PEETA AND KATNISS (AND GALE): STUCK WITH STEREOTYPES

One of my undergrad students is writing a paper for my Gender Studies course on Peeta Mellark’s alternative masculinity and this led me to reading recently the complete Hunger Games trilogy. As I wrote two posts ago, the final volume even gave me nightmares as I found the whole concept of having children kill other children on camera, reality-show style, quite sick.

J.K. Rowling’s flirting with the dark side in Harry Potter is intense enough but at least it has a certain sense of decorum and clear-cut ethic lines. What I found most disturbing about Collins’ dystopian fantasy, in contrast, is how often the same line would contain words as opposite as ‘death’ and ‘stylist’. I understand that she intends to represent Panem as the kind of rotten civilization that generates these grotesque matches between the serious and the banal (and the gory spectacle of mutual juvenile killing). Yet I could not help thinking that her own imagination is tinged with the dark colours of America’s unacknowledged sense of its own decadence (as much as Rowling’s is pure British stiff-upper-lip).

The Hunger Games has already generated an immense list of bibliography. I’m going to refer here specifically to two articles discussing gender issues in the trilogy: Ellyn Lem and Holly Hassel’s “‘Killer’ Katniss and ‘Lover’ Boy Peeta: Suzanne Collins’s Defiance of Gender-Genred Reading” in Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins and “Katniss and Her Boys: Male Readers, the Love Triangle and Identity Formation” by Whitney Elaine Jones, included in Space and Place in The Hunger Games: New Readings of the Novels. In case you don’t know this young adult trilogy, Collins narrates how Katniss Everdeen alters for ever the appalling dictatorship that, among other methods of brutal coercion, celebrates yearly games in which children tributes from the districts are forced to kill each other until only one is left. Her terrifying experience as a tribute runs parallel to an adolescent love triangle: Katniss must choose between her hunting partner, macho Gale, and her games partner, gentle Peeta. I’ll try to avoid spoilers…

The two articles on this triangle make the claim that Collins resists the binary gender system in the name of utopian feminism by having Katniss reconcile masculine and feminine traits in her own person, and by offering her a romantic choice between two very different types of male character, rather than two versions of the same stereotypically masculine hero. However, I find in the articles many worrying arguments.

One is the idea that Katniss’ ‘masculine’ traits respond to the need to entice male readers into reading the trilogy–let me rephrase this: whereas Harry Potter’s ‘feminine’ traits respond to Rowling’s wish to make male heroism less aggressive rather than to attract female readers (this is Hermione’s function), Collins had to worry, above all, about making Katniss attractive to her prospective male readers: less girly, more tomboyish. No, I haven’t forgotten that Joanne Rowling published her series as J.K. to mask her own gendered identity and thus reduce male readers’ resistance to reading women’s fiction. Always trying to please the boys… Deep sigh here.

About the ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits discussed in the articles, my confusion is superlative. Peeta, we are told “participates in a traditionally feminine occupation: baking”, or he represents “the beautiful, gentle part of nature”. The idea is that Peeta embodies Katniss’s feminine side whereas traditionally male Gale stands for her masculine side, and that she is herself torn between her masculinised identity as a hunter/survivor and the conventional (physical) femininity that her bizarre team of stylists manage so competently to highlight. Jones makes the claim that the three characters can be placed on an imaginary line representing the continuum of masculinity with Katniss veering towards one or the other as her own masculinity requires, for “Though biologically female, Katniss is essentially masculine” (my italics). Yet she also claims that Collins is offering a utopian feminist synthesis of gender traits aimed at overcoming the current need for them, particularly useful to teach, here we go again, male readers to overcome masculinist restrictions. In contrast, Lem and Hassel believe that Katniss is “neither overtly masculine, nor feminine” but a mixture (though the feminine side is just skin-deep). Another deep sigh…

I simply get dizzy, and quite annoyed, to be honest. It’s almost 25 years since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) but little has changed in the fight against gender binarism: essentialist categories remain, both in the readers’ perception of their own identity (all this concern about male readers) and in the vocabulary to describe characters who are supposedly alternative gender-benders. The inability to transcend the adjectives ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ even leads to truly weird statements: baking is a feminine occupation??? How funny: take a look at the mixed team baking cakes in TV show Ace of Cakes, and re-think ‘feminine’ (or baking). As for Katniss’ masculinity, well, she’s just one more typical strong female character too busy relating to her male companions to connect with other women. She is supposed to be motivated throughout her harrowing experience by the need to protect her younger sister Prim but I noticed that the girls hardly ever speak–so much for sisterhood and feminism…

About the boys in the triangle, um. Gale is such a huge stereotype he’s not even worth commenting on: he’s the kind who claims to like strong girls but finally marries a pretty non-entity whom he probably ends up abusing. Heathcliff, in short, once more, only marginally less villainous. Peeta is also a huge stereotype, the protective gentleman, perhaps less manly than Darcy and certainly manlier than Edgar Linton, but all the same a figure that dates back 200 years in time. He went through the 1990s ‘new man’ fantasy and is now seemingly resurfacing here as a man quite comfortable with the idea of the girl being on top. Yet the principle is the same Jane Austen invented with Darcy: Peeta is a gentle man (if not a gentleman) unswervingly in love with a girl whose glaring shortcomings he is willing to overcome unconditionally. He never gets angry, he never loses patience, though it’s funny to see how Collins has him literally brainwashed into hating Katniss for a while, perhaps once more to please those recalcitrant male readers. Read as you wish, by the way, his mutilation (sorry about the spoiler).

Once more, then, young girls are offered with Katniss the complete romantic package and no real positive role model: I was actually very much surprised to see that she is actually a very passive person, except for a crucial scene in the last book. This passivity seems contradicted by her ability to kill animals and, if necessary, human beings. However, it is most spectacularly manifested not so much in her difficulties to choose between Gale and Peeta but in her complete inability to express desire for either of them.

When I expressed to a friend my puzzlement at the frigidity of a text aimed at teenagers which contains at the same time so much horrific bodily violence, he reminded me that American fiction has always preferred violence to sex. Katniss constantly claims that there is no place for sensuality beyond kisses in her dangerous life yet, as any war narrative reader knows, there is no better aphrodisiac than a constant death threat… Poor Gale and Peeta with their love for this new chaste Diana of the bow and arrow!

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