Co-written with Rachel Dempsey.
I almost don't want to write this post, because it brings attention to something I'd much rather be ignored. In the frenetic lead-up to the March 23 opening of The Hunger Games, there are articles about the movie's restrictive costumes, about its "futuristic Appalachian" soundtrack, about its similarities with a Japanese film called Battle Royale. But few of them focus on one key point:
The Hunger Games is about a girl.
And not just any girl. The main character of the movie (and the novels that came before) is a badass teenager named Katniss Everdeen who will stop at nothing to save her sister and herself. She's a fierce hunter with a hard shell and a disdain for authority. We've seen this girl before, particularly in science fiction and fantasy -- but rarely as the central character. (Even Xena was a spin-off of the Hercules series.)
In fact, The Hunger Games has remarkably progressive gender politics across the board. The story has at its center a love triangle between Katniss and two suitors that embody two very different ways to be a man. Gale Hawthorne, Katniss' best friend from childhood, is a fellow hunter, a strong silent type with a habit of railing against the government that morphs into a central role in the rebellion that develops as the series progresses. Peeta Mellark, Katniss' fellow contestant in the Hunger Games, is a baker's son, a sweet boy whose only goal in the Games is to keep Katniss alive -- although she does her fair share of rescuing him as well. They couldn't be more different, but neither of them seems to mind playing second fiddle to Katniss.
If Gale is the poster boy for traditional masculinity, Peeta is the poster boy for a new kind of masculinity -- no less potent, as the frenzied teen-girl contingent makes clear, but with room for such traditionally feminine characteristics as sensitivity, emotional dependence, and self-sacrifice. As blogger Kelsey Wallace writes, the character of Peeta shows teenagers that there's no such thing as the "right" kind of masculinity:
... that being the boy with the bread is OK, and that you don't always have to be strong and aggressive to be a man. Peeta cries and he loves frosting cakes and he tells his crush how he feels and he needs help sometimes and he supports others and he paints beautiful pictures of flowers.
As the series progresses, we get a whole series of characters that subvert gender stereotypes at every turn. The talented clothing designer is a man, as is the sexpot prostitute with a secret sentimental side. The rebel filmmaker who follows her stories into the heat of battle is a woman, as is the stone-cold president of the rebel alliance.
It was long thought in both publishing and in Hollywood that no franchise built around a girl would sell. Fifteen years ago, when publisher Bloomsbury was rolling out the Harry Potter series, they asked Joanne Rowling what her initials were. They didn't want to use her full name on the cover of her books in the fear that a woman author would turn off male readers. She didn't have a middle name, so she gave her grandmother's name, Katherine, and the pseudonym J.K. Rowling was born. In that context, the simple fact of Suzanne Collins' distinctly female name on the cover of the books is a small triumph for gender equality.
The success of Harry Potter and, subsequently, of the Twilight series seems to have reminded Hollywood and the book publishing industry that stories do not have to be by and about men to be successful. And credit where it's due: Twilight, while it didn't do a whole lot else to challenge traditional gender paradigms, seems to have made Hollywood forget the old canard that boys won't watch movies about girls. The Hunger Games seems poised to continue that trend, with nearly half of young men in one poll saying they're definitely interested in seeing the movie.
Progress is made in a strange shuffle of baby steps and giant leaps. The last decade-plus has seen both of these in publishing and in Hollywood. The Hunger Games franchise is one of the bigger ones. It's one thing for old feminists to talk about hegemonic masculinity and antiquated gender roles. It makes us feel better -- but it's not until it starts to creep into the mainstream that we can truly measure the progress.
There's not a whole lot about the world of The Hunger Games that I'd like to see carried into the future. But it's truly refreshing to see a world where gender isn't a restrictive category. We see it in Panem, the country where The Hunger Games takes place, and we see it in the book's blockbuster popularity and the box office receipts for opening weekend. And maybe, before long, we'll see it everywhere else.