Content Note: Death, Agency, Reproductive Rights
Hunger Games Recap: I've decided to run a Hunger Games deconstruction to post on a non-regular basis. This will not be a line-by-line deconstruction like Twilight and will not precisely be a read-a-long like Narnia; it will be a thematic deconstruction by chapter with the assumption that everyone is already familiar with the books. Spoilers lurk herein.
The Hunger Games, Chapter 1
I love "The Hunger Games". It's probably my most favorite book series of all time at this point. I've read the books half a dozen times. I've listened to the audio books more times than I can count. I love the series: heart, mind, and soul. I also feel like it's one of the most feminist book series I own. This is not a coincidence.
THG is a fundamentally political series. The novels follow the adventures of Katniss Everdeen as she is forced by an oppressive government to kill other young adults in order to survive. In the process, she becomes a symbol of defiance and rebellion against the corrupt government and she is forced to navigate a brutal civil war in order to protect herself and her loved ones.
But THG is also a deeply personal series, and the personal becomes so deliberately woven with the political that an appropriate tagline for the series would almost certainly be The Personal Is Political. Katniss' personal life is intruded upon, first by the deadly reality-TV program she is forced by the government to participate in, and then later as part of a propaganda series in order to encourage the members of the rebellion. Her emotions and actions are on display and are appropriated as part of a larger cause: her love for her sister, her love for her district partner, her love for her allies. And Katniss' feelings aren't just appropriated against her will; more often than not, they are deliberately manipulated, both by her enemies and her allies.
And so THG is ultimately a story about agency, and about the removal of such. It's a novel about reproduction and reproductive freedom, and how these very basic rights tie into every facet of one's life and choices. And thus it is not a coincidence that the first paragraph of the novel starts with a frightened child.
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Prim is Katniss' little sister, but in many ways she is almost a surrogate daughter. When Katniss' father died, her mother spiraled into a silent depression and Katniss was forced to step in and be the parent her little sister needed until their mother was able to recover.
The Reaping, as we will learn, is a yearly ceremony in which two children -- a boy and a girl -- are chosen by lottery and sent to the Capitol as tributes marked for death. The children will be placed in an arena with 23 other children and only one child will be allowed to leave. That child chosen as winner will be the "winner" by virtue of the fact that they are the only one left alive: the other tributes will have been brutally bludgeoned, hacked, drowned, burned, or starved to death.
Attendance at The Reaping -- the ceremony at which your child may be taken from you and sent away to be violently murdered -- is mandatory. For weeks after the ceremony, live footage of your child's struggles will be piped into your home and onto the screens of the televisions in the town square. By law -- and for the sake of the rest of your family -- you must treat The Reaping as a great honor and a solemn celebration, or suffer serious consequences. When a "victor" who murdered your child goes on their victory tour in the year after the Games, the onus will be on you to stand by quietly in the crowd at the celebration held in their honor.
And this is a fundamental aspect of the series: the government of Panem can and will take away your children to die, and you can only watch helplessly. Small wonder that our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, doesn't want to reproduce. Smaller wonder still that she will continually be pressured to do so against her will. Small wonder that she will learn that in Panem, women -- and especially women victors -- don't always have that choice.
Chapter 1 builds the foundation of Katniss' family life.
My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me. [...] She must have really loved him to leave her home for the Seam. I try to remember that when all I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones. I try to forgive her for my father's sake. But to be honest, I'm not the forgiving type. [...]
My father knew [how to hunt] and he taught me some before he was blown to bits in a mine explosion. There was nothing even to bury. I was eleven then. Five years later, I still wake up screaming for him to run.
Katniss' mother is not given a name in the books. She is simply referred to by her status as wife and mother: "Mrs. Everdeen" or "Mother". And I do think this is a deliberate choice, as Mrs. Everdeen / Mother represents that which Katniss desperately does not want to be. Her mother fell deeply in love, and married a man who made her feel safe and secure. They had two beautiful children together, while Mrs. Everdeen was respected and valued by the community as one of the few healers in the area. She had everything that she needed to be happy: a loving spouse, a fulfilling career, a beautiful family.
But she has zero control over any of that. Her husband was killed as part of his occupation; an occupation that he had no choice in, and which was characterized by hazardous conditions that the government didn't care to improve. Her children will be selected for The Reaping and one of them will be sent off to the Capitol to die. Her career as a healer will be curtailed by the limits of the supplies available to her: when the Capitol decides to crack down on District 12 and stop all visits to and from the forest for supplies, Mrs. Everdeen will be left with nothing but snow and bandages to work with.
Katniss can't control whether or not the Capitol decides to kill her, and she can't prevent her career from being a dangerous occupation imposed on her by circumstance rather than by choice. But she can choose not to open herself up to more pain by indulging in love or deciding to procreate.
When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called the Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble. So I learned to hold my tongue and to turn my features into an indifferent mask so that no one could ever read my thoughts. [...] Even at home, where I am less pleasant, I avoid discussing tricky topics. Like the reaping, or food shortages, or the Hunger Games. Prim might begin to repeat my words and then where would we be?
Despite her goal of closing herself off from more potential pain, Katniss is fiercely loyal to her family and her few friends. She knows precisely what it feels like to lose her father, and she's experienced enough of a preview of losing her mother to feel a lingering bitterness over what she perceives as abandonment. As a result, she's doing her best to protect her sister.
Someone else might draw away from Prim, trying to distance themselves from the recurring pain of yearly dreading that Prim might be selected for death. Someone else might feel compelled to live more dangerously, acting out against the Capitol despite the risks that would bring. But Katniss is daily struggling to skirt the line between obedience and defiance; those rules which she breaks are broken only to keep herself and her family alive, and each rule is broken carefully with a calculation of risk versus reward.
I can feel the muscles in my face relaxing, my pace quickening as I climb the hills to our place, a rock ledge overlooking a valley. A thicket of berry bushes protects it from unwanted eyes. [...] Gale says I never smile except in the woods.
We're not but a few pages into the novel and already we see how the political influences the personal in this world.
Katniss doesn't smile in the woods because she's truly happy there in a "Sound of Music" joy bursting through my soul kind of way. She's not running carefree through the grass, sweetly singing songs about freedom and hills and hares and adventure. She's smiling here, and only here, because her face is allowed to relax and flex now that she's away from the District. Every other moment of Katniss' day -- every moment she is not in the woods -- she is under surveillance. There are Peacekeepers (the Capitol police) in town, and informers who turn in rule-breakers in exchange for money and favors. Even when she's at home, she has to watch her expressions and moods because what if her little sister begins to imitate her? They'd all be at risk.
Later, when Katniss is transported to the Capitol and thrown into the Games, this surveillance will only intensify. Katniss will be watched every moment, even while she sleeps. If her face isn't the perfect mixture of winsome, courageous, clever, brave, witty, obedient, and grateful, she won't win over the sponsors whose influence is necessary in order to survive the Games.
The oppression of being constantly watched, gazed upon, judged, and evaluated requires Katniss to suppress her thoughts and emotions if she wants to survive. Outwardly, she must display feelings she doesn't have; inwardly, she must repress her real feelings lest they show on her face. Only when she is safe can she enjoy such a basic freedom as letting her facial muscles relax.
"We could do it, you know," Gale says quietly. [...] "Leave the district. Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it," says Gale. [...] "If we didn't have so many kids," he adds quickly.
They're not our kids, of course. But they might as well be. [...] "I never want to have kids," I say.
THG is a story about reproductive freedom. From the first chapter, Katniss declares that she doesn't want children. She doesn't want them because she knows she can't protect them, and she doesn't want to be victimized by the government by being forced to hand them over to die. She'll accomplish this childless goal the only way she can think of in this world without access to reliable birth control: she won't have sex. She won't fall in love, and this will doubly protect her from having to see her loved ones torn from her. She's not the only one who takes this route; her mentor Haymitch will live a similarly unattached adult life, wracked with grief for what he has lost.
But this isn't a world where Katniss has agency to make these kinds of choices. Her mentor will push her into a romantic relationship in order to generate necessary sponsors in the Games. The Capitol will force her to continue that relationship outside of the Games, in an attempt to spin Katniss' behavior as silly and lovesick rather than calculated and rebellious. As a female victor, Katniss will be forced to procreate so that her children can be "randomly" selected to compete: the audience loves to see the children of a victor go into the arena, and the commentators enjoy talking about how 'unlucky' the family line is.
A choice that should be Katniss' alone -- Shall I breed? -- is a choice that permeates the series. Katniss' lover is forced on her by circumstance, and she is required to make a public romance with him in order to survive. When she is tossed into the Games a second time, she is made to fake a pregnancy in a political move calculated to demonstrate just how brutal the Games truly are. Later, the fake pregnancy has to be explained away with a convenient miscarriage that her handlers use to drum up sympathy for her plight as she supports the rebellion as a symbolic figurehead.
Over and over and over again, the contents of Katniss' uterus and the discussion of what goes in and out of her vagina are deliberately thrust into the public spotlight. It's a huge invasion of privacy for a young woman who is squeamish about her own body and the bodies of the people around her. It's a major trespass on her basic rights as a person to unfold her own sexuality and reproduction in ways that she is comfortable with. It's a depersonifying method of controlling a young woman who only ever wanted to be left alone and free to live her own life in solitude.
And it's a hugely feminist issue in a world where women are being systematically denied birth control and the contents of their bodies are increasingly controlled by the state.
After the reaping, everyone is supposed to celebrate. And a lot of people do, out of relief that their children have been spared for another year. But at least two families will pull their shutters, lock their doors, and try to figure out how they will survive the painful weeks to come. [...]
I protect Prim in every way I can, but I'm powerless against the reaping. The anguish I always feel when she's in pain wells up in my chest and threatens to register on my face. I notice her blouse has pulled out of her skirt in the back again and force myself to stay calm. "Tuck your tail in, little duck," I say, smoothing the blouse back in place.
Katniss, as we will see, isn't quite powerless to protect Prim from The Reaping. She has a few years, a very short window of opportunity, when both she and Prim are eligible together. During that time, if Prim's name is called, Katniss can do what their Mother cannot: she can volunteer to take Prim's place. But she can't do this forever. Eventually Katniss will be too old to participate in the Games, and Prim will be on her own, year after year, waiting to see if she's the yearly tribute.
And even with the volunteering, Katniss can't protect Prim from The Reaping on a more fundamental level: she can't protect Prim from being emotionally hurt by it. Prim must watch her schoolmates taken off to die every year. She may have to watch her boyfriend dragged off one day. Someday she may have to see her children taken away to be killed. Katniss can't shield her sister from any of this, nor can she take away the nightmares that plague her little sister on the night before The Reaping.
People file in silently and sign in. The reaping is a good opportunity for the Capitol to keep tabs on the population as well. Twelve-through eighteen-year-olds are herded into roped areas marked off by ages, the oldest in the front, the young ones, like Prim, toward the back. Family members line up around the perimeter, holding tightly to one another's hands. [...]
Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch -- this is the Capitol's way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. "Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen."
The Capitol exerts many layers of control on its citizens in order to keep them in perpetual slavery, but almost every layer boils down to exploiting the love its citizens have for one another. Where another book with another rebellion and another protagonist might try to make the case that slaves who don't want to be slaves should just kill themselves as a means of ultimate escape, THG asserts that such 'solutions' are harmfully simplistic.
The people in THG don't cooperate with the government because they fear death. They don't do as they're told because they are trying to avoid torture. No, they keep their heads down and their mouths closed because they are trying to protect the ones they love. Katniss hopes to protect her sister, just like Gale tries to protect his little siblings.
When they do fight, it's because they've been pushed farther than they can go. Katniss fights because she can't bear to let her friend die. She fights because she can't stand to have the Sword of Damocles constantly dangling over Prim's head. She fights because she doesn't want to be forced to have children just to have to inevitably give them up to the Games.
But once she starts fighting, she also fights her herself. She fights for her right to select her own lover, to have children on her own terms. She fights for the basic right to control how and when and with whom she reproduces. Katniss, as a character, is not overtly feminist -- she's not an idealist of any stripe -- but her story is one of feminism, of being allowed to choose when and where and how to have children, and of being allowed to nurture and protect one's chosen family and friends. And that is powerful.