By Bailey Shoemaker Richards
The Hunger Games trilogy is not just a series of books about a dystopian society. Although the books are written for a young adult audience, Suzanne Collins injects the books with enough metaphor, social commentary and allusions to Rome to keep me writing and talking for days. One of the most compelling aspects of the series, to me, was the idea of sexualization, objectification and autonomy. Katniss’s progression from starving teen to Mockingjay contains elements of sexualization and control that will be familiar to most young women, once we scratch the surface of the story.
The movie, which stayed remarkably true to the book, is one of the most encouraging aspects of the entire franchise thus far. Think about it: a woman-fronted action film that grossed $155 million dollars on its opening weekend and tells the story of a young woman whose clothes are never suggestively ripped, whose only romantic interest happens as a result of necessity, and who is allowed to develop into an ultimately very human character is almost unheard of in regular blockbuster flicks. Katniss never becomes the “strong female character” whose strength lies only in taking on masculine traits and being sexy for the male viewer, and the primary relationship in the story is Katniss’s love for her sister.
Elements of sexualization that occur in the plot, however, are also reflected in the movie, and I’ll assume for the sake of this writing that the trend of following the original narrative will continue in further movies. For example, Haymitch is both a result of the Capitol’s matrix of oppressions, but also a tool of them, at least initially. It is Haymitch who instructs Katniss to try to act likable, to play for the cameras, and who implicitly (at least in the books) tells Katniss that she must pretend to be in love with Peeta in order to survive – both during the Hunger Games and after.
Haymitch tells Katniss at the end of the first book that she must convince the Capitol that her act of rebellion in the arena was the result of crazed love, and not a deliberate attempt to undermine the authority of the Games (and it’s interesting, in the narrative, that Katniss herself isn’t sure what spurred her action). She is placed in frilly, cute dresses and made to giggle and prance before the cameras, to attempt to hide her own strength from the dangerous eye of the Capitol.
Katniss’ objectification at Cinna’s hands is an especially interesting part of the story. Although he is responsible for creating the outfits that make Katniss seem like she’s a lovesick young girl, he is also responsible for turning her into the girl on fire. And, in his own act of rebellion, he transforms Katniss into another symbol entirely. He takes President Snow’s demand that Katniss wear her wedding dress and changes it – and Katniss – from the inside into the Mockingjay, the ultimate symbol of revolt against the Capitol. The dress also becomes a symbol of Katniss’s rebellion against the state’s control of her body: she cannot be free to wear a wedding dress until she has fulfilled her role as the Mockingjay (and perhaps not even then). Until the Capitol no longer has control over Katniss, her sexuality is their tool, and a weapon they can use against her and the districts.
President Snow picks up on this tool, and he lets Katniss know that the act must continue. The spark of rebellion she showed in the arena has caught in other places, and he lets her know that if she does not contain it, the consequences will be dire; it as a result of this threat that Katniss is forced into an engagement with Peeta. The metaphor cannot be missed: Women’s strength is, in the right situations, an enormous threat to the existing authority. Oppression cannot hold if women come into their own power, and therefore men demand – either for women’s “protection,” or for the sake of holding on to that power – that we dress up in demure outfits, twirl in our gorgeous dresses, and mask our power behind a silly smile.
And, indeed, a Fox health blogger is absolutely terrified that reading and watching The Hunger Games will make “females” more likely to “be further distanced from their traditional feminine characteristics that … suggested they were not being ‘real girls’ if they were extremely physically violent.” Thanks for proving the thesis, middle-aged white man. Strong women, confident in their own abilities, who don’t adhere to “traditional feminine characteristics,” are a threat to the existing power structure, and must be reminded that our job is to appease that structure. The threat of an un-sexualized, self-confident woman is every bit as powerful in our own society as Katniss is to hers.
Katniss consistently has to fight against the Capitol’s attempt to turn her into an object of desire, a pretty bauble that can harm nothing – and in that attempt, she must become another symbol. The objectification of Katniss’s transformation into the Mockingjay may not be a sexualized change, but it is another wresting of Katniss’s power for the aims of others: she becomes a symbol of rebellion, rather than conformity, but she is still a symbol.
Ultimately, as with many dystopian novels, Katniss is left beaten and broken by her experiences. The fight that Katniss endured to secure her freedom from the Capitol, and eventually from District 13’s control, has completely changed the landscape of her world. The fight that Katniss endured is one that we all face, as society and media tell us again and again that our job is to sit down, look pretty, and play by their rules. It is only by subverting those rules that we can hope to enact changes that leave us stronger, and freer, than when we started playing the game.