Hunger Games, affective labour, femininity, and compulsory heterosexuality

March 25, 2012 § 7 Comments

Another way in which the 70s influence is felt in the film is in the striking strand of second-wave feminism that runs through it (well, I thought it was striking, but I spent the day prior to watching the film reading the feminist genealogy in Janet Halley’s Split Decisions, so maybe I was just primed to look at things in these terms). We see this at the beginning of the film, when Katniss is instructed to wear a dress for the ceremony which precedes the Hunger Games, in the fact that one of the biopolitical indignities she suffers in preparation for the Games is having her legs waxed, and in her unwillingness to perform a pleasing femininity in order to win supporters in the Games; all places, that is, where the film emphasizes the social construction of the feminine. I write “social construction of the feminine” rather than “social construction of gender” advisedly, because unfortunately the film also repeats a problematic gesture of some second-wave feminisms, which expressed a hostility to the imposition of compulsory femininity in a hostility to femininity as such, which can reinforce a traditional misogynistic trope in which women are criticized for inauthenticity and artifice. The evilness of Katniss’s main antagonists within the Games themselves, for instance, is demonstrated by their willingness to wear pretty dresses, which marks them as “mean girls.” More generally, the decedance of the Capitol (which runs the Games), as opposed to the virtue of the Districts from which Katniss comes, takes the visual form of feminization, in pink clothes and elaborate make-up. On the other hand, though, the film ends with Katniss, now a winner of the Hunger Games, wearing a pretty dress herself, and her greatest ally throughout the films is her stylist, who teaches her how to use dress and performance to her advantage, so perhaps we will see further dialectical developments of this theme in the subsequent films.

This is a significant passage from this post: Hunger Games in austere times”. I’ve been thinking about this aspect of the film (and book, which I read the night before watching it). I haven’t read the sequels, so like Voyou I’m not how this theme develops throughout the series. But aside from this — the decadence of Capitol taking on the visual form of feminization, astutely described in the passage above — the added element of Katniss being taught “how to use dress and performance to her advantage” is linked closely to how both Katniss and Peeta are taught to use mannerisms and performance to their advantage in demonstrating a form of compulsory heterosexuality. The story of “star-crossed lovers”, as their mentor Haymitch is meant to “sell” it, is supposed to keep the two tributes from District 12 alive. The only thing that those bored, bloodlusty brutes of Capitol can apparently cheer on, besides death, is a boy and a girl in love with each other. (All roads from eros lead back to thanatos. Or vice versa. Or, you know, something like that.)  Pretending to be in love will win Katniss and Peeta support, which translates to money (sponsorship, in the world of Hunger Games), and money translates to stuff that you can use to stay alive during the games.

Interestingly, Katniss the girl  isn’t as good at affective labour as Peeta the boy, and increasingly all the attempts to teach her to use dress and performance to her advantage is to: 1) make her charming and feminine enough to be liked; and 2) make her charming and feminine enough to be desirable. (Which is Peeta’s “gift” to her at the start, when he confesses to his deep and abiding crush on Katniss during the early interview session before the Games. This was a move engineered by their “mentor” Haymitch, which as Haymitch later tells Katniss is a move can only help her, since Peeta helped her appear desirable – something Katniss wasn’t able to quite achieve on her own, as impressive as she looked in her stylist Cinna’s various looks.)

As it turns out, the reason why Peeta is so good at affecting this performance of romance is because it’s apparently not a performance; he has had a crush on Katniss all this while. Katniss, meanwhile, may or may not have faked it (what’s interesting in the book is the way it complicates the whole “fake it till you make it” scenario to render the question of “real feelings” meaningless: it doesn’t matter if Katniss faked it or not, her feelings for Peeta are there, and they’re “real” enough.)

“Inauthenticity and artifice” are the means by which Katniss comes to perform her femininity, but in the world of Capitol’s compulsory heterosexuality, it’s the only way to stay alive. The film suggests this, but it’s clearly expressed in the novel because it’s written from Katniss’ POV. After they’ve won the Games and Katniss hears from Haymitch about how the folks at Capitol are mad at her for trying to outsmart them with the nightlock berries trick, she is again advised to play up the girl-in-love role to save herself (and others, because Haymitch implies that this time, Capitol’s anger will be directed at her entire District if she doesn’t play it right.) And so, in the book, during the all-important interview, Katniss tells us this:

I sit so close to Peeta that I’m practically on his lap, but one look from Haymitch tells me it isn’t enough. Kicking off my sandals, I tuck my feet to the side and lean my head on Peeta’s shoulder. His arm goes around me automatically, and I feel like I’m back in the cave, curled up against him, trying to keep warm. His shirt is made of the same yellow material as my dress, but Portia’s put him in long black pants. No sandals, either, but a pair of sturdy black boots he keeps solidly planted on the stage. I wish Cinna had given me a similar outfit, I feel so vulnerable in this flimsy dress. But I guess that was the point.

A little later on we learn the reason for why Peeta had to wear pants and boots (an incident from the novel that the film adaptation left alone), but it still seems pretty troubling to me that it’s this required performance of lovestruck, vulnerable femininity that is needed, quite literally, to save Katniss’ life. And this too precisely because she has demonstrated what is apparently meant to be understood as an unfeminine lack of vulnerability throughout. It’s almost as if she must be punished for not being feminine enough or female in all the right ways (which is why comments to the effect that Katniss Everdeen is a “better” feminist role model than Bella Swan of the Twilight series seems to me rather strange, not least because comparing who’s more feminist is precisely why feminism is still needed, but more to the point because so many seem to miss how similar these two female characters have to be in order to be allowed to exist within the social order.)

Anyway, this seems to tie in to what Voyou pointed out: the decadence of the Capitol expressed through the “visual form of feminization”. This also somehow hints at the subtle underlying factor about what makes Katniss a “worthy” poor person – she is, ultimately a very pretty woman, even if it’s achieved through artifice (i.e. Boy, doesn’t she clean up nice! etc.). The markers of femininity, or what makes a girl worthy, still seem depressingly familiar: pretty, vulnerable, likeable, charming, and most of all, “desirable” (in general) and desired by a man (in particular).

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