Feminist Studies of Experience in The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins captivates readers of every age, race, and sex with her dystopian, slightly Orwellian novel, The Hunger Games. Aspects of it are reminiscent of Lois Lowry’s The Giver in that the society depicted is one in which mankind has progressed through all that readers in reality have experienced and surmised that it is best to evolve beyond such structures to create a post-structural society in which rules they deem most befitting humanity as a whole are made law. Collins depicts a barbaric, post-modern rendering of the gladiatorial games of Ancient Greece with several unique twists, and the result is a survival-of-the-fittest royale between predominately poor children as a spectacle of entertainment for the wealthy. Needless to say, the novel is most often analyzed for its classism because it is so easily observed as an intact, oppressive institution in the text, but one of the most potent, underlying themes that supplements this classism is the female experience, which Collins breaks down for its problematic facets and more equally distributes its marginalization among the characters who are oppressed; consequently, oppression becomes analogous to the feminine experience.

Plucked from the dismal life that, in and of itself, is already a survival game of overwhelming odds, Katniss Everdeen is forced to participate in the Hunger Games for the very practical need to provide for her family. The circumstance that bears her in the first place is one of considerable helplessness for most people. She lives in a derelict district of dilapidation and destitution where wealth is hardly said to exist at all, save for one reclusive character named, Haymitch. No one concerns themselves with money so much as food, the primary commodity for which money is used in District 12 due to the severity of the people’s poverty. Arguably the most pertinent aspect of their poverty from a feminist perspective is their inability to provide for themselves. “Even though trespassing in the woods is illegal,” Collins writes, “and poaching carries the severest of penalties, more people would risk it if they had weapons. […] My bow is a rarity” (Collins 12). The citizens cannot hunt for food, yet they are forced to live in a city where food is scarce.

The inability to provide for self is not actually feminine trait but, rather, a characteristic ascribed to women by the chauvinistic perspective. Part of the female experience is the incessant encounter with this notion that women are both weak and weak-willed. A woman is constantly forced to do for herself in spite of these and many other disadvantageous assumptions imposed upon them, which makes every strong action taken by a woman an act of defiance to a certain extent. This is why the female experience seems to manifest as a much deeper, more nuanced deconstruction in the text because Collins separates the female experience from the woman and simply equates it with oppression itself.

Katniss lives with her mother and sister, and they are surviving without her father who admittedly was the breadwinner in a very literal sense prior to the events of the novel. That being said, the community in which Katniss lives as well as the entire society as a whole is not particularly patriarchal. There are instances where certain characters seem to consider Katniss’s actions in terms of gender roles, but by and large, the story is wrought of women doing what some patriarchal societies would claim was too difficult, too taxing, or too manly for a woman to do, and no one seems to make note of it. The most common job depicted in District 12 is that of a vendor selling one thing or another, and most of the vendors mentioned are women, which indicates that many women are employed and presumably earning the same measly rates that the men earn.

The significance of a lack of patriarchy is that the classist oppression so commonly analyzed from Collins’s novel is quite evenly distributed. When the children are “randomly” selected for participation in the Hunger Games, they all line up according to age, irrespective of sex, and there is a stage upon which are “three chairs, a podium, and two large glass balls, one for the boys and one for the girls.” Every participating district sends one tribute per sex, oppressing both equally. More to the point, Laura Mulvey theorizes in feminist film criticism that there is an aspect of gender relations in media that she calls the “male gaze,” and she unpacks it in a 1975 essay entitled, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Speaking in the context of film, she says, “Pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” and she supplements this by pointing out that the role of women in film is “strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 808-9). No matter what the woman is saying or doing in reality, the male gaze projects fantasy upon her that objectifies her.

To analyze the male gaze and its role in The Hunger Games more thoroughly, Mulvey argues that the male gaze is a phenomenon of male privilege that infects the minds of both men and women with the idea that the purpose of the woman is a passive one—little more than to be beheld or looked at like an object. It renders women metaphorically and sometimes literally inanimate. They are powerless only because their power (i.e. their animus as Carl Jung would call it) is not acknowledged. Mulvey asserts that this is why, especially in early cinema, it is most traditional that the male characters drive the plot, advancing the story because they are the focal points of action while women, although contributing, contribute passively and through no power of their own but only by being observed in some way.

Until experienced, it is hard to comprehend just how oppressive objectification is, which is why The Hunger Games represents such an impeccable contribution to feminist criticism. Collins breaks down the traditional, patriarchal norms of storytelling by making the protagonist female, a young woman who advances the plot solely of her own power, and her power is only accentuated by the first-person narration. As stated earlier, though, the oppression depicted in the novel is, in and of itself, nothing more than the even distribution of the normal, female experience. All tributes in the Games are first dressed in decorative garb and paraded through the Capitol as spectacles, and this attributes the female role and its “to-be-looked-at-ness” to all tributes regardless of sex. “’No matter,’ says Cinna. ‘So, Katniss, about your costume for the opening ceremonies. My partner, Portia, is the stylist for your fellow tribute, Peeta. And our current thought is to dress you in complementary costumes,’ says Cinna” (Collins 90). Both main characters, female as well as male, are equally objectified in the opening ceremonies, an extension of the systemic oppression that threatens their very livelihoods.

In essence, the struggles portrayed in Collins’s work do, of course, serve as commentary on the plight of classism, but as that is more of a surface detail in the story, Collins seems to invest more in the illustration of oppression being inherently the female experience. The idea that the girlhood and womanhood are phases of endurance amid a systemic starvation of the essence of general personhood is a much more potent notion that does a lot to bring legitimately intrigued, androcentric readers to a point of (even if only subconsciously so) being more capable of recognizing the marginalization of women.

The Danger of Ritual and Tradition in “The Hunger Games” and “The Lottery”

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins and the short story “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson both illustrate the dangers of blindly following ritualized practices and traditions. The stories involve the use of an institutionalized drawing system, one which is employed to blindly choose a sacrifice for the respective societies. “The Hunger Games” uses a system entitled, the reaping, which is used to select two adolescents to participate in a gladiatorial battle to the death. Similarly, in “The Lottery,” the lottery system enables a town to single out a sacrifice that is subsequently stoned. Both systems utilize a combination of mood and dialogue, references to the chaos prior to the order, and the characterization of authority figures to portray the outcomes of communities thoughtlessly submitting to the practices of tradition. The results of these systems are that individual members of that community are made to bear the consequences.

In both narratives, the societies treat the lottery and the reaping with an attitude of deference and veiled apprehension. The mood surrounding these events demonstrates the communities’ feelings of anxiety toward the ceremonies, despite apparent unwillingness to change them. In each story, the writers establish a foreboding mood through the demeanor and dialogue of the characters. Characters joke before the events, but gradually become more solemn as the drawings get closer. In “The Hunger Games,” Gale and Katniss laugh while they mimic the ceremony and its leader Effie Trinket. However, Katniss notes that they only joke “because the alternative is to be scared out of your wits” (6).

Correspondingly, the townspeople in “The Lottery” smile and make small talk, “speaking of planting and rain” (1). This nervous attitude becomes increasingly solemn as the ceremonies approach, and is meant to serve as a veil for the underlying feelings of fear towards what the reaping and lottery represent, the idea of impending sacrifice and death for the people selected. In both stories, the reactions of the characters toward the formalities of the services indicate that they are overly familiar with the rites of the traditions. In “The Lottery,” the townspeople are complacent during the reading of the directions, “had done it so many times that they only half listened” (3). The repetition of this ensures that they have internalized its rituals. In “The Hunger Games,” the mayor also reads “the same story every year” at the reaping, and all of the members of the community are familiar with the history of the Games and the back story, as well as the rituals of the ceremony itself. In the stories, characters all share a similar feeling of dread toward the rituals, but the events are so institutionalized that no one attempts to question them.            

In each story, authority figures utilize references to past chaos to emphasize why rituals are important in maintaining order and preventing backsliding. Old Man Weaver functions as this figure for the townspeople in “The Lottery,” and he notes that if institutions like the lottery were not in place, they might revert to an uncivilized lifestyle, and return to “living in caves” (4). His justification is that “there has always been a lottery,” and he relies solely on the foundations of the importance of tradition to support his claims (4). Likewise, in “The Hunger Games,” the mayor alludes to the “Dark Days” and the disorder of the uprisings before the implementation of the Hunger Games (16). The references to past chaos serve to underscore how figures of authority employ fear to manipulate a collective into blindly following traditions rather than thinking for themselves.            

In both stories, the characterization of authority figures connected to the rituals demonstrates how the societies have come to accept the control that these figures and corresponding institutions have over them. In “The Lottery,” the authority figure is Mr. Summers, who serves as a spokesperson for the function. Jackson describes him as jovial, but makes it clear that the townspeople feel sorry for him, because his wife is a nag. Despite this, Mr. Summers also “seemed very proper and important” as he fulfills his duty, which illustrates how the town views the importance of the lottery. This significance is attached to Mr. Summers, who gains authority through association (2). Similarly, in “The Hunger Games,” Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s liaison to the reaping, is “bright and bubbly” in a way that makes her seem ridiculous (17). However, her involvement in the reaping ensures that the community will not question her role in the ceremony or her status. In the stories, the characters who are chosen in the drawings, Mrs. Hutchinson in “The Lottery” and Katniss and Peeta in “The Hunger Games,” fall outside of the realm of authority, and as a result, their communities blindly accept their fates, and their almost definite death sentences.            

In “The Lottery” and “The Hunger Games” Shirley Jackson and Suzanne Collins, respectively, use mood and dialogue, references to disorder before the ceremonies, and the characterization of authority figures to illustrate the consequences of communities blindly submitting to rituals. In both narratives, individual members of these societies are forced to endure the horrific outcomes of the lottery and the reaping, because their societies thoughtlessly accept the importance of tradition, and their own unwillingness and powerlessness in instigating change.

New Social Order

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, the division in social class is the driving force of the novel. The Capitol creates this illusion of social mobility through the games, which provides a sense of hope to the lower classes. This “illusion” created by the capital serves as a way to keep the lower classes from protesting and revolting against their own government. Due to the capital’s corruptness, the chances of winning the games and bringing prosperity back to a district are highly improbable. However, this small fraction of hope given to the people is sufficient enough to maintain social order and keep the power to the Capitol. Through Katniss, the remaining hope in humanity and rebellion is depicted through three major symbols: flames, hunting, and the mockingjay.

The first mark of rebellion in Panem is the introduction of fire and flames as motifs that mark some of Katniss’ biggest character development in The Hunger Games. When she is first viewed by the Panem elite prior to the Games, she is dressed in clothing that becomes rippled with synthetic flames which was designed by Cinna. Afterwards, she is given the moniker “the girl who was on fire”, (40). In this respect, she is viewed as a spectacle or just another form of entertainment by the Panem bourgeoise. Later in the novel, Cinna calls her by this nickname, referring to her enduring “fiery” spirit in spite of tough challenges. This shatters the view that she is merely a “spectacle” for the crowd and she actually endures beyond the quick laughs and jeers by the crowd. This carries greater significance as a sign that beyond the tyranny of the Capitol, their humiliation and degradation, and the extent to which they destroyed her livelihood, Katniss still prevails over such harsh authority. The fact that her “fire” will never burn out is a looming reminder to the Capitol that she has sown the seeds of rebellion, and one day, they will be reaped. However, it is evident that her “fiery” dress dims considerably with time, do not emit as many flames as before. This in turn signifies the ability of the Capitol to “dim the flames” of rebellion in order to keep chaos from brewing, yet the threat still exists and looms over the government’s shoulder.

Another, more obvious theme in Katniss’ quest to liberate Panem is her hunting skills, which provides her a position of power among a powerless public. In defense of these skills, Peeta answers Haymitch, who questions her ability, with “My father buys her a squirrel. He always comments on how the arrows never piece the body. She hits each one in the eye,” (21). It is this enduring skill that earns her a level of respect. The more significant instance of her abilities is when her attitude gets the better of her, and she lashes out at the Gamemakers, yet in a way that demonstrates the kind of resilience and tact exemplified by the motif of fire. During the private training session, the Gamemakers become victim to short attention spans and start eating pork, angering Katniss. She loses that signature temperament, and in an instant, she “pulled an arrow and sent it straight at the Gamemakers’ table… The arrow skewers the apple in the pig’s mouth and pins it to the wall behind it. Everyone stares at me in disbelief,” (96). In spite of being overtaken by such strong emotion, Katniss manages to maintain her bow-and-arrow talents with the same precision. This signifies the ability of even Panem’s proletariat to calmly yet collectively rebel against the establishment without falling from rash decisions. This, however, still keeps the social order by the Capitol by ensuring that the struggle is maintained while never escalating to a point that gets unstable.

Another similar symbol of these small defiances in a still stable social order is the mockingjay. The bird is introduced as the remnant of a failed project, which the Capitol uses to spy on the citizens of Panem. For the remainder of The Hunger Games, it serves several other meanings as it is assumed as a symbol by Katniss herself. During the Games, she and Rue join forces to defy the systematic killing of their peers, and use the mockingjay to communicate with one another. While this does signify an act of rebellion, it might also be Collins’ way of emphasizing that that kind of communication could not exist without the Capitol’s attempt to implement it as a system of control. Essentially, in their communicating with each other, it serves that purpose to an extent. However, after Rue’s death, Katniss is provoked by the sight of a mockingjay, as it represents her hatred of the government and its tyranny. This helps cement the conflict between Katniss and the oppressiveness of the Capitol, yet it only helps to reaffirm the Capitol’s power structure over the people of Panem by giving their anger no outlet. It is only Katniss who has this outlet.

The prevalence of social order in The Hunger Games serves as the looming reminder for Katniss. However, her small acts of defiance, whether they’re emblematic of her “fiery” zeal, hunting ability, or link to the mockingjay, will soon bubble over and reach a tipping point of no return. This kind of enduring conflict persists in the entire series, and is even evident in our own political system.

Trust in the Hunger Games

Sadly, in today’s world, we do not trust many people but ourselves; with the influences of social media and celebrity culture, we think that we are worth more than others. In The Hunger Games, however, without trusting others you won’t survive. The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, is about a 16-year-old girl that volunteers as tribute. She has watched previous Games of other contestants but is inexperienced. At first, she has trouble making allies, but once the Games progresses she finds allies to help her. Suzanne Collins teaches us that trusting others it is extremely crucial and you wouldn’t survive without it. Even though it might be tough to trust others, Katniss (the main character) would not have won without it. The Hunger Games uses repetition, suspense, and symbolism to show that you have to trust your allies if you want to win.

To start with, The Hunger Games creates suspense to show that trust is the key to success. An example of this is when Thresh first encounters Katniss and Katniss is on the verge of dying. Thresh spares Katniss after learning about her alliance with Rue. He says they are “even” and no more is owed. An example to support this is, “You better run now, Fire Girl” (288). This gives me the idea that Thresh trusts Katniss and thanks her for saving Rue’s life. By not killing Katniss means that Thresh does not see Katniss as an enemy, therefore he sees her as an ally. Another example of suspense is when Peeta, Katniss, and Cato were alive and Cato had Peeta in a headlock about to kill him but Katniss saves him. It was a matter of life and death to Peeta and he could have died. Therefore, when Cato had Peeta in a headlock Katniss had to trust Peeta to do his best to help her and escape.

Secondly, symbolism also relates to trust. When Katniss encounters the Cracker Jackers, Rue helps her kill her enemies. “Rue has decided to trust me wholeheartedly” (206), this tells me that Katniss and Rue now trust each other, which will lead to success. Now that Katniss and Rue allies they accomplish many beneficial achievements, just like blowing up and enemy base. Therefore, the Cracker Jackers relate to trust. Another example of this is when Katniss was with her Peeta. Peeta was about to eat a deadly berry luckily Katniss saves him. “Even the plant instructor in the Training Center made a point of telling us to avoid berries unless you were 100 percent sure they weren’t toxic” (165). This tells me that both the Cracker Jackers and the Wild Berries relate to strong, trusting allies. Peeta and Rue helped Katniss win, and Peeta won with Peeta. Without the trust that Katniss had with her allies she would have been dead a long time ago.

Lastly, there are significant instances of repetition in The Hunger Games; there are many characters that come and go. I believe that there is a repetition of positive and negative events like how Katniss succeeds and fails. In negative an event, like how District 12 is in terrible condition, correlates with when Katniss and Peeta got drafted. At the start, they were not determined to succeed but then it turned into a trusting relationship that wants to win the games. “Oh, no, I think. Not him” (26). It is evident from this portion of the text, at first, that Katniss does not want Peeta to be the second tribute. Later on, Katniss and Peeta connect and have a trusting relationship. Some people suggest that Katniss wanted Peeta as he partner, but Katniss actually said that she does not want to be with Peeta because she recognized him and thought it would be awkward. An example of a positive event is Katniss meeting new people, just like when she met Rue, Cato, and Peeta she decided to kill Cato and be allies with Peeta and Rue, without Rue and Peeta Katniss would have died.

Suzanne Collins uses symbolism, repetition, and suspense to show that trust is extremely important during the Games. Without Katniss trusting others she would have never won the Hunger Games. Like when Thresh first encounters Katniss and Katniss is on the verge of dying. Thresh spares Katniss after learning about her alliance with Rue, or when Katniss and Rue become allies and have a strategic advantage. The suspense, repetition, and symbolism represents how Katniss progresses through the Games and succeeded. Even though it might be hard to trust others Katniss has to. Even though Katniss won we are still left wondering if trust is really worth it to see all of those people die.

Will the Real Katniss Everdeen Please Stand?: Understanding Identity in ‘The Hunger Games’ Through Locke and Sartre

The girl who was on fire, the Mockingjay, the star-crossed lover, the fierce survivor, the cold-hearted archer…which of these really defines the hero of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games? Answer: all of them, and none of them. Below the much more obvious and pressing conflict that is surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss faces a subtler fight internally. She doesn’t know who she is, and why should she? She is forced to adapt to a series of ever-changing circumstances that disrupt her ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Analyzing her inner turmoil through dualism, Locke’s social contract theory, and Sartre’s theory of human reality, the question of what Katniss Everdeen’s identity is defined by proves to yield just as many conflicts as the Hunger Games themselves.

From an early age, Katniss is taught to put up a facade for her own protection, becoming cold and callous (Collins pg.6). At various points in the story, she claims that this guarded demeanor she adopts both is and isn’t her true self, The first instance of this is very early on, “In the woods waits the only person with whom I can be myself…Gale says I never smile except in the woods.” (Collins pg. 6). The logic of this statement is as follows: Gale is the only person with whom Katniss can “be herself”, therefore Gale is the only person who knows her true nature, which gives him a trustworthy ethos from which we can believe his statement, and assume that this smiling version of Katniss in the woods not only exists but is her truest self. Before settling on this conclusion, however, it must be taken with a metaphorical grain of salt, for — while the point about her smiling is never directly contradicted — its implication is challenged later in the story.

Gale’s statement does not differentiate whether it is the natural environment of the woods that brings this smile out of her or the sense of privacy, yet both of these present clear problems, in the context of the Games, when Katniss smiles to the cameras after leaping down from the tree above the career tributes (Collins pg.163). This is problematic for a number of reasons, first of which being that the two conditions that elicited smiles share few similarities. The environment is an artificial reconstruction of nature, which is not identical to nature itself; the presence of cameras destroy any sense of solitude that she might otherwise get from the actual woods; and finally, the fact that Katniss was allegedly pretending poses its own set of problems. If she was pretending, then the smile (which is a quality indicative only of her private self, and foreign to her public self), is false, and if she was not pretending, then the initial supposition was false.

A still bigger problem that stems from this is the fact that Katniss has an increasingly difficult time deciphering the difference between what is real and what is role-play. For a majority of the story, Katniss proves that her ability to dissociate herself from her environment is her strongest survival factor, and occupies an entirely different world within her head than within her surroundings. From a dualist perspective, this would answer the question of who Katniss is: the actor who deals with public life on a fundamentally different level than private life. (Carney pg. 136). The problem with this conclusion, however, is the assumption that she is indeed a separate entity from the character she plays in the Games. These two realities are a distinction Katniss has an increasingly difficult time drawing a line between, especially in the publicity events that occur after winning the Games. “The closer we get to District 12, the more confused I get.” There is a justification for this if it is assumed that Sartre’s claim that “the true nature of a person is revealed when put under extreme stress is true” (Sawyer 9/28). The Games are inarguably a state of extreme stress, and, in being removed from that state, Katniss is left to grapple with the difference between the person she was before the Hunger Games, and the person she is after. The story itself hints that she becomes her “true self” within the “state of nature” that the Games provide “As long as you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” This however still faces its share of problems.

For one, the artificial reality of the Games defies the definition of a “state of nature”, at least the John Locke sense. “‘Men living according to reason, without a common superior on earth, to judge between them, is properly the state of nature.’ Many commentators have taken this as Locke’s definition, concluding that the state of nature exists wherever there is no legitimate political authority able to judge disputes and where people live according to the law of reason.” (Tuckness). The obvious problem here is that the Capitol has free reign to manipulate the environment of the arena if the show isn’t going the way they want it to, in so doing “judging disputes”, although not quite in the same sense. The other difficulty is that the “law of reason” that they follow is a corrupted imposition of society, and constrained to a specific set of rules, the most problematic of which is entertainment value.

According to Sartre, Katniss’ humoring of these entertainment values keep her in a perpetual act of “bad faith”. Throughout the Games, she plays a character that is largely indicative of the kind of person she thinks the public wants her to be, thus by extension, who she wants to be (but factually isn’t). This is Sartre would consider “bad faith”, as it denies what he calls her facticity in favor of transcendence. Conversely, outside of the Games, she doesn’t allow herself to ponder on her ability to overcome the facts that dictate her life, also “bad faith”, but in the opposite extreme, denying herself the possibility of transcendence in favor of facticity (Sawyer 9/28). Katniss denies that both of these things constitute who she is, by the sheer fact that they would seem to be at odds if they didn’t synthesize.

This synthesis is a logical conclusion to the problem, as it is here that the aspect of “identity over time” is realized. “The endurantist and her four-dimensionalist foe agree that personal identity over time is analyzed as…a relation between something that exists wholly present at one time and something that exists wholly present at another time.” (Merricks pg. 987).

By this extension, Katniss’ true identity is the common ground between these extremes of herself, but when so much of these extremes is based on pretense, where is the line definitively drawn? This is why it is easier to say from the outside that Katniss is simultaneously every aspect of her characterization and none of them than it is for her to decide on the inside who she really is. Although, if Katniss did know who she really was, the story very well couldn’t have continued into a trilogy. Perhaps this is true in reality as well. If an individual truly and definitively knows who they are, then their story is effectively at an end, and really, who wants to live like that?

Works Cited:

Carney, James D. “The Compatibility of the Identity Theory with Dualism.” Mind ns 80.317 (1971): 136-40. Web.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. London: Scholastic, 2010. Print.

Merricks, Trenton. “Endurance, Psychological Continuity, and the Importance of Personal Identity.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59.4 (1999): 983-97. Web.

Sawyer, Dane. “Sartre’s Theory of Human Reality.” Philosophy in Literature. University of La Verne, La Verne, CA. 28 Sept. 2016. Lecture.

Tuckness, Alex. “Locke’s Political Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 2005. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.