April 10, 2012
this isn't going to have a happy ending
You should probably read this first.
Housekeeping: it's legitimate to accuse me of being drunk or a terrible writer, both are true. But you can't say I didn't read the book and didn't see the movie. I know I did, I was there.
When I say Katniss was continuously robbed of agency, that's a simple fact. Let's examine the commonly cited counterexample that she killed two people by dropping a hornet's nest on them. Didn't that require her to plan and act, to know the consequences? Isn't that agency?
Chekov famously said "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there" but the flip of that is that if you don't put a pistol on the wall in the first act, you can't suddenly have the main character find a pistol on the wall. Unless you're writing a fairy tale.
So when Katniss is desperate, trapped in a tree, and has no recourse-- and suddenly someone points out that there is this immensely lethal object right next to her, maybe it's a hornet's nest and maybe it's a thermal detonator-- so the story then has to take a three minute pause so an omniscient narrator can explain to the audience what it is because we had no knowledge of this before, "oh, it's magic bees," then there are only two possibilities: 1. Deus ex machina. 2. It's a terribly written story. I favor 1, but I'm open to 2. Oh, and it kills everyone but Peeta, that's lucky.
The standard adulation for The Hunger Games is that it has a strong female protagonist who is, and I quote, "a badass." Is she more of a badass than Alice from Resident Evil? Come the zombie apocalypse, do you go Team Katniss or Team Alice? Not who it's cooler to say you'd pick; assume you have a 5 year old daughter with one hit point left whose life depends on your selection. Because I'm arguing that it does.
Obviously you go with Alice, which is also why she isn't popular among women: There's no aspiration, no wish fulfillment, it's too fantastic, too impossible because Alice is, in fact, a superhero. It's not real.
But Katniss isn't a superhero, and "women can identify with her." Ok, which part? She isn't better than her competitors. Thresh is still tougher, Cato faster, Foxface more ninjalike, etc. And to reiterate, Katniss is carried through the movie by deus ex machina or continuously saved by other people. So why is she a badass and not, say, Peeta, who spends the entire movie sacrificing himself for her?
I want you to pick one single scene that you think best epitomizes her badassness. Got it? You sure? Take a moment. The one scene you'd show your friends. "Check this out: badass."
Is it any of the scenes displaying her spectacular inability to hit moving targets at close range? No? But it has something to do with the bow, right? Otherwise these wouldn't exist:
I'm not a hater, follow the logic. Nothing she does makes her a badass. What makes her a badass is that men underestimate her. If you don't believe me, what scene did you pick? The same one the audience did, the one that made them cheer the loudest, "wwoooooooohhhh!!!!!!"
There's a banquet and the contestants have to show off their skills, but the overlords are eating a roast pig and bored with Katniss (because she misses a target) so Katniss turns her arrow towards them and shoots an apple. Katniss says, "you better recognize, mothafuckas!", flashes a gang sign, and the audience swoons. That's when she's a badass. Yes, she was wonderful in the Games, I'm sure, but what got your adrenaline going, what made her a badass, is showing off her abilities-- to men. That's why more than half of this movie takes place before the Games-- it's all about showing what you can do, showing your capabilities. Badass = showing she can compete on a male level. (1)
In the actual Games, Katniss is continuously saved by men-- Haymitch, Peeta, Peeta again, Thresh-- but you don't notice that she saves no one, including herself, you think she saves herself all the time. You think this because of the first half of the movie told you she's a badass, so you don't realize that during the second half she shows less agency than Princess Jasmine.
And the reason why showing off-- or, as the movie ever so subtly puts it, "showing them up"-- is so important is that women still secretly believe they are inferior to men. I know most of you aren't going to want to hear that, and, indeed, the vast majority of you will woefully willfully misquote me as having said, "women are inferior to men," but that's because your brain is broken. I read the book. You need to read with a highlighter.
Haymitch, played by a man, says this to a woman, played by Katniss:
You know how you stay alive? You get people to like you. Oh, not what you were expecting?
No, unfortunately it's exactly what I was expecting. Thanks Dad.
If you are angry at me you are not reading your own words. This is bigger than Katniss, this is the state of human progress. If it helps, imagine you have a five year old daughter you have to raise in the midst of aspirational images with long legs and no power of agency, and your worry is no longer "will she grow up and find a job?" or even "will she grow up and get married?" but "will she be so conflicted about herself that she is unable to choose a career or pick a nice man from the hundreds of options that present themselves to her because she is ever anxious that any choice is the wrong choice because she only gets conflicting messages from everyone on earth?" That's the world I'm stuck in, and though I haven't burned a bra in years I do somewhat rely on feminists to nudge the bar consistently higher so my theoretical daughters don't have to rely on penis or Prozac to live happily ever after. So where my girls at? I found about a million fawning feminist reviews of The Hunger Games which all contain some version of this paragraph:
Katniss, in this season of woman-hating, is a stunning example of feminism at its finest hour. She is compassionate, yet strong. She cares deeply about her family. While she is tempted to run away with Gale, instead of leaving her sister and mother to fend for themselves, she stays to support them.
Lord have mercy on all our souls, I'll take my chances with Alice and a zombie attack. None of those things are feminism, those aren't even praiseworthy. Those are basic, ordinary, unremarkable characteristics of every reasonable human being for 6000 years, and all animals. But that's the bar the reviewer has set for Katniss, for feminism. That's the fantasy world she'd like to see women eventually get to. So either a) she has an unconsciously cynical view of women in general; or b) she has been tricked by the system about what it is to advance as a woman, i.e she's in The Matrix. Here's the problem: she's a woman. She represents women. She is a feminist, but she does not see that Katniss is allowed to exist precisely because she isn't a threat to men but women can think she is. If I was a 15 year old girl, and I'm not saying I'm not, then what is being communicated to me by the feminist praise of this book is that my future expectations are low. Maybe-- MAYBE-- if I work real hard I might someday surprise a boy, "wow, I never would have guessed!" Can't wait till I grow up.
The feminists missed this, all of this, and it is their job not to miss this. What they yelled about is the racism of a small audience, to avoid facing the sexism in themselves. And, by the way, the racism in themselves: Jezebel jumped on the racism against black actors because they are stupid. I'm sorry, that's just the way it is. Do you know why Thresh doesn't kill Katniss but instead lets her go? Because Thresh is black.
The boy tribute from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He's one of the giants, probably six and half feet tall and built like an ox.
Black guy= strength, so his letting her go is a signal of her value as a temporary equal. This is a repeat of the 1980s trope that a (white) weakling being bullied winds up being saved by black gang members: "Eugene is a friend o' ours, so we best not hear no mo' trouble." Thresh doesn't happen to be black, Thresh is intentionally black, a stereotype, for that scene to occur, because to a white woman, no one knows the value of a person's life better than a slightly retarded giant homicidal black guy. "He's bad, but he has a internal code of honor." Oh. You know you're stupid, right? In other words, the racists in Central Time are less racist than Suzanne Collins. Bet you didn't see that coming. Which is my whole point: no one saw any of this coming, they saw a woman with a bow and flipped the hell out. Katniss is a role model for girls like Thresh is a role model for blacks. I look forward to your deranged responses. (2)
Katniss lives in a patriarchy, sure there are some women but they look completely insane, which trivializes them. Odd that no feminists noticed that. They are all wicked stepmothers-- a problem, but not the problem. The problem is all the men with all the power, and any women who have power have it only because they are hooked up with more powerful men. Katniss seems like a lone hero, outside all this, but she she always defers to that patriarchy, and relies on it, operates within the rules of the society but, and this is what makes her a "badass"-- she tests limits. Postures for the cameras. Says the right things, but says them with a slightly rebellious inflection. Feels like 15 again.
Deconstuctionists like to ask easy questions like, "why is a story for 15 year old girls so popular among middle aged women?" They asked this about Twilight, too, but it's not at all surprising that these books are popular among middle aged women who still secretly believe women are second behind men. Not in terms of theoretical potential, perhaps, but they've grown up in a world with enough experiences that they can't shake it. It's still a man's world.
The real question is why it's popular among 15 year old girls? 15 year old girls should, in theory, have grown up without 1970s sexism. Schools are hypervigilant about fostering girls development, and there are enough female everythings that it's not remarkable that there are female anythings.
And yet here we are, teen girls are reading fairy tales. This book should not resonate with 15 year olds, not this much. Which means that these girls are still getting sexist signals from somewhere, and, follow the trail, those signals came from the 40 year old women who like the story, i.e. "feminists." This is what I mean when I say the system no longer needs men to maintain the status quo: it has feminists doing the job for it.
Please, please, don't misunderstand me, I have nothing against The Hunger Games, it's an entertaining story, I am not criticizing the book, I am criticizing you. If it won an Oscar or the world declared this the next Star Wars and made action figures and lunchboxes I wouldn't say a bad word about it, what's it to me if it makes people happy? Enjoy what you like, it doesn't have to have deep meaning to be worthwhile.
But what makes me reach for the now empty bottle is how women have convinced themselves and each other that this is a pro-feminist story. Do you not see what is happening? You are being lied to, by yourselves.
1. See also Katy Perry's empowerment represented by training with the Marines.
2. Oh boy. Yes, Thresh is retarded. In the movie this is not revealed at all-- probably because the poor director couldn't take it anymore, but in the book he has stilted speech, limited vocabulary, one word answers. The alternative interpretation is that English isn't his native tongue-- i.e., he is a giant, black, cotton picking, immigrant. I'll let you decide which interpretation is worse. None of this occurred to anyone? Outstanding.
More on the future of feminism here.