The Hunger Games: The Absence of Race & Genderless Storytelling

Introduction by Pia Guerrero, Co-Founder/Editor

The Hunger Games and Genderless Storytelling, cross-posted with permission from SheHeroes

By now you’re all aware of the racist tweets that began popping up after the premiere of the movie, The Hunger Games, based on the tween/teen book of the same title by Suzanne Collins. These racist teen tweeters found it inconceivable that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were portrayed by black actors in the film. The fact that these characters were described as having dark skin in the book directly goes against what readers envisioned–white characters that they could identify or relate to. Readers internalized on a deep level the racial identities of these characters as being white, just like them.

As Gwen Sharp notes in Sociological Images:

“What these reactions indicate is the invisibility of [people of color] in pop culture, and the sense of distress, disappointment, and even outrage some can feel when they are expected to accept [people of color] in what they see as “neutral” roles. And, more disturbingly, it illustrates the degree to which the humanity of [people of color] can be erased, and highlights racialized associations.”

Another point of disappointment and outrage has been around Jennifer Lawrence’s body size as it relates to her in the lead role as as Katniss. Some have even gone as far as to mention she’s too sexy and curvy for the role.

Maybe all this controversy will lead to more people reading the book. Let’s hope, for it seems there are some pretty powerful messages in the book about being a girl that might not otherwise be a hot topic in the film.

Meghan Harvey, of SheHeroes has a different take on the book that goes beyond all the controversy.

The Hunger Games and Genderless Storytelling

I know, I know. I’m a little late to the Hunger Games party. It was only a few short weeks ago that I stumbled upon the first book in the series by Suzanne Collins and picked it up to read the back. In the back of my mind I remembered someone recommending it to me some time ago, but I had never read it. I was impressed with the plot. so I made a mental note to make it the next book I read.

After a few days I realized that the book was familiar to me was because it was about to be released as a major motion picture. So this week I finally got around to reading it because I had no intention of seeing it in the theater without having read the book first. Keep in mind; I still had not realized that I was about to discover one of my new favorite literary heroines.

If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry I am not going to spoil any of it (not much at least) here. Since I’ve yet to see the movie I won’t be talking about the high or low points of it or comparing it to the book (though I’ll be happy to do that once I have seen the movie). What I am going to do is gush on all the ways I love Katniss Everdeen, the main character of the Hunger Games.

  1. She Is Awesome – OK, so not the best choice of words, but true nonetheless. Here is a teenage girl who hunts and scavenges to keep her family fed. She is sharp with a bow and arrow, a savvy trader in her community and can set a trap that would make the most talented hunter jealous.
  2. Body Image is Not an Issue – Though there a few scenes where what Katniss wears are pertinent to the plot they have nothing to do with body image. In fact those few scenes really have little do with gender at all.
  3. Zero Sexualization – That’s right, there was not a hint of sexualization in any area of this book. Not between the main characters, the side characters, the clothing, or anything.
  4. No Time for Boys – Now I can’t speak for the rest of the books (because I haven’t read them yet) but I loved that while there is sort of a love interest (or two) in the book the relationship is so tightly mixed in with friendship, camaraderie and basic survival that it becomes more of a sidebar to the rest of the story.
  5. Gender Roles Cease to Exist – The best part of all of is that while Katniss maybe be awesome, as I mentioned before, it’s never mentioned that she is who she is despite being a girl. Unlike girls like Nancy Drew, “girl” detective or Hermione Grainger who couldn’t just be brilliant, but instead had to be the most brilliant WITCH of her generation. Katniss is who she is, with no regard to gender. That rule also applied to all the characters in the book. Their strengths and their weaknesses (boys included) are based on personality NOT gender. Which was so completely refreshing, that I can’t even think of another book that managed to tell it’s story with no regard to gender roles AT ALL.

One thing that really intrigues me is that The Hunger Games is considered young adult.  It’s listed as a 5th grade reading level and is even the subject of our school’s 4th & 5th grade book club this session.

While the subject matter is certainly dark, I am considering reading it again. I even look forward to being able to read it out loud to my own kids. I so desperately want them both to hear a story that is free of gender stereotypes that I might being willing to deal with some of the unpleasantness of the subject matter and read it to them.

4 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: The Absence of Race & Genderless Storytelling

  1. It’s pretty sad to think that some people can only relate to characters that look exactly like them. Why is that? In the movie Remember the Titans, I remember feeling so connected to Denzel Washington’s character when he was trying to get his team to get along and work together. The reason why I felt so connected was because I have been a coach for many years, coaching various teams with different personalities and genders, however found it difficult to connect them as a driving force. Am I not allowed to relate to him because he is an African-American man and I am a Caucasian woman? I think that you can relate to anyone if they share the same view or experiences with you, right? I feel silly asking this as a question, but I never really thought that someone’s race or gender could stop you from feeling a connection with them.

  2. Thing is there is sexualisation in the books- the costumes they wear for the various presentations are in some cases designed to be sexy. But this is seen as simply a tool- a way of getting supporters amoungst the spoiled rich people watcing the games, not something that decides the value of any character. I loved the novelty of this- sexuality that is not seen as a personality thing- all too often sexuality is seen as fixed and something that isnt chosen- the beautiful woman who is described in terms of her sex appeal to other people. And katniss is a great character (I am personally not such a fan of the later books due to a certain hystericism on her part- to me the character doesnt really suit it- but I still love them as books) and I love a powerful female character- one who doesnt survive because of a man saving her but in fact acts the other way around. And male characters who can be skilled in “female” things- the male stylist in makeup and Peetas art/camoflage work. I know these things should not be gendered but all too often they are.

  3. @April, it’s amazing that you were able to look at your own internalized sexism when you read this book. Speaks volumes about the effectiveness and accessibility of the book. Hopefully, it opens the door for other readers to look at themselves and their assumptions. ~Pia

  4. The Hunger Games is a great series simply because it provides a means to talk with friends and acquaintances about a host of social/racial/gender/class issues but in a safe and accessible way.

    The books actually made me realize my own internalized sexism! I’m so used to reading books and viewing films with women being “damsels in distress” that I found myself resisting the Peeta/Katniss relationship where the female/male dependency was completely reversed! Whereas Katniss was strong, capable and savvy in the Games, Peeta couldn’t hunt or even gather! Props to Suzanne Collins for finally having a story where the WOMAN is competent!

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