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Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hunger Games and Feminism

I went and saw The Hunger Games on opening weekend.

I went because I was hearing good things about the story the movie is based on and that I had heard good things about the movie itself from new outlets covering the response it had received starting Thursday night at midnight that week. I also went because the distopian future that is the backdrop of this story is in the vein of fiction that I enjoy absorbing.

I was very surprised when, shortly after seeing the film, I encountered this article (pasted here for completeness, even though it means potentially more traffic for the author of the article).

Just a word of warning. The linked article and the words below contain spoilers for the movie and books.

In addition to the remaining commentary below I want to point out that the author of the linked article is damaging the very core idea of Feminism by insisting that feminist ideal mean that the female character is superior in every way to those around them. This is a flawed idea and will not further the agenda of equality for all of humanity. The way to end the patriarchal society that humanity has created is the same way to end racism: treat everyone as a human regardless of their color or gender (or height or width, etc.). It will take two generations to stamp out the ideas if we treat everyone equally all the time. The ideas that people are different based on their gender or color are taught - if we continue to teach that, even with the idea of teaching to NOT do that, we are perpetuating the idea itself.

At the time that I read the article I created a facebook post to outline my problems with the article itself. Because I am lazy and did not feel like re-working that post for this blog post I am pasting the facebook post, as-is, here.... They're my words, I can re-use them.

I call BS on the article.
It has facts wrong and it has a skewed point of view to deliberately inflame the situation.
It's being deliberately obstinate and adversarial.

To start - there was a (probably) minor set of commentary among people... who did not like that Rue and Thresh were black. It even appears that their concern was that they had built concern and caring for the character of Rue after having built a picture of the character in their head of a (anything but black) little girl. In their eyes they wasted their caring on a character that they felt they should not have cared for because of her skin color. There are plenty of article out there on this and I like to think that the few twitter examples represent a very small portion of the overall population (sadly, I'm sure what I want that percentage to be is considerably less than it is).
Noting this is a fair point for this author and, to be fair, it is not what they are focusing on so I should not, either.

What this author appears to be focusing on is that the media is making this out to be a feminist story. This author is stating that this can't be a feminist story and then providing reasons.

Their first reason is that the story is not named after the main character, but is, rather, named after what happens to her. The author is making this to be a core reason why this cannot be a feminist story.
This reasoning is plain and complete crap.
Without the games themselves Katniss would continue to be a nobody within the setting. The games are what drive the society and what drive Katniss to here elevated position.
There are many examples of stories with protagonists who are NOT the title of the story. I could start naming them, but I would fill my character limit before I made a dent in the overall list. The reality is that the title has nothing to do with whether a story fairly represents characters as EQUALS. True feminism shouldn't exist because it is really about representing women and men as equals and this story demonstrates clearly that both male and female contestants can, and have, won the games. Each contestant has no alteration in their chances based on their gender. They make what luck they can and make the odds in their favor as much as they can using their skills and the tools at hand. It's that simple. This is not a "feminazi" story and I would argue that any incident of extreme feminism in which all male characters are suppressed. That is no more of a equality situation than the standard patriarchal construct that is abundant everywhere.

Moving on to the next point the author puts out there: that Katniss never kills anyone.
The author is wrong. Katniss is directly responsible for the deaths of at least two of the other contestants and indirectly responsible for at least one other. The author obviously did not pay much attention to the topic that they are writing about to miss these VERY relevant facts.

The author of the article is stating that Katniss and Cinderella are identical and that neither is a strong character.
The author of the article cannot be more wrong.

Anyone who, at age 11, takes over the head-of-household role and illegally trespasses on government land to hunt for food to feed her catatonic mother and sister is a strong character. Anyone who, starting at age 11, deals with the local black market to trade poached game for other goods and services is a strong character.
Anyone who, through their knowledge and acquired experience, can survive in the woods with baking daytime temperatures and sub-freezing nighttime temperatures with only a jacket, a sleeping bag, a water bottle (started empty), a means to sterilize water, a knife and a pack to carry it all in is a strong character.
Anyone who, regardless of how they do it, survives a caged death-match with 23 other contestants is a strong character.
Anyone who, upon finding them in the woods, can have the presence of mind to keep them from dying from their grievous leg injury until medical help can be obtained is a strong character. Anyone who, upon understanding the strategy of their strongest opponents takes an overt military action to obliterate that strategy and all of the advantages that those opponents had is a strong character.
Anyone who, to save the one person they love the most, will willingly step into a life-threatening situation where the odds are certainly NOT in their favor is a strong character.

I challenge the article's author to successfully complete any of the seven points above. Most people would fail to complete them. Most people would have died.

The author does, in fairness, have a valid comment about the lack of feminist (or equalist) ideals in fair tales. The Hunger Games is NOTHING like those fairy tales even if that comment is immediately spoiled by stating that Katniss has no ...decisions of her own in the arena.

She does.

She makes the decision the author admits to.
She makes the decision to heed the advice of her mentor when the games begin (the book even outlines how she was contemplating going against that until she lost her chance).
She makes the decisions to be smart about where and when she sleeps.
She makes the decisions about when to, and not to, have a fire.
She makes the decisions to hide and run.
She makes the decisions to stay and fight.
She makes the decision to go offensive and remove the advantages that the bigger, stronger, better-trained and faster contestants had secured for themselves.
She makes decisions constantly in the story. Many of them are what kept her alive in the fight against nature and many of them are what kept her alive in the conflicts against the other contestants.

The "impossible packages" that come from the sky are not. Each contestant clearly knows that they have sponsors and that those sponsors can provide them with gifts if they choose. Each contestant knows that their performance in the arena is what leads to sponsors choosing to invest in them. Bad decisions and bad performance leads to no "impossible packages" where good performance, strategy and decision-making leads to gifts that help you stay alive to make more decisions.

Moving onward through the article the author then states that Katniss DID kill but claims it was reflexive and not a deliberate act?
The answer to that is: so?
She did what she needed to do. She made the right choice. She made that choice without spending time thinking about it. Thinking about it would have cost her her life.
The article's author also conveniently forgets to discuss an earlier situation where Katniss took action knowing that it would likely result in the death of at least one other contestant. She knew it had a high chance of killing and that it might kill up to five other contestants. She took the action knowing that. She did it BECAUSE of that.

The article's author then, conveniently, forgets to correctly identify that the rules change that allows for both Katniss and Peeta to live was announce MUCH earlier. In fact, they tried to revoke that change and Katniss made another decision that was specifically designed to force the game-masters into upholding their earlier rules-change that allowed two victors.
The very next paragraph has the article's author outlining that Katniss was robbed of this decision. She was not. Her decision is what MADE them reverse the rules that forced her to make the decision.
Katniss made the plan. Katniss made the decision. Katniss rebelled against the government and won.

I will freely admit that the author has a solid point about false feminine agency in the beginning of the third part of their article. Society has norms. It pushes them onto people, men and women alike, every day. Society has an inertia and a power and that is precisely what landed Katniss in the arena in the first place. Her choices within the arena were hers. Many of them were partially forced because of the circumstances, but they were still her choices.
When she avenges Rue she could have chosen to run instead. She could have chosen to handle Rue's death differently. She could have chosen to not acknowledge Rue's life to the people of her district. Those were actions that were not coerced by the circumstances and, in fact, were counter to the best tactics of the arena. Katniss chose to dedicate her resources to do those actions explicitly because she WANTED to.
I will also admit that much of the societal influences that remove decisions from women are actions that other women take. Men take some actions, and put forward suggestions but women are the ones who engage in the competition between women (whether it is warranted or not) over appearance, etc.

I particularly like that the author points out The Running Man in the end. The main character of that movie has no greater "agency" than Katniss. That character HAS to kill. That character does not have the option to run and hide. That character is not fighting only the other contestants but also professional killers who deliberately hunt the contestants AND are better equipped. Katniss used strategy and tactics to get where she got; the running man used brute force. I'll take a smart, strategic character over someone who survives by brute force any day. They are, in the end, stronger (because they can use their environment to maximize themselves) and they are much more interesting.

Furthermore, I could easily point out that one can extrapolate that society and environment rob us ALL of all elements of agency all the time. If Katniss' ability to survive in the woods and make the appropriate suvival decisions was a lack of agency because she was forced into the arena in the first place than we're all robbed of agency because we did not deliberately choose to be in the world, nor the society that we live in. We are here and we're making the most of it on a daily basis because that is the greatest level of choice we have available to us.

(I could extrapolate out even further and get into the Newtonian physics of sub-atomic particles and how they affect the chemistry in our brains, thus robbing us of the agency of how we feel, too.... but I won't go into more depth on that than this comment).

For those who are interested has a whole store for Hunger Games products including a boxed set of the books.