Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Hunger Games, Gender and Love

So I finished The Hunger Games last night.  And by "last night" I mean "7AM this morning" because I had to stay awake to push through to the very end.  Once a book hooks you, you're in for the long haul and nothing else can matter until you finish it. 

Now, I'm late to the party.  I'm always trailing behind trends.  I didn't read Harry Potter until after the 4th book was released.  I still haven't read Twilight.  I'm only just barely starting the Song of Ice and Fire books.  Put simply, I really suck at keeping up with popular stuff. 

It took me a little while to get into the Hunger Games.  Katniss is not the most likeable person and being caught in her head is, sometimes, uncomfortable.  She's hostile and cold, and she narrates the story with a diffidence that is both off-putting and utterly endearing. The rhythm of the language takes some getting used to, as well.  The sentences are sometimes choppy and everything is very terse.  And, as it should be -- because we're wholly immersed in Katniss's head, and she's relating the story to us in her own way.  It's actually quite masterful, once you get into it. 

There were several things that surprised and delighted me about the story.  I liked how much time it spent deliberating on tings before the games actually started.  Some reviewers found this part boring, but I think it was smart; the actual brutality of the games is certainly not the most interesting thing about them, and seeing their pervasiveness in the entire culture of Panem was fascinating.  We also get to see a lot of the way Katniss thinks, which is crucial to understanding the story that unfolds. 

Anyway.  One thing struck me as interesting, and that was the surprising depth of Peeta.  I've read a lot of negative reviews that didn't seem to "get" this at all, but I think this is the greatest strength of the story.  People say that the romance feels contrived -- and they're right.  It does, because it is.  That's the most genius part of the book: Peeta, in order to express his genuine love the only way he can (by saving Katniss's life) must fabricate a love story.  By the time we get to the end, the fabrication has become so real that both of them are confused by it, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't contrived in the first place. 

At first, Katniss's reactions are a little infuriating as a reader.  Several times throughout the narrative you kind of want to reach out and strangle her, yelling "How dumb are you?!" due to her utter obliviousness and emotional immaturity.  But then you realize -- that's right.  That's authentic.  Here is a girl who has been the sole provider of her home since she was very young.  She watched her father die in the most gruesome way imaginable.  Her goal is survival for the well-being of the one and only person she cares about -- her sister.  Katniss has neither time nor interest in romance, and why would she?  She's already committed to never birthing children that might be fed into the Games.  She's too busy surviving to care about love.  Romance is completely off the table for her from the get-go. 

Which raises the next fascinating issue:  once Peeta breaks through her cold shell and suggests that, maybe, love isn't off the table, Katniss emerges from her fog and realizes that not only might a relationship be possible, there's more than one viable suitor.  And now she's doubly conflicted.  Choose a suitor or carry on alone?  Which to choose?  What debts does she owe? 

I'm intrigued to see how it plays out over the next two books.  There's a lot to chew on here, and there's some hints at the end that things in the Capitol aren't all that they appear.  I'm very, very curious to see if the books go where I think they are.  Don't anybody spoil it for me :P

But, anyway, here's two things that I find really interesting, thematically, about this book: 

1.) Katniss wants to survive the games in a literal sense -- she wants to be alive when they're finished.  But Peeta's goal is more interesting.  He wants to survive the games psychologically.  He manages to engineer the only possible way for them to both get what they want.  Peeta is absolutely the hero of these books, in the same way that Samwise is the hero of LOTR. 

2.) Their relationship -- and their notions of love in general -- make some really interesting points about gender dynamics.  When Peeta was in his interview, my thought was, "That is so typically male."  A thought which gave me pause, because it seems counter-intuitive.  We're not accustomed to males professing their love in a public way and sacrificing everything for it. 

Except we totally are. 

Somewhere along the line, we seem to have forgotten the rich history of literature wherein men do exceedingly stupid things for love.  We'll complain about the patriarchy and chafe about Petrarch and the objectification of women, and somewhere in there we start to forget that men do have feelings, that men are motivated by love and, in some ways, they may actually be more motivated by love than women are. 

I conducted an extremely unscientific poll that backs up my findings.  Anecdotally, at least among the women and men that I know, the men I know tend to fall in love more easily than women.  Men are more likely to act on their emotion rather than carefully weigh the consequences.  Men are less likely to stop and think, "This can't possibly work out, there's no point in trying."  They're much more likely to think, "I'm going to find a way to make this work, because I want it." 

I'm probably not breaking any massively new ground here (men are impulsive? really? what a shocker) but it intrigued me to see it play out in the Hunger Games.  Because here, in some ways, we have characters whose gender roles have been reversed -- Katniss is a hunter, her domain is the wilderness, she is cold and violent and unemotional, she's flighty and adverse to commitment.  Peeta is a baker, his domain is the kitchen, he's soft and emotional and he schemes and manipulates to get what he wants. 

Yet, within this topsy-turvy framework, I don't for a moment doubt that Peeta is motivated from a purely masculine center.  He is playing the role of a protector.  He is, in a very real sense, rescuing Katniss, even to the point of self-sacrifice.

Anyway.  Gives something to think about, at any rate.  I am very intrigued to see where it takes me next.

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