thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

GLG Responds to the Hunger Games: On Silencing Katniss and Lady-Feelings

In gender, girl culture, Hunger Games on March 30, 2012 at 8:09 am

Like many of you out there, the GLG folks could not wait to see The Hunger Games on the big screen. And this last weekend, we did! Given our serious fandom of The Hunger Games more generally, and Katniss specifically, we thought we would do a little HG response fun. So we asked the GLG folks to pick a particular topic from the film and respond to it. This week, read on for thoughts on HG and violence, terrifying technology, Hunger Games fashion, and much more! And if you have a topic you want to discuss, post away in the comments or send us a question at girlslikegiants@gmail.com.

Chelsea B.

The absence of Katniss’s voice in The Hunger Games movie didn’t become clear to me until after it ended. Once I realized that her silence was bothering me, even more troublesome questions began to arise. Why eliminate Katniss as narrator?

The answer to that question is probably found in Twilight. In the Twilight franchise, Bella is the primary narrator of her story, sharing the minutiae of her emotional life with abandon. Many of Bella’s musings read like they come from my (early, okay?) teenage diaries. They feature a singular, laser-like focus on herself and her place in the world, with little concern for anything or anyone not directly involved in helping her through the process of self-actualization.

Sarah Blackwood over at The Hairpin and GLG’s own Melissa Sexton have eloquently analyzed the problems with dismissing Bella and the Twilight franchise on terms of its emotionality and subsequent feminization. Such defense of The Hunger Games won’t be necessary since (as also noted by Melissa) the filmmakers circumvented such criticism by eliminating the primary female voice entirely.

Fan-made poster by Saveme620 at hungergamestrilogy.net

Obviously, Katniss speaks in the film, but the film lacks the richness of the books as developed through the readers’ access to her ongoing inner monologue–which, yes, includes confusion, anxiety, love, sadness, loneliness, anger, and a host of other messy emotions. When those messy emotions are assigned to a female character, they are suddenly stripped of any potential importance and instead are trivialized and dismissed (see: Bella). Katniss’s agency, cleverness, and care for those she loves, so prominent in  The Hunger Games books, is presented in a shallow, one-dimensional form on the big screen, denying the power that can be enacted by an angry, loving, or vengeful woman.

The comparison between Bella and Katniss is a tenuous one (though productively explored by Noah Bertlatsky at The Atlantic), but both of these narratives center on female characters and their feelings, despite the fact Bella and Katniss’s approaches to actually acting on those feelings are widely divergent.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Mary HK Choi at The Awl suggest that Katniss fails to be emotionally compelling as a character in the film because of Jennifer Lawrence’s weaknesses and inexpressiveness as an actor. I get the humor underlying their criticisms, but think that assigning blame to Lawrence is a cop-out. Lawrence can emote just fine. Instead, we as cultural critics need to be identifying and calling out a system of production and a culture that calls for women to be silent if they want to be strong and, in turn, labels women who are vocal about their emotional lives as passive and powerless.

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  1. I think this is an interesting response. I (STILL!) haven’t seen the movie yet, and I haven’t read or seen any of the Twilight franchise so I can’t comment on that. I wondered, however, about eliminating Katniss as narrator in the movie as a move to build tension and uncertainty in the film. The curious thing to me about her narration – not only first person but in present tense – is the way it at once builds but also releases tension. If we can divorce ourselves from our investment in her suffering for a moment, in the book we realize Katniss is destined by her narration alone to live out the entire book. Unless we decide Collins wants to conduct an experiment in postmodernism and – say – leave the last twenty pages blank, we know because of our narrator that we will continue to have a narrator until the end.
    Cutting out Katniss as storyteller in the film seems to me to carry the potential to make the games more nerve-wracking: if she’s not the one telling the story, does she become less necessary to the story being told? Probably not, given the way events unfold, but for a movie-goer who hasn’t read the book, Katniss is not protected by her role as narrator, and from a story-telling perspective I find that intriguing.

  2. Love this post, Chels! And I agree with you that while both Twilight and Hunger Games feature first-person narratives, the voices of the female narrators are very different. I think that while both heroines have messy emotions, Katniss takes a far more stoic approach to processing them and acting on them. In the book she often tries to suppress emotions out of necessity–she tries not to allow herself to feel too much sympathy for the other contestants, for example, because she knows she’s going to have to compete against (and presumably kill) them. Bella’s emotions are all laid out in her narration; Katniss sometimes has trouble even recognizing them, though they’re present. So maybe part of what gets lost in the film is also the internal drama of how we see Katniss trying to struggle and cope with her emotions, which is something very familiar to teenage girls generally?

  3. Great post, Chelsea B. I also wanted to follow-up on Sarah’s point, which is that Katniss on the surface probably seems like a very contained, almost emotionless young woman to those around her. Indeed, even on the inside she knows that emotions can be dangerous–they can compromise you, they can make you weak. She’s even blind to emotions, failing to see the true affection directed her way by Gale, Peeta, and others. So nixing her first-person perspective in the film definitely erases the nuance of her turmoiled interior life. On the other hand, I really do think that stepping outside Katniss’s head will help with the next two films, particularly Mockingjay.

  4. @ST and SarahS: I think you both make great points. Also, something I considered when ST first made her point to me was that the difference between Katniss and Bella (and Katniss’s stoicism, generally) can be seen as indicators of class. It’s privilege that allows Bella to luxuriously ruminate on her feelings for hours at end, while Katniss is kept pretty busy with simple survival throughout the entire series. And SarahS, you’re probably right about the next two films.

    @ChelseaNH: I see what you’re getting at (and have used that exact line of logic to comfort myself many times in stories where a favorite, narrating character seems in peril), and I think you’re right in pointing to how the film’s narrative is perhaps more flexible because of the choice to eliminate K-as-narrator. Still though, whether it makes for a better story-telling technique or not, I worry that Katniss’s silence reflects another of Hollywood’s misogynistic tendencies since it’s not as if complex narratives alone are what drive box office numbers.

  5. [...] Chelsea B. explores how removing Katniss’s voice impacts The Hunger Games movie in “On Silencing Katniss and Lady-Feelings.” [...]

  6. [...] has already been written on GLG about The Hunger Games movie. (For example: here, here, here, here, and here. Also, here.) But re-watching The Hunger Games, I began thinking about how [...]

  7. this is really great! Thanks and Cheers :)

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