bechdel taser: hungry for some YA movie-time, hold the sap-and-fangs?
With the exception of Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, I have remained ignorant of young adult literature. I spent my formative years developing a collection of Buffy serial novels more substantial than nerd-mecca Minotaur’s.
But I knew I should read The Hunger Games before the film was released. I’ve had enough conversations about Rowling choosing a male protagonist because girls are more willing to read about boys than vice versa, and bemoaning the blank slate of Bella Swann.
This didn’t happen. My reticence to buy books that seem to be doing very-well-on-their-own-thank-you conspired with the series’ perpetual ‘on loan’ state at libraries served to sit me with nary-a-clue in front of an Xtreme-Screen this past Friday.
It is strange to sit on the other side of a phenomenon. I may not have read Twilight, but by gum had I read enough analyses of it. All I knew of The Hunger Games was that Jennifer Lawrence was mighty commanding in Winter’s Bone, and much less so in X-Men; that Katniss was supposedly an empowering character, and that the society was dystopic. This was more than enough.
The nods, winks and grazed over elements of the book were fascinating, as I can only guess at what is placating and infuriating fans. This led to a slight distance from the text, as I spent as much time analysing the book-to-film elements as the female representation.
The Bechdel Test was passed in the second scene. And repeatedly throughout. By God would the film have failed had it not. The Hunger Games involves an alpha-class of society, styled somewhere between Lady Gaga and The Fifth Element, sending a boy and a girl aged 12-18 from each of 12 proletariat districts into a Battle Royale-style face-off. They do not have time to sit for six months as a camera spins around them, pining for a foot-faced love. More to the point, they don’t want to.
A nice undercurrent of media literacy streaks through The Hunger Games. From Katniss being told to make people like her, to Truman Show-esque fires breaking out, luring her closer to a battle field. Most pleasantly, its gendered qualities are brought to the forefront. The layers of make-up and costume plied on the heroine as well as the manner she’s expected to present to the public.
Like the glitter and smiles, romance in The Hunger Games is presented as a tool of media manipulation. The idea that love is a matter of life or death is not invisible or naturalised, suggesting that we too should spend our single days bemoaning our lack of partners and coupled days in debt to the (most often) fellow that wants us. It is the outside world that will make mortality more imminent if Katniss and the boy who pines for her do not play it up for the camera.
The character is canny, resourceful and strong. This is why when a friend asked me if she should take her 10-year-old sister to see The Hunger Games, I responded emphatically in the affirmative. But there are a few… twinging problems. Is twinging a word? I feel the sound of it conveys the winced, squinty niggles that slightly sullied the representation.
Katniss has so much integrity that she ventures beyond relatable. With The Hunger Games a fight to the death, she gets away with practically no blood on her hands. She takes care of other contestants and lets deus ex machina do the dirty work for her. Katniss is a paragon of virtue – when she is interviewed on a talk show prior to entering the playing field, even her lack of media training works in her favour, facilitating some homespun charm that enhances her credibility.
It’s a hell of a standard to live up to. Eternally self sacrificial, from the way she enters to the way she exits, some of the personal qualities Katniss is imbued with in the film can put as much pressure on girls as the romantic ideals the film riles against. It’s better than nothing, but there’s still a way to go.
The other potential problem of The Hunger Games lies in its binarisms between the Capitol and the outlying districts. In the Capitol, make-up is pure theatre – restoration theatre, even. With powders piled on so thick, it isn’t so much the question of syphilitic pustules oozing underneath, but the associated callous frivolity. Practically everyone in that echelon is tarred with the same brush, and the film thus perpetuates the idea that society and civilisation are corrupting forces. It’s visually stunning and makes a point about exploitation, but with make-up and high fashion by-and-large the domain of women in our own society, there’s a transference of ideas between high femininity and evil. I feel like a lot of people will want to pull me up on this point, as both genders are subject to overwrought costuming in that alpha class, but its monstrousness is feminised due to the way those elements are constituted in our own culture.
The idea that nature is authentic and good, relying on physical strength and the ability to hunt may be in the hands of our female protagonist, but it substantiates a traditionally masculine worldview. On the upside, it shows young girls that they can engage in these physical, dirty pursuits and that they shouldn’t stay the domain of boys and men. The downside is the suggestion that they’re worth less if they don’t. In the end, though, the rest of the media offers the other side of that message, with much more repetition.
If there were any ten year olds allowed to spend time with me, I’d take them to see The Hunger Games. It’s not ‘may contain traces of empowerment’, it’s a choc-chip empowerment biscuit. But as we left the cinema, I’d tell the hypothetical kid that they’re allowed to be selfish, and if it comes to a life-or-death situation, not to feel bad if they put themselves first, defend tooth-and-nail, or even make the first move. There’s nothing wrong with not volunteering to be a martyr.