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.
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