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It’s Good to be Gross: The Hunger Games & Feminism

June 5, 2012

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.

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

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.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Fey permalink
    June 5, 2012 1:05 pm

    Really solid. I hadn’t thought too much about the grossness level, but you’re absolutely right, it only serves to make Katniss stronger.

  2. June 5, 2012 1:47 pm

    Hit the nail on the head here, Alpert. Great description of rejection of weakness without rejection of femininity, which addresses my biggest issue with less rational feminist arguments.

  3. June 5, 2012 3:24 pm

    I never thought of what Katniss could mean as a strong female figure. I didn’t particularly like the Hunger Games (I have not read the sequels) so that has almost certainly influenced my opinion, but I feel that the weakness of the writing undermined any effectiveness the characters could have had. I seem to be the exception in this regard, however, as most people seemed to have really enjoyed the book. You’ve actually come closer to sharing my opinions on it then most others considering you clearly noticed the same problem. The difference was that in your case, it seems, that it didn’t bother you enough to strongly affect your opinion of other aspects of the book. I also have to compliment the fact that you have made me believe that Katniss is a strong character provided one enjoyed the book.

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      June 5, 2012 4:04 pm

      It definitely affected how much I liked the book. There were a lot of moments that rubbed me the wrong way, though I only spoke of one in the review. And I definitely liked thinking about the book (I’ve only read the first), more than I liked reading it. When I read it, it was okay. When I thought about it, it was great. What is behind Collins’s writing (ideas, characters, and plot) is much better than the writing itself (though there were very impressive stylistic moments). All that aside, they’re popular, and therefore, Katniss is important. And she’s a great character to be important.

      When asked about there being more women in the next Avengers film Joss Whedon said:
      “Studios will tell you: A woman cannot headline an action movie. After The Hunger Games they might stop telling you that a little bit. Whatever you think of the movie, it’s done a great service.”

      That can be said of the books, too. Whether or not you like them, they’re setting a good precedent.

      • June 7, 2012 1:52 am

        A good point. Liking or not liking the book/Katniss really has nothing to do with whether or not it’s good that she’s popular. Though shouldn’t part of a discussion on whether or not it’s good that she’s popular focus on the quality of the books. Is it a good thing for a character to be popular if the book they come from isn’t good? I’m really not sure of the answer, and I’d like to actually separate that question from this specific example because the obvious answer is that the Hunger Games isn’t that bad and I just didn’t like it. A hypothetical example is pretending Bella from Twilight was actually a strong character. An impossible thing, I know, but just roll with it. I would agree that her popularity would be less horrible because of it, but would it be good? I mean, the book still sucks, the other characters still suck, so would her popularity be a good thing? I might just be acting difficult here, and I might just be kind of very tired, so feel free to either ignore this or use it as further things to discuss. I suppose you should feel free to do that stuff normally, but there’s some explicit permission for it XD

  4. Caroline Cay permalink
    June 5, 2012 10:25 pm

    I really appreciated this take on Katniss. I am always interested to see what others have to say. I wonder if your view will change once (if) you read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I have to say that my perception of her did change a lot book to book.

    • jtrbsarah permalink*
      June 5, 2012 11:00 pm

      It might, and that’s part of the reason I don’t particularly want to read the others, actually. I’ll see the movies, but I loved how The Hunger Games ended, and I think I’m done where they are. That said, one day I’m sure I’ll pick up Catching Fire and get sucked back in!

  5. jtrbsarah permalink*
    June 7, 2012 8:10 am

    @Metalyell (Sorry, Apparently you can only reply to a comment twice before wordpress can’t make the columns skinnier.) I think that the quality of the characters affect the quality of the book, just as much as the quality of the plot and the quality of the writing do. Therefore, were Bella a stronger character, I think Twilight would be a better book. Also, because plot and characters are separate but very codependent, I think that were Bella a stronger character, Twilight would also have a better plot.

    Overall, though. I don’t necessarily have a problem with Twilight’s popularity. I don’t think it’s a bad-influence on girls, it’s just not a good one. Yes, it always hurts somewhere deep down when something bad gets big, but no one over the age of 17 was oblivious to the fact that Twilight wasn’t a particularly good book.

    It is a weird quandary, though, and I think it’s something that really depends on the cultural phenomenon around each book. It’s not something, in my opinion, that can be generalized.

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