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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games - Suzanne  Collins

Those of you who have followed or friended me for a while will know that I used to regularly find different ways to tear this book to shreds. I have given up on doing that, and decided that my life is better spent looking for books that are not torturous to read. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is looking pretty good to me.

But I do want to raise one question about this book's mind-blowing popularity, because it's really that part that I have never been able to wrap my mind around. Twilight has an entire audience that hates it to death and is regularly targeted for being sexist and badly written. Even Harry Potter has received its fair share of criticism for technical shortcomings. Eragon is frequently derided for its lack of originality. Yet when a book comes along with the thinnest pretense of "feminism," it immediately escapes all scrutiny and is lauded not only for being empowering to women, but also a quality piece of literature?

How is it possible that a book about 24 children fighting to the death is more famous for its love triangle than the way it deals with how one would lose their fucking humanity in a situation like that? How is it possible that this book's protagonist possesses almost zero agency and embodies almost every sexist cliche that comes with "strong woman," yet is smugly compared to Bella Swan as the real example of a feminist role model? How is it possible that what is really a high school romantic drama dressed up in dystopian clothing receives such critical acclaim?

Is it because popular culture wants to believe that only the most superficial appeals to feminism are the end-all-be-all to deconstructing patriarchy? Is it because middle-class readers like to equate their everyday pain with people who starve to death and are oppressed by a totalitarian regime? Katniss is essentially a spoiled middle-class American teenager, just like Bella Swan is, but the only difference is that she's got a bow and arrow and some dirt.

This is a book that panders to people. I do not mean to say that fans of this book are unintelligent or did not take valuable things away from it, but I do think that Collins is taking advantage of very convenient cultural trends to write a book that many people find safe to praise. As The Last Psychiatrist points out, Katniss's character is praised for having traits that any decent human being would have, in accordance with the popular idea that what makes a man normal would make a woman special. More interestingly, I wonder what were Collins's intentions behind this book. Did she write in Katniss's "I'm-the-center-of-the-world" attitude because kids fighting to the deathis not dramatic enough? Or does she want to appeal to readers by pretending to deal with heavy themes like starvation, war, and survival but also write a romance at the same time?

But my biggest question is: how do people not see through this? Perhaps I'm overestimating the accuracy of my own subjective experience with this book, but I find it hard to believe that so many people could have missed the complete lack of moral ambiguity that would inevitably pop up in this kind of story, how most of the important people in Katniss's life are men, how all the non-Katniss female characters have no real emotional lives. Is it that all we look for in literature are superficial markers? Is that what feminism means to us, just looking for things that fit a preconceived notion of feminism? Are our attempts to understand third-world suffering really just a narcissistic way to convince ourselves that the rest of the world is just like us?

I've exerted every possible effort I can to understand. I've tried forcing myself to like this book, and have reread it multiple times. I've talked to many of my friends who love The Hunger Games. I've read countless positive reviews of this, hoping to find something to convince me that I'm wrong, because that would please me more than anything. So far I have not. I am willing to believe that Collins's other books may be well-written, as pretentious writing tends to be very deliberate, but for now, it's going to take a loooooong time for the bitter aftertaste of this to dissipate. (And it's already been years since I first read it.)

Hmm. I said earlier I wouldn't tear this book to shreds. Does questioning the trends of popular culture count as tearing this book to shreds? Anyway, feel free to disagree. Although I know this review does little to help my case, I promise I am not as immature I was four years ago.
ETA: I recently found this amazing blog post that articulates the problems with portrayals of gender in THG as well as popular culture more eloquently than I could ever do myself. Please do read it--I think it raises so many oft-ignored crucial issues about sexism (and racism) in media , the self-awareness of which we would all benefit from greatly.
Apparently I am incapable of refraining from criticizing this book. I'm doing my best to keep the vitriol out of my tone because I don't wish to discourage disagreement with my opinions, but I can't deny that this book seems more and more awful every time I think about it. Anyway, I feel obliged to note that the portrayal of poverty and economic disparity in this book is atrocious. Living on the edge of survival, contrary to what Collins may think, does not make you "stronger" or "better" than those of the upper classes. Poverty is extremely degrading. It wears down on people and saps them of their ability to find meaning in their lives and is often the source of huge mental health issues. This whole idea is also just seriously illogical. Think about it: rich people have access to food, education, healthy exercise, as well as strong social networks and family structures that provide stability as kids grow up. Poor people have to work themselves to death to bring in the most meager of incomes, raise families at the same time, struggle with food, limited access to education, get shamed for their problems by the upper classes for being "lazy," and often with no hope of the situation ever changing, stuck in an endless cycle of never having enough. Which of these two categories do you think is likely to turn out more successful?

The only circumstance for being "proud" of a poor economic background is when you finally escape it and can look at the situation from the outside, comparing it to the better situation you have now. Fetishizing poverty is nothing less than utterly insulting to the millions of people in the world actually living in poverty, whether in 1st world or 3rd world countries. It frustrates me to think that readers of The Hunger Games will take one look Katniss's situation and applaud her for her middle-class snobbery because it affirms their expectations of "female strength." No. It's not inspiring that Katniss overcame starvation and it would have been equally valid, perhaps even more so, if it was a source of anger and shame rather than pride. It's horrible that she, as well as all the citizens of the districts, had to suffer this oppressive regime bullshit in the first place, and I cannot condone Collins's black-and-white portrayal of the Capitol as a bunch of empty-headed puppies and the oppressed population as pure and innocent angels. Nor does she ever develop, in reliably consistent depth, precisely how the totalitarian regime of Panem works; one minute the Capitol authorities are evil overlords, the next minute they're slaves to the entertainment whims of the Capitol population, so even one of the most basic premises of the world of Panem--the idea that the Capitol citizens are subjugated to the political authority--doesn't work as an excuse for Collins's lousy social commentary.
And again I find myself unable to stop. The reception of The Hunger Games is often based on praise for conservative romantic views regarding Katniss, Peeta and Gale...compared to all those slutty YA female characters with normal teenage urges, I suppose. For one thing, conservative sexual tendencies is largely an upper class thing; there's a reason why teenage pregnancies are stigmatized in industrialized countries but not in poorer nations, after all. If Katniss is sexually suppressed because it's just her individual personality, then that is some extremely sloppy world building on Collins' part, because it prevents us from seeing her as a product of her society if that society isn't influential enough to shape such a basic and fundamental part of her worldview. Second, to laud a book because it agrees with popular political views is not a convincing argument for a piece of literature's quality. This shows some serious prejudice in media that our preferences are tilted towards stories that reinforce our social opinions regardless of whether they hold any weight. What does it matter if Katniss is a good role model if her portrayal is so anachronistic and inaccurate that it undercuts the environment she comes from (which is supposed to be some sort of insightful commentary on third world environments and the social/political/cultural consequences and circumstances of those environments?) Such a narrow portrayal of such weighty issues is surely a far more grievous error when writing to children than any submissive housewife like Bella Swan could ever be.