By Carol Owens
Like most people, I initially greeted Katniss Everdeen, canny hunter, older sister, and wary leader of the revolution in The Hunger Games, with enthusiasm. A strong, capable girl leader who is at the center of her own story in a series of books for young girls and women – what’s not to love?
But as I devoured the series, and the body count rose around Katniss, and the horrors done to her and others magnified, I wondered.
And as we gear up for a new round of Hunger Games mania – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part 2 will hit theaters in November – I’m becoming more certain. This wave of dystopian fiction we are providing to girls and young women does them a great disservice.
Don’t get me wrong. The Hunger Games’s unstinting look at the way seemingly anything can be turned into entertainment is compelling – and horrifyingly in touch with our times, in this era of so-called reality television. This is your world, kids – better get used to it.
Katniss also reaches some important realizations about her place in the world. The hunter who feeds and provides for her family, the girl so invested in her role as protector that she unhesitatingly steps forward to take the place of her younger sister as tribute in the games, learns that despite her strength and abilities she still is not in control of her own narrative.
As an examination of the dark subtexts of adolescence, The Hunger Games works. Except that the stakes are so high and the games, all of the games, being played with Katniss by the adults – the TV programmers, the President, the chattering class, the revolutionaries – are predicated on the blood of the children, sacrificial lambs all.
This is, on one level, nothing new. Long before The Hunger Games equated adolescence with a kind of cultural cannibalism, there was Lord of the Flies. We have long understood that beneath the veneer of civilization, even the youngest among us are mere animals bent on survival. Besides, we’ve all been to high school – so we’ve seen it for ourselves.
But the question is: Is this really the central lesson we want to keep pummeling girls and young women with, through the Hunger Games and the many stories like it – like Divergent, the hugely successful novel, and movie, that follows young Beatrice “Tris” Prior through a post-apocalyptic Chicago?
The Hunger Games is, on so many levels, unrelentingly grim. Katniss loses her humanity, and most of her trusted allies. Her efforts to hold her own against the manipulation of the game maker result in the wholesale destruction of her impoverished District. Hanging onto her sanity by a thread, she asserts her agency via murder – televised, of course.
Katniss may be a hero, but her hero’s journey is a joyless one – full of loss and betrayal and despair.
What, exactly, then is her heroic lesson? Tough breaks, kid, chin up? Life is a violent, degrading, cynical, and rigged game -- better get ready for what it is about to throw your way?
Actually, the lessons for girls and young women in The Hunger Games about self-reliance and trying to control your own narrative, flawed though they are, are superior to those of its next-closest competitor in the best-selling Young Adult category, The Twilight Saga.
Aside from some basic questions – like what a 100-year-old vampire wants with a 17-year-old woman – they offer little more than romanticization of the stalking behavior for which campus sexual abuse codes, and restraining orders, were created.
Then there’s the fact that the vampire is actually toxic enough to kill the object of his affections when they have sex – and failing that, any half-vamp spawn she ends up gestating would literally kill her from inside her womb.
In this flood of literary darkness and dystopia, where is the hope? And can’t we do better?
We can – and on occasion, we do. There is nothing wrong with speculative fiction as a genre, and in the hands of a gifted storyteller, it has the potential to be magnificent – even with a few supernatural creatures added to the mix.
Gail Carriger’s odd little steampunk universe, in the Finishing School series is one very much like our own, just with an imagined Victorian past full of odd devices. Oh, and vampires and werewolves and mummies. Refreshingly, I don’t have to live in fear for Sophronia every minute despite the perilous – though often quite silly -- situations in which she finds herself.
Sophronia faces challenges in Carringer’s strange, imagined past, but she is also clever and self-sufficient, and she lives in a somewhat benign world. She has a brighter future than Katniss who, even when she wins, loses by living her life surrounded by violent despair. Or than Tris, in the Divergent series, for whom there is no happy ending. She fights, she wins, she dies.
What wouldn’t I give for a heroine to make the kind of hero’s journey that The Martian, NASA astronaut Mark Watney, undertakes in that novel – which is, itself, headed to the movie theaters this fall. Smart, resourceful, achingly human, Dr. Watney ends up with the whole world cheering him on, and holding their breath as he tries his darnedest to get home.
That’s a message I’d like girls and young women to absorb: Get up, fight, try new things, use your math, think, and most of all, do not give up. In a world with just a bit of hope in it.
Oh, and please, one more thing: do not date a goddamned vampire.
Carol Owens, a Boston-based writer, is a lifelong reader of speculative fiction.