I came across an article yesterday entitled The Hunger Games is no Feminist Manifesto. Well, of course it isn’t. It’s a YA dystopian trilogy. However, that doesn’t mean it does or doesn’t have feminist themes, which I think is a topic worth considering.
It has often been hailed as feminist because Katniss, the (female) protagonist, has a mix of “masculine” and “feminine” qualities, provides for her family, and takes control and strives for agency.
The first thing the article points out is actually something that bothered me when I read the books.
She [Katniss] tells us, over and over, that she doesn’t want to get married because she doesn’t want to have children. Love, marriage and child-bearing are all inextricable in Katniss’ world view, and all associated with an absence of choice.
Umm, it’s called birth control? Sure, contraception might not be readily available for Katniss, but her mother is an apothecary. Not only that, but her mother and father were clearly very much in love before his death when Katniss was eleven, yet they have two children four years apart. Either they’re not very fertile, or Katniss’s mother knows a thing or two about not reproducing. Furthermore, at the end of the series it’s revealed that Katniss does have children after a decade-and-a-half’s persuasion, so obviously she worked out how to not get pregnant at some point.
The most infuriating bit about this is that I can see Katniss’s desire not to have children actually impacting her relationships. One of her love interests, Peeta, strikes me as the sort of person who would rather experience the joy of having children and hope their names aren’t drawn in the reaping than not have children out of fear. This could be a valid strain on their budding relationship, because Katniss does not want children, and thus a relationship with Peeta would end in eventual heartbreak. Instead, the strain on the relationship is that in marrying at all Katniss feels she must have children.
The other major point the article raises that I want to mention is this:
Katniss has no ambition, no interest in politics beyond a personal vendetta. She’s motivated by love for her family. She might be kick-ass but she isn’t threatening to our social order. There’s no controversy over women taking up archery or martial arts. There is controversy these days in the United States over access to birth control. The relationship between female power in The Hunger Games and the real feminist battles of 2012 is comfortably remote.
I don’t entirely agree. It’s true that the issues that women face in modern Western societies are not present in the books; I would, however, argue that this is one of its strengths from a feminist perspective. Katniss doesn’t have problems with patriarchal power in her society because there isn’t a patriarchy, and the problems lie elsewhere. I’ve discussed before how men are often treated as the “default” protagonist, and women are only protagonists when the intended audience is female or the story deals with “women’s issues”. The mere fact that Katniss’s gender is a non-issue, then, is feminist in itself, because it challenges the notion that the male is the default gender.
If Katniss were to face issues with being a female archer, I don’t think that would be any nearer to “the real feminist battles of 2012”. It’s a safe, Disneyfied version of feminist struggles. In fact, Disney recently released a film about that topic: Brave. While I haven’t seen the movie and can’t comment on how it treats the topic, the fact remains that a story about a girl wanting to shoot when it’s a male domain is also “comfortably remote” from the issues women in modern Western culture face. If Collins had made this an issue in the books, it wouldn’t have formed a suitable comparison for modern issues, but it would make Katniss’s gender an issue, thus detracting from one of its main strengths from a feminist perspective.
Perhaps, then, Katniss should have trouble accessing birth control. Maybe her mother’s methods aren’t 100% effective, and the Capitol’s general restriction of medicine to the Districts means that birth control and abortion are difficult to access. This would have tied in neatly with the main plotline and also into the love triangle and Katniss’s issues with marriage, as she would be uncomfortable having a sexual relationship where she risked having children. It would form a nice metaphor whereby access to contraception is not restricted based on gender, but on class, and thus would still allow Katniss’s gender to be ignored while addressing the consequences of restricted contraception access. Such a narrative would, however, risk the feminist themes overriding the main story, if not in the narrative itself, then in the minds of readers, because it would be bringing a major contemporary issue into a story that’s not about that. It would be better to address women’s restricted reproductive rights in a novel dedicated to that, as Margaret Atwood does in The Handmaid’s Tale.
I would argue, then, that the author is write in saying that The Hunger Games is not a feminist manifesto, but I would also argue that it has feminist themes. Feminism isn’t the point of the story, but that doesn’t mean that there is no feminist influence on Katniss’ character, the narrative, and the word in which she lives, and that by making it not a feminist story Collins does something just as worthwhile.