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.

Rue’s Race

Were there really readers who thought that Rue was ” the little blonde innocent girl you picture“? The text says specifically – and on a variety of occasions – that she has dark skin and thick black hair.

One has to have major issues going on to imagine a character described this way as “blonde.”

As a literary critic, I find it very curious when people impose their own psychological problems on the text. I’m now reading criticism on a novel where a 50-year-old protagonist leaves her husband and finds a much younger lover. Many male critics of that age bracket obviously bring something deeply personal to the reading of the book and give strange moralistic rants on how it’s wrong to leave one’s husband right in the middle of their scholarly articles!

I also remember how a very famous critic read the scene where a former husband viciously brutalizes his ex-wife as evidence that their relationship had progressed and they would now be very happy together.

The good news is that in literary criticism such things are rare enough to be memorable. In sociology, however, people do nothing but sell their psychological hangups as scholarship.

Hunger Games: A Review

On the advice of reader V., I read the first book in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games.  This is not my genre but I wasn’t risking anything since Amazon gives these books out for free on Kindle.

I have to say that, considering the genre, the book is quite good. The prose is nothing to write home about but, in spite of the impotence of the vocabulary and the hobbled nature of the grammar structures, there is nothing in this book even remotely resembling the vicious injuries to the English language one has seen in the Twilight series.

Hunger Gameis highly entertaining and it reads very easily. As you can see, I read it in a day (a bout of regular Friday night insomnia helped.) The premise has been a little overdone, of course. As I read, I kept wondering why it is that societies that suffer from obesity enjoy fantasizing about starvation so much. I guess such fantasies tickle their appetites and allow them to eat more than they could normally manage to stuff into themselves. I know that all the descriptions of endless meals made me eat like a maniac yesterday.

The main problem I had with the book is how completely inconsistent the main character was. I understand that this is the fantasy genre, but there has got to be at least a pretense at some internal logic in the novel. Katniss, who is extremely self-sufficient, strong, resilient and opinionated, suffers from a debilitating lack of self-esteem. She somehow manages not to know that she is attractive and spends the entire novel alternating between feats of self-reliance and profound belief in herself with extremely obnoxious and unmotivated bouts of “But it isn’t possible that he likes me. Oh, of course he doesn’t like me. And nobody likes me. And this is all a conspiracy because there is no way anybody likes me. And, of course, he, of all people, doesn’t like me. And people in general don’t like me. And if somebody says in public that he is in love with me, it will make everybody laugh at me because I’m probably five years old and I think being loved makes adults look ridiculous.” To me, it made zero sense.

Another problem was that I had to make a huge effort to remember that these characters are supposed to be 16. Peeta, for example, behaves like a very mature 40-year-old man. If anybody has seen this kind of 16-year-old boys, especially among those who, within the structure of their society, are considered sheltered, please let me know.

Later on, I will write a separate post addressing the issue of whether this is a feminist book. This is a debate that has been raging for a while and even The Nation has an article on the subject in its most recent issue, so I want to share my point of view.

This is the end of the academic year and I’m in need of light, distracting reading matter. This means that I will definitely be reading the next two books in the series. I’m not planning on watching the movie because, for one, I have no doubt that Hollywood has made exactly the kind of product that the book tries to criticize: flashy, gaudy, full of obnoxious special effects, with half-naked surgically altered starlets rolling in the mud for the delectation of the viewing audience. Every last shred of the timid social critique that the novel offers will have been excised form the movie.

Besides, I have no doubt that the film producers have cast 25-year-old starlets to play 16-year-old characters. The only people who can play 16-year-olds are either actual 16-year-olds or extremely talented performers of the caliber that Hollywood is not familiar with. Otherwise, this becomes a huge circus where adult men and women pretend to be kids, making themselves look ridiculous in the process.

Of course, if there are people who are willing to tell me that the movie is not that bad, I’m willing to listen.

Do share whether you liked the novel and why. I’m very interested in how people feel about it.

Classics Club #1: Nancy Milford’s Zelda

I really enjoyed Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Sayre, the wife of one of my favorite writers, F.S. Fitzgerald. This is a tragic story of a woman who realized that being nothing but a wife even to the most brilliant, fascinating, adoring and faithful man in the world (because Fitzgerald was all that to Zelda) is not enough to fulfill a human being.

At first, Zelda was very happy in her marriage to Scott. They were the most glamorous couple of the twenties, admired and celebrated by everybody. Gradually, however, Zelda started to realize that her life lacked meaning. Scott had his work while she had nothing of her own. She was too smart to be content with living her life as an appendage to a famous writer.

Zelda’s dream became to excel in something and manage to make her own living. However, she had no education and lacked the simple knowledge of how much work and effort one needed to invest to become even just simply mediocre at anything.

At first, she decided to become a ballet dancer but the need to practice on a regular basis was too much for her, and Zelda ended up at a clinic with a nervous breakdown. Then, she chose the career of a writer. The problem with that plan was that the only material she could write about was her life with Fitzgerald, and he’d already written about that with the skill he’d acquired from the regular practice of his craft. Zelda simply could not compete, which made her suffer. Later on, Zelda tried her hand at painting. The perseverance and strength needed to practice any of her chosen professions were not there, though.

Every time she failed, Zelda withdrew deeper into mental illness. She spent years going from one institution to another. Scott, who loved her passionately, struggled to pay for her expensive medical care, for their living expenses, and for the education of their daughter for whom he was the only actual caretaking parent. Having seen what a lack of an education and a career had done to his wife, Fitzgerald was obsessed by offering his daughter Scottie the best education he could.

Milford’s biography of Zelda is very well-researched and offers a very convincing and poignant story of the horror implied in the “two people, one career” model of a romantic relationship.

Classics Club

Some talented and curious people are organizing a Classics Club for bloggers. Here is the information in case you want to join this great endeavor. I visited some of the blogs by people who have joined the club and they are really amazing folks who love reading. I wish my students could see these blogs and realize how silly their “I hate reading!” sounds.

The first step of the Classics Challenge is to make a list of 50+ classic work of literature you pledge to read in the next 5 years. The beauty of the project is that nobody will dictate to you what should go on the list of classics, so you can create your own canon. And you have an excuse to read books you always wanted to read but never got around to doing it. I always feel so guilty for reading anything that is not research-related that it’s good to be part of an initiative that will take the guilt away.

I’m putting the bulk of this post under the fold to avoid cluttering people’s Google reader feeds.

Continue reading “Classics Club”

Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Part I

I keep looking for a source of information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would at least try to depart from the “bad Jews/good Arabs” or “bad Arabs/good Jews” model. Both of these approaches are equally reductive and offensive. Still, I’m getting a feeling that nobody is even attempting to discuss the issue in any other manner. Initially, I had high hopes for Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine but I have to admit that the book has been a serious disappointment. I listed some of my objections to Pappe’s writing here but that was only the beginning.

For some incomprehensible reason, Pappe decided to alienate every Jewish reader – even the potentially anti-Israel and pro-Palestiane one – from the get go. It is hard for a Jewish person to remain open to a point of view that insistently equates the displacement of the Palestinian people from their villages with the Holocaust. I don’t see why it is so necessary to equate two such different events at all. The forcible removal of the Palestinians is a horrible, horrible crime and a huge tragedy. But it cannot even begin to compare to the Holocaust. Pappe tries to make the two tragedies similar by making it hard to figure out that the Palestinians were displaced from their villages without being killed. (It took me a while, for example, to realize that when Pappe says, “Village X was destroyed,” he is forgetting to mention that only the physical buildings were destroyed (or simply damaged), while the people were not.)

Ilan Pappe is altogether very careless about the Holocaust. He discusses it as a reality that has certain bearing on the actions of the international community. He says, for example, that after the Holocaust, any instance of ethnic cleansing in the world becomes impossible to conceal. This is a very strange statement to begin with, since the Holocaust was very obviously not an example of ethnic cleansing but of genocide. As Pappe explains at length, ethnic cleansing does not involve the mass murder of the displaced ethnicity while the genocide does. At the same time, there is no discussion in the book of how the Holocaust might have influenced the Jews. To the contrary, Pappe suggests time and again that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would exist in pretty much the same form had the Holocaust never happened.

For those who manage to keep reading the book even in the face of this cavalier dismissal of the Holocaust, Pappe brings out the argument that will surely convince any person who does not passionately hate the Jews as a group to stop reading. I am speaking, of course, of the trope of the greedy Jew.

For a while, the suggestion of Jewish greediness is made without the direct use of the word “greedy”. This allows a reader to keep convincing herself that she is being too sensitive and is imagining anti-Semitism where there is none. Until, that is, a story of “a greedy Tel-Aviv municipality” that sets out to steal the crop of oranges grown by hard-working Palestinians. And the story of the “monstrous villas and extravagant palaces for rich American Jews” that have been created because of “constructors’ greed” and that are disfiguring the architectural ensemble of Jerusalem. And many other stories of greedy, dishonest Jews who don’t create anything of their own but, rather, steal the fruits of the labor of others. (The words “exploit” and “exploitation” appear constantly in the text to describe the intentions of the Jews.)

(To be continued. . .)

P.S. I would very much like to avoid the third-grade level of discussion of this serious issue that such debates almost always slip down to. This is why I’m asking everybody to refrain from the egregiously unintelligent analysis of who was where “first” and whom “this land initially belonged to.” I have to issue this warning because I looked through the Amazon reviews of the book and this is all I have seen there.

Paulo Freire Is the Enemy of the People (Says Arizona)

Arizona’s persecution of its Spanish-speaking populations and everything that has to do with Hispanic Studies has progressed to the point where books are now banned in Tucson schools:

The list of removed books includes the 20-year-old textbook “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years,” which features an essay by Tucson author Leslie Silko. . . Other banned books include “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by famed Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and “Occupied America: A History of Chicanos” by Rodolfo Acuña, two books often singled out by Arizona state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal, who campaigned in 2010 on the promise to “stop la raza.” Huppenthal, who once lectured state educators that he based his own school principles for children on corporate management schemes of the Fortune 500, compared Mexican-American studies to Hitler Jugend indoctrination last fall.

When you get to the point where you ban Paulo Freire and Rethinking Columbus, there is no hope for you. I always thought that schools were places that promoted learning and reading, that they fostered the culture of appreciating the written word. And now books are banned? And such brilliant books, too?

I say, let’s not stop there. Let’s start burning books that offer the world-view that a Fortune 500-inspired bureaucrat finds incompatible with his limited vision of reality.

Jeez, people. This cannot be happening in a place that wants to call itself civilized.

My gratitude goes to reader PAF who sent in this information.

Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84: A Review

I never thought I could enjoy a fantasy novel. I also doubted that I needed to read another book by Murakami. He is not among my favorite authors. I find him far too desperate to sell himself to Western readers for my taste. In this respect, he reminds me of Garcia Marquez whose novels were always about exoticizing and cutesefying Colombia as much as possible in search of global popularity and massive sales.

The main reason why I pre-ordered Murakami’s 1Q84, I have to confess, was its length. If a book runs to almost 1,000 pages, I absolutely need to have it. It’s a compulsion I cannot resist. I didn’t have any great expectations for the novel which is why I was really shocked by how much I enjoyed it.

Murakami still cannot keep his exaggerated desire to be relevant to his Western readers in check. Among all of the literary references in the novel (some of which are quite lengthy), there is a single Japanese one. Other than that one work of Japanese literature, the characters read Chekhov, Proust, Orwell, Dostoevsky, etc. The novel is filled with explanations of the “In Japan, banks work this way” and “Japanese police officers do this and that” variety that are, obviously, of no use to Japanese readers and that sound very strange in the mouth of a Japanese character talking to her friend. For instance, can you imagine regaling your childhood buddy with the information that, “In the US, we use ATMs to withdraw money”? Still, there is a lot less of this in 1Q84 than there is, for example, in Norwegian Wood.

The fantasy aspect of the novel did not annoy me in the least. The reason why I didn’t mind it in 1Q84 when I mind it everywhere else to a degree that borders on paranoid is that fantasy in this novel does not exist for its own sake. The Little People and the air chrysalises play a very limited role of highlighting how empty, emotionally barren and castrated the lives of all of the characters are.

The characters of Murakami’s novel are so completely lonely, miserable and emotionally stunted that the only two of them who had a single moment of actual human contact when they held hands at the age of ten are the truly privileged ones. The rest do not even have that.

The Japan Murakami brings to us in 1Q84 is a place where people are so profoundly alienated that any one of them can drop off the face of the earth at any moment and nobody will even notice. And the scariest thing is that none of them seems to be even remotely conscious that there is something abnormal in living in a complete emotional and relational vacuum. By page 250, you get so desperate reading about the robotic existences of these characters that the irruption of fantastic elements feels entirely welcome. The mysterious evil Little People pose enough of a threat to propel the apathetic protagonists of the novel into some sort of reevaluation of their bereft existences.

Murakami’s trademark machismo is absent from this book. His tendency to resolve all of the conflicts and terminate all of the plot lines by getting the characters to kill themselves is almost gone, too, which is very refreshing. In this novel, Murakami has dramatically improved his not inconsiderable strengths while eliminating most of his weaknesses.

I have no knowledge of Japan that would enable me to judge whether there is some kind of a social reality behind the terrifying alienation described in 1Q84. What I can say, however, is that Murakami has definitely outdone himself in this novel. It is incomparably better than his previous work and I highly recommend it. If you never read Murakami before, start with this novel. It will take you forever to read it, but it will be a very enjoyable forever.

Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: A Review, Part I

I’m a huge fan of Thomas Frank. His What’s the Matter With Kansas was absolutely brilliant. Since I discovered that great book, I’ve been following his articles and interviews and eagerly awaiting his new book.  You can just imagine how happy I was when I got the chance to read the proofs of his Pity the Billionaire, a book that analyzes the reasons behind the rise of the Tea Party movement. The book strives to answer the crucial question: how is it possible that the Americans’ response to the global economic crisis that happened as a result of unbridled free market practices led them to form a movement that would defend the free market rather than to a movement that would ask for regulations?

The book, however, turned out to be a massive disappointment. Frank’s trademark wit is gone. Aside from a few forced jokes, the book is written in a plodding, unimaginative style that I had no idea this author was even capable of.

His analysis of the “right renaissance” is also unimpressive. People who have been reading my blog for a while know that I’m no fan of the Tea Party. Still, I have to recognize that Frank is being intellectually dishonest in his characterization of the Tea Partiers. For instance, he blames them for the apocalyptic tone they often adopt and the doomsday scenarios they enjoy generating. This, however, is not a distinctive trait of just the Tea Partiers. It is just as present among the Progressives. The Liberal blogs I read are filled to the brim with endless apocalyptic scenarios. By the way, Slavoj Zizek’s 2009 book is titled Living in the End Times. You don’t get either more apocalyptic or more progressive than that.

Another fault that Frank ascribes to the Tea Partiers is that they erase the class distinctions and see no difference between a share-cropper and a small-business owner. Does this remind you of anything, by any chance? Yes, right you are, the #Occupy movement that lumps everybody who is not a billionaire into the imaginary downtrodden 99%.

Frank then proceeds to blame the Tea Party for its rhetoric of self-pity:

[They] advance their war on the world by means of a tearful weepy-woo. Self-pity has become central in the consciousness of the resurgent Right. Depicting themselves as victimized in any and every sitiation . . . is essential to their self-understanding.

Again, #OWS, anyone? Remember this statement from a prof with no debt, a house of his own and a wonderful life, who wallows in self-pity because his life is so complicated and anxiety devours him? So why do the Tea Partiers get blamed for their weepy-woo while Liberals don’t?

[To be continued. . .]

Some Authors Are Stupid

You know what I hate? When I’m reading a book, enjoying it, and then the author comes out with a bit of some utter idiocy that I can’t get over. And when I try to get over it, the idiot of the author keeps repeating the idiocy because they probably see it as some crowning achievement.

Here is the most recent example. I started reading a biography of the great Brazilian writer of Jewish-Ukrainian origins, Clarice Lispector. The author of the biography is no genius, but the book was OK, as far as biographies go. And then, for some mysterious reason, the author starts harping on the idea of Lispector’s supposed “strident feminism.” There is not a single example of the “stridency” of Lispector’s feminism given in the book, but the author keeps harping about it.

Lispector’s mother was gang-raped by a mob of soldiers, contracted syphilis during the rape, and died a horrible painful death as a result. The writer grew up in the supremely machista Brazil of the 30ies and the 40ies. She was a woman in a culture and a time that treated women as a heap of trash. Yes, Clarice Lispector was sensitive to violations of women’s rights. Does that give the right to some pathetic semi-literate biography-writer to dismiss her political convictions that he is not even capable of understanding?

In short, Benjamin Moser, the author of Lispector’s biography Why This World should be ashamed of himself. I’m never reading a single word by this silly hater of feminism ever again. And I suggest everybody do the same. A biographer who can’t respect the great writer he tries to discuss deserves to go broke.