‘The Hunger Games” Strange, Simultaneously Progressive and Regressive Take on Gender

The Hunger Games series comes to a dark and thunderous final conclusion with Mockingjay: Part 2 this weekend. Its angry, bow-wielding heroine Katniss Everdeen has been hailed as a feminist triumph, and an inspiration for girls and boys alike. So, as the credits roll and the smoke of Panem’s war begins to thin out, it’s worth looking back at how the series did — and didn’t — upend our expectations about gender.

I’ve long felt that the central romance between Katniss and Peeta, her co-victor in the first games, is the most unequivocally feminist aspect of the series. Subversively, this pairing (which never gives poor Gale a chance) inverts heterosexual romance as it’s typically portrayed on film. After all, Katniss is the hard, occasionally brutal protector of her family. She has trouble showing emotion. A hunter who feels most at home stalking prey, she is the natural warrior, the one who is more at ease with making the hard tradeoffs required by hard times. She fights to defend a pair of women at home.

Peeta, on the other hand, is a baker and artist, a brilliant storyteller who sells the tough Katniss to their audience, making everyone in Panem believe their love story. While she is allergic to gender roles and feels uncomfortable in dresses, he knows how to manipulate the public’s expectations about romance in order to save them both. And in the final two films, the enemy seizes him and takes him captive, violating his body and mind as a means of getting to Katniss (think of the Joker holding Rachel Dawes as bait for Batman). Later, when Peeta acts unhinged because of his torture, she refuses to kill him and insists on saving him, soothing him with a mantra about himself: “You’re a painter. You’re a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces.”

All of these moments are so atypical for a romantic hero in an action film that NPR’s Linda Holmes dubbed Peeta Katniss’ movie girlfriend:

Consider the evidence: Peeta’s family runs a bakery. He can literally bake a cherry pie, as the old song says.

He is physically tough, but markedly less so than she is. He’s got a good firm spine, but he lacks her disconnected approach to killing. Over and over, she finds herself screaming “PEETA!”, not calling for help but going to help, and then running, because he’s gone and done some damn fool thing like gotten himself electrocuted.

Peeta is more than just a gender-flipped girlfriend figure, though — he has a three-dimensional personality, combining his own brand of toughness and survival instinct with his nurturing side. Along with Katniss’ sister Prim, he serves as the ambassador of true kindness in the franchise. Even symbolically, he’s the symbol of fertility, as Katniss describes him towards the end of Mockingjay: “the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses.”

As perfect and compelling as this aspect is, the series’ gender messaging when it veers away from Katniss and Peeta is a bit more confusing. In particular, the indifference of the Capitol’s citizens to the horror perpetrated by their regime  is symbolized by their bodily adornment, which is coded as a sort of gender transgression; men and women coloring their hair and shaving parts of their heads, and making themselves unrecognizable and androgynous. In the films even more than the books, the Capitol’s fashions stand in contrast to the wholesome districts, where the women don prairie dresses and the guys wear pants.

“What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to rill in and die for their entertainment?” asks Katniss. The Capitol’s lavish indifference is meant to be a symbolic stand-in for our late-capitalist decadence, and certain parts of Collins’ vision —  particularly the availability of food — always embarrasses me to contemplate.

But the fact that the noble districts all seem to be populated by family-oriented heterosexuals while the capitol is effete and swinging provides a disturbing, if probably accidental, subtext. Even when the Capitol is given heroes, like Cinna, Katniss’ personal stylist, they’re portrayed onscreen as being less flamboyant than their counterparts. Lenny Kravitz intentionally plays Cinna in a particularly understated manner, a soulful and serious guy in the middle of all the Capitol’s frippery (but he sure knows his costume design). I’m glad that Cinna is portrayed in a way that defies stereotypes, he unintentionally becomes the “good” effeminate character, in opposition to the campier Capitol denizens: Stanley Tucci’s amoral announcer, Caesar Flickerman, and Donald Sutherland’s evil, rose-wielding President Snow. These two are delightful preening baddies, but preening baddies nonetheless.

Overall, the complexity of Collins’ grim moral vision helps smooth over some of the bumps here — the series eventually shows that even characters we hate are pawns of the system in their own way. There are moments of extreme sympathy for the Capitol citizens once they get caught up in the crossfire of war. Even President Snow has a strange moment of quasi-redemption towards the very end. That’s the saving grace of the entire series. It seduces us with a good-vs.-evil premise, but then muddies the entire thing in the gray fog of war. Both the fortunate and the unfortunate moments of gender commentary in the series seem smaller to me than the overarching message of relentless, unsparing ambiguity.