It’s Good to be Gross: The Hunger Games & Feminism
I’m about two hours (or possibly two years) late to this party, but I have finally read The Hunger Games. It wasn’t that I had been avoiding it, I just never managed to get around to it, remember to buy a copy of it, or really feel any need to read it. But as the fan base grew, and one by one all of my friends had read at least the first book, I kept hearing: “This is the best thing to come out of Twilight.” After might be a better term than out of, but I think that its contrast to Twilight highlights what’s so exciting about Collins’s trilogy. It wasn’t hard to figure out what my friends meant, even before I’d read the book. They were talking about how Katniss, unlike Bella, is a strong, independent, not lovelorn, protagonist with a survivalist instinct, and very little time to stew in the angst of what it means to be an (extra)ordinary teenage girl. When the movie came out I saw a clip of an interview with some of the cast. I wasn’t able to find this again, but I’m pretty sure this is how it went. The interviewer asked Jenifer Lawrence, “Are you Team Peeta or Team Gale?” and she answered, “I’m Team Katniss.” I found it a surprisingly powerful moment, and ultimately it was the reason I decided to finally read The Hunger Games.
My overall impression is that it is a better book than it is written. Collins lacks a bit of artifice and is often too afraid to trust the reader to notice subtlety, so she is more overt than I like in fiction. At its worst moments you can see the strings of what she’s setting up and she wants us to feel. When Rue is dying, Collins writes, “But if this is Prim’s, I mean Rue’s, last request, I have to at least try.” Collins has already set up and reinforced that Katniss sees her sister in Rue, and the Freudian slip hits her point a little too head on. Had she left that unstated, the moment would be ten times more powerful than it was. For example, the most powerful part of Rue’s death was when District 11 donated bread to Katniss. This moment was powerful because it was subtle. From that gesture you could infer the grief of her family and the gratitude of the district that someone who was supposed to kill Rue, cared for her instead. Inferring is always more powerful than telling directly.
My quibbles aside, Katniss is a great female protagonist. She’s actually one of the best and an excellent role model for young women. One of the most important reasons is also one of the less talked about. Katniss is gross. Actually, viscerally gross. Yes, her circumstances are gross, but Collins makes a point of this grossness. She burns off Katniss’s hair, has Katniss gorge herself at every opportunity she gets, covers her in blisters, welts, and pus, has her check her hydration by the color of her urine, and painstakingly describes her vomiting. This grossness, while not the cause of Katniss’s greatness, illustrates in my mind the two most prominent reasons Katniss is so great.
First, Katniss poops, pees, vomits, and does all the gross things that have historically been considered too base for a beautiful creature like a woman to acknowledge she does. These moments highlight Katniss’s strength. It’s not that Katniss does these things, it’s that she’s not afraid or embarrassed to do them. In one of my favorite books, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft writes,
“I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness… I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue.”
A constructionist feminist before feminism was a thing, Wollstonecraft believed that the delicacy that is considered so pretty, ultimately breeds weak women. In many ways, Katniss proves this point. No one would argue that Katniss — in our minds or on the screen — is an ugly girl. She’s gorgeous, and her beauty comes from her strength, rather than her softness. The one time she resembles dainty is in her interview, and after it she watches the tape disgusted and embarrassed. She thinks she looks weak, not pretty. Katniss is gross because she is strong and to survive she has to be. She has no need (or time) to be elegant. The elegance that comes with daintiness, in contrast, is a virtue of the Capitol that she actively scorns. Katniss’s beauty does not come from a rejection of femininity, but a rejection of the weakness labeled as femininity. She is imbued with a stronger, more powerful, and more natural beauty.
The other thing these gross moments illustrate is that Katniss is her own person, and not just a vessel for the reader. These moments are so physical and so extreme that they break our empathy — we are not vomiting, we are not dehydrated, we are not burned — and force us to sympathize with Katniss instead. In having moments like this, the audience separates itself from Katniss, and through that she becomes more of a character. Not all, but a lot of fiction, and a lot of YA fiction targeted at girls, uses the protagonist as a self-insert. We are supposed to live vicariously through her. This is not, by itself, a bad thing. It creates a very direct connection between the reader and a book. But a character should be more than a shell for us to curl up in and live through. A character must be a person. Katniss is. In many ways, The Hunger Games is a study of who that person is. In this, Katniss becomes real. We don’t think we are her (we don’t even think we could be her), but we want to be like her. This is why The Hunger Games is the best thing to come out of Twilight.
In Twilight, you pick Team Edward or Team Jacob, and swoon with the knowledge that two big, strong, beautiful men live to catch you before you hit the ground. Edward is Bella’s hero. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is a superhero, and the thing about superheroes is they don’t have to rely on anyone.