Radical Femininity and Motherhood in the Hunger Games

This article contains some spoilers for Mockingjay Part 2.

Since the beginning of The Hunger Games Trilogy Katniss has been the kind of heroine that I had been waiting to see grace the big screen. Not just a Strong Female Character™, Katniss’s strength came from her natural empathy and fierce protectiveness of those she loved. In a world based around performance, her authenticity is what presented a threat to the Capitol, and her inability to hide what she was feeling is what rallied people to her. In what other blockbuster film do we see a young woman whose bravery and love is used to start a revolution?

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Katniss manages to be both feminine and strong without falling into the common film tropes of the overly sexualized female character (see Black Widow in Iron Man) or the Strong Woman who only portrays masculine ideals of strength (again, see Black Widow). Katniss squeals when her stylist Cinna designs her a beautiful dress, and also enjoys the practical clothes he had designed for her  when she joins the resistance. She hunts and fights, but also has an innate sense of humanity that makes her resistant to taking a life unless it is absolutely necessary. She feels guilty for the lives she takes, and is enraged when she sees others killing indiscriminately. She fights with Gale, her best friend and love interest, when he discusses war tactics that unnecessarily kill civilians. She also cuts ties with the resistance when she believes they killed children (including her sister, Prim) for their own gain.

Watching the films we lose some of Katniss’s internal monologue from the books, but the other choices made by the filmmakers, as well as Jennifer Lawrence’s compelling performance allow us to follow Katniss’s internal struggle as she copes with her trauma from her two rounds in the Hunger Games, as well as the loss of her district, her sister, and temporarily Peeta. By the end of both the books and the movies, Katniss is grieving. She has nightmares and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her relationship with Peeta is built around the idea of healing. The scene where he plants primroses for her is a perfect example of encouraging Katniss to move forward without having to forget what happened to her. Very rarely do we see such a dynamic portrayal of grief and mental illness in a blockbuster like The Hunger Games.

Maybe that’s why the scene where Katniss appears as a mother feels like such a let down.

The Katniss that we see, in her floral dress smiling down at her baby didn’t feel like the same woman I had been following for 3 books and 4 movies. She felt purposely softened, as if her radical femininity and her trauma had been erased by motherhood. 

As S.E. Smith of Bitch Media put it “As a revolutionary, Katniss is a brave and impressive figure. As a mother, she’s just as strong—mothering itself is revolutionary—but the scene has a sense of literally and figuratively putting her out to pasture. Your work here is done, the scene implies, and so too is your value and interest as a human being.”

One of the tropes of the Strong Female Character is that their strength is defined by masculine stereotypes of strength, such as stoicism and violence. Katniss is forced to embody these traits for most of the series, but what makes The Hunger Games unique  is that is always shows how doing these things affects Katniss emotionally. She has nightmares. When she finds out she has to return to the games in Catching Fire she blacks out and breaks into a strange house. Throughout the books she asserts frequently that she never wants to have children and subject them to the trauma she went through. Katniss’s grief is always palpable and serves as a commentary on how war and violence can affect people. In Mockingjay it is made clear that she isn’t the only victor of the Hunger Games to experience trauma, long after the games have finished. Her mentor Haymitch turns to alcohol, several of the other victors are heavy drug users. In the epilogue of the book Mockingjay, Katniss says it took her 15 years to agree to have children with Peeta, and that she still uses coping mechanisms to get through the trauma of what she has experienced.

The final scene of the Mockingjay Part II film fell flat for me because it attempted to gloss over an interesting and honest portrayal of trauma. Instead it chose a shot of a young Katniss smiling while telling her infant child about the nightmares she has, nightmares that epitomize her worst fears for her children. It was a scene that emphasized the softest parts of Katniss’s femininity, instead of giving us the opportunity to see the strength it took for her to decide to have a family, and the fierce protectiveness she would undoubtedly embody as a mother.

From a film series that showed us unexpected empathy in a violent time, I was hoping to see an equally revolutionary understanding of recovery, femininity, and motherhood in a time of peace. On that front Mockingjay Part II did not deliver.

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