still

On Monday, Mack Rawden over at Cinema Blend posted: “Hunger Games: Am I the Only One That Hates Peeta?” Before seeing the film, he was told by friends who had read the book that Peeta’s “superior intelligence, clever strategy, and unyielding devotion” balanced Katniss’ fiery ways. After seeing the film, however, he concluded that Peeta was “one hundred and seventy pounds of dead weight … quite possibly the most pathetic and worthless character that shows up in the entire movie.”

Rawden questions Peeta’s passive methods in the film, noting that he is able to survive because he plays to his emotions, playing on the fact that “viewers sympathize with young love.” To the writer, this boy from District 12 is “simply a glorified shoulder who trips over himself to please Katniss.” But Rawden also begins to hint at a deeper reason behind this discomfort with the character: “You know how in action movies there’s two types of women? There are ladies that actually scrap and claw to help, and there are ladies that are simply baggage to get in the way of the hero’s efforts. … Peeta is most especially the second type.” This connection, however, needs to be taken a step further because it’s bigger than the realm of action films.

Peeta is, quite simply, the modern female love interest in a boy’s body. He might be able to boast brute strength, but the rest of his skills and interests paint him as the traditional supporting heroine. He’s a warm and caring person always eager to offer comfort and support, and he hates the thought of hurting people. He’s fueled by love, with many of his motivations coming directly from his passion for Katniss – so much so that he’d sacrifice himself for her survival. He hates the thought of being a pawn to a society eager to dominate him. He’s a baker by trade, but particularly excels in decorating them. Artistic expression and communication are two of his key attributes, and he wants nothing more than to be free to live the happily ever after with a wife and healthy family. He’s a soft flower, as described in the books, a bright-yellow dandelion.  

Through the rest of the trilogy, Peeta does prove to have some extreme moments of strength and perseverance, just as he has some added moments of weakness and suicidal tendencies. Yet through each moment his core self and motivations remain the same, making him no different than the heroines continually touted as good enough because they have occasional moments of strength, or do that one kickass thing on the quest to help the all-tough hero be victorious.

Hunger Games stillMany of the moviegoers and readers railing against “Team Peeta” seem to be upset with his gentle actions, whether it’s Rawden complaining that Peeta “doesn’t do a damn thing,” or Henri at Forever Young Adult likening the character to “a nice Nicholas Sparks novel.” And just like the heroines who get knocked for their romantic ways, there are the contingents who love it – searching the internet buzz can find sites absolutely adoring Peeta’s romantic side, pegging him as the perfect boyfriend and husband.

It boils down to walking in someone else’s shoes, and really, that seems to be the over-arching impact of The Hunger Games.

Peeta is a solid example of how tedious it would be if every man was a passive, super-caring romantic. Just imagine if every leading man was Peeta – only working to help save the strong woman he loves, having little to no care for anything else in his life. It’s that dichotomy that has led women, for years now, to shout with hyperbolic praise when any strong female character breaks through the status quo. In some ways, Peeta is the cinematic version of Walk a Mile in Her Shoes – an all-too-brief glimpse of the other side.

But it’s not only issues of sex and gender. This week has seen teen racists pop out of the woodwork to spew inane, vitriolic nonsense about characters like Rue and Thresh being played by black actors. Of course, these commenters are a particular brand of ignorant seeing that Collins wrote these characters to be black, but it doesn’t dull the pain in reading a tweet that says that watching a black person dying “wasn’t as sad.” This, naturally, speaks to prejudices lying in wait, but it also speaks to our desire to either see things in our own image, or how we’re used to seeing them, regardless of what the real intent and truth is. These readers chose to ignore descriptions of “dark brown skin and eyes” and make the characters into media-white ideals. Since the readers don’t bother to stretch beyond themselves and investigate other ways of life, they become blind to the world outside themselves. So many matters of ignorance would be cleared with even the smallest efforts to break out of one’s own insular pocket.

Every now and then I muse about how I would explain to a man questioning feminism what it’s like to be a woman today. The daydream includes descriptions of waxing and plucking as to not be chastised for unseemly hairs, the makeup and styling required to seem professional, the catcalls to work, the boss who always talks about your body, the wait staff that never hand you the bill, the movies filled only with airheaded men, the nightclub where you will be continually groped without giving permission, the walk home where you must be careful to not get attacked because you might be asking for it, for not being covered head to toe…

Hunger Games stillByron Hurt perfectly encapsulated it in his piece for The Root: “Why I am a Male Feminist.” He talks about growing up, and how he “had never given much thought about how emotional abuse, battering, sexual assault, street harassment, and rape could affect an entire community, just as racism does” – even though he grew up in a situation where his father was abusive to his mother. So he attends a workshop, and after none of the male participants can share anything they do to protect themselves from being raped or sexually assaulted, the women weight in. These women don’t make eye contact, don’t put down their drinks, they make sure they’re not alone at parties, they cross a street when approaching groups of men, they use keys as potential weapons, they carry mace, or watch what they wear.

Hurt continued to wear the shoes and investigate the other side, and ultimately decided that he “loved feminists and embraced feminism. Not only does feminism give woman a voice, but it also clears the way for men to free themselves from the stranglehold of traditional masculinity. When we hurt the women in our lives, we hurt ourselves, and we hurt our community, too.”

But it goes for anything. If you take a few seconds to pause before blindly rebelling, if you dare to learn about the many wonderful facets of human existence, you’ll be all the wiser. And if you see someone else burrowing into their hole of ignorance, it’s time to introduce them to the real world.

As for Peeta, it's quite unsettling to see the man in the passive, romantic role, isn't it?

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