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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 ;) 


I have a question.

Catching Fire - Suzanne  Collins

(I swear, no snark whatsoever. Ok, maybe a little. But I even removed the rating.)

I just have a question that I've been thinking about.

I wonder if the Hunger Games series would be nearly as popular if Katniss was a male character, rather than a female.

Years after having read THG, it's still surprising to me how excited the reading community is over having a "strong female character," which to me means that she's appropriately sexually repressed, masculine, and "better" than all those weak and whiny Bella-Swan-like women who make such supposedly terrible role models for the young impressionable women of this age.

I'm sure many HG fans would deny this, but think about it. Who the heck ever praises Harry Potter or Percy Jackson for being a strong male character, or being a role model for impressionable young men?

And how different a story would THG have made, if it was from the POV of a male character?

It seems to me that it would remain much the same. The world of Panem isn't shown to be particularly patriarchal, or at least, not deliberately so in a way that Collins intends to comment on it (and in my opinion she's not nearly an observant enough writer to do so). Besides, the major (implied) theme of the Hunger Games is about the loss of one's humanity in the name of survival. In a setting like the arena, where there are ostensibly no external rules to maintain order, that would apply to men and women equally, and our emotional reaction as an audience would be--or at least definitely SHOULD be--the same regarding the main character's experiences. Horrified that the protagonist is forced to murder, scared that the protagonist might actually die, etc.

(Of course, THG doesn't even touch those hugely important issues, but I'll just pretend for now that it does. Because I wish it did.)

Anyway, here's my thoughts on this. I think Collins noticed a trend in YA fiction towards Bella-Swan-like characters, where women's lives revolve mostly around men and their emotional dependence on men. I think she also noticed the huge, huge backlash it received from the reading community. So the market for Katniss-like characters, if you will, opened up.

My personal problem with this is that it makes it way too easy to fulfill a set of arbitrary criteria for female characters. THG is, at its core, a book that is designed to sell. Collins had a very clear idea of this book's/series's audience when she wrote THG, and when it was published, she found it.

I'm sorry if this seems insulting to THG fans, and I'm not trying to pass judgment on people who like it. What we take away from books are not, and should not, be solely limited to what the author intended. Or perhaps, some reader out there does have a cogent interpretation of this series that indicates a higher level of thought and skill in Collins' work that I haven't found yet.

I will say, however, that I have found very little out there concerning the specifics of the way these books deal with themes outside of Katniss's character. I don't mean "Katniss's character, the fictional human being," I mean "Katniss's character, O DEAR LORD THANK GOD IT'S NOT BELLA SWAN."

For example, why is this series not known for any cautionary messages concerning the the deepest lows humanity will fall to when pitted against each other? Why is there no flinching at "holy shit, I don't think I could have the courage to face that situation, because it's so beneath my human dignity?"

People say this series is realistic, that it's a shocking look at violence and war. My idea of a realistic look at violence and war is a story that inspires empathy by showing how everyone can fall to these depths, that we are inevitably flawed and mistaken even if we might start out with the best of intentions. Avatar: The Last Airbender shows this perfectly. Both sides are given complete and sympathetic perspectives in such a way that we can imagine ourselves being in their position, and acting the same way the characters do, even when they're in conflict. It sends a powerful message about perception, how we trick ourselves into thinking we're infallible, and how it leads to mutual destruction.

Yet this series will constantly tell you that Katniss is a victim, it's not her fault, it's always some big evil dude messing things up--even fellow tributes who live under the same system of oppression that Katniss does (the way book 1 deals with Cato and Marvel is probably my least favorite part of it). That's an incredibly backwards message to send, essentially turning the whole story into a pity party for Katniss--talk about egotistic writing.

Or, how about the idea of political revolution? Collins is constantly going out of her way to de-emphasize the REAL cause of rebellion--namely, living in a terrible society that leeches off the vast majority of the population for the privileged few--and making it all about how Katniss is the oh-so-important figurehead of the rebellion. That's not realism, that's wish-fulfillment escapist fantasy. Figureheads are useful because they give people someone to rally around, not because they're inherently special, no matter how much you try to fetishize their resulting emotional depression. The emphasis shouldn't be on Katniss, the emphasis should be on the thousands of people starving to death and having to send their kids off to die each year. And seriously, I think we should be on our guard when we find it easy to "identify" with a character supposedly suffering from PTSD, the short end of economic disparity, starvation, social isolation, and psychological trauma from being thrown into a death game. What we should be identifying with are the consequences of the world, not with a single character.

It's also shocking to me how little Collins touches on the social, political, and economic systems of her world, particularly as this is supposedly a dystopia. It is EXTREMELY thinly developed, to the point of being much more of a set of props than a real, organic futuristic society.

How does this relate to Katniss being a female character? I think it's because, well, the reading community--and probably Collins--got so excited about having a female character that was appealing, that Katniss's apparent uniqueness from your run-of-the-mill YA female protagonist steals as much spotlight as should be given to much more important themes of the book as well, the bigger ones regarding violence, death, moral principles, political idealism, etc.

The one thing that can be said for Twilight, despite its demeaning messages towards women, is that it sticks to its subject matter. It is about a single female character's developing sexuality and emotional relationships with men. It doesn't try to pass on any faux-social awareness of more worldly issues outside the scope of its storytelling.

In fact, I don't even think Twilight and THG are appropriate books to compare. They're completely different genres, written in completely different styles, and deal with completely different themes. The one similarity they share is the POV of a female character. The fact that THAT alone gets SUCH a huge amount of attention, to me, indicates a level of sexism in our own society, that we're so willing to pick apart Bella Swan for being weak, and still apply such an incredibly low standard for character depth of someone like Katniss, because we always expect female characters to be inferior to male characters. It's not even a problem of strong female characters. It's a problem of fully fleshed out, 3-dimensional female characters. And having a multitude of them. Aside from Katniss, most major characters in this series are men, at least the characters the readers are meant to take seriously. Villain, best friend, parent figure, mentor figure, on and on and on. Sympathetic female characters are basically Fridged. Very subtle, but I still get the message: women are inferior to men, unless your name is Katniss.

So, anyway. I hear Stephenie Meyer is trying her hand at a gender-flipped Twilight. Why not a gender-flipped Hunger Games? Will we still hold up the male version of Katniss as a strong role model even then? Will it still have the same impact that the original series had on millions of fans?