Agency in The Hunger Games

Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Hunger Games trilogy.

By the time I actually get around to posting this, this is going to be old news, but I’m writing it anyway because I have to get it out.

Someone is wrong on the internet. Again.

One of my friends recently posted this article and received the chorus of “Yes!” and “This!” that such links normally receive. And that’s fine. Except that I disagree with most of this, and I didn’t want to get into an argument on my friend’s facebook page; so I’m starting that argument here, now that no one cares anymore.

To be fair, I agree with some of what this article has to say. I’m not sure why the author feels the need to connect her argument to the racism controversy over the first movie. And to be honest, that turned me off immediately, because too often gender issues and race issues are positioned against each other in a way that implies we can have gender equality or racial equality, but not both. That is, of course, stupid. And I don’t think the author thinks that, but I think that by juxtaposing her argument about gender problems in The Hunger Games with the fact that some movie viewers are racist, she inadvertently implies that. So let’s just acknowledge that some people are racist, some people are sexist, and both of those things are bad. Moving on.

I recommend you read the article so you can make up your mind about it, but in a nutshell, the author argues that The Hunger Games is “more sexist than a rap video” because Katniss is essentially a passive character. And as I said, she’s not wrong about everything: Katniss spends a lot of the trilogy letting other people make decisions for her. She’s not a natural born leader, she doesn’t want to be a leader, and, let’s be honest, at virtually no point in the story is she the brains of the operation. But to some degree, I think that’s the point of the story.

For me, at its very core, The Hunger Games is a coming of age story. And for me, it’s a story about a young woman learning to find her voice and learning to act decisively.

Katniss is a teenage girl. She is not a woman. Yes, by the time we meet her she’s been through more than most of us ever will. She’s been the main provider for her family for years. But biologically she’s still an adolescent. Which means she still has the brain of an adolescent, no matter what sort of lifestyle she’s been leading. And her life up until the reaping has been about survival. Survival in and of itself is a choice—look at the rate of teenage suicide in our comparatively cushy society. Katniss could have chosen to let herself die years earlier, but she makes a choice she’s going to live and keep her family alive.

The plot begins with a choice. One the author of this article acknowledges, but then dismisses. I think that’s a problem given that it’s a big damn choice. She chooses to save her sister by walking into almost certain death. Not a really passive action.

(I’m going to suppress the folklorist in me and not get into how wrong the author is about fairytales, because I think she’s mostly ventriloquizing other people’s arguments there.)

Let’s look some at some of the article’s specific points: Katniss never kills anyone in the first Hunger Games and does absolutely nothing to win. Well that’s wrong. If we’re looking at choices here, the first night she chooses to kill the girl making the campfire, she just doesn’t get the chance. No, we can’t know whether she would have gone through with it, but she clearly makes the decision. But maybe that’s still passive—she makes the decision, but doesn’t follow through.

Let’s look at who she does kill: She chooses to drop the tracker jackers on the career pack, and that is carefully planned out and executed. Yes, yes, it’s only in self-defense, but it’s still a choice. Are we really going to argue that the bees robbed Katniss of her agency? Yes, she chooses to let the bees do her dirty work and true, she doesn’t know that they’re going to kill the girl, but she knows it’s a possibility. It’s still a choice.

The author amends her statement in a later paragraph to say, “she’s never guilty of murder one.” I will concede in a court of law she would probably escape any first degree murder charges. And frankly, I’m okay with a heroine who doesn’t actively seek to kill other children to win a depraved game. That’s a long way from being passive.

I dispute the argument that her killing of Rue’s killer is instinctive and therefore not a choice. A choice was made somewhere in there, even if it was instantaneous.

And honestly, I think we have to acknowledge that she has made a choice to let Peeta die until she finds out that saving him will not mean sacrificing herself. She then chooses to save him and chooses to feign a romance, knowing on at least some level it’s going to hurt him, in order to manipulate potential sponsors. And all of this leads to her ultimate choice not to play the game and not to kill. Like her first choice, this is kind of a huge one, if for no other reason than it gives us the next two books.

Catching Fire gives us Katniss allowing herself to be manipulated by the Capital in order to save her family and loved ones. Not really the choice we want her to make, but a choice nonetheless. And one that doesn’t work. Remember how I said this was a coming-of-age story? This is where our heroine learns a lesson: You can try to avoid the difficult choices in life and hope the world will leave you alone, but it won’t.

Yes, Katniss is left of out the big revolutionary machinations in the second book. Like I said, she’s not the brains of the operation, and the plotters were probably right that she would have screwed things up if she’d known. Yes, she’s just being manipulated by a different group. I could go through all of the choices she does make in this book, but overall, I’m going to concede that in this book she does a lot more of letting people choose for her. I will only offer up that she’s a teenaged girl with severe PTSD and that made me cut her some slack.

Mockingjay for all that people complain about (complaints that are at least somewhat justified) is ultimately the story of Katniss learning to stop allowing herself to be manipulated. She waivers back-and-forth between taking active part in the rebellion and rebelling against the leaders of the rebellion. For me, it’s a pivotal moment when she shoots an unarmed woman in the Capital. In that moment she sort of recognizes that she can’t just keep her head down and get through. She’s going to have to get her hands dirty. It’s harsh and brutal, but that’s the world this story is set in.

But this all leads up to another momentous choice: The moment in which Katniss shoots President Coin. For me this is what all three books have led to. This is the moment when Katniss truly finds her voice and decides to “speak” and damn the consequences. She’s learned already that choices have consequences, often nasty ones. She knows this one might. But it’s all a matter of choosing to no longer allow herself to be used or manipulated by anyone, even if the only way to do that is by dying. And our coming-of-age tale is complete.

In the end, I think this article just reads to me like way too many negative responses to books (fiction or scholarly); “This isn’t the book I would have written” “This isn’t the book I wanted it to be.” Okay. Go write your book. Go read a different one.

‘Cause yeah. Katniss not a bold, revolutionary leader. If you want that kind of heroine, you’re going to need to look for another book. She’s not the brightest heroine. You don’t have to like her. Heck, I like the books, but I don’t know that I’d want to have coffee with the girl. But I really don’t think you can say she never makes choices. Not unless you ignore a lot of the story.

(Note: in looking back over the article, I realize I don’t actually know that the author is female. So assume all my uses of “she” are meant to be gender neutral.)