Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Hunger Games, a Queer Reading

Panem, as depicted on film especially, is a particularly gender binary and sexually disciplined place to be.  Adherence to strictly conservative gender roles and heteronormativity are perhaps most visually underscored by the film's painstaking commitment to racial and ethnic mulitculturalism.

Those of us who have read the book know that Katniss' home District 12 has a color spectrum of (in musical terms) piano to pianissimo, in that the colors range from Aryan blondes with blue eyes to Mediterranean olives.  If anything, the book's message on color is considerably more conservative than that of the film.  In District 12 a pallid pallor is associated with the bourgeoisie while the lowliest and most impoverished inhabitants of the Seam (District 12's ghetto) are darker olive.  Katniss' own mother was raised bourgeois and went slumming, as it were, to be with Katniss' father - a decision that ultimately caused her much pain and their family much hardship.  Katniss, inheritor of her father's low-brow complexion, is left to provide for the family by any means necessary, including (and especially) illegal means.  In the novel, characters from outside District 12 are typically described physically by one superficial and colorful trait (if at all) such as red hair, green eyes, gold eye shadow.  The film, in multicultural contrast with the book, has taken great pains to showcase this dystopian future North America as ethnically diverse.  Characters with no previously specified race are sometimes African American.  Tributes and others can be of east Asian descent, or Latino, or (America's favorite) ethnically ambiguous.  Even whitewashed District 12 contains a token black woman in the crowd.  While I am sure that many could (rightfully) state that the casting practices of The Hunger Games film were not diverse enough, I wish to point out what seems from this vantage point to be an overt attempt at multiculturalism for two reasons: first, to note that this racial and ethnic diversity is visually striking, particularly when Hollywood tends strongly towards whitewashing (how many film scenes include a New York City subway car that is not filled primarily with people of color?), and to point out that the same care was not taken to ensure that the actors in the district portrayed gender diversity.  In fact, I would say the opposite was true.

I posit that the film's overt overtures toward ethnic diversity have a distinct effect on the palpability of the lack or loss of diversity on the gender spectrum and the presumption of heterosexuality.  District 12's Reaping shows the girls (all in dresses) and the boys (in their best clothes but nonetheless in ruggedly masculine work boots) cordoned off from each other.  Boys may be young, but never effeminate.  A girl like Katniss may be tough, but her long braids are feminine enough and she sure looks pretty in a dress.  Even the toughest female competitors in The Games are model thin and sport well kempt, feminine hairstyles.  Female tributes from the Spartan districts that train pseudo-professional "Careers" have not been bred for an abundance of testosterone and come in at a waif-ish if physically fit size two or four, if not the Hollywood norm of size zero.  Katniss is one of (if not the) most masculine females on screen, which isn't saying much.

Then there is the matter of Madge Undersee.  At the outset of the novel, Madge is Katniss' only female friend, a girl with whom she can be her sullen self and not be under pressure to talk about "girlie" things.  In the novel, it is Madge who gives Katniss her iconic Mockingjay pin.  In the film, a lone Katniss purchases the pin for her sister, who then returns it to her for The Games.  Furthermore, Katniss articulates early in The Hunger Games film as well as novel that she never wants to have children; in other words, she would choose heterosexual failure over reproduction.  Later on in the series, as Katniss is struggling with her own ambivalence regarding her two male friends/suitors, she and Madge have grown closer.  Katniss initiates Madge into her private and subversive world of hunting and the forest, something she has otherwise only shared with Gale and her father.  On the one hand, Madge could not be Katniss' companion and partner/competitor in The Games because the tributary heteronormative binary ensures that she will be paired with a male counterpart, and even in the novels Madge dies (in a classic film trope that euphemistically confirms a character's latent homosexuality) before her relationship with Katniss poses any threat or complication to the binary heteronormative choice she must make between Peeta and Gale.  On the other hand, this only major deviation from the novel's plot does more than simply highlight Katniss' loneliness and mostly self imposed ostricization from her peers in District 12.  It also enacts the erasure of Katniss' only non-familial homosocial relationship that exists outside the Arena, policing even further the assumption of heteronormativity.

Finally, there is the issue of The Capitol.  Unlike the strict heteronormativity of the districts, The Capitol reads like an ongoing Gay Pride parade.  Even in the novel, Katniss finds the minimal degree to which her stylist Cinna succumbs to the Capitol's inherent effeminacy to be reassuring.  Even in the novel, Hunger Games TV host Ceasar Flickerman makes self deprecating jokes about his age and waistline which serve to confirm his vanity on those subjects.  Even in the novel, there is an equivalency created between the Capitol's wealth and excess, its cruelty, and its flamboyant femininity.  On screen and in full color, this equivalency is shocking.  It is not merely that the Capitol seems to take every negative stereotype attributed to gay men or LGBT culture in general and amplify it, from narcissism and superficiality to an embodied representation of even more nefarious anti-gay slander (Games Victors are supposedly showered in wealth and comfort for the rest of their lives, effectively "recruited" to the Capitol lifestyle; compare this to homophobic arguments that gays "recruit because they can't reproduce").  It is not merely that the visual cues in the on screen Capitol read beyond colorful, excess, or consumerist to culturally legible representations of effeminacy as associated with queer male effeminacy.  It is also that there are no other options for gender non-normativity or a release from heteronormative relationships outside the Capitol.  Food, while excessive in the Capitol and scarce in the districts at least exists in the districts.  If one is clever and strong and willing to take a (subversive) risk, one can even guarantee one's family a sustainable amount of food by hunting as Katniss does.  But while Katniss is possibly the only individual who has articulated a desire not to conform to heteronormativity ("I don't want to have children"), she is also unable to access that desire.  It is, it seems, an unimaginable and therefore unlivable life.  In contrast to Katniss' ultimate heteronormative salvation, Haymitch has no partner and no children and his life is barely livable, with him inebriated at every turn.  He only comes to life when he is tutoring his "recruits" in The Games.  Ultimately Katniss will be forced to choose one of her two male suitors.  Spoiler Alert: she'll be in District 13 at that time.  I wonder if, when that film is made, we'll finally see a butch woman on screen as the equally evil President Coin.  I fear we will. is a pretty thin article that confirms the popular belief in Katniss' androgynous power.  If she is seen as gender non-normative, we need many more truly gender non-normative characters on screen! is a strong but brief foray into some of the same concerns as this article.  It briefly mentions but mostly glosses over the queer issues in the film and primarily focuses on issues of violence, Katniss' portrayal as a strong female, and goes further into concerns around ethnic diversity than does this writing.

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