I’ve been resisting the pressure to post about The Hunger Games phenomenon, but I can resist no more. I’ve discussed Katniss a couple of times on this blog. She’s a seminal character up there with Harry Potter and a useful tool for examining he idea of heroism, and heroines in particular so I can’t help but refer to her once in a while when I discuss writing.
But I’m feeling a bit political lately. My previous post on the Trayvon Martin affair has put me in a fighting mood I guess. And there’s plenty of political to be discussed with regards to The Hunger Games. Of course many, maybe even most bloggers on THG (as it shall be henceforth known) have highlighted the irony of the youth exploiting hoopla surrounding a violent movie media event based on a book which examines the irony of the hoopla surrounding a youth exploiting violent media event. Writing that sprained something deep inside my head, by the way.
Can I tie this THG mania into the Trayvon Martin affair? Certainly I can. We live in a society which views babies and children as tiny gods and goddesses who need to be nurtured into their own precious, snowflake like identity, but treats teenagers like a criminal underclass while attempting to train them as mindless automatons. I will say no more about that, today, except to say read Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND for an even more disturbing picture of this paradoxical catch 22.
But the other big news story of the last few weeks is the American Right’s “insertion” of its various appendages into the various orifices of American women. “Medical rape” is a term I thought I would never have to learn. Can I tie THG whackadoodle together with this? Just watch me.
THG is one of many dystopian novels monopolizing the best seller list right now. THG is certainly the vanguard of this trend, and for good reason, It’s a powerfully affecting tale of violence and coercion, fascism and oppression. It also firmly fixed the idea of a “kick-ass heroine” into the public consciousness. Follow up novels such as Matched, Divergent, Delirium and Wither further explore these dystopian worlds wherein teenage girls are manipulated and controlled, only to bite back in variously hostile and inventive ways.
So here’s my question: if THG is a comment, as all good books are, on the current state of society, and the current state of society, at least for girls and women is focusing most of it repression and control on the twelve inches between the navel and the top of the thighs, then where is the sexual repression in THG? Where is the state’s interest in Katniss’s sex life? More specifically, where is Katniss’s FEAR for the privacy and personal sanctity of her sexual organs? For a book brave enough to take on the sickness of reality television and the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, THG is surprisingly devoid of commentary on the topic of sexual politics and sexual violence.
In book 2 Katniss certainly feels the despair of having no choice but to marry and have children with Peeta. But is she ever scared of being forcibly penetrated? Sure there’s a kind of metaphorical rape when Peeta invents a pregnancy (and a false sexual history, coyly framed as “marriage”) for her prior to the Quarter Quell Games, but the truth of real dystopian societies is that one of the first cultural norms to break down is the sexual safety of young women. Just ask a Sudanese girl (or boy for that matter), or a Serbian, or any girl living in a refugee camp. Rape gangs pop up in fractured or displaced communities like fireweed after a brushfire. Rape is a common, almost universal tool of warfare and repression. Rape is a big part of gang life and the socially unfettered world of the homeless and addicted.
WITHER, by Lauren DeStefano certainly smacks more of the sexual violence and interference growing in our society. It’s sort of romanticized though, which I find in a way, much more disturbing, though I did like the book. There’s no disguising or justifying away the fact that the protagonist and narrator, Rhine develops feeling for this pedophile who has imprisoned her and impregnated her thirteen year old “sister wife”. Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Or something else?
While THG is a violent book and WITHER is a sexualized book, neither of them seem brave enough to face the real threat of sexual violence, coercion and control that all young women face in OUR world. Let me put it another way: there would be rape in the Hunger Games arena, and the capital viewers would love it. Also, was the Quarter Quell the first time a “pregnant” tribute had gone into the arena? Come on. Surely the Game-makers would have some kind of policy in place about this. Maybe even thrill at it. My feeling is that author Suzanne Collins tiptoed over this whole issue like a coal walker, rather than face it and be burnt.
I understand that this is a book for young readers – I know ten and eleven years olds who are reading it – so perhaps sexual content was not deemed appropriate. This from a book that describes, in vivid detail, a tribute being eaten alive over a period of hours by a pack of mutant wolves genetically engineered to resemble other dead tributes. Nice. But at least we never saw Cato’s peepee.
Ironically (THG trilogy is nothing if not ironic) when we finally get a realistic portrayal of the sexual politics that would certainly pervade the world of Panem, it comes from Finnick, male, and in his twenties when he joins the story. Do we know when he started to be sexually coerced? Was it when he was 14, just after he won his games? Or was he over the age of consent? Did it happen to Annie and Johanna too? It’s an affecting scene when this is revealed, but it smacks of too little too late.
When you’re dealing with young heroines in societies such as this, the threat of coercive rape would be constant. With all the talk of vaginas and uteruses in the American media right now, these sexually sanitized dystopias just don’t ring true. The young readers aren’t ready for this, you say? Well perhaps it’s up to us YA writers to help them get ready. Because this is real, people.