The Hunger Games: Battleground for Gender Wars

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This is a guest post by Kate O’Brien. She is an exceptional teacher of Ancient Literature and History at Cornerstone Christian Academy near Cleveland, Ohio. I asked her to share her thoughts on The Hunger Games from a Biblical perspective as I am traveling today to an event with John Maxwell and Michael Hyatt — A Day About Books. Kate graciously agreed to do what she does with excellence every day in the classroom. Enjoy.

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Not many things will convince me to read teen fiction.  As an ancient history and literature teacher, I much prefer Penelope to Bella and Orestes to Harry.  But when teen buzz stared flying over Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games, I saw beyond the swarm of publicity to a teachable moment, where I could connect my passions: ancient history, literature, and training teens to process the culture around them through a Biblical lens.

You’ve probably heard the details of this Roman-gladiator-based dystopian novel.  To be as brief as possible, the novel describes the Hunger Games—a reality TV show where 24 teens fight to the death.

Even this terse summary reveals that Collins is making many (valid) statements about Reality Entertainment.  And, as in all dystopian novels, The Hunger Games has its share of political points as well, which should be thoughtfully discussed, although my focus turns elsewhere in this particular discussion.

Most of the parental backlash against Collins’ series has been directed toward the brutality of the premise and the violence of the plot.  Christian parents must carefully discern what place this type of literature may have in their homes.  But personally, the violence is not the main controversial issue of this novel.  And frankly, next to Homer, Collins’ descriptions of the violence seem trite and childish.

Collins’ story contains a far more subtle “acid” that will eat away at a biblical worldview:  gender role reversal.

After discussing Roman gladiators in my 9th grade ancient history class, I saved ten minutes to discuss The Hunger Games.  The girls were very excited about this prospect, but most of the boys in the class didn’t know anything about the story, and only grudgingly participated. 

I proceeded to lead the discussion as every English teacher throughout all of time has:

“Describe Katniss, the main girl character of the story.” Strong, protective, hunter, courageous, not really into romance, provides for the people she loves. 

“Describe Peeta, the main guy character of the story.” Sweet, kind, gentle, in love with Katniss, a baker, good at decorating cakes, emotional, sincere, taken care of by Katniss.

This is where those boys who were so reluctant at first chimed in. And I paraphrase: “What?  Are you kidding me?  That guy is a wus! This story is messed up. He’s named after BREAD? What is he, a GIRL?”

The danger in Susanne Collins’ novel is not the barbaric violence: it is the sexual reversal that this story portrays.

Adolescent girls, the target market for these types of books, are also the most prone to completely swallow these gender-bending ideas.  The story dazzles these girls with its sugary romanticism, only to feed them the bitter pill of warped femininity/masculinity. 

Collins’ story makes young women identify with a character who shows predominately masculine traits. Even more concerning, this story makes these young girls want a “man” like Peeta—a sweet, gentle, affectionate boy whom they can take care of.  (In a more thorough analysis of the story, I could mention Gale, Katniss’ more masculine “guy friend,” whom she rejects in favor of Peeta.)

As we seek to pass on a Biblical view of truth to our children, we must meet these attacks head-on.  God created men and women, differently, to work together and to show off different aspects of who He is.  God created marriage to explain how He relates to His people (as a faithful husband to his unfaithful wife), and how Christ relates to the Church (as a bridegroom to his bride).   The next generation of believers must understand the Biblical basis of human sexuality—a lesson that is most powerfully taught in the home.

If nothing else, Collins’ novel does aptly describe the brokenness that, unfortunately, the majority of American teens experience in their homes.  Katniss’ father dies when she is young, causing her mother to plunge into depression.  The heroine is then left to provide for her sister virtually on her own.  In doing this, Collins accurately explores the effects of familial dysfunction on an adolescent girl.  Christians should take the opportunity that Collins serves up to discuss these hard issues, both with those inside and outside the church. 

The battleground is marked: the enemy has his eye fixed on destroying the remnants of biblical sexuality and family in our culture.  We must strap on the full armor of God to take our stand again his schemes, a battle with much higher stakes than The Hunger Games.

Do you agree that the gender-bending of The Hunger Games should concern us? What do you think a Biblical take on the books should be? Leave a comment here to share your thoughts.

9 Responses to “The Hunger Games: Battleground for Gender Wars”

  1. Jennifer June 22, 2012 at 5:44 PM #

    Gender-bending? 

    I am fortunate enough to have several teens in my life and was able to conduct my own informal poll this morning while walking to our local school.  “Do you think that Katniss behaves like a man?  Or that Peeta is a wus because he decorates cakes and lets Katniss take care of him when he is injured” I asked.  “Well…” some of them replied.  “Katniss tries to be brave…. and I guess she’s not all that into boys until the end of the book.”  As far as Peeta being a “wus” because he works in a bakery?  “He pretty much has to have a job so they won’t starve.  And it’s ok for boys to like art, isn’t it?  He’s pretty strong, and he protects Katniss, too.”

    And now my opinion:
    I pre-read this book (as I do many books) before recommending it to my teenage son.

    This book is a cautionary tale:  “Look at what can happen to us as people and as a society when we every aspect of our lives is unnaturally controlled.” 

    Katniss is the product of a harsh political climate.  Not only is she not protected by society – starvation is common and children are reaped for the Hunger Games – but she has been forced into early caretaking by the violent physical death of her Father and the psychological death of her Mother.  She lives in an unnatural World blocked off from nature by an electrified fence.  Purple lipstick wearing, comic book type individuals decide her fate (their unnaturalness is even more evident in the movie). It is against this backdrop that the story of Katniss is told.  And she is not perfect by any means.  She is angry and she is damaged.  I don’t think she is a perfect role model for girls (or boys, if you consider her to be masculine) and I would strongly advise discussing this book with any teen who reads it.  But does she take on a male role?

    Katniss can hunt – yes.  And at the time the Hunger Games takes place she is physically competent.  But she is also extremely vulnerable, caring, loving, protective, modest and naive – particularly when it comes to boys.  She thoughtful of others and she is thankful for what she receives.  Her main “masculine” traits are bravery (though she is terrified through much of the book) and protectiveness.  I put the word masculine in quotes because I think there is a reason we have the expression “A mother bear defending her cubs”. Protectiveness, even if fierce, can be very feminine.  So can bravery and resourcefulness.  Katniss consistently chooses companionship over individuality.  Katniss does not seek to be a leader.  She becomes one when she shows her humanity against the false backdrop of her dystopian World.  In the main turning points of the story Katniss shows some very “feminine” traits.    She develops a friendship  with Rue and seeks community even in the midst of this “war game”.  When Rue is dying Katniss tearfully “sings her to sleep” with an old mountain air promising hope.  She finds herself unable to leave Rue’s body without covering her in beautiful flowers.  It is this show of caring that starts the tide turning in The Hunger Games.  When Rue’s impoverished district 11 sends Katniss some bread in thanks for her caring, she publicly gives thanks.  The tide further turns when Katniss demonstrates her care for Peeta while he is injured (while protecting Katniss) – sacrificing her safety to get medicines that will help nurse him back to health.   So while I don’t believe that Katniss is a great role model for girls – she spends much of the series reacting to circumstances, rather than acting with conviction – it’s not because she acts like a man.

    Some quotes to think about:

    On the mockingjay pin: “There’s something comforting about the little bird.  It’s like having a piece of my Father with me, protecting me.”

    On trying to forgive her Mother:  “I am trying to get past rejecting offers of help from her. For a while I was so angry”.

    On not bringing something of her Mother’s with her:  “never thinking of… trying to hold on to a piece of her, of home.  Now I wish I had.”

    On Peeta telling her that his Mother has said of Katniss, “She’s a surviver, that one, she is.”:  Katniss replies  “…. I sound eleven years old when I speak (the age she was when Peeta saved her life). ‘But only because someone helped me’”

    On her sister:  “Her name is Prim.  She’s just twelve and I love her more than anything.”

    On her looks:  “You look beautiful”, says Prim.  Katniss: “And nothing like myself”.

    On her the gesture of respect offered to her after she “volunteers”:  “It means thanks, it means admiration, it means goodbye to someone you love.  Now I am truly in danger of crying.

    On Gale:  “Finally Gale is here and maybe there is nothing romantic between us, but when he opens his arms I don’t hesitate to go into them.”

    These are not the words of a confident, kick-ass, masculine girl. 

    As for Peeta being a girly wus?  The boy who willingly took a rolling pin in the face to feed a starving girl some bread?  The boy who placed second place in the school wrestling competition?  Who could sling 100 lb bags of flour around?  The boy who took a life-threatening wound from Cato to give Katniss time to flee?  Who is gentleman enough to lend her his jacket against the chill?  Who is confident enough in his masculinity to joke about his cake decorating skills (“You never can tell what you’ll find in the arena.  Say it’s actually a giant cake-”)?  Katniss says of him, “I’m surprised to see the hardness in his eyes.  He generally seems so mild”.   “Seems” being the operative word.  Peeta says of himself:  “I don’t know how to say it, exactly.  Only… I want to die as myself.  Does that make any sense? … I don’t want them to change me in there … within that (the Hunger Games) there’s still you, there’s still me”.  He is, admittedly, annoyingly doting.  I don’t think, however, that he takes on a particularly feminine role.  I’d put him more in the “sensitive male” role.

    Katniss chooses Peeta (and yes, he can be gentle and artistic and plants a rose bush for her in memory of her dead sister- how girlie!) over Gale – the man whose war practices she disagrees with and who may have developed the bomb that kills her sister in Mockingjay.  “What I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and
    hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in
    the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction.
    The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it
    can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.”  This is not a mature love and would be a wonderful topic for another debate.  It has more to do with emotional survival, however, than gender-bending.

     

    • Bill Blankschaen June 22, 2012 at 10:49 PM #

      Are you sure you’re not going to start you’re own blog? :)

      Actually, I plant rose bushes. Hmm…

      • Jennifer June 22, 2012 at 11:52 PM #

        Don’t worry, Bill.  The kids will be home for the summer soon and my writing time will drastically reduce!  I really, really tried to ignore this post, but I was really intrigued by the topic because I had never really thought of Katniss as being masculine.  She sadly reminded me of so many of our children who have grown up “streetwise” and had developed a tough outer shell to protect themselves.  Even our more protected children have seen too much of war and violence on television and through video games.  My son was four when the twin towers went down and, even though I turned the TV off at the time to protect him from the imagery, he saw short clips of the tragedy over and over on the news.  A few months later he asked me why the terrorists were flying planes into so many buildings and why we couldn’t stop them.  He didn’t realize that the news stations were simply playing the same footage over and over again from different angles.  Until he was eleven he would literally flatten himself on the ground if a plane flew too close overhead – and he’s a pretty protected child.  The popularity of the Hunger Games saddens me greatly because it tells me that our teenagers are identifying with the its issues of war, falsity, the twisted power of the media, and a complete lack of strong adult role models.

        I think it’s great that you plant rose bushes.  I could probably use your help with mine.

        • Bill Blankschaen June 28, 2012 at 12:59 PM #

          Always happy to help with plants. And thanks for your perspective on The Hunger Games. I confess I know very little about it. Cliff Ravenscraft has a podcast with his wife dedicated to The Hunger Game. You might want to check it out for a faith-based take. Google should get you there.

    • Rdnutter July 2, 2012 at 2:50 PM #

      Thank you for your reply.  I was in total disagreement with the original blog post and almost exited the page after reading it.  I’m glad I decided to see what others were saying.  I think your analysis is spot-on, and very thoughtful and respectful.

    • calypso September 15, 2012 at 3:57 PM #

      I think girls also have to deal with a lot more responsibilities today that were typically men’s duties before. I could see why the many single mothers who are struggling to raise children and provide for them without a man would find the author’s depiction of the main character as femine yet not weak or helpless comforting.

  2. Mary Bright June 23, 2012 at 2:35 AM #

    I elected to read Hunger Games as my students were all reading it and my daughter was also desirous to do so.  Personally, I found Katniss to be far more masculine by design and Peeta more classically feminine.  Stop and consider what the story would read like if you simply reversed the sex of the two protagonists. 

    While a case can be made to support a thesis on either side of the issue, the point should not be missed that parents need to be working at communicating with their children.  We have become a culture driven to allow others to pour into the next generation because we simply don’t have the time or desire.  We often overlook opportunities to connect and discuss. 

    What an ideal place to stop and discover what your child sees.  Then to place it in the light of scripture and see to what degree it fits.  Take the further step of sharing what you believe and why.  The development of a worldview  takes both time and effort.  It is not a Kmart blue light special to be purchased.  It is not something to leave for others to do.  The world will gladly tell  your son or daughter how to define right and wrong.  They will not miss an opportunity  to build into them on a moment by moment basis.

    My church family is made up of primarily college and early career young adults.  I am 45 years old, just plain old by their standards.  As I sit in a community group of people two decades younger, I am learning a lot about what has been lost.  Lost in the transition from one generation to another.

    The 20 somethings I am learning to love, long for what they  call “authenticity.”  They rail against the “religiosity” of their parents generation claim that they don’t see older people leading truly Christian lives over time.  They don’t understand the need for absolute truth.  They are open to considering and questioning everything.

    What I hear and see is that a generation has arisen that hasn’t been told the stories.  They do not know the faithfulness of God in the past.  They do not know that God is a Rock, a firm foundation on which to build.  They do not have solid ground to stand on in the face of life’s storms.

     They hate hypocrisy, but lack the knowledge to truly grasp whether or not they are actually encountering it.  They rely on what the world has taught them.  Post modernity is  the banner beneath which they stand united.

    What I am learning, more and more is that my generation has an obligation to those who come behind.  Like Moses, I need to be telling the stories of God at work in my life and my world to my children and my children’s children. I need to be open and make time to pour into those who come after me so that they too can know Jesus the Rock on whom I stand.   And I can only do that if I am alert. 

    Alert for small windows of opportunity.  Alert for divine interruptions.  Alert for the true hunger games.  The hunger games with eternal stakes. 

    Time may well erase Peeta and Katniss, but the Word of God will remain.  Ultimately parents, the challenge remains…will you walk onto the battlefield?  Will you make time to shape the future of your children?

    • Bill Blankschaen June 28, 2012 at 1:01 PM #

      Well said, Mary. That is the challenge. To tell the stories. “We have heard from our fathers how God….”

      Thanks for the comment. Hope your summer is well.

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