Monday, September 27, 2010

last night I read Mockingjay

You don't have to know me long to learn I'm obsessed with one theme in entertainment: women's competence with violence. This, and associated themes (women's safety, gender roles, competence with violence in general, whether competence in other things can ever consistently overcome violence, violence and gender identity, violence and any identity, etc.) dominate what I watch and read. This has now been true for over a decade. I watched Catwoman, Electra, Tomb Raider, and all of Dark Angel. My favorite escapism often comes from Kim Harrison and Laurell K Hamilton, and I read the entire Fearless series* as quickly as I could get my hands on it.

That said, I hope you understand what I find most interesting about Hunger Games. First, whatever I was looking for when watching Catwoman and reading Anita Blake, Hunger Games--the first book--satisfied it completely. I didn't realize that was possible. Second, it didn't occur to me that the first book was a story about violence until some time after I'd finished reading. Despite that, this is the most bitter, broken, angry story about violence and womanhood that I've ever encountered. I think it is also somewhat true.

Much is made, in these stories, of rebellion--the defiant, reluctant, catastrophic or resigned. I see rebellion embodied in Katniss Everdeen's approach to violence. To start with, Katniss is extremely good at it, and we are not made to hate her for this fact. Opposite of almost every other story about women and violence, Katniss Everdeen's violence is squarely separate from her sexuality. In fact, though gender does play a role, her world is almost hypnotically asexual. Our heroine is tough and scarred and bitter, and believably so. And though she is feminine and pure, Katniss is not innocent, nor a victim. I wonder if such complexity is too much for this culture to process, and that's why the sexuality is withheld. An asexual Katniss harkens to Artemis. This is safer, and still unbearably refreshing.

Katniss is thin and beautiful, but these are not the things she considers to be important about herself. At certain moments, she's very comfortably feminine, but she has things to take care of that rank far higher on her own agenda than beauty or romance. Her appearance--with its surface level indicators of sexuality that don't always run deeper--is mostly of interest to those who wish to use her. Stylists are all-important, and cameras are omnipresent. Cameras make Katniss valuable. This relatively benign form of manipulation, widely accepted in our current society, is crucial to the story and has a dark underside. From the start, as she participates in the first spectacle of Hunger Games, it is her association with the cameras that forces Katniss into violence against other human beings. As the story progresses, it is ultimately the fallout of her un-sought pr power that escalates her violence and her exposure to the violence of others. . . an escalation that is paralleled by an increase in the importance of her appearance on camera.

Katniss is traumatized by her own violence, but not until the uncontrollable gore of the final story is she ashamed of it. Above all, and rightly, she rails instead against those who placed her in situations where she was forced to use it. She never stops hating it, never stops mourning it, and never stops being harmed by it, but she also never hesitates to do whatever it is that needs to be done. It isn't her only virtue, but the driving force in her life is an absolute willingness to do whatever it takes, including sacrificing her own life, to protect the people she loves. This, for once, doesn't bother me. Like her family, Gail and Peeta show us what Katniss can't have. At home in the story, they demonstrate what violence, trauma, and the experience of being constantly manipulated take even from the most capable and resilient survivors. Sometimes it can't be returned.

*young adult cookie-cutter novels. The protagonist is a beautiful but sloppy, depressed, and unfeminine-feeling girl. She has an inability to feel fear, coupled with nearly super-human fighting skills, and somehow has a reason to beat someone up about once every six seconds.

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