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How Suzanne Collins Challenges the Norm of Feminism in The Hunger Games

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Suzanne Collins Challenges the Norm of Feminism

The literary genre of Science Fiction seems to contain a greater amount of male writers than female writers. Authors such as H.G Wells, Jack London, Aldous Huxley and Ray Bradbury have all created very dynamic characters though some may be considered less heroic than others. However, the similar factor in each text written by these authors is that the protagonist is always male. One of the only authors to challenge this literary norm is Isaac Asimov with his text I, Robot. Asimov creates the character of Dr. Susan Calvin, who is considered in the novel as one of the best robot psychologists in the nation. However, no matter how many times she proves her worth to her male counterparts she can never be taken seriously. It is not until Suzanne Collins created her novel The Hunger Games that readers were able to find a strong, respected female character as the protagonist. Before The Hunger Games, female characters within the Science Fiction genre were either considered impotent or seductive, mostly written as an object of romance. Collins, though, effectively challenges those feminine stereotypes with her character Katniss Everdeen, through her abrasive personality and common appearance.

In the literature leading up to The Hunger Games, especially during the Victorian Era, portrayed women as subordinate to their male counterparts. Feminist critic Simone de Beauvoir explains that because “the female is not male . . . she becomes the Other, an object whose existence is defined and interpreted by the dominant male” (Bressler 149). For example, the chapter titled “Ylla” in Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles details a Martian couple who deems the stereotypical features of a husband and wife. The wife stays home and cooks while the husband works. Rather than behaving independently, the wife constantly puts the needs of her husband before her own. Beauvoir continues her argument stating that “women must reject the societal construct that men are the subject or the absolute and women are the Other” (150). As a writer, though not strictly feminist, Collins herself “rejects” the patriarchal standards, especially in science fiction, by creating a heroic female protagonist.

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Additionally to Beauvoir, authors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar distributed the various female stereotypes into two images: “‘the angel in the house’ and the ‘madwoman in the attic'” (154). The “angel in the house” tends to her husband’s every need and regards all of her belongings as “gifts from her husband” (155). On the other hand, the “madwoman in the attic” relates to the women that do not contain the characteristics of “the angel in the house” (i.e. every woman other than the “angel in the house”). Women, in both reality and literature, were always meant to be inferior, rather than equal, to their husbands. However, that thought began to change later in the 20th century. Feminism became more prominent and was eventually split into groups such as post-structuralism, materialism, and postmodernism. All categories completely reject patriarchal labels such as the stereotype that all women are physically weaker than men. This sparked the change in female literary characters from weak and subordinate to strong and dominant. Katniss Everdeen creates the perfect example for the basis of other strong female characters such as Tris Prior in Veronica Roth’s novel Divergent. Though she is one of the most well-known heroines, it is her disheartening background that shapes her character before the Games even begin.

After Katniss’ father died in a mining accident, her mother, stricken with grief, was unable to provide for the family. Therefore, Katniss was forced to become an adult at the age of eleven. However, before her father passed, he was able to teach her the basics of hunting and bartering, which is how she is able to meagerly feed her mother and her sister, Prim. According to literary critic Jennifer Mitchell, the act of hunting is a result of Katniss embracing her masculine nature. In fact, Mitchell argues that rather than completely engaging in her femininity, Katniss “makes conscious and circumstantial choices to adopt various gender roles that suit her situational needs” (132). Katniss, effectively, becomes Prim’s pseudo mother during the time span in which her mother became emotionally and mentally void. Mitchell believes that Katniss’ maternal side is what most closely resembles the stereotypical female. At the same time, Katniss resorts to using, what Mitchell describes as a “manlier” object, her bow and arrow in order to hunt game. Mitchell argues that Katniss is continuously shifting between the two genders in order to survive.

The purpose of The Hunger Games is to bring out the worst in its competitors by forcing the tributes to murder each other. However, Collins uses this event to showcase Katniss’ natural abilities in both a masculine and a feminine manner. In fact, Katniss could be grouped into the subcategory of Amazon feminism, which “is dedicated to female images . . . in literature and art that emphasize the physiques of female athletes and physical equality of both males and females” (Bressler 157). Though she is described as being more petite than most of the other tributes, she still contains many of the traits of her male opponents. The most obvious of her masculine abilities is not only to hunt, but also to climb trees. Unlike many of the other tributes, Katniss relies on her athleticism to help her take shelter in some of the highest trees in the arena. This gives her an advantage over many of the other tributes who are too heavy to climb many of the branches. However, her femininity is showcased even more while she is performing in the Games.

Mitchell argues that while Katniss is within the Capitol, “Cinna, his team, and the collective audience at large seek to highlight the femininity that can be located in, or . . . placed on” her (133). Therefore, she becomes distinguished as a lover to Peeta, the boy tribute from her district. Though she initially believes that Peeta had been deceiving her the entire time, she eventually finds that is not true and immediately searches for him only to find him extremely wounded. The only way to save Peeta from blood poisoning is for Katniss to prove her love for him. So, once they give a kiss that suits the needs of the Capitol, they immediately receive medicine for Peeta’s leg. Though she relies on her masculinity more, she is able to use her femininity in order to gain the trust and admiration of the Capitol in order to save her life. However, she is also able to use it against the Capitol.

One of her only alliances, other than Peeta, is with a twelve-year-old from District 11, Rue. The primary reason that Katniss trusted Rue was because she reminded her of her sister Prim. Throughout the duration of their alliance, Katniss provided Rue with fresh food and protection while Rue, in turn, treated Katniss’ wounds. The entire relationship between the two can be directly compared to the relationship that Katniss has with Prim. In both situations, Katniss relies on her maternal nature, showcasing her femininity. This side of her is shown in even greater light when Rue is killed. Rather than leaving her body for the hovercraft, Katniss places wild flowers around her. According to Annette Stott in her article Floral Femininity: A Pictorial Definition, flowers are often “used as symbols of specific feminine virtues” (61). In a time of death and sadness, Katniss relied on her natural feminine instincts, rather than the masculine. The particular actions that she takes during her time as a tribute in the Hunger Games creates a different picture to her rivals as well as many of the novel’s readers.

Female characters in early literature were always typically considered submissive, soft-spoken, and polite. Katniss Everdeen is anything but the typical female character. Because of her actions, many see Katniss as a cold, selfish and impulsive character who focuses solely on her own family’s needs rather than the good of the entire country. However, it is also arguable that she was, in fact, forced to act in this particular way. From the very beginning of the novel, Katniss explains the reason behind her masked emotions. She found from an early age that speaking against the Capitol would only cause more trouble for her family. Therefore, she “learned to hold [her] tongue and to turn [her] features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read [her] thoughts (Collins 6). From then on she has remained incredibly aware of her facial expressions, constantly worrying that she had given away her thoughts. For example, she described herself as being incredibly self-conscious in front of the cameras during the reaping in which she volunteered for her sister. While she is waiting on stage, Katniss fights her tears and tries to regain her composure in front of District 12, the Capitol and, most importantly, her sister. Masking her emotions became imperative, especially when Katniss was brought into the Capitol before the Games. For example, if she were to show her recognition of the red-headed Avox girl, the consequence would be immediate death to the girl and quite possibly Katniss. Initially, her reaction caused “disapproval . . . so high” that Peeta was forced to step in and cover for the slip of recognition, but she was eventually able to, once again, regain her composure (78). Unlike most portrayed women, Katniss is able to control her emotions in times when it is much needed.

Her need to constantly doubt the intentions of other could also lead to the perception of her cold personality, unlike most female characters. Her apprehensive actions, though, are primarily an effect of having grown up in a world in which the Hunger Games exist. She has had to witness the Games throughout her entire life, so she knows exactly what to expect when she finally participates. In fact, she was hesitant to become partners with Peeta. She constantly worried about his intentions, which becomes evident on the initial train ride to the Capitol when Haymitch passes out in a pool of his own vomit. Peeta offers to clean him up so she would not have to worry about the mess, but Katniss still wonders why is so kind to her. She goes as far as saying “kind people have a way of working their way inside [her] and rooting there” (49). When it comes to Peeta’s profession of love for Katniss, she immediately believes it was to make her look weak. Coming from such an independent district, consistently having to hunt for her own food, Katniss never learned to place her trust in anyone whom she had not known for a long. Instead, she does not place her trust in anyone other than her family, Gale and, later, Rue. This notion alone completely contradicts the original idea of a woman. Most women, in earlier texts, were depicted as too trustful, especially when it came to their husbands. An example of this can be found with the text written by Philip K. Dick, titled Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Deckard’s wife, Iran, remains dutifully at their shared apartment while he has an affair with the android Rachel Rosen. Iran does not suspect that anything unusual had happened to her husband and obliviously makes him a pot of coffee toward the end of the novel. Contrastingly, Katniss finds everyone untrustworthy and typically confronts those with whom she does not agree.

There are numerous scenes in which Katniss reacts impulsively, which creates additional evidence in the argument of her uncharacteristic feminine behavior. For example, irritated by the lack of attention from the Gamemakers during her private session, Katniss decided to shoot an arrow through an apple that was being eaten. This gained the respect of the Gamemakers, but consequently helped in creating her selfish image. Typical literary women are supposed to remain selfless, keeping in mind the thoughts and needs of other people, especially her significant other. Another moment in which she reacted impulsively is at the very end of the Hunger Games. Once it was stated that only one competitor may be crowned the champion, Katniss immediately prepares to commit suicide along with Peeta. By eating the poisonous berries, the Capitol would not have a winner. However, the decision effectively saves both Katniss and Peeta from death. Each impulsive act that she makes successfully keeps her and her loved ones alive. Though it is this impulsiveness that differentiates Katniss from most female characters. Many fictional women did not dare step outside of their comfort zone in order to make a difference in the world. For example, in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, Lenina Crowne continued using the soma, even though Bernard warned her about the consequences. The only attempt made to change the societal norm was made by John the Savage, which ultimately led to his isolation from the city. Not only does Katniss spur on a revolution, but she also eventually becomes the face of it, something that no other female character in science fiction has ever attempted.

The final attribute that distinguishes Katniss from the majority of literary female characters is her unusual appearance. In the beginning, Katniss is described as plainly with straight black hair and a small build. In short, she was not remarkably beautiful. This alone contrasts with most ideals of literary women. According to Bressler, women were only considered “sex maniacs” or “goddesses of beauty” (151), but if they were not either, they were considered the “madwoman”. Beauty and sex were the primary requirements that women were to uphold in order to be considered respectable. Katniss was very respected in District 12, but not for her beauty. In addition to providing food for her family, she also provided a large amount of meat for her district. Rather than relying on her looks in order to gain respect, Katniss relied on her bartering and trading skills, something that other women did not contain. It was not until she had volunteered for the Hunger Games when her beauty became of importance.

Immediately upon arriving at the Capitol, Katniss was carted away to the Games’ beauticians. Her team was to prepare Katniss for her initial meeting with her costume designer, Cinna, by means of waxing, shaving, moisturizing, cutting, etc. Unlike District 12, appearance reflects the wealth of those who live in the Capitol; it is of the utmost importance. However, Katniss continuously “resists [the] focus on her appearance” that she eventually relies on “in order to gain support from sponsors who can provide life-saving resources in the Games” (Woloshyn 155). Cinna is able to gain Katniss more support by creating special designs that effectively represent her personality, as well as her district. For instance, during her first interview with Caesar Flickerman, the tributes from the other districts were all able to showcase specific personality traits. Glimmer was considered the sex symbol while Cato was known as the ruthless warrior. Due to her lack of emotional connection to the Capitol, Katniss had to rely on her looks; specifically, the dress that Cinna had designed. Though her interview was quite unremarkable, she created a stirring of emotions with her flammable dress. In other words, her dress alone gained the respect of the Capitol that is until Peeta confessed his love for her.

The Pre-Games participations all focus on the amount of popularity each tribute has with the Capitol. When it comes time actually to enter the Games, though, appearances are instantly forgotten, and only strength and survival are in focus. Therefore, Katniss becomes more comfortable within the arena than she had in the week adding up to the Games. She is able to forget about her appearance and focus on her hunting and survival skills. In fact, Vera Woloshyn, in her article “Discourse of Masculinity and Femininity in The Hunger Games: “Scarred,” “Bloody,” and “Stunning””, discusses the possibility of Katniss never having been involved in the Games: “if she had been able to stay out of the Games, there would have been no need for her to attend to her appearance in ways that would reinforce emphasized feminity” (155). If she were never involved in the Hunger Games, appearance would never have been an issue, unlike various other stereotypical women. In fact, some of the traits that Katniss contains even contradicts current standards for women. In the second novel of the trilogy, Catching Fire, she discusses the feeling of her regrown leg hair and how it reinforces the idea that The Hunger Games, for her, are officially over; she is able to return to her, somewhat, normal life.

Differing from so many well-known female characters, Katniss has changed the social norms of literature. Also, by creating The Hunger Games, Collins was able to open the door for other female writers. Her character Katniss does not conform to the female stereotypes of either “angels, barmaids, whores, brainless housewives, or old maids” as such are described by Bressler (160). Instead, she takes on the feminine roles of both mother and lover while also taking on the masculine roles of hunter and killer. Authors such as Veronica Roth were able to follow suit in forming strong female characters. In fact, many contemporary texts contain a strong female protagonist who takes on similar roles as Katniss, such as leading large rebellions. Because we currently live in a society that is strongly affiliated with feminist values, it can be safe to assume that literature will only continue to incorporate more inspirational, yet diverse female characters.

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