Why Katniss Frightens Dictators

'Hunger Games' teen heroine is fiercely independent -- to the point of subversion.

By Shannon Rupp 27 Nov 2014 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

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'Hunger Games' heroine is an 'anti-It girl.'

The recurring question of what, exactly, art is for got an excellent answer in Thailand last week when the government stopped the Bangkok screening of the latest Hunger Games film. They were afraid the third movie in the franchise would inspire dissidents, some of whom were arrested for flashing the film's three-finger salute.

I don't want to make light of their fate. News reports say they have been sent to a military base for "attitude adjustment," and it's not hard to imagine what that means. But it is also hard not to be delighted when what was supposed to be just an entertaining Hollywood blockbuster is frightening dictators.

While Thailand's military regime is new at the game, having only seized power in a coup last spring, the world's most successful dictatorship, China, is also postponing the release of Mockingjay Part I until next year, for some unstated reason. Perhaps the ongoing protests in Hong Kong?

I suspect the despots noticed what many North American parents have overlooked in the hit trilogy for young adults -- The Hunger Games is a startlingly subversive book. Forget totalitarian regimes, when I read the novels they made me wonder if parents were worried that the pit-a-pat of little feet in the night might be their children coming to smother them with pillows.

There are no good adults in these books. One of heroine Katniss Everdeen's distinguishing characteristics is her contempt for the adult displays of narcissism and incompetence. I often wondered what the children of the "Me Generation" would think of their parents, the self-actualizing Baby Boomers who often competed with their own children to be cool. Katniss gave me a glimpse.

Author Suzanne Collins used to write TV shows for children and it has given her insight into the teenage mind. Panem's citizens are like a funhouse mirror version of the adults we all know: the vain "yummy mummies" who treat their tots as accessories; the stay-at-home fathers who plaster their kids photos (and their accomplishments) all over Facebook in a desperate bid for likes. Then there's the 40-something mother who squeezed into her daughter's private school uniform and treated us all to a "naughty" pose as her profile pic in various social media. Or the one who turned her daughter's broken heart into a blog post. Oh wait: the last two might just be among my Facebook acquaintances.

Nobody's sex object

As I see the Peter Pans in action, I often wonder if their children want to scream at them to grow-up and take some responsibility for giving their offspring a better world? Reading The Hunger Games, I suspect they do.

The speculative tale about a post-apocalyptic world takes aim at the adults of the oppressive Capitol, whose self-obsession hits new heights with bizarre plastic surgery and ridiculous fashions. Although the styles described aren't far removed from what is expected of contemporary young women who can be seen tottering down the street in what we used call "catch me, fuck me heels."

Katniss, at 16, is anti-fashion. Her utilitarian togs are suited to the hunting she does to survive, and her wardrobe underlines how she is one of the few grown-ups to be found in this world. She is nobody's sex object, and her hostility to getting camera-ready for the Hunger Games -- a competition in which children fight to the death for the entertainment of their elders -- provides some of the books' rare comic moments. Her views on body waxing resonate with anyone who has ever had a Brazilian.

Katniss is something rare in fiction and in life: an unapologetically angry woman. Even better, the people demanding she smile are risking an arrow in the eye. Is it any wonder that teenage girls, who are constantly pressured to be people-pleasers, love Katniss?

While it's true that in children's stories the heroes are usually orphans, literally or metaphorically, Katniss's lack of adult support is that much worse because her adolescent-adults are present and burdening her. First there's her hysterical mother, who had an emotional collapse and left an 11-year-old Katniss to play parent to her. Then there's her mentors who include Haymitch, a drunk who is supposed to train new Tributes for the Hunger Games; Effie, a clueless pawn of the state who is like every artificially upbeat woman in corporate HR departments; and a team of aggressively shallow stylists who are painting their nails as Panem starves.

Prefers hunting to cheerleading

So while the despots aren't wrong to spot The Hunger Games film as priming people for rebellion, if they skipped the book I think they've missed the real threat to the powers-that-be in every society: Katniss's independence.

What I enjoyed most about the books is her indifference to the social rules about how young women are expected to behave -- let's call her the anti-It Girl. She doesn't think about her appearance. She doesn't go out of her way to charm. She's not cheerful, nor is she a positive thinker. She's not interested in romance and she is independent to the point of being hostile. She's uncooperative, preferring to keep her own counsel. And she's far more interested in her hunting skills than her social ones.

In short: whether you're trying to run a consumer economy or a dictatorship, her style is bound to put a cramp in yours.

So I hope that the teens who can't see The Hunger Games movies are tucked up somewhere reading the books, escaping their unpleasant reality and imagining a better way of being. Because really, isn't that the whole point of art?

Well, that, and poking a sharp stick in some authority's eye.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Film

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