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"Katniss Everdeen, Whole Human" by Rebecca Clingman
January 27, 2015
I’m not qualified to write about Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I: I never read the Hunger Games books, and prior to this, the third movie installment in the series, I’d only seen the second one (I kind of thought I’d seen the first, but quickly realized I was wrong over the course of watching this one). I also cavalierly declined my movie buddy’s offer to recap the storyline for me beforehand (“Eh, it’s fine, it can’t be that hard to figure out!”), even though he is a real Hunger Games fan. So in short, I was hella confused for most of the film, and I have only myself to blame. The only thing I did right was to agree to my buddy’s request that we buy tickets for the version originale, instead of the dubbed-over French version, which would have been awful. I saw The Great Gatsby when it came out in French, and I can’t unsee what I saw.
I say all this just to make it clear that in spite of these obstacles, the film impressed me. Most of all, I was fascinated by the main character, Katniss Everdeen. In the broadest sense of the word, Katniss is a hero. She courageously fights tooth and nail, overcoming all odds, to achieve her righteous victory. As humans, we’ve been writing about heroes for some millennia, and at this point, we know what we can expect of them. Sometimes our heroes are classical in nature, like Odysseus or even Harry Potter. They make mistakes, but are extraordinarily brave, single-minded in their goal, and obsessed by honor. Sometimes our modern heroes are more brooding, like Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or Detective Rust Cohle. They simultaneously battle both the outside forces of evil and their own private demons, and we learn to love them for it. On the fringes of heroism, sometimes we find stealthy background-movers-and-shakers who aren’t very likeable on the face of it, like Boo Radley or Severus Snape (notice that the best examples of all of these types are dudes).
Katniss is not any of these hero-types. She does not seem to be motivated by honor—in fact, she cares very little about anyone’s perception of her, including those close to her. On the other hand, while she is quiet, she is not brooding or internally tortured. If her personality is rather dark, it’s because she basically lives in a hellhole—her demons come from outside rather than from within. And above all, Katniss is not self-sacrificing, in the way that, say, Harry Potter is; she will do what it takes to survive, and we know she is prepared to kill innocent people to save herself. Heck, she would pretty much sacrifice the entire people of Panem if it would save her and her loved ones: in one scene, she confides in her sister, “No one hates the Capitol more than me, and I want to help. But I just keep wondering—if we win this war, what happens to Peeta?” You heard right—if her tepid love interest won’t be welcomed into the hopeful victors’ fold, that victory might not be worth it, and if that’s the case, everyone can just live it up in the murderous grip of the Capitol forever.
So in other words, she really seems to lack any proclivity for team spirit. As a kid, I’m pretty sure she was never the girl coming up with cheers at the softball game. As a young adult, she’s given the opportunity to do so when the District 13 rebels try to channel her energy into some anti-Capitol propaganda videos, in their effort to form her into a symbol of the revolution. Alas, she falls utterly flat as she acts out a call to collective action on camera, though she agrees with the rebel cause. Her friend Haymitch suggests that it’s because the whole thing is staged, and that Katniss does her best work on the fly—so the rebels should just send her out to the battlefield followed by a camera, and see what comes of it. To back this up, he asks everyone in the room to think of moments where Katniss has presented a truly inspiring image; what those moments have in common, he says, is that they were all unplanned. Before Haymitch connected the dots for us, though, I was thinking something different. I was thinking that what all those moments had in common were that they were instances of Katniss throwing everything on the line for one individual, loved-by-her person (this in contrast to the propaganda videos, where she’s supposed to speak on behalf of all people of Panem). For Katniss, people are important, but the team much less so.
Although this lack of collective sentiment seems like a terrible quality to have as the symbol of the revolution, in the end, it’s also the very quality that makes Katniss into a kind-of hero: she does value her loved ones’ lives as highly as she values as her own, and it turns out that her circle of loved ones is lot more extendable than even she thinks it is—even if it has to extend one by one, face by face. Because when push comes to shove, she’s even likely to consider strangers, if they are so much as in her line of sight, as worthy of sacrifice. Take the moment when the rebels finally accept Haymitch’s advice and send her into the field—she is horrified by the suffering of the wounded she sees close-up at the makeshift hospital, and just a few minutes later, risks her life to try to prevent their being bombed. Naturally, she is then able to give an authentically rousing speech to the cameraman who has followed her through the flames. Somewhere between the pained faces at a hospital and a violent outside threat to those faces, Katniss is able to find a protective feeling, albeit one limited in scope, towards a group. Fortunately, this is immediately channeled and refracted by the camera lens to a wide audience, so they can feel like she’s also speaking for them. Lucky the cameraman was so quick—it seems likely that that group spirit would have dissipated once she was away from the sad faces. Injustice hits Katniss not in the brain, but in the gut.
All of this struck me in a positive way. About a year ago, Sophia McDougall wrote a piece called “Why I Hate Strong Female Characters." It’s a good read—in it, she talks about the kick-ass lady trope. “Strong women” characters are overrated, she says, because they lack complexity. Relying on that trope to slot your blockbuster movie into the “empowering” (as a side note, much like “strong”, I don’t even know what this word means anymore) column isn’t enough. It’s really just one more way to pretend that female characters do not represent complicated human beings in the way that male ones do. So in light of this, I’m drawn to Katniss Everdeen. In a cash-cow, mass-audience movie, she manages to be more than just “strong”. And it’s not that she simply mimics the male hero-types; Katniss is certainly not Harry Potter dressed up as a girl, for instance. She’s a truly fresh, interesting character who neither cheaply imitates a male-dominated archetype nor falls into the ham-handed “strong woman” rebuttal against supposed feminine weakness. She acts like a fully human human, and I can’t wait to see more from her.