The Vagenda

Katniss Everdeen: Where Your Girls At?


WARNING: If you have not read, watched or engaged with the cultural phenomenon that is The Hunger Games this may spoil one or two bits for you.

Like many people who are really too old to enjoy teen fiction, I love The Hunger Games trilogy. I love the post-apocalyptic setting, I love the new made-up words for things and, most importantly, I love Katniss Everdeen. She is a young woman who is brave, strong, smart and would risk everything to protect those she loved i.e. the heroine who a whole generation of girls brought up on classic Disney princesses has been waiting for. A new found enthusiasm erupted around the films when the truly awesome Jennifer Lawrence took the lead role and began speaking out about the sexualisation of young women and the pressure to lose weight for roles. The stories are being held up as feminist literature and it wasn’t until after my cinema trip to see the second instalment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, that I began to question it.

It was when my friend and I (foolishly thinking that this would be the perfect film to see on a quiet Sunday evening to prepare us for the week ahead) were exiting the screen jabbering at a million miles a minute about how it looked amazing and Katniss had grown as a character and how tense we had been throughout that I began to think about the other women in Katniss’s life and what this did to the film. I actually spent most of the night thinking about this (note: do not watch on Sunday night. It’s not relaxing and you will have weird dreams about mutant animals chasing you) and it began to sadden me about the thing I loved so much.

We all know Katniss is strong (Laurie Penny has already written a great piece on the problems of female characters being ‘strong’) and can outsmart even the all-powerful Capitol thereby breaking away from the stereotypes of a female lead, but if you take a quick glance round at the supporting roles, they cannot help but fall back into the maiden, whore, spinster female stereotypes that plague female characters. It’s almost as if it has taken so much effort to create one rounded female character that there was no energy left to put into the others.

Hollywood has long since had an issue with displaying female friendship and relationships on screen without resorting to backstabbing and bitch fights. There are a few classic exceptions such as Thelma and Louise (but yes they die) and Steel Magnolias (more death), but these are not the norm. However, newer films such as Bridesmaids and Disney’s latest (unbelievably), Frozen, being incredibly popular and showing women being supportive of each other and experiencing a range of emotions (as if they are actually human!) means that things might be set to change.

But to return to the Hunger Games; first we have Katniss’s family; her Mother doesn’t actually have a name she is only ‘Katniss’s Mother’ or ‘Mrs Everdeen’ therefore immediately removing her from any Bechdel testing. Katniss’s sister, Prim, is small and blonde and the epitome of innocence throughout and doesn’t actually do anything other than serve as a plot device for Katniss to get involved with the Games at the beginning. Maid and Mother (who daughter doesn’t get on with) – check.

In and around the Games there are great characters like Effie Trinket, the District 12 escort, but she is really just there to embody the shallow nature of the Capitol. Bimbo – check. In the first book/film we see little Rue, a fellow tribute, who is smart and nimble but ultimately is a replacement Prim and is all innocent and little to the end. Maid #2 – check.

I was excited to see the character of Johanna in the second film as she is supposed to be a previous winner and so clever and skilled, but also equally troubled by the death she has seen in the Games. This was shat upon quite quickly when her first conversation with Katniss involves her stripping to nothing in a lift. Whore – check.

One interesting distinction between the films and the books is the omission of Madge who is Katniss’s friend in District 12 and the Mayor’s daughter. She is depicted as being intelligent and a rounded character despite not being in books very much. I am not sure why they would choose to leave her out of the films, but it leaves Katniss without any female friends and presents her in the films as being unable to relate to other women and being more masculine. Women hating other women – check.

There are other female characters in the books, but on the whole none are given the same time and care as the male characters. I will go and see the last two films when they come out with the same relish as the first, but I am hoping that the success and popularity of the films will cause a ripple effect: Hollywood has got the hang of creating a great female lead and role model so why not let it drift into the friends, the sidekicks, the family members so that it doesn’t just have to be one lady propping up the rest. I’ll wait for that day, but until then, Katniss is still my girl.

- FB

11 thoughts on “Katniss Everdeen: Where Your Girls At?

  1. Hmm, one thing: stripping in the lift=”whore”? I don’t think that was how it came across at all- she was just extremely confident (did she try and sleep with anyone? No- she was just being intimidating).

  2. I think you’re missing a lot of the subtlety in the characters and the role they play in Katniss’s life. In the books, it’s all there. Her mother does have a character but there are very good reasons why Katniss, at leas to start with, doesn’t get on with her, or rather resents her for falling apart and abandoning her and Prim. In the end, their relationship does get repaired to a degree and Katniss gains an understanding of her as a person – it’s the thing all teenagers go through where they come to understand their parents as independent adults rather that solely through their role as parent. Because there’s a lot more background to Katniss’s Mom than Katniss realises to begin with, and we only get to see it as her Mom becomes a real person in the daughter’s eyes.

    As for Prim, yes she’s very much in the back ground in the first and second books but her change, and more importantly Kat’s understanding of her change, into a mature, no-longer-innocent child is a key part of the plot. Mind you, it entirely depends on how the next two films treat Prim as a character as to whether that will be portrayed on screen. I think (hope) it will be because it adds depth to Katniss’s narrative and the decidedly not-really-a-happy ending that makes the books so powerful.

    The third book also has a number of well defined named female characters, President Coin, antagonist to be managed, Commander Paylor, the rebel leader of District 8, Jackson, the second in her propos team for the attack on the Capitol, etc. And don’t forget that Katniss and Johanna build a proper friendship once they’re back in District 13. Also, I completely disagree with coding Johanna as a ‘whore’ stereotype – agree with Layle above, again more detail in the book. And there’s more to Effie than meets the eye, but again, it takes Katniss’s changing her opinions about her for us to get to see that.

    All of that said, yep, I don’t get why the films cut Madge out of the story, except to say that I sincerely hope they did it solely for length purposes. She’s another person who Katniss feels deeply responsible for, and again her story only becomes fully apparent in the third book.

    Finally, yeah, it is not a relaxing film in any sense of the word. I came out something close to shell-shocked, and didn’t sleep well that night. This post covers part of why it was so upsetting for me:

  3. This article is complete rubbish and simply shows the author’s utter inability to read between the lines and understand literature properly. I won’t expand much as the commenters above have done it for me! But Prim – she is a child living in a horrific apocalyptic world (as is Rue) which I think is a pretty good explanation for her ‘innocence’, and you see her character grow up and mature into a great woman in the third book.
    Regarding the Johanna comments – frankly I think your interpretation of her as a ‘whore’ simply because she took her clothes off in the lift (which she did to intimidate Katniss and Peeta), says a lot more about you (the author) than it does about Hollywood. I’m pretty sure if a man took his clothes off you wouldn’t call him a whore, it is you who has made that interpretation showing the narrow-mindedness of yourself – not of Hollywood. And Johanna is a fucking great female character.

    • Woah. I don’t think the author is slut-shaming a female character by pointing out how she might match up to a female archetype that it present across many genres/media.

      Also, saying someone ‘doesn’t understand literature properly’ because their opinion differs to yours actually betrays a gross misunderstanding of literature on your own part. Different interpretations, babes, different interpretations. It’s what makes the world interesting.

    • I wouldn’t go as far as saying the author is slut shaming Joanna, but she is not merely pointing out that Joanna may represent a stereotypical female characterization.. The author is saying Joanna represents ‘whore’ because of the stripping scene, which as other posters have pointed out sounds rather judgmental. The problem I have with this article is that to come to these conclusions the author seems to have willfully decided to ignore the many facets of the other female characters in the film/books. It is all very well saying ‘different interpretations’, but that isn’t a get out of jail free card for poorly thought out and contrived opinions. If the authors interpretations aren’t nuanced and accurate to what is clearly there in the story then no, they don’t contribute anything interesting to the discourse. For example, characterizing Rue as an innocent ‘maid’ archetype only works if you ignore the scene where she steals another contestants weapon in training, or the scene where she encourages Katniss to drop a hive of mutant hornets on a group of tributes, or the scene where she conspires with Katniss to steal the other tributes food. To make their point the author is misrepresenting what is actually there in the story.

  4. I’m afraid labelling Johanna as a whore is, if anything, kind of anti-feminist. Johanna was a fabulous, well rounded character, even in the necessarily more character-limited format of the movie. She is powerful, incredibly strong, and a teensy bit scary. She strips because it amuses her to do so, because it discomforts the men in the lift. It isn’t a sexual act, it is an act of provocation, and an assertion of her invulnerability and her power.

    Maybe you should watch the film again.

  5. The author is not labelling the character as a whore in her own eyes (not like ‘oh my god what a whore!’), but more that she fulfills this role within the film characters list, where every ‘type’ of woman is represented in a shallow, flat way.

  6. Normally I love unmasking female stereotypes like any other feminist (I assume), but I think in this case your interpretation falls a bit flat, as other commenters have pointed out before. I haven’t read the books, but from the film alone I’ve seen very different, nuanced female characters, who even go through character development: Out of your examples, Effie and Prim both have scenes showing that they’re no longer as willing to hold back as they were at the beginning of the trilogy. Even though they are not as obviously “strong” as Katniss (who is a flawed character, and therefore very often not strong at many things that don’t have to do with hunting/fighting), they are finding their own ways of taking part in the action: Effie helps to unite the allies with her gift of jewelry and, more importantly, shows that her loyalty to the Capitol (whom she is technically representing) is wavering. Prim shows that she is no longer as innocent as Katniss believes her to be – she is quite level-headed, calm in the face of crisis and, if I remember correctly, shows great aptitude for medical care when she treats Gale. (It’s been a while since I saw the movie.) I particularly liked this film because it showed that there are different ways for a female character to be talented and useful, thereby helping to defy or at least diversify the “strong woman” stereotype. As for Johanna, I agree with the others’ assessment that she is using her nudity to intimidate and unsettle her opponents rather than anything else.

  7. The stripping scene annoyed me in the film, but I didn’t interpret it as the film makers positioning Johanna as the ‘whore’ stereotype. I felt more that it was demonstrating the kind of outliers previous winners were, and the various forms of inauthentic exhibitionism they had been encouraged to engage in in order to win in the first place and then continue to prosper from the games as ‘celebrities’ of the Capitol. That aside I did still feel it was lazy to do the whole sexual woman = intimidating woman thing with Johanna, but I enjoyed her character much more as the film went on. Overall I don’t agree with the main arguments put forward in this article and felt very uplifted by the nuanced representation of female characters in the film, though it wasn’t perfect and there were moments (like the stripping scene) where I felt it faltered a bit.

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