Hunger Games: Catching Fire Meets Hunger for Female Representation

by | November 25, 2013
filed under Books, Feminism, Pop Culture, Racism

Poster for Catching Fireby Jessica Critcher

I managed to get tickets to a Hunger Games / Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening night double feature this week. As the theater began to fill up, I thought about the fact that I was about to see a movie with a stellar female cast and a complicated female protagonist, based on a bestselling book written by a woman.

It’s not an experience I get to have very often, so I decided to savor it. With ticket prices skyrocketing, the media we support makes a very real political statement.

As the Guardian points out:

Of the top 100 US films in 2011, women accounted for 33% of all characters and only 11% of the protagonists, according to a study by the San Diego-based Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

With a few exceptions (like in groups, where I’m out-voted), I don’t like to pay at the box office for movies that don’t pass the Bechdel Test. To pass, a film must have two female characters with names, and they have to talk to each other about something besides a man. It’s not a measure of whether or not a film is feminist. It’s a basic check-mark for female representation. Even though it’s simple to pass, a staggering amount of films can’t seem to manage it. Cinemas in Sweden have started applying a Bechdel-based rating on films, and The Hunger Games films pass easily.

I’m still buzzing over the film and the franchise as a whole. But I have been reflecting on a few things since I left the theater. There are spoilers below, so go see the movie, or better yet, check out the books for free at your local library.

Range of Female Characters

I don’t love these films just because there are a ton of female characters. Katniss is courageous and she does whatever she has to do to keep her family safe. Everyone loves an underdog. But the depth of the story is enhanced by the different types of women we see, and the ways they grow in the films.

Prim starts out as a scared girl who would have died in the Hunger Games if her sister hadn’t volunteered to save her. But she grows into a level-headed healer with a blossoming political awareness. Katniss’s mother slipped into a severe depression after her husband was killed, which forced Katniss to provide for the family. While this primarily shows Katniss and her ability to survive, it also shows a humanized picture of motherhood. Sometimes moms drop the ball– it’s almost like they’re human beings with their own thoughts and feelings.

Effie Trinket might be my favorite character in the story, though her role is minor. And it’s not just because of her amazing outfits. Being from The Capitol, she starts out in favour of the Hunger Games, full of patriotism at the idea that young children should kill each other on national television. But as she gets to know Katniss and Peeta, the gravity of the situation slowly dawns on her, and when they are sent into the Games a second time, she tears up, telling them they deserved better. For someone as obsessed with rules and manners, (and for someone born and raised in The Capitol with no real stake in The Games or a reason to care about kids from District 12) this might as well be her open rebellion against the Capitol.

Effie is not particularly brave or even very smart. But when there are a variety of female characters (instead of sexy lamps) their flaws and differences enhance their humanity. We are shown women not just as mothers or love interests, but as wise mentors like Mags, tech geniuses like Wiress, and vicious killers like Enobaria and Johanna.

Acceptable Reasons Not To Like Peeta

It took me a while to warm up to Peeta. And, to be honest, I was pretty miffed that I got the Peeta collectible cup at the theater instead of the Katniss one. Not everyone has to like him, but I feel like we should all be on the same page if we’re going to hate him.

Not liking Peeta because he has a stalker crush on Katniss and watches her walk home every day for ten years is fine. Not liking him because he’s “a wuss” is actually just misogyny, and it means you don’t really hate Peeta, just traits that are traditionally associated with women.

Let’s do another one. Hating Peeta because he probably could have managed to help the (obviously starving to death) girl of his dreams a little more than he actually did is fair. Hating Peeta because he didn’t kill any children in the Hunger Games is not cool. Hating Peeta because his motives with regard to Katniss often seemed sinister is ok. Hating him because he gets hurt a lot and needs Katniss to help him doesn’t even make sense.

One more. Hating Peeta because you think Katniss is more compatible with Gale is fine, and would probably make for an interesting discussion. Hating Peeta because you think Gale is “more of a man” or he “deserves” Katniss in some way is problematic at best.

A central theme to the books and the movies is Katniss learning things about herself and discovering who she loves and why. Her feelings toward both of her love interests are constantly shifting. In addition to presenting us with several different types of women, we are shown very complicated pictures of masculinity in this story, something many films entirely full of men don’t usually manage. If you hate Peeta because he’s “not manly,” then you are being presented with an opportunity to think about what being “manly” really means.

P.S. does anyone else think Effie and Haymitch would make a cute couple?

Race in The Hunger Games

These films don’t pass the “race version” of the Bechdel Test. So while it’s a huge gain for female representation, Hollywood still upholds the status quo by whitewashing the story. I guess the one positive take on this is that white people would be in charge of the totalitarian government in a nightmarish dystopian future. Except that they’re also everywhere else (but District 11).

It’s implied in the books that there are different races in District 12, and that the darker-skinned residents of “the seam” (like Katniss) suffer the effects of poverty more acutely than others. Katniss is described in the books as having olive skin and black hair, but according to the casting call for the film, “The candidate must be between the ages of 15-20, be Caucasian, appear “underfed but strong,” and be “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.” Emphasis mine.

Jennifer Lawrence did a phenomenal job in the role of Katniss. And yes, technically white people can have “olive skin.” But there is no such thing as “race blind” casting. This wasn’t just a search for the best actress. It was a search for the best white actress. And if you have a “reason” why Katniss needs to be white, I guarantee you that reason is super racist. It’s illegal (and immoral) to put “whites only” on any other job listing, and it’s about time the film industry caught up with the times.

I loved the movies, and I loved the books, not just for the variety of female characters, but for the underlying message of standing up to authority. And it’s having an impact. Even though some people missed the point of the story (like Cover Girl launching a creepy makeup line based on the movie, or this terrifying camp based on The Games) the books and films are inspiring real life movements against hunger and injustice.

So who’s down for another marathon when the third movie comes out? Maybe if films with female protagonists keep breaking all kinds of sales records, we’ll see more media like this in the future. May the odds be ever in our favour.

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