The Hunger Games: What Does It Mean to be a Woman in Today’s Dystopias?

Too often, I believe, people when reading books, watching TV, or analyzing films only focus on one strong female role/lead. Whether this is because it's so rare that there's an appearance of such strong female roles that it commands undue attention, or whether it is simply because it's often easier to look at just one character – the protagonist – rather than undertaking a broader analysis, I'm not sure. It's probably both. 

When this idea first struck me, I thought immediately of The Hunger Games, a series which, for me, provoked a lot of thought about what “strong” femininity actually means to people in today’s world. Broad reaching issues are discussed, inevitably under much scrutiny; The Hunger Games  has become a very treasured piece of popular culture. However, what culture, exactly, is Suzanne Collins’ series cultivating, criticizing and down-right mocking?

Femininity? Violence? War? Oppression? Power constraints? Police brutality? Romance? The Media? All equally valid themes to debate and discuss when discussing character types and experience.

With more and more women and men alike participating actively in debates around gender representation, women’s and trans' lives, and socio-economic feminist issues around the world, Panem – the fictional state in which Katniss Everdeen survives a life of persecution, torture, and near death on several occasions – was always a going to be a place surrounded by criticism, passion and creative debate from its audience of over 90 million.

Ironically, however, the Hunger Games series (now a Hollywood blockbuster and franchise) mocks exactly what it became: the dystopic reality of people –audience members – so fixated on entertaining themselves through pop-culture and TV (on what the subjects they are watching wear, the colour of their skin, their class, their make-up, and their age) that it almost becomes a distraction from their own, mundane, privileged realities.

Indeed, Suzanne Collins admitted in an interview after her trilogy’s world-wide best-seller success that she had been inspired to write the books after watching reality TV programmes.

Of course, now, aside from representations of the protagonist’s role as a powerful, yet oppressed and subjected, tortured and damaged character, there must be more debate centred around other female characters in the novels, of which there are many, most of whom you would consider to be “strong”.

But what do we mean when we say “strong female”? This is, of course, a very loose definition, an umbrella category for the sort of person feminists want representing their community. Katniss Everdeen, thankfully, and refreshingly, was. She fought a battle to defend and save her family and her community, she chose to protect more than one opponent that she easily could have killed, edging her nearer to winning the games, she flagrantly mocked audiences in the Capitol (including President Snow), who watched her on TV; and become an emblem for revolution in Panem.

All of this is impressive, and shows the kind of courage and initiative usually associated with a male hero. Indeed, the issues around today’s pre-futuristic feminist ideals still surface in both the books and the films. Katniss was subjected to wearing make-up for her debut TV appearance for the first time as a poor hunter-gatherer from district 12. Dolled up, a highly dramatized team of designers, make-up artists, hair-dressers gathered around her and cut off her body hair, exfoliated her skin and emphasized her bust in dark, fiery dresses.

Collins discussed all of these issues boldly and cleverly, never quite letting us forget that a character who otherwise could have appeared “manly” and “brash” at times to some was indeed a woman, subjected to the daily dilemmas we in the West must undergo.

However, these issues – discussed time and time again on blogs, fan-pages, forums, newspapers, magazines and Vlogs/videos – often always centre on Katniss.

Here is where the debate falls short. In order to truly recognize the points that Collins’ trilogy and other sociological critiques try to make about over-all issues in modern society, including gender roles and femininity, we must discuss the characters that also appear to embody what we hate, and not just what we love.

It is here that I refer to Effie Trinket, a character you will of course immediately despise as much as I did when first encountering her in the books (and perhaps even more powerfully in the films) – yes, there is something about the way she was transcribed from descriptions in the paperback to her representation on screen. The sticking colours, the bold make-up and lavish dresses. Trinket is, like the type of person she is mocking, unaware of her privilege, extremely naïve, self-absorbed, and vain. She is obsessed with delicacy, good manners, elegance, beauty and attention. She speaks well, too well, and doesn’t have a sense of humour. Although, like Katniss, she does have extremely dislikable traits, many of which may make it impossible for you to talk to someone like that in real life, Trinket also has many redeeming features. She is not a powerful character because of her wealth, position, and job; like President Snow, she is a powerful character because of her relationships with others. Her frank honesty and, in the end, downright sympathy remove her as a candidate from your kill-list. Trinket displays moments of motherly care, going completely against the cold, unfeeling ideology of the Capitol she otherwise completely embraces.

Here, she is a rebel. A rebel character is always a powerful one.

So, what does it mean to be a woman, in today’s dystopic speculations of the future? The Hunger Games is, of course, one of the best places to explore this debate, as it is embodies probably one of the most broad-reaching critiques of cultural attitudes to be found in this 'dystopia' genre. Reaching into sociological corners many dystopias before haven’t dared to go; looking into marginalized Black communities such as those who live in District 9 (a member of which got shot by the Capitol’s security for seemingly no reason); the oppression of women by not only the media and the beauty myth, but by rich and powerful men (illustrated by the physical metaphors of Katniss and President Snow) and the vast swathes of inequality reaching far into every corner of a country (demonstrated by the exaggerated and dramatic lavish lives of those who live in the Capitol, compared to the protagonists’ experience underground, in hiding with little room to manoeuvre up, enforced by those in the secret District 13).

Being a woman in these places is shown in completely different ways, each with its own struggles, but with shared common issues: the same oppressors. Here, Collins’ Hunger Games series well illustrates that in a future where feminist movements have not strived and fought against those oppressing minority groups and women, a similar world awaits all.

The two female characters I’ve discussed are equally strong; and there is no one way to be strong woman in modern society. Whether lavishly beautiful, rich and eccentric but emotional, sympathetic and kind, or a warrior rebel, but brave hearted, raw and down-to-earth, or a powerful leader, stubborn and brave, each female character, very differently, shows a woman’s place in a dystopic world.

GoldDust Editors