Is The Hunger Games a Feminist Novel?

I won’t beat around the bush and will just give you my answer instead: no, of course, it isn’t. There is absolutely nothing feminist whatsoever about it. I can’t say that it’s actively anti-feminist either, though. The novel is simply not about that at all.

It’s funny that so many people think The Hunger Games is some sort of a feminist manifesto. For instance, Katha Pollitt, who is usually a very insightful journalist, gushes about the “feral feminism” of both the book and the movie like a teenage fan. These “female warrior” narratives that have become so popular in the past 25 years keep trying to sell us the belief that the most admirable girl of all is the one who has managed to turn into a boy. And I fail to see what’s so feminist and progressive about that idea.

The novel’s protagonist keeps repeating that she is much smaller and weaker physically than her male opponents in the Hunger Games. Yet, because of her great people skills, her capacity to sell her sexual favors successfully and fake sexual desire, her intelligence, her fast running and archery skills, she defeats them all.

I’m sorry, folks, but that’s a load of baloney. In terms of height, girth and muscle strength, women lose to men without a shadow of a doubt. Rare exceptions do not change the general rule. In any competition where brute strength or any sort of athletic abilities are involved, I can guarantee to you that I will lose even to the least athletic of men.

The good news, however, is that this doesn’t matter any more. The world has changed, and the brute physical force means nothing. People who used to make their living by lifting and moving heavy objects are being rendered unemployed by the physically much weaker folks who design the smart machines that can do these jobs much better. The muscle tone and the height are completely irrelevant to how successful and comfortable one will be in life. We, the women, have no need to prove that we can run, shoot, jump and kick ass as well as men. Because even if we can’t, it’s completely unimportant.

The “female warrior” narratives try to sell us some sort of a feminized version of a nerdy teenage boy’s Spiderman fantasy. “I will discover superpowers and will beat up all the men boys on the playground.” When that fantasy is projected on a female protagonist, silliness ensues. Let’s remember that the only battle that Buffy, a far more interesting and complex “female warrior” than Katniss, never manages to win is the one over the right to practice her sexuality as she sees fit. As a woman, i.e. a person who owns her female body, Buffy is a complete and utter failure.

For as long as I’ve been a reader, I have been searching for a female character I could identify with. Male characters like that abound. In The Hunger Games, for example, I feel a lot of affinity for Haymitch. Katniss, however, is as removed from my way of being Bella Swan is. The only real difference between the two is that Katniss is a little clumsier at performing patriarchal female roles: she mothers, albeit reluctantly, both children and adult men, she gradually learns to sell sex, and her entire existence belongs to her family.

And she can shoot a mean arrow. Whoop dee do. How very feminist of her.

44 thoughts on “Is The Hunger Games a Feminist Novel?”

  1. Well, you’re technically a little incorrect in your view that women are inevitably weaker than men. There are a hell of lot of martial arts techniques I could use on an untrained man that would put him in a very nasty place indeed. Ultimately, this is simply a fact for me to know, which has little use apart from that I’m reassured if I’m alone that I can probably take care of myself in most situations.

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    1. Technically she is bang on. If you didnt notice, it would take a trained woman(you) to put an untrained man in a “nasty place”. Truth be told, if the man was trained you would be in that place.

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      1. Um. Yes, indeedy. Hohum. Have we proven some kind of point? What does the trained man look like? From which direction is he coming? Does he have some kind of weapon and mean business, or is he just standing still and lounging around? Has the guy been drinking? Is he standing in the light or in the dark? What are his personal habits?

        Since you are in the business of telling me ‘truths’, I’d like to know all of them about this particular man, before I decide whether you have a point or not.

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  2. Well, you’re technically a little incorrect in your view that women are inevitably & invariably weaker than men. There are a hell of lot of martial arts techniques I could use on an untrained man that would put him in a very nasty place indeed. Ultimately, this is simply a fact for me to know, which has little use apart from that I’m reassured if I’m alone that I can probably take care of myself in most situations.

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  3. It’s a lot more feminist to give a female character a UNIQUE PERSONALITY than forcing them to conform to some kind of female warrior stereotype.

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  4. //The good news, however, is that this doesn’t matter any more. The world has changed, and the brute physical force means nothing.

    May be a bit off-topic: Has it ever mattered enough to explain patriarchy, esp. since at home women took care of animals, etc., while men were plowing fields? And were working on fields too.

    My bet is that the difference lies in only recently discovered reliable contraception, not in how muscle strength became less important.

    “she gradually learns to sell sex” – Haven’t read the book, so want to ask – does she do it not to starve? At which age?

    Would you recommend this book? I keep hearing how good they’re, but so far don’t feel interested in the premise. That’s from Harry Potter fan, it doesn’t have to be classic for me to enjoy.

    May be you’ll read and review one day the 3rd Harry Potter book “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”? It was even more famous than this series and it’s the best book of the series I enjoyed.

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    1. —she gradually learns to sell sex” – Haven’t read the book, so want to ask – does she do it not to starve? At which age?

      Clarissa has been a bit too clinical here… 🙂 She is referring to multiple kisses, given under the (correct) impression that she is giving those kisses to keep both herself and her partner alive.

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      1. “Clarissa has been a bit too clinical here…”

        – I’m a literary critic. And it’s a book. 🙂 With an unreliable 1st person narrator. Everything is a symbol of something, and I’m trying to read them.

        For example, her relationships with Prim and Rue are evidence that she has assumed the Mother role without even starting to assume the intermediate role of a sexual woman. Her femininity is developing along the lines of a nurturer whose sexuality is only used to benefit others, as something that allows her to be a good nurturer.

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      2. I agree with you analysis of Rue vs Prim. But that “selling sexual favors” passage, though formally correct, is totally misleading. No wonder El understood you the way she did.

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    2. Contraception always existed. There were over 100 known abortifacients in medieval Spain, for example. Today’s contraception is actually a lot more limited than the kind women had available in, say, 1012.

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      1. Do you want to say that then women could prevent pregnancies *as well* as now? Why didn’t they do it then? How those methods, had they been really so good, weren’t known in US not far ago f.e. when women died in back alley abortions?

        Weren’t those abortifacients harmful and unreliable? I mean, you wouldn’t want to use them as the preferred method of contraception nowadays. Something existed, yes, but the Pill was snatched by women as hot cakes, even the 1st, more harmful versions. Good condoms in mass production are quite recent too.

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        1. Of course, they did do it. Every tiny village in Medieval Spain had a woman who provided contraception, administered abortion, and restored virginities. She also set dates for people.

          The industrial society made that difficult because it’s impossible to find all those plants and herbs in big cities.

          Most of our knowledge on how women “always” lives comes from the XIXth century and after. The reality of women in pre-industrial times was different.

          I recently read somebody’s post that said “For millenia, women stayed home and took care of babies while men worked.” That’s a prime example of projecting towards the past one’s very recent memories.

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  5. For the Hunger Games specifically, it isn’t nonsense to imagine women winning because these kinds of survival scenarios aren’t about straight up athletic ability. Believe me, I’m not particularly athletic and have no special training but tend to do extremely well at in-the-woods survival games. A big reason why is that I know how to handle myself in the woods.

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    1. The point is that people who have no idea how to handle themselves in the woods, are completely non-athletic and can’t lift anything heavier than a sandwich can easily be a lot more successful, comfortable, happy and rich than people who can do all those things. These are non-essential skills nowadays, which I think is great and very helpful to feminist goals.

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  6. The Hunger Games novels are only feminist in the context of the many, many, non-feminist or even anti-feminist works out there.

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    1. That’s a good observation. This is the reason why many people saw Sex and the City as feminist. Every time when the female protagonist is not a completely useless whiny idiot, it seems like a very refreshing feminist gesture.

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  7. The shorter version of the reason why Americans have decided this is a feminist book is because Americans think that feminism means turning women into men. Men are the default, and women are the damaged creatures who need to act like men in order to conceal their deficient, non-male qualities. It’s a very frontier attitude: women are seen as weak and burdens and things that need to be protected and always in the way of the man and his important projects. Femininity is seen as a weakening influence on male strength, which is needed to conquer the wilderness. To get accepted women have to at least act like men. That’s why female athletes are considered feminist symbols, while a woman who runs her own small business out of her home is seen as a housewife.

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    1. What a great comment. was thinking in this direction, too, but I never connected it to the frontier mentality. Now it’s getting much clearer. Of course, that’s got to be why all these narratives of female physical feats are so popular in this country.

      “That’s why female athletes are considered feminist symbols, while a woman who runs her own small business out of her home is seen as a housewife.”

      – Really? How utterly ridiculous.

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    2. I agree with this, also. I think in some ways–at least in fiction/pop culture–we’re managing to shift away from this; I’m thinking specifically of Rapunzel in TANGLED. But if a girl needs to be physically strong for the role an author/producer puts her in, we’re right back to having a boy with girl parts. There’s got to be some way to fix this.

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  8. I’d be really interested to see your opinion of/reaction to DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth, which is similar to THE HUNGER GAMES, but IMHO a stronger effort in just about every way. I like THE HUNGER GAMES (at least the first one; the next two felt much weaker to me), but DIVERGENT was amazing.

    I’m so very glad that YA lit is doing this. When I was a teen, all I had to read were things like the Sweet Valley series and horror novels by RL Stine. YA lit was so bare and shallow that I had to read adult lit to get any mental exercise. Which was probably good for me, but I’m really glad that teens these days get things that are on their level and relate to their issues.

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    1. Thinking teens need to read things that are “on their level” is really patronizing. When I was a teen I read some YA stuff (we had Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton, not crap like Stine and whatever those Sweet Valley things are supposed to me), but I found most of that written at too juvenile a level for me. I read adult books because they were more satisfying to me. I read Dumas and Dickens because I wanted to.

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      1. One woman, who used to work at the children’s bookstore, shared that they put the kinds of books a child might get assigned in school in YA. So 3 Musketeers and Jane Eyre found their way to YA shelves.

        In short, don’t worry, you all have been reading YA, age appropriate lit. 🙂

        Also want to make a distinction between 12-year-old and 15-year-old. Technically, both are classified as teens, but most 12-year-olds wouldn’t be up to reading “War and Peace”. Books like Dumas, Louis Henri Boussenard’s adventure novels which I enjoyed, etc. don’t demand as much as “real”, serious adult books.

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      2. My issue was that I learned to read so early that I was reading YA lit at 8 or 9 years old. When I shifted to adult lit, I wasn’t ready for the concepts and spent a lot of time confused about what was going on. But there wasn’t anything at my level (and I in no way mean to be condescending about that, but *I* wasn’t nearly ready for the heavy political or sexual stuff that was going on in some of the stuff I was reading, and I partially blame my incredibly sheltered upbringing for that) that was in any way interesting to me, so I didn’t have a whole lot of choice. If I’d had THE HUNGER GAMES or HARRY POTTER or any of the really good YA lit that’s coming out these days, I think the transition to adult literature wouldn’t have been nearly as jarring. Also, I would have loved to have characters my own age or only a little bit older to relate to.

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      3. I learned to read at such a young age I don’t remember not knowing how to read. I think I was about four. Of course I read age-appropriate stuff — I didn’t claim to have read David Copperfield when I was that young! But by the time I was twelve, I was no longer any kind of child when it came to reading. I think that was also the age when I was allowed access to the rest of the library (really — the library had rules about what age kids were allowed to check books out on their own and some even wouldn’t let kids into any part of the library but the children’s section).

        By the way, books like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers were usually abridged — that is, their bulk heavily cut down — for the volumes in the children’s section. I read the full versions after the cutup ones didn’t satisfy me. But books weren’t chopped up just for kids — That was the age of Readers Digest Condensed Books. My parents had a collection of them — everyone did. Several big novels reduced to their core components, put in a volume, and sold to Americans who wanted to get the gist of famous books without actually having to read the whole things. I don’t really understand the reasoning behind them — something about preventing middle class Americans from looking stupid at cocktail parties when someone started to talk about the latest Herman Wouk.

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        1. Abridged editions of great novels sound hilarious and very sad at the same time. I once a bought an abridged edition by mistake and I never felt as ripped off before or since.

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      4. One more thing: I’ve never really understood that need of people to have characters they can “relate to” because they are their own age, or any other characteristic. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t given a choice: I could either read about a male swashbucklers in their late twenties and older who lived in 1600s France, or read the back of cereal boxes. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff I found interesting (mysteries, adventure novels, science fiction, fantasy) didn’t have as their main protagonists twelve-year-old white girls from 1970s America. I can see the reasoning behind a lot of YA that is sold to middle-class white kids having protagonists that are middle class white kids so they can “identify” with the characters and presumably care more about them — but I think that’s a mistake. Reading about people different from myself expanded my horizons, even if they were just doing other bad things (like reinforcing the patriarchal notion that men had the adventures while women stayed at home — but fortunately I had my family to disabuse me of the idea that being a woman meant limiting myself to home-husband-kids). I think giving kids books that have characters “they can identify with” only reinforces the idea that they themselves are unique special snowflakes, and that their viewpoint — say, that of a middle-class white kid in the Midwest — is the default viewpoint for humanity, because if it wasn’t why were all the stories they read only about kids like themselves?

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        1. What you are saying is definitely a huge issue. As a college professor, the greatest hurdle I face is introducing students to the possibility that other perspectives exist.

          This was a really huge issue with my Ivy League students. It’s like they’d spent their entire lives in a steel bubble, completely divorced from any alternative vision of reality. I really had to struggle to bring it to their attention that the world where people have trouble paying their bills actually exists.
          Things are better with state school students. At least, I don’t get the statements like, “I have no idea why anybody would stay working in the US in the summer instead of going traveling in Europe.”

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      5. Good God. I could never be a teacher in such an environment. I’d never stop banging my head against the wall.

        I keep going back to my childhood but that’s where my personality was shaped. My parents were from a generation that took the idea of broadening your mind and experience very seriously. They had friends from all walks of life that were available in Miami — rich people, poor people, black people, Cuban people. We traveled as much as our limited budget would allow, mostly the southern US but my high school graduation present was a trip to Europe which we could barely afford. It wasn’t like the rich kids’ summers in Switzerland or wherever. My mother came with me. We got a Britrail pass and a Eurail pass and took the trains everywhere, just us two and we’d go on day tours or just find our own way around. We were there about three weeks — it was supposed to be six, but the money ran out a little faster than we thought it would. This was in 1981 so when we went to Germany it was just the West part…

        But this whole thing, about cocooning and only knowing people just like you and basically being a mushroom, was supposed to be something to avoid. Sometime in the 80s this started to change, and now we have two generations who can’t handle anything different from what they’ve always known. We’ve gone backwards. It’s very depressing.

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      6. I grew up with my parents’ bookshelves too. This meant I was reading girls’ own schools stories with plucky lasses solving all sorts of problems while still at boarding school (and how I longed to go to boarding school and do the same!), Malcolm Saville adventure stories, science fiction by writers such as CS Lewis and Asimov, and then onto the Penguin books, Penguin Classics, Miss Read series and so on.

        I read what was available, which was a lot thank goodness. I never needed to go the library as I had a pretty extensive one at home, and I wasn’t too worried how suitable it was for a teenage girl.

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    2. ??? Divergent is not at all different in the ways Clarissa describes. Tris spends the entire book fantasizing about a romance with a boy. Her entire narrative is driven by her feelings for him, desire to be with him, etc. At least Katniss’s romances are ancillary to the plot in book 1, and her identity is not entirely bound up with her feelings for a man.

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  9. In HARRY POTTER JKR tried to put issues of prejudice against “Mudbloods” (part-wizard, part-usual relatives), of government’s stupid and/or vicious bureaucracy (main theme of 5th book with a vicious bureaucrat as the main villain), public opinion swaying according to the latest yellow paper report, etc. That she made quite a mess towards the series’ end speaks not against YA, but against her ability to give justice to so many complicated topics.

    I too read books like Dumas and Boussenard at age of 9-10. I read Gulliver’s Travels too f.e., but didn’t understand the satire. At least, don’t remember understanding it. Good YA together with Dumas-type books would make introduction to complicated topics easier, make me aware of those topics at all at a younger age. And by good YA, I don’t mean here relationship sex-ed Judy Blume’s stories (read “Forever” at high school), but books like THE HUNGER GAMES and, yes, Harry Potter, which would interest me more.

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