The Hunger Games’ Gender Role Revolution

Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) arrives onscreen in Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, bearing loaves of fresh-baked bread. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) arrives in a blind fury. Peeta is a baker, a nurturer, a feeder. Katniss is a hunter.

They find themselves unwitting revolutionaries in their world, Panem, but in a way both are already gender revolutionaries in ours. Much ink has been spilled in praise of Katniss as a strong, flawed, mold-breaking heroine, but as the second Hunger Games movie storms the box office, Peeta is having his own moment. And well he should.

Throughout what is at times an unbearably violent dystopian sci-fi series, Peeta’s acts of gentleness and sacrifice multiply. He paints a picture of the deceased young tribute, Rue, to inspire Katniss. He tries to save her life and lay his own down repeatedly, usually getting hurt himself in the process. He warns her away from conflict and isolation, encouraging her to make friends and alliances while she glowers and fumes with mistrust. He holds her when she can’t sleep. He’s also clever, witty, observant, and even sardonic when he needs to be.

In many ways, Peeta is, as NPR’s Linda Holmes aptly said, Katniss’ perfect “movie girlfriend.” Holmes lists his qualifications in her excellent piece about the pair:

He encourages her to talk about her feelings. He encourages her to share herself with others. He promises her, falsely but selflessly, that her indifference doesn’t hurt him and she owes him nothing. If she ever wants to come to her senses, come down from those fences, he’ll be there…

He’s better than she is, but softer. He’s less knowing than she is. He’s less cynical than she is. He’s just as tough and as brave as he can possibly be with the skill set he has, and she’s responsible for mopping up when that’s not enough. …

He loves her as she is, while knowing he’ll never change her and parts of her will always be mysterious and out of reach.

In the face of such perfection, poor Gale, the rival for Katniss’ affection, never stands a chance—muscular and charmingly revolutionary though he is. Instead, Peeta’s almost maternal qualities are presented by series author Suzanne Collins as the natural complement to Katniss’ steeliness, her protectedness, her anger. In the books, it should be noted, Peeta is even more of a departure from the masculine norm. He’s maimed, having lost a leg in the arena. Thus the way Collins and the films present his character isn’t just representative of a simple role reversal, but an important feminist statement in and of itself. Don’t we feminists often argue that our work is only half done when women are encouraged to come into previously off-limits ambition and toughness? Don’t we complain that a future world shouldn’t just encourage strength and resolve in women, but should also cease denigrating kindness and caring as unimportant, weak, qualities—just because they are associated with the feminine? Don’t we wish men did more of the caring work?

Peeta’s centrality to the story—and eventually, his precedence over the more traditionally masculine Gale—is a crucial part of the way The Hunger Games’ larger existence flips traditional gender roles. The film has already challenged archetypes by placing a heroine in the center of a blockbuster film’s action, as well as its lingering love triangle. This isn’t Twilight, in which a love triangle presented for the female gaze can be dismissed as a “chick flick,” a cheesy aberration. It’s a mainstream adventure for all audiences. And it still caters to the young female gaze. I could hear the awws in the theater when Peeta acted particularly Peeta-ish.

This drives male critics nuts. Witness this Onion video in which a male critic “parodies” the Hunger Games by focusing solely on who’s cuter: Peeta or Gale. Meanwhile, another writer compiled a list of all the ways Peeta messes up in the arena, mocking his hapless qualities: “I am not sure what kind of sensible shoes Peeta packed for his Hunger Games experience, but they must have miserable tread, because the boy just cannot stay upright while running for more than ten seconds at a time.”

I laughed, but Peeta’s mess-ups aren’t that egregious. I can’t see this list being funny if it were a female character who gets into the same amount of trouble (unless, maybe, she’s played by Gwyneth Paltrow). I’ve seen tweets and Facebook posts mocking Peeta’s baking skills—statements that aren’t bad in and of themselves, but show that we have a long way to go in accepting male characters who break the mold.

These complaints—both about Peeta and about the larger love triangle—show a deep discomfort with the centering of a young female experience in the Hunger Games films, both onscreen and in the audience. I’m sure many heterosexual male viewers are confused by the fact that a movie that looks like it’s for them, and is paced like it’s for them, contains these lingering shots that are obviously not for them. There’s even a male-on-male CPR scene that seems like a deliberate nod to a sexually complex audience.

To be fair, Panem’s dystopian dreamscape is hardly a gender utopia. One of the more problematic tropes in the film is the way the Capitol residents’ decadence is signaled, in part, by sexual nonconformity, with the noble oppressed districts acting in traditional gender roles while their partying oppressors dress in drag and wild makeup. It would be more progressive if a range of sexual expression were seen in the districts as well as the Capitol.

This wrinkle in a seemingly progressive narrative exemplifies the way that the Hunger Games promotes revolution against oppressive government in a way that has caught the eye of socialist radicals and Tea Partiers alike. White racists have freaked out over the casting of people of color in ambiguous roles, while fans of color have embraced the series—finding themselves and their own forms of resistance in its narrative, even if they’re not explicitly there.

Personally, I’ve always appreciated Suzanne Collins’ vision of the Capitol because it reminds me of my own hypocrisy, my own complicity in succumbing to capitalist distraction while my fellow citizens starve. Yet I appreciate that her message is more complex than just foisting guilt on her readers, too. In Catching Fire, the mantra is repeated to Katniss over and over again by the other characters: Remember who the real enemy is. The enemy is a system that pits people against each other, not the people you are pitted against. Turn your anger away from your competitors to the powers that be. This is a feminist message if there ever was one, and a collectivist one. This, along with the prominence of Peeta, the boy with the bread, pushes a crowd-pleasing action flick far past the status quo.

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  • MsC

    Peeta is a stronger character than he gets credit for, because writers and other critics take the lazy way out when having to write about Peeta vs. Gale.

    Story spoilers ahead, so don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movies or read the books yet:

    Peeta’s physical strength is shown. But he also has mental and emotional strengths that aren’t necessarily gentle or what may be called traditionally “feminine.” They really aren’t masculine or feminine.

    Peeta formed an alliance with some of the Careers, was wily enough to keep them off Katniss’ trail for a while, was physically strong enough to hold his own with them during that time, and was clever enough to catch on to the adult games going on around them well before Katniss. He was also smart enough to figure out and show Katniss how to get him out of Cato’s grip during the final fight on the Cornucopia.

    There’s something often left out of the dismissal of Peeta, the fact that his mother verbally and physically abused him and his siblings. Perhaps that is why he is able to tune into other people’s actions, moods and motivations more easily than solitary Katniss, not because he is more “feminine.” Being able to anticipate his mother’s moods may have helped him avoid more abuse. It may have helped him learn how to spot and play the games behind the Hunger Games and thus was a large part of why he and Katniss were able to win.

    Ultimately, Peeta’s ability to adapt to his environment, symbolized by his using his artistic talents to create disguises, is one his strongest traits and helps keep him and Katniss alive.

    • PasosOlvidados

      Thank you for this post. People who have yet to read the books never realize how integral Peeta is to Katniss’s survival. Katniss actually comes off as more manipulative, selfish, brash, and stupid in the books than Peeta does, and a lot of the point of Catching Fire was to put Katniss down a peg. In an arena where she is surrounded by people that have experienced much more hardship than her, she becomes the person that everyone ends up dying to save. She is made to feel her true usefulness when she continues to stick with her selfish ideals. Peeta on the other hand, who had already lost his leg saving Katniss in The Hunger Games, continues to know how to work well with others and consistently sacrifices himself for her.

      This is shown even further in the third book. Katniss may be the main character in this story, but she is far from the heroine.

  • Horation_Tobias_HumpleDinK

    Wasnt really confused because he pretty much behaves like me, but can see why he will. You should watch some animes or read some mangas. Been a fair few male characters that totally are ‘unmaleish’. Some that cry a lot. Its interesting, because so many mangas and animes. Create such rich female and nontraditional female characters, and male characters too. Even cross dressing male characters that are awesome. That the western sphere of media, is really behind.

    • CiaranMacAoidh

      I didn’t know that about manga and anime. I was turned off by some of the first anime I watched because it was horribly sexist and a bit rapey.

      • CJ99

        which anime are you referring to?

        • CiaranMacAoidh

          I’ve no doubt, and I certainly would smear an entire style of art or a genre. I know it’s because of my own lack of knowledge, but I was a bit surprised at the inclusiveness above.
          I can’t remember them exactly; one had a teacher turn into a tentacled monster when her pupil turned down her ‘advances’. Then there was some tentacle-based nastiness.

          • CJ99

            That’s known as Eroge / Hentai / Etchi, a pretty small subset of animation. There’s a lot better stuff out there. some of it has humour based on innuendo but not overtly perverse. I could name quite a few examples but just a few would be Vexille (movie), Full metal Panic (series), Tenchi Muyo (series), Ghost in the shell (Movies & series), Appleseed (Movies & series). Anime can vary from very action oriented (Macross) to action/horror (akira) to comedy (Tenchi Muyo).

            I think where most of us here in North America just don’t get it is we were brought up on a very limited form of animation aimed at 4 year olds. Plus when we do hear of anime it ends up on some fox “news” making some slanted “report” with a rediculous assertion that “all anime is porno” which isn’t really true.

          • CiaranMacAoidh

            Good to know what to avoid… :)

            I saw Akira, Vampire Hunter D and Ghost in the Shell a looong time ago but I thought I’d give anime another go and must’ve just hit on the wrong stuff. Since talking to you I’ve gotten copies of My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke since your first reply, so I’ll give it another, fairer, shot.

          • CJ99

            Thanks for the reply & being open about it, Haven’t seen totoro & I find mononoke a bit too close to disney for my personal tastes but no prob if you or anyone likes them. One that struck me in an unexpected way was 1 I mentioned above: vexille, I got it for my liking of action movies but what I didn’t realize is it’s got an unexpected (for me at least) human element that caught me off guard in a good way. for stuff here in north america viz entertainment & funimation release quite a lot usually with both japanese & english audio (with subtitles). You can also find some via streaming online cheaply or sometimes free looking around to so shouldn’t be expensive just for checking it out.

          • CiaranMacAoidh

            Thank you, by the way, for the list, the starter-education and the chat.

    • CJ99

      Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion springs to mind as does Ichika Orimura of Infinite stratos though not all would like them being 1 of the few males in the series being competed for by the women who outnumber them. But then they often have a hard time completing with stronger female characters such as Asuka Lanely Sohryu or Houki Shinonono.

  • misteriousveiwerwoman

    Peeta is awesome!