BEWARE! SPOILERS FOR HUNGER GAMES, TWILIGHT SERIES, AND SUCKER PUNCH.
“A heroine owns her power and controls her own destiny.”
(Dorothy Snarker, AfterEllen.com)
The whole theater is laughing. The trailer continues to wail its sad-serious music, but no one’s listening. Every line and intense stare on-screen gets a new burst of ridiculing laughter. Apparently these Hunger Games fans really don’t have patience for Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2. We are waiting for fem-power fighting action in the form of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of the latest of Hollywood’s book-to-film young adult flicks, based on Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games. The premise: Surviving in the dystopian world of Panem is close to impossible when Katniss becomes a sacrificial tribute in the Capitol’s [sic] yearly games to-the-death.
I went to see The Hunger Games in San Francisco with my partner Jess the night after it opened in theaters. I went as an avid fan of the books, having read the whole series, and my partner went not having read the books and knowing little about the actual plotline, except that it was some sort of cross between Battle Royale, Gladiator, and Twilight. I was amazed at the range of people waiting in line with us. The expected audience of high schoolers eating fast food while shouting their favorite quotes at each other, gangly middle schoolers with their wary-looking mothers, and giggly college students, was joined by men in sleek business suits just off of work, power lesbians masking their glee that they were first in line by discussing their friends’ serious relationship problems, and older couples glowing in rekindled love. It’s strange what a little bloodshed and kickassery will bring out of the woodwork.
But is it really the predictable American penchant for blood and violence or sappy heteronormative romance that brought all these people out to see The Hunger Games? What is it, exactly, that has made this movie gross over $302.5 million in sales and land top at the box office for a third weekend in a row, beating a remastered version of James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic”?
The Hunger Games has been applauded as an advancement in gender equality in film. The author is a woman; the main character is also a “strong” young woman; total proof that women will someday rule the silver screen. Right? The Hunger Games takes it place among many other action films said to have strong female leads, including but not limited to Thelma & Louise, the Tomb Raider series, Hanna, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, Sucker Punch, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet the recent rise in female film protagonists in blockbuster films does not necessarily mean that feminism has abolished misogynistic tropes from popular media. Many of these heroines succeed based on their innocence and/or stereotypical beauty, instead of their intelligence, their strength, and other internal traits. They float through the plot, surviving because of their impenetrable naivety and the aid of their knights-errant. The reinforcement of these tropes teaches a new generation of young women that their power comes from their appearance and their ability to catch the opposite sex. This is not a feminist message.
Despite the common held belief that women have achieved equality in all sectors of modern society, authors and scriptwriters continue to reach back to the misogynistic Dark Ages of literature for their storylines. They seem to think that if they place a sword in a female character’s hands or prove that their fate was by choice, they are promoting “strong women” characters.
Take Bella Swan, the protagonist from the Hunger Games’ “rival” book-to-film series, Twilight. It’s easy to fall into comparison, because until The Hunger Games came around in 2008, the Twilight pair were made out to be the biggest heart-throbs since Rose and Jack. Bella Swan (played by Kristen Stewart in the film version) is portrayed as physically weak, an airhead, and supposedly has average looks yet is irresistibly beautiful at the same time, a sweet innocent contrasted against the dark ways of the world. And Bella makes it clear she doesn’t think she has any special traits. However, she is desperately in love and will fight for that love come what may. It’s the love of Bella’s vampire boyfriend Edward (played by Robert Pattinson) that gives her worth and a reason to live; she becomes important because he loves her. She has no real agency: she depends completely on Edward, who constantly has to rescue her from predicaments that she naively walks into, usually some kind of physical assault. Rather than seeing these scenes as romantic, I think they flirt with the dual-edged dagger of women’s “innocence” needing to be protected, and yet because of that naïve innocence they are just “asking for it.” This hails back to the Victorian idea of the “angel of the house,” the mother in white who was the embodiment of all that was good, who stayed in the house and made it a refuge for her husband and children from the world outside.
Twilight author Stephanie Meyer argues that “the foundation of feminism is this: being able to choose. The core of anti-feminism is, conversely, telling a woman she can’t do something solely because she’s a woman.” Though her protagonist Bella Swan chooses to marry right out of high school, have a baby that almost kills her, and give up her mortality while still in her teens—choices even Meyer says she wouldn’t make—she believes Bella is “a strong person” because she “goes after what she wants with persistence and determination” (Meyer). While I agree that feminism is definitely about choice and not limiting choice based on gender, not every choice a woman makes is automatically feminist. In fact, most of Bella’s “choices” are based on how Edward will react (read this fan’s post for a critical analysis of the “illusion of choice”).
The focus of the entire Twilight series is Bella’s relationship with Edward, one that shows more and more signs of being emotionally abusive. Edward easily gets angry and is very possessive over Bella, constantly suspicious when she hangs out with her best guy friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner). Many female fans appreciate a male character that holds himself back instead of giving into his lust, and Edward has been lauded as every woman’s fantasy of a complete gentleman. However, Edward’s reservations only serves to paint the protagonist’s desires as immature, because Bella actually wants to have sex but has to practically fling herself at Edward, even on her wedding night, for something to finally happen. In this case, it is just one more way Edward control’s Bella’s life. Her love is a thinly veiled self-debilitating obsession, distancing her from everyone else that loves and cares for her, like her father and Jacob. When this kind of obsession—already prevalent in pre-teens and teenagers—is encouraged rather than critiqued, it’s time to rethink the messages these stories are perpetuating about women, relationships, and the source of feminine power. Bella’s characterization embraces co-dependency as a norm, not to mention the very heteronormative narrative of high school sweethearts getting married right out of school and believing the rest of their lives are set. More subtly, it promotes an anti-abortion and abstinence-only agenda (read more about this in this article from Feministing). While chivalry may still set my heart a-flutter, we’re not all waiting on some future husband (or wife or partner) to make our dreams come true. We want to see heroines proving to us that “the future is ours.”
A very different, but just as problematic character: Babydoll from the recent film “Sucker Punch,” directed and written by Zack Snyder (of Gladiator and 300 fame). On first watch, it seems like this heroine (played by Emily Browning) uses her imagination and intelligence to escape her false imprisonment at the insane asylum. She and her four female cohorts are valiant in the face of mortal dangers and the threat of sexual abuse.
But there are two things that contradict whatever empowerment women could gain from this film: the hypersexualization of all the main characters, including Babydoll, and the reinforcement of the film tropes of feminine sacrifice and innocence. One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer goes as far as saying, “Sadistic and shallow, exploitative and misogynistic, these are the descriptions that ‘Sucker Punch’ seems not to be so much offended by as revel in.” Babydoll’s imagination is a fantastic post-apocalyptic dystopia where she and her fellow “hotties” (as another RT reviewer put it) battle video-game bosses in sexy steampunk-futuristic black leather get-ups. Some interpret Babydoll and company’s clothing choices as an expression of sexual freedom and empowerment, a symbol of their free agency despite the oppressive, controlling forces at work in the asylum; but any high intentions are lost in the drool over Emily Browning’s pouty lips and Vanessa Hudgens’ cleavage.
The extreme physical objectification in this film overshadows their subjectivity, physical strength, and smarts—their power is directly linked to their sex appeal. Since this movie does not exist in a vacuum, it’s hard to imagine that low necklines and bustieres were an altruistic choice on the part of the director and writer Zack Snyder. Each slow motion jump or tumble is an opportunity to exploit the actresses’ appearance. Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times gets at this in his review:
“Sucker Punch” wants us to sympathize with the plight of these oppressed women even as it delights in showcasing their assets. The voiceover speaks of empowerment and finding your inner strength, but the screen is filled with highly digitized images of young women in high heels and short skirts wielding giant guns as they mow down the opposition.
And Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency hits the message home:
Hollywood, you need to get over the simplistic notion that “sexy chicks doing dude stuff” is somehow empowering. Taking scantily-clad, sexploitation style women and squeezing them into the mold of the male action hero does not make a strong female character. That is simply the men who run Hollywood trying to redefine what a strong female character is and repackage it in a way that is pleasing for male adolescent viewers. …oh yeah and also make a shit ton of money.
Blondie, played by black-haired Vanessa Hudgens (who became a teenage fantasy when she starred in Disney’s High School Musical) wields an ax and wears an outfit decorated in fringe, a not so subtle allusion to and exotification of Native Americans. The other characters also play into stereotypical sex fantasies that contrast with their cutesy, infantilizing nicknames: Babydoll wears a skimpy school girl uniform, Rocket (Jena Malone) has a nurse’s cap and her twin sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) wears a medieval hood, and Amber (Jamie Chung) as the token Asian wears a military cap and drives a bunny robot. (Interesting to note: according to the front page of the Sucker Punch official website, the film is sponsored by Carl’s Junior, known for their racy, sexist television ads.)
The dance scenes for the clients of the club (part of Babydoll’s imagined world) are blatantly objectifying, with the male client sitting front and center to enjoy the show. Rather than presenting a mindful critique of misogyny, it invites the audience to indulge in its erotic fantasies and compromising situations. We never actually get to see Babydoll’s dancing: the moment she starts swaying her hips, she closes her eyes and we are transported to her fantasy alter-reality. But this small attempt to veil exploitation of the female body does not erase the existence of the male gaze nor the “nearly half a dozen allusions to or out-right attempts at rape and the continual threat of lobotomy” (AfterEllen.com). And despite their heroics, most of the gang, including Babydoll, remain victims.
In many senses, Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games,” played by Jennifer Lawrence (known for a similarly strong and resourceful role in Winter’s Bone) is a refreshing new take on the female protagonist, more akin to Hanna than Bella from Twilight. She is headstrong, but calculating. A hard life in District 12—one of the poorest districts in Panem—has toughened her up. Like many women of power, Katniss takes on a distinctly male role. In the absence of a father, she is the provider and the glue that holds her fragile family together. When Katniss is forced to dress up for the Reaping, the event where the two district tributes are chosen (one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18), her mother comments, “Now you look pretty, too,” because she is wearing a dress and has her hair done up in a more “feminine” style. But the dress feels distinctly not-Katniss. Her mother and sister Prim (Willow Shields) serve as foils to her character, a comparison so extreme as to be allegorical. Prim is all wide-eyed naiveté and innocence, and their mother is one-dimensionally weak, both Victorian portraits of delicate womanhood. Katniss is the one who goes out into the forbidden woods and kills dinner using her skills with the bow and arrows with her best guy friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), stalking prey in well-worn pants and boots. She stands out because she can do everything the boys do, and more. When she and the baker boy, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), are selected as tributes, everyone’s bets are on Katniss to survive (since there can only be one survivor). In some ways, the story relies too much on her being “one of the boys,” rather than breaking ground for re-defining powerful femininity.
But Katniss is not a perfect “warrior woman,” and the story complicates the typical strong-girls-don’t-wear-dresses trope used so often in action movies. It offers a critique of the Capitol’s extravagant body modifications (pink skin and blue hair?) and fashion, through the portrayal of the Capitol residence and the extreme, objectifying beautifying regime the tributes must go through; but as an article from The New York Times Magazine notes, “Some critics have grumbled that Collins indulges in too many diversions — including lavish descriptions of costumes that undercut her critique of superficial ideals of beauty.” Yet, there is something about the dress on fire that gives Katniss confidence.
Two of my favorite moments in the book were the scenes in which Katniss wears an outfit that catches fire (purposely) to wow the crowd, first when she and Peeta make their entrance into the Capitol along with the other tributes, and second when she is interviewed alone. By appealing to donors by presenting a traditionally feminine attractive image, her chances of survival in the Games increase. This brings up a controversial question in feminist debate: What are the ethics of using “feminine wiles” to survive? Though Collins critiques modern society’s obsession with appearance, she seems to argue that the high stakes in The Hunger Games excuse Katniss from any culpability, because her survival itself is an act of rebellion and strength. It’s the idea of simultaneously playing into and against those in power. By the very act of prettying up and playing to the crowd, Katniss rebels against the Capitol and makes the statement that the lowliest district (her home, District 12) will not give up without a fight. The flames are a claim of strength of spirit in the face of almost certain death.
The critique of fashion and beauty standards remains complicated, though somewhat muted in the film version. Some things are understandably lost in translation from one medium to another, but I was disappointed how the symbolism of the outfits was played down. I felt the whole theater tense with expectation as the scenes approached, and then slowly settle back into their seats with a sigh. I was expecting to see in the second dress (you can catch a glimpse of it in this video) the flickering of rebellion and will to survive in the face of the Capitol, but the flames were almost demure and elicited more of a calm “that’s pretty” reaction rather than a wide-eyed “that’s stunning!”
The love triangle between Katniss, her best guy friend Gale, and her fellow tribute Peeta does remind the viewer of the infamous Bella/Edward/Jacob triangle in Twilight; but unlike Twilight, romance is secondary, maybe even tertiary, to the main plot and all the other character objectives. There is an underlying tension as an unwitting object of desire, but Katniss actually plays on this added “worth” to succeed and gain donors. Her main goal is to survive so she can return to her family, which relies on her. Yet there is a nice ambiguity concerning her feelings. The bond Peeta and Katniss form in the arena goes beyond typical teenage romance. She has a human connection to Peeta, and puts herself in mortal danger so that he can survive, refusing to kill him even after it seems he’s betrayed her. Katniss is in conflict with herself because even she can’t figure out if she’s reluctantly falling for Peeta or if it truly was an act. The first person perspective is lost from book to film, but Jennifer Lawrence does a decent job of reflecting Katniss’s feelings through her movements and glances.
After the final scene, the theater erupted in applause. It wasn’t the standing ovation that The Deathly Hallows or The Return of the King received when I went to see those movies in theaters, but it still rang of success. My partner and I, along with about half of the theater, stayed until the end of the credits just in case there was anything extra, while the rest of the crowd noisily filed out. This gave us the chance to hear Taylor Swift’s “Safe and Sound” featuring the Civil Wars, a collaboration made specifically for The Hunger Games (though the soundtrack only came out a week before the movie release, truthfully I’d been listening to the song for weeks because someone leaked the songs on Tumblr).
Normally I don’t like to discuss movies right after I see them. I like to mull over them in my head and let the images digest a while before answering the question, “Did you like it?” This time, I was so excited about what we’d just seen and wanted to know my partner’s reaction, so we launched into a discussion despite my theater-daze. She repeated the fact that the plot was very similar to Battle Royale, a Japanese book-to-film blockbuster sensation about high schoolers forced to battle to the death. According New York Times Magazine’s article, “Suzanne Collins’s War Stories for Kids,” Collins had never heard of Battle Royale until she’d turned in her first manuscript, and following the advice of her editor, she still has not read the book or watched the movie. One point that impressed both of us was the way director Gary Ross handled scenes of extreme violence and child murder, through sketchy camera motions and blurs that have an almost Impressionistic quality (Read more in this article from The New Yorker).
As a tale of self-discovery and agency, The Hunger Games film scores higher than most. Perhaps, just as she becomes the symbol of rebellion and freedom in Panem, Katniss can also be a catalyst of change in the film industry. But I approach even this fairly optimistic opinion with caution. There are still two more books in the Collins’ series to turn into movies, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and so many ways to go wrong, especially with Katniss’ romantic entanglement with Peeta and Gale becoming a stronger theme. It will be especially hard not to become cynical when there are signs everywhere of the pop culture monster devouring everything good about The Hunger Games and regurgitating things like unrealistically proportioned Katniss Barbie dolls. There are so many other places to gain role models from, but watching movies is one thing most young people have in common. I want to see more women taking control of their own destiny on-screen in movies destined for large audiences. What I’m asking for does not necessarily have to be a physically strong female lead, but a cast of characters with many different kinds of women defining themselves and their gender in diverse ways, on the big screen, ones many women can identify with or as someone they want to be. Women with flaws as well as ones that present a more idealistic picture of who we could be and what we want to attain as equality.
To read more on this topic, I suggest some of the following articles:
Indiewire: “’Sucker Punch’: The Failed Feminism of Zack Snyder”
Feminist Frequency: “Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a Steaming Pile of Sexist Crap”
Bitch Magazine: “The Hunger Games Film Whitens its Warrior”
The New Yorker: “Keeping ‘The Hunger Games’ Kid Stuff”
The Nation: “The Hunger Game’s Feral Feminism”
For a full Bibliography, click here.