The Hunger Games Trilogy: Catching Fire and the Purpose of Men

Thanks to reader V.’s recommendation, I have spent another sleepless night reading the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire. I found it to be a lot better than the first. The model of “one hero and a bunch of pathetic people and nasty evildoers” does nothing for me. In Catching Fire, though, that model is abandoned for the sake of a much more interesting model where people resist, cooperate, and there is no single hero who is a lot better at everything than everybody else. I have always been bothered by the “Superman plot” which revolves around the idea that we all need a hero with superhuman powers to save us all from our pathetic weaknesses.

What I find disconcerting in the novel, however, is how the male protagonist, Peeta, is presented as a person whose only goal and overpowering interest is to serve the needs of the “fair lady.” How would we feel about a 16-year-old female protagonist who tells a boy that her entire life is about him and that life has no meaning if he isn’t there? A female protagonist who shows no interest in her parents, siblings, or even pets, who has no friends of her own, who disappears when the boy she likes dismisses her and reappears as soon as he shows some interest or has need of her services? A female protagonist who tells the boy she wants to die so that he can go ahead and marry some other girl?

I think we  would all passionately condemn the novel as extremely patriarchal and promoting the image of women as subservient to men and as having no value of their own apart from male needs. Doesn’t it make sense for us, then, to feel equally bothered by a book that denies a male character any other role as being an uncomplaining and unquestioning servant of a girl?

The inhabitants of Panem at least manage to rebel against the authorities that enslave them. I hope Peeta does the same by the end of the 3rd novel in the trilogy.

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.