Hunger Games: When Winning At Patriarchy Isn't Worth It

[Hunger Games Content Note: Food Insecurity, Classism, Murder, Poverty.
Extra Content Note: Abuse of a Child, Drunkeness, Violence.]

Hunger Games Recap: In Chapter 4, Katniss rides on a train and continues to flashback Peeta to us.

The Hunger Games, Chapter 4

Finishing out Chapter 4 today. 

   As I enter the dining car, Effie Trinket brushes by me with a cup of black coffee. She’s muttering obscenities under her breath. Haymitch, his face puffy and red from the previous day’s indulgences, is chuckling. Peeta holds a roll and looks somewhat embarrassed.
   “Sit down! Sit down!” says Haymitch, waving me over. The moment I slide into my chair I’m served an enormous platter of food. Eggs, ham, piles of fried potatoes. A tureen of fruit sits in ice to keep it chilled. The basket of rolls they set before me would keep my family going for a week. There’s an elegant glass of orange juice. At least, I think it’s orange juice. I’ve only even tasted an orange once, at New Year’s when my father bought one as a special treat. A cup of coffee. My mother adores coffee, which we could almost never afford, but it only tastes bitter and thin to me. A rich brown cup of something I’ve never seen.
   “They call it hot chocolate,” says Peeta. “It’s good.”

And, because this isn't Twilight, Katniss eats all the things.

And I love this. Several times before Katniss goes into the arena, she will talk about eating. Eating for pleasure. Eating to try new things that she's never had before and that she may never have a chance at again. Eating to bulk up for a game that depends, in part, on her not starving to death. Eating to get stronger. Eating to gain muscle mass. Eating to weigh more than the other competitors so that she can hold her own in a fight. Eating because she wants to eat.

This isn't like Twilight, where the narrative gives us a wink and nod to assure us that Bella is acceptably thin. This isn't a book where food is only mentioned so that Katniss can abstain because she's worried or afraid or nauseous or because the food would be too rich to keep down. Katniss eats because she wants to eat. But Katniss also eats because there is a political statement in eating. She eats to be strong; she eats to have the things that are denied to her by the powers that be; she eats to be defiant. She even eats in defiant ways, as when she ate with her fingers to snub Effie for her inappropriate comment about how Katniss and Peeta can use silverware.  

Katniss eats, and her act of eating is an act of defiance against the Capitol. The Capitol has tried to deprive her of food as a means of controlling her and her district via starvation, but Katniss has thwarted them by escaping the confines of her district and hunting for food in the wild. Now Katniss is facing a reality show that hinges a very great deal on attractiveness--it is in-universe canon that Sexy Finnick got pretty much all the sponsors for his games, and was pretty much handed his victory in the form of a weapon he was comfortable with using--but she is eating to bulk up and be strong when other girls might feel pressured to stay thin and conventionally attractive. Later Katniss will be given bread to eat by District 11, and that too will be a form of rebellion against the Capitol.

What I am saying is that I love, love, how this series not only embraces food (as opposed to shunning or ignoring it like most modern girl-marketed YA novels because we can't tell our women that food is a good thing now can we) but also recognizes that even the act of eating can be an act of defiance, when the person eating is from a marginalized group that the people in power would prefer to disappear, or (at the very least) to limit and contain and control.

Katniss finishes eating and takes in that Haymitch is already knocking back liquor at a furious pace:

   I realize I detest Haymitch. No wonder the District 12 tributes never stand a chance. It isn’t just that we’ve been underfed and lack training. Some of our tributes have still been strong enough to make a go of it. But we rarely get sponsors and he’s a big part of the reason why. The rich people who back tributes—either because they’re betting on them or simply for the bragging rights of picking a winner—expect someone classier than Haymitch to deal with.

I think I've already mentioned, and I know I'll mention again, how one of the things I love about Katniss is that she's pretty explicitly meant to be an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to her judgment of other people. She tends to see the world in black and white, all heroes and villains, with no real shades of gray--and she loves to be judgmental about the failings she is herself most susceptible to. A few chapters ago she was hating on her mother for succumbing to depression and now she's hating Haymitch for his alcohol dependency; Katniss will be grappling with both of these issues before the series is done, and will realize that the world isn't as simple as she'd like to view it.

(I can't tell you how refreshing it is to deconstruct a protagonist who is wrong while feeling like the author is sitting on the same couch as me, agreeing that yeah, this is wrong, but just hang on and we'll fix it, mmkay. YES.)

Best of all, because this is a series that tries to root itself into moral shades of gray, Katniss isn't precisely wrong. Her mother didn't take good care of the children; Haymitch is a shitty mentor. The thing she's wrong about isn't so much the cause-and-effect facts so much as she is wrong for blaming the wrong person. Her mother and Haymitch are victims, and not her real enemy--an ongoing theme of the series is that Katniss has to learn to recognize who the Real Enemy is. (Not her mother. Not Haymitch. Not Peeta. Not Finnick. Not Johanna. Not the other tributes. And not, super-secret-spoilers, President Snow--at least not at the very end.) 

   “So, you’re supposed to give us advice,” I say to Haymitch.
   “Here’s some advice. Stay alive,” says Haymitch, and then bursts out laughing. I exchange a look with Peeta before I remember I’m having nothing more to do with him. I’m surprised to see the hardness in his eyes. He generally seems so mild.

And here's another example of Katniss judging Peeta incorrectly: She's already cast him into the role of angelic savior, based on the fact that he is a genuinely good person and he gave her the bread when she was starving. Later, over the course of their stay in the Capitol and especially while in the arena, she will jump to the other extreme and cast him as the most two-faced of villains. The real Peeta lies somewhere between these extremes that Katniss loves to embrace.

(And while I won't belabor the point here because I have the rest of the book to do so, I also think that Katniss' assumption that Peeta is The Best Orator And People Manipulator Evah is another example of her taking a small fact and making it an extreme headcanon. Peeta is good with people; he's not a Jedi master with hand-waving powers. Or so I will assert, as we navigate this series.)

   “That’s very funny,” says Peeta. Suddenly he lashes out at the glass in Haymitch’s hand. It shatters on the floor, sending the blood red liquid running toward the back of the train. “Only not to us.”
   Haymitch considers this a moment, then punches Peeta in the jaw, knocking him from his chair. When he turns back to reach for the spirits, I drive my knife into the table between his hand and the bottle, barely missing his fingers. I brace myself to deflect his hit, but it doesn’t come. Instead he sits back and squints at us.
   “Well, what’s this?” says Haymitch. “Did I actually get a pair of fighters this year?”


And this is kind of a good example of how neither of them are the Über Eleventh Dimensional Chess Players that Katniss wants to pretend that they are. Knowing her, she'll try to headcanon this later as the two of them trying to show Haymitch that they're worth taking seriously, but it seems to me like this is a less of a planned demonstration on her part and more an understandable expression of frustration, anger, and protection.

I want to be careful about this, because it's easy to dismiss action that marginalized people take as "emotional", as though anything done under the influence of emotions is valueless. That's privilege-upholding bullshit; only the truly privileged have the luxury of not caring about oppression, and even that isn't logical emotionlessness so much as just privileged apathy. Recognizing that Katniss has emotions should not in any way undermine her intelligence and agency and logic, because logic and emotion are not polar opposites. (Star Trek is fiction, people need to realize that.)

Katniss has every right to be frustrated for being taken against her will like a lamb to slaughter (or, at least, for the fact that she's being forced to participate in these games if she doesn't want her younger sister to have to do it), to be fearful for the future of her family, to be angry at the apathy and uselessness of Haymitch, to be worried for Peeta (to whom she feels she owes a debt) and riled by Haymitch's abuse of the boy. She may drive the knife into the table to make an ideological point, but she may also just as easily drive the knife into the table because it's an understandable reaction to a lifetime of extreme provocation--neither of these motivations are better or more valid than the other.

Though it is a good example of Katniss being right in her anger but wrong in who to direct it at. Yet here her hands are tied: she doesn't have the option to drive a knife into President Snow's table. Haymitch is the one here now, and rightly or wrongly she views him as complicit in the abuse of her and Peeta and all the children who have come before her. And she reacts.

   Peeta rises from the floor and scoops up a handful of ice from under the fruit tureen. He starts to raise it to the red mark on his jaw.
   “No,” says Haymitch, stopping him. “Let the bruise show. The audience will think you’ve mixed it up with another tribute before you’ve even made it to the arena.”
   [...] He turns to me. “Can you hit anything with that knife besides a table?”
   The bow and arrow is my weapon. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time throwing knives as well. Sometimes, if I’ve wounded an animal with an arrow, it’s better to get a knife into it, too, before I approach it. I realize that if I want Haymitch’s attention, this is my moment to make an impression. I yank the knife out of the table, get a grip on the blade, and then throw it into the wall across the room. I was actually just hoping to get a good solid stick, but it lodges in the seam between two panels, making me look a lot better than I am.

One of the things I find fascinating about Katniss is her blend of rebellion and obedience, probably because it rings true to a lot of my own life living as a marginalized person under patriarchal systems. She doesn't refuse Haymitch's request for a demonstration, or storm out of the room, or try to escape before the games. She follows his orders, follows the rules of the game, until she has a chance to effectively subvert them for her own needs.

I know a lot of people view this as "passive" behavior. (I got into a big twitter fight a few weeks back with a dude claiming that Katniss is "woefully dependent" on men. I pointed out that I have never once seen anyone say the same thing about James Bond, despite the clear similarities between Q's gadgets and Haymitch's parcels.) But Katniss' so-called "passivity" rings perfectly true for me. Not all of us have the tools and ability to be Obvious Patriarchy Smashers.

If Katniss were openly rebellious in All The Things, she wouldn't be alive now. She lives in an oppressive patriarchy, and that context is important. If she didn't appear to be obedient, if she didn't know how to hold her tongue and control her face (which was specifically mentioned in Chapter 1 and will be repeatedly mentioned throughout the Games), if she didn't know when and how to play be the rules (even when she doesn't want to), she would have been stomped out early and hard--she wouldn't have had the ability to save her sister, to start the rebellion, or to survive against all odds to the end.

This isn't just convenient for the story--this is my life. And the lives of many other marginalized people. Those of us who pick our battles do so for many reasons, and calling that choice "passivity" completely elides the fact that we don't have all the power to fight all the battles all the time. We'd burn out, or be actively burnt out by the people invested in maintaining the patriarchy. For Katniss to recognize and understand that isn't bad writing or bad characterization; it's representation of people like me in literature.

   “Well, you’re not entirely hopeless. Seem fit. And once the stylists get hold of you, you’ll be attractive enough.”
   Peeta and I don’t question this. The Hunger Games aren’t a beauty contest, but the best-looking tributes always seem to pull more sponsors.

See Finnick. See also that this carries huge shades of other layers of oppression: Cissexism. Fat hatred. Beauty privilege. Racism.

Fundamentally, the Hunger Games are a microcosm of an oppressive society. Marginalized people are dumped into it and told to survive the best they can, against all the odds. But despite the supposed equal footing and fairness of the ordeal, the games aren't a question of equal odds. The difficulty setting is different for everyone. Rich kids come in with prior training, and with bodies that aren't weakened from years of malnutrition. Kids which fit patriarchal norms of race, cis gender, and attractiveness are given every help up to the top. And, again, it's pretty much in-text canon that Finnick won through sheer privilege and that every other tribute in his year got hardly a single meager present.

From a Doylist perspective, the Careers and the Sponsors help make the Games more of a challenge for Katniss, who comes into the arena able to shoot and hunt for food. Ditto the Gamemakers, who can shoot fireballs at Katniss whenever the action lags--this benefits both the viewers in the Capitol and the readers of the book. But these challenges also underscore how much the games can be taken as a metaphor for living in an oppressive society: they keep telling Katniss (and each other) that the games are fair, that anyone can win, that it's a matter of luck and trying hard... but it's all bullshit. The Gamemakers have outright rigged landslides to kill tributes deemed "unsuitable" to be winners.

Finnick wins because he has all the privilege. Other tributes lose because they belong to a marginalized group that isn't deemed appropriate to hold the title of victor. There's no fairness here, only social control and inequality.

   The people begin to point at us eagerly as they recognize a tribute train rolling into the city. I step away from the window, sickened by their excitement, knowing they can’t wait to watch us die. But Peeta holds his ground, actually waving and smiling at the gawking crowd. He only stops when the train pulls into the station, blocking us from their view.   He sees me staring at him and shrugs. “Who knows?” he says. “One of them may be rich.”
   I have misjudged him. I think of his actions since the reaping began. The friendly squeeze of my hand. His father showing up with the cookies and promising to feed Prim…did Peeta put him up to that? His tears at the station. Volunteering to wash Haymitch but then challenging him this morning when apparently the nice-guy approach had failed. And now the waving at the window, already trying to win the crowd.
   All of the pieces are still fitting together, but I sense he has a plan forming. He hasn’t accepted his death. He is already fighting hard to stay alive. Which also means that kind Peeta Mellark, the boy who gave me the bread, is fighting hard to kill me.

Also like in real life, Katniss has been trained to see those marginalized alongside her as the real threat, the real competitor. This series will be about her un-training herself from that reflex, that willingness to accept the implicit rules (Only One Victor) and the readiness to accept that the competition she is placed into with other marginalized people is something she should engage in for her one shot at privilege. This series will be about the rejection of that framing, that Winning At Patriarchy is a good and fair thing to aim for, that attaining privilege is worth shooting your fellow marginalized people down in order to elevate yourself.

And that realization also isn't passive. It's something that more marginalized people who nevertheless still retain several axes of privilege (whiteness, able-bodiedness, thinness, etc.) need to learn. 


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