The Hunger Games. I get it. The young adult fantasy genre is sort of our generation’s current fad, the big thing that everyone is diggin’. As a young adult fantasy writer, I can get on board with that. As a feminist writer, I can always get on board with a female lead, especially one like Katniss. Or so I thought at first.
Before The Hunger Games, we had Harry Potter and Twilight. Before Katniss, we had Hermione and Bella. Two very different heroines. Hermione is arguably a pretty rad role model for young girls. She does well in school and assists our hero, Harry, in defeating a powerful and evil wizard. Hermione was certainly encouraging to read about when I was eleven and felt insecure about my frizzy hair and glasses. Knowing Hermione was a nerd made me feel okay about being one too. The author of the series, J.K. Rowling, gives Hermione a lot of room to grow in the course of her seven-book series, and what I like most is that Hermione is not entirely defined by her boy troubles.
Bella has boy troubles, too, except her boy troubles are the focus of all four Twilight books. Bella is sad in New Moon (the second book in the Twilight series) when Edward the vampire peaces out. She’s so sad she cries about it and nearly kills herself by jumping off a cliff. My opinion: not compelling, author of Twilight series Stephanie Meyer! But seriously, this is a popular heroine who is COMPLETELY defined by her relationship with men. We hardly know her in any other way, and that is outright ridiculous.
Honestly, I think romantic troubles are important aspects to include in young adult novels, whether the main character is male or female, because when you’re going through puberty, that is kinda what you focus on… the preferred sex. However, it isn’t the only thing going on. Puberty, or even just growing up, has a lot to do with personal growth—growth beyond being in love. And I believe Rowling does a pretty decent job with Hermione on that front. Meyer, as I mentioned before, does not do such a great job. For me, neither Bella or Hermione really hit the nail on the head. What the young adult genre has been needing is a heroine readers (both male and female) can admire. A heroine who is strong and who isn’t defined by boy issues, or love triangles…
That’s why I was excited when I first met Katniss.
In the beginning, it was love at first sight with Katniss. She comes from a tougher, less privileged universe than Hermione and Bella, and she has real survival issues to deal with. That’s another issue with Hermione and Bella: they are both in school. So with Katniss, you get away from that “checking out the dudes over lunch” scene. Not to say that the school setting isn’t effective, but it’s a little played out when you return to it book after book in a series.
Katniss is also a hard-ass—which, believe it or not, is really refreshing. Although Hermione is powerful, it sure seems like she spends a lot of time crying and nagging the two other heroes. Still, that is pretty good compared to Bella, who has no personality at all.
Anyway! So I’m reading The Hunger Games and I’m like, “Yeah, you tell ‘em Katniss. You go! I hope you don’t die.” She handles situations well and logically. And I dig that Peeta, the male lead, encompasses more stereotypically female attributes—he’s sensitive, arguably more sensitive than Katniss. And a sensitive hero with a grumpy butt-kicking heroine is a fantastic dynamic to be sharing with kids. Seriously, boys need to know it’s okay to be sensitive. One example of this in the story is that Peeta clearly harbors romantic feelings towards Katniss, and when she learns about them she brushes them off. This is in part due to the novel’s dystopian setting, which makes Katniss pretty suspicious of everyone and everything, but it’s also because she has more important things to worry about…like staying alive.
There are political themes in The Hunger Games that are genuinely different from other books in the young-adult genre and I feel like Collins is doing a great thing by commenting on how awful and powerful reality TV has become. I mean, although we don’t have shows where teens are forced to kill each other, The Hunger Games makes you think about the TV shows we do have. Isn’t there something a little Survivor/Fear Factor-esque about the Hunger Games? And when the tributes are picked and given stylists to give them make-overs, doesn’t that just scream America’s Next Top Model or Bridalplasty? One of the most popular shows on TLC is Toddlers in Tiaras, which encourages mothers to spray tan their four-year-old daughters and parade them around like dolls…when are we going to realize that something is wrong here? The Hunger Games is a little bit like Pixar’s Wall-E where even though the future portrayed in the story is just fictional, there is a degree of warning in the message. Something that doesn’t settle right in our stomachs as we leave the theater or close the book. I mean, isn’t this why Fahrenheit 451 is still popping up in high school English classes across the country?
The Hunger Games offers young readers a lot to think about: questioning aspects of government and social economics, and the relationship between power and greed, to name to a few. The Games are a way to keep people oppressed, and this is an interesting aspect of the story that Katniss considers. The social oppression of the games and then her winning seems to cause an identity crisis within her. Now she has the means and money to survive and provide for her family—but this means now she has time to think about who she is and what she wants. And what she wants is…
Hold on. Wait a second…did this book just end with a love triangle? That guy Gale, who was in the book for like the first 15 pages is now a possible contender for Katniss’ heart? But wait, maybe she likes Peeta after all! Oh, this is so confusing… who will she pick? Oh, I have a question—
WHO CARES?! Katniss, did you not just murder a bunch of teenagers? Are you seriously concerned about which boy you like more? Do you NOT have more serious issues going on in your life? What happened to all that identity issue stuff? Questioning the government? Wanting a better life? I liked that! That was about you! Not about boys.
It’s funny. In Twilight one of the key ingredients to the story was Bella’s love triangle—who does she like more? Edward the Vampire or Jacob the Werewolf? In Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince, Harry doesn’t even want to talk to Hermione because all she’s worried about is her love triangle with Ron and Lavender. And this battle of ‘does Ron like me?’ seems to take up a lot of the plot. Love triangles aren’t always bad things, but haven’t we had enough of them?
Everything in The Hunger Games is written pretty decently, and the plot compelling EXCEPT for the love triangle. Had Katniss’ initial worry in the series been that she loved Peeta for the wrong reasons, or that their connection was based solely on survivor’s guilt—I could have gone along with that. But I didn’t see where the Gale connection was coming from. Katniss never seemed very concerned about love, and the turn was very unnatural.
And in some ways this isn’t even Katniss or author Suzanne Collin’s fault. What is the most disturbing is the desire to spin the Twilight phenomena of ‘picking teams’ onto The Hunger Games. “I’m Team Peeta” a.k.a. “I’m Team Edward.” I think Twilight established early on there was no Team Bella. So what does that say about Katniss?
Like I said before, I think it can be a good thing for young adult novels to have romantic aspects. And romance always has its bumps, it doesn’t need to be sugar-coated. But this was a book about survival, identity, and politics; I think we could have been spared another love triangle and another heroine with the same old boy troubles.