Girls, Boys, and The Hunger Games

So this past week there have been a lot of “Tell us what [insert category] of books you are thankful for” tweets going around.  I responded to one of the YA ones with the following tweet:  “Today, Suzanne Collins because she has made boys totally interested in a strong girl POV character.”  Then, yesterday, the following op-ed ran in the LA Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/commentary/la-oe-1125-slack-hunger-games-covergirl-capitol-20131125,0,1264290.story#axzz2m3S50WAK (“Ad campaign (lip) glosses over ‘Hunger Games’ message: The disturbing marketing strategy by Lionsgate and CoverGirl turns an epic story about class inequality into a platform for the villains.”)

I was disappointed in the article because it turned out to be an advocacy piece for the Harry Potter Alliance.  While what they are doing sounds admirable, I wanted to read something about the ad campaign, The Hunger Games, and teenage girls.  So now I have to write it myself.

One of the most wonderful things for me about these books is that Katniss is such a strong girl character without ever being a “wannabe” boy.  She’s complicated. The first book opens with her out hunting; she comes back to the house and helps to make her sister neat and presentable for the Reaping. She’s capable of knocking a tracker-jacker nest onto one of the other Tributes and then laying out flowers and singing for Rue.  She’s fierce and angry and not ashamed to love.  These are people qualities which mainstream American culture still divides into boy qualities and girl qualities.  Take a look at the hideously gendered toy aisles in most retail stores and you can see how little culture has moved forward in the past 50 years.  Fortunately, a lot of boys and girls are reading and watching The Hunger Games and seeing that those stereotypes are unnecessary and that strong girl characters can be everything strong male leads are.  The boys reading these books are identifying with a girl! A girl! The importance of this can’t be stated enough.

It’s of course also important for the girls reading the books to see that you don’t have to be either pretty and subservient or tough and callous.  Katniss doesn’t choose between boy qualities and girl qualities; she does what is necessary for her to survive without losing who she is.  As an aside, it’s worth pointing out that Peeta first makes the point about not wanting to let the Games make him someone he is not, and his character has many “feminine” attributes. It’s not just Katniss who’s a complicated character in terms of gendering.

This preservation of the self is what makes the idea of Hunger Games make-up absolutely appalling to me.  I think the LA Times article has it right in equating cosmetics with the capitalist oppressor; in the Capitol, make-up is not about gender, it’s about conspicuous consumption.  But it’s also about disguise.  People in the Capitol hide from each other and from themselves, because if they could see the truth of what Panem is and how they support it, they would hate themselves. (I admit: that’s a huge generalization, obviously, and is based on the assumption that people are mostly good, which is arguable.) The first thing that happens to Katniss upon arriving at the Capitol is being turned over to her stylists, who comment on how hairy she is.  The job of the stylist is to strip of her authenticity.  Which is why Cinna is such an amazing character – he subversively restores her authenticity and gives her more.

The message of the strong complicated girl character is so powerful in The Hunger Games, and so necessary, that it should not in turn be subverted or obscured by the signals CoverGirl is sending with a make-up line.  American girls are screwed with enough by the culture – CoverGirl and Lionsgate should not be able to get away with twisting and hollowing out one of the most substantive counter-messages to come along in years.

A boycott would be one way to tell CoverGirl and Lionsgate to pull the product, as would letters to retailers.  But I think the more effective and important action is to make the product irrelevant by getting girls and boys to remember who Katniss is.  Talk to them about why they like her and what it means to have an authentic self, teach them how to be who they are, and that might make the make-up obsolete.