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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The small matter of paganism

September 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

This book was meant to be included in a Tam Lin-themed review/essay that I had happily planned a few months ago; however, I have a hard time shutting up and keeping quiet (on the page, that is). The essay ballooned to unreadable proportions, and also, I lost track of my Tam Lin reading and was easily diverted by other books. Hence, I’ll just review the books as individual ones.


Set in 16th-century Tudor England, The Perilous Gard weaves the basic premise of the Tam Lin ballad with ancient Celtic mythology and pagan beliefs. Our heroine has attributes typical of most YA fiction – neither pretty nor charming, Kate Sutton stands out for having brains, gumption, and a propensity for risky endeavours. Elizabeth Marie Pope is likewise (thankfully) an intelligent writer, and take risks with her character that allows Kate to be both typical and untypical. Kate strikes just the right chord between disbelief and the need to belief, and it is this quality that makes her rather endearing for most o f the first three-quarters of the book; furthermore, she’s awkward and not quite shy, but not quite articulate either (which doesn’t stop her from speaking her mind). A rather prickly but formidable blend of contradictory qualities makes Kate a pleasure to be with on the whole.

For the most part of the book Kate is largely alone, making sense of the world and the bizarre occurrences and people around her with minimal meaningful interaction with others, exiled as she is to a remote castle in the north country due to some freak misunderstanding involving herself, her sister, and the manic Queen Mary of Tudor. Relinquished from her post as lady-in-waiting to the Queen’s sister, Lady Katherine, Kate must now simply… go and live under the care of Sir Geoffrey, a friend of the Queen’s, in this relic from the ancient past, this old stone castle also known as the Perilous Gard for reasons that will soon become clear.

The plot devices are all in place: a mysterious castle, an impenetrable ancestry, strange locals who are strangely suspicious of the strange staff of the castle, a missing young girl, an eccentric but attractive young man (Sir Geoffrey’s younger brother, Christopher Heron), plenty of spare time for the lead character with nothing to do. Pope deftly weaves this all into a subtly creepy and immensely fascinating story. Long, descriptive passages on scenery and location can be tedious in the hands of a writer who uses descriptive writing as filler, but Pope’s prose is like latticework; intricate and tight and delightful in its precision and discipline. The geographic location, as it turns out, is essential to understanding the mechanisms of life for a certain group of “fairy folk”, and while the Tam Lin theme is recognisable to everyone who’s heard about or read the ballad, Pope is a scholar of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England who has set out to tell a different tale – that of the coming of Christianity and the exile of pagan belief.

The premise of The Perilous Gard hinges on this question: what if pagan religious beliefs and rituals were never really stamped out, but simply gone underground and into hiding? Pope has used a lot of material from Celtic and Welsh myths, as well as borrowed themes from the Mabinogion (a collection of folktales drawn from pre-Christian Celtic mythology) and bits of mediaeval history. Without giving away too much of the plot, Pope manages to weave in descriptions of the pagan folk (known as Fairy Folk in the book) and their rituals in delicious detail. Neither sentimental nor rigid, the initial descriptions of the Fairy Folk and their practices are explored in a spare, haunting tone that sets the mood for both interest and a vague sense of prickly discomfort.

My own interest in pre-Christian pagan rituals and/or mythology derives out of a fascination with similar themes in Hinduism, particularly the concept of atman (which is interestingly similar to the explanation given by the Lady of the Fairy Folk quoted below). In the Tam Lin myth, as well, the girl is required to hold on to the boy even as he changes shape and form to various creatures before returning to his own natural form – an idea that seems conceptually related to reincarnation.

No story with a motif borrowed from Tam Lin is complete with a boy, and the boy in question here is the aforementioned Christopher Heron. His interactions with Kate are quite a joy, and their relationship is built upon mutual trust – but more importantly, mutual ribbing. I enjoyed reading the bits where the two engage in conversation – their snarky and occasionally mean jibes were underlined with a sense of hope that went a long way in uplifting the atmosphere of a book that was otherwise sombre, heavy, and dark – a little like how it must feel to wear a Druid’s cloak. Which is perhaps apt in this context.

My main issue with the book is that there isn’t much opportunity to know the Fairy Folk on their own terms, which is a shame, as the short passages where Kate interacts with the Lady (or the “Queen”) and one of the younger adolescent girls, Gwenhyfara, are some of the more arresting bits of the whole book. The Fairy Folk are elegant and utterly devoid of desire or hunger, for the most part, and while they seem remote and aloof, they also seem imbued with a deep, heavy sense of sadness that is never really fully explored. There are allusions to magic that are not quite explored as deeply as I would have preferred as well, and a particular “creature” remains unknown  probably to create a sense of mystery, but which largely contributes to a sense of incompleteness and occasional incoherence.

Towards the end of the book, it becomes clear that Pope has both feet planted safely behind the fence that’s cheering over Christianity’s “win”. Yes, human sacrifices are rather awful, especially so when someone you love is the sacrifice, but there isn’t a sense of palpable sympathy in the book directed towards the pagan believers who were all driven out by at times violent means as a result of the encroachment of a new religion. It is disappointing that Pope, an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent writer, decides to resort to binaries to explain the “us vs. them” scenario – us being the gentle, non-murderous Christians vs. the impenetrable, regal, but clearly heartless pagans. Kate, who while being in difficult situations brought upon by the Fairy Folk had for the most part refused to judge or criticise them for their way of life, suddenly undergoes a change of heart and goes with the explanation one of the village folk gave her earlier on: “They cannot be moved by pity because they have no hearts in their bodies.”

It seems like too quick and simple a resolution for an issue that brought up much questioning and uncertainty earlier on.

This just seems unfair, as the Lady of the Fairy Folk says:

All power comes from life, and when that life is low in the land of the people, they must take it from one who has it, adding his strength to their own, or perish. That is the law which the gods have laid on us; and they themselves cannot alter it. Do not even those of your own faith believe that in the beginning your strength came to you out of a death?

A great question laid down by Pope, but sadly not explored further. It’s unclear if Pope somehow felt she had to resolve or safely elide the more perplexing moral questions by the end of the book because this book is aimed and marketed towards teenagers. But it was quite easily done by weaving the human rituals with the Tam Lin mythology, and as in the case of Tam Lin where the man needs to be saved by the woman before being taken away by “evil” forces, so it is resolved here as “good” having triumphed over evil practices.

That’s just a little too convenient for my taste, certainly, but the book is still finely-written and absorbing, and if it raises more questions than it answers in a way that weakens the narrative towards the end, it still raises interesting ones.

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When being a 11-year-old girl was actually fun

May 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is a thick, comforting, warm, and immensely lovely book. I loved how it did not have any particular story arc or narrative peak, yet remained compulsively readable thanks to Kelly’s gorgeous writing style. It’s gorgeous writing because of her simple yet fleshed out prose, sentences running languorously under events, thoughts, and dialogues like water in a clear, sparkling brook. Characters are also lovingly shaded; Calpurnia is feisty, quirky, and smart without any of the clichés associated with female characters of this type. Despite growing up with six brothers, she boxes no ears, clambers up no trees, stomps no feet. She’s still uniquely who she is without buying into what conventions, or her parents (and her mother) dictate to her about how a girl “should” be.

Kelly also does a great job of presenting all the characters as full-blooded people without sacrificing their messy or sometimes awkward humanity and individual idiosyncrasies. There’s Calpurnia’s incredibly sweet relationship with her eldest brother, Harry, who calls her “my own pet” without making it sound or seem cloying. There’s Calpurnia and her relations to her other brothers – feisty yet peaceable relations – that seems believable to those of us who come from large families.

Then there’s her grandfather, who by virtue of being a patriarch who built up his cotton gins from scratch (and which his son, Calpurnia’s father, has inherited – thus inscribing Calpurnia’s upper-class status in Texas society in stone), is allowed to tinker away in his laboratory carrying out scientific experiments (he’s been trying to distil pecans into liquor) and taking long walks out to the river for his nature observations. In her grandfather, Calpurnia finally sees another way of being – and in Kelly’s hands, it’s not some Great Feminist Feat that a girl is able to envision a life that’s different from what’s expected of her, while her brothers blithely continue to carry on as normal – it just is. No doubt, Calpurnia’s talent for observation and her incessant curiosity makes her question the very things that others consider normal.

Through her first tasting of Coca-Cola, or her first sighting of a new species of vetch with her grandfather, or her attempts at making pie dough, or being gifted something horrible by her parents for Christmas, Calpurnia never loses sight of trying to stay true to herself, even if she learns that it sometimes means having to put on a brave face for the benefit of your loved ones. It’s an incredibly uplifting story that made me miss the girl I was at 11 – chubby and nerdy, no doubt, but also someone who adored dinosaurs, Egyptian and Greek mythology, astronomy, and puzzles/codes –and that’s probably why the book resonated as much as it did. I remember going through a stage of being a ‘naturalist’ as well (short-lived, as my drawing skills were limited at best, and plain goddamn awful at worst) when I went around trying to “sketch” the plants or stones that I saw. I’m sure that I was inspired by a book I read at the time, although I can’t remember which one.

The ending is perfect – it neither resolves nor simplifies anything, but simply leaves the reader with the possibility of hope. One can only hope that Calpurnia Tate goes as far as her mind can take her, especially as she enters the 20th century – a brand new world of telephones, automobiles, and lady scientists.

"They said I was a nympho-psycho-lesbo"

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Coming in at just under 120 pages, Myrtle of Willendorf by Rebecca O’Connell ended much too soon for my liking. I would have gladly spent more time in the company of the main character, Myrtle. She has a spirit and a wit about her that kept me engrossed throughout. Myrtle is hilarious, witty, strange, and utterly compelling. I didn’t want to leave her at the end of it.

Recently, I’ve begun to realize that I’m always pleasantly surprised by books I’ve never heard of before. I wouldn’t have found out about this book if it wasn’t for a review I randomly stumbled upon here, and true to most ‘undiscovered gems,’ this one is quite a sparkler.

Besides Myrtle, there’s Margie, Myrtle’s very good friend (she just isn’t aware of it yet) whom I also covet as a friend. The book is peopled with characters I would love to know in my actual life, and those that I would love to run away from with glee. That in itself doesn’t make a book good, necessarily, but in the case of Myrtle of Willendorf it was absolutely charming and helped make a solid book that much stronger.

Margie dabbles in paganism. Maybe that’s understating it. Margie lives it. The agnostic I am absolutely enjoyed reading about the idea of the Goddess as the ultimate embodiment of female energy, as expounded by Margie in various passages. Instead of sounding loopy and weird, when Margie talks about the power inherent in the female, it just sounds right. Or maybe I’m just at this point in time in my life where it seems right. As Sam, one of the characters in the book, said, “Can’t argue with that logic.” All that talk about female energy being at the centre of the life force, and similar theories, could come off shallow and stupid. But Myrtle has more depth than that, and seen through her eyes, it was at times irreverent and amusing. But we’re able to also sense her yearning for the sanctity and comfort of Margie’s brand of paganism, the power it imbues in women – especially the marginalized ones.

Consider what Margie tells Myrtle after Myrtle has been rejected by various boys as her dance partner in gym class for being too large:

“You are the beloved of the Goddess. You are the goddess. You are a formidable woman. Those boys didn’t want to dance with you because they feared your power. Your size, your womanliness, is something they both yearn for and fear: yearn for because it is beautiful, fear because it is so different from themselves. They cover up their fear with jokes and taunts.
Don’t let the words of ignorant boys make you feel estranged from the Goddess. Aphrodite is not only the goddess of romantic love; she is Venus, identified with creativity, growth, power, and all the mysteries of the Goddess.”

Couldn’t we all have done with a Margie on our side in high school? After Margie gives that speech to Myrtle, I’m a believer.

Myrtle has an iron core of strength in her, despite her obvious self-esteem issues. While art is ultimately the form of expression that allows er to be who she is, from the beginning of the book we learn that Myrtle uses humour to cope with the shitty situations and people in life. Pretty much anything seen through Myrtle’s eyes is funny and spot-on. Her humour is her armour and weapon, and she especially comes out with a few killer zingers in her interactions with her perfectly feminine roommate, Jada. As Myrtle says, “That was the difference between Margie and Jada. Margie thought there was a goddess in every woman. Jada thought that inside every fat woman there was a thin woman crying to get out.”

Ah, Jada. We all know one, or god forbid, several Jadas. Shallow Jada is a strong contrast to odd but loyal Margie, Margie who never had an unkind word to say about anything or anyone, ever. God, I love Margie. Every girl needs a friend like her. Possibly, every girl also needs a friend like Jada to make her appreciate the Margies of the world.

I love how the book treats the Big Questions without at all making it seem like Big Questions. Does Myrtle want to look attractive for men? Yes and no. Does she hate make-up? Yes and no. Does she like the process of putting it on, the whole ritual of adorning the body? Yes, clearly. But that does that mean she needs to succumb to what’s the ideal standard of beauty? The questions are there… the answers are not so obvious.

This brings to mind what Laura Kipnis writes in The Female Thing: “The main reason that feminism and femininity are incompatible is that femininity has a nasty little secret, which is this: femininity, at least in its current incarnation, hinges on sustaining an underlying sense of female inadequacy. Feminism, on the other hand, wants to eliminate female inadequacy, to trounce it as a patriarchal myth, then kick it out of the female psyche for good.”

Maybe this seems overly-simplistic, or maybe it’s one big “Duh” to most people. But it’s the central tug between these two extremes and many are being stretched out thin on either side. I think a book that honestly and intelligently acknowledges this struggle is valuable for girls and young women. (Myrtle of Willendorf is marketed as a young adult book.)

The highlight of this book on a personal front was learning more about the Venus of Willendorf. I hadn’t heard about it until I read this book. I found this essay to be a really interesting source of information, not least because it brings to light the discrepancies inherent in the name ‘Venus of Millendorf.’

Venus – the ideal embodiment of Classical Western female beauty and femininity.

The Willendorf Venus – not so much. Drooping breasts, rolls of stomach fat, pudgy thighs. Everything about her is untypical of what constitutes ideal beauty. Also, she is faceless, which is interesting. My first reaction was that she looked so comforting – which, I suppose, is one way of looking at her, as an embodiment of the Earth Goddess / Mother Goddess figure of abundance and fertility.

This essay explores the possibility that it was possibly carved by a woman instead of a man, which is also pretty interesting. Even while the possibility of an obese woman would have been extremely rare in the hunter-gatherer societies of the Stone Ages, it’s also simultaneously interesting and absolutely unfathomable for us to assume that a man would have found her beautiful or fascinating enough to sculpt. It makes sense for modern scholars to assume instead that a man would not have found a woman like that beautiful, even in pre-civilisational days, and therefore conclude that it had to be sculpted by a woman.

I bet Margie would have quite a lot to say about that.

Myrtle of Willendorf is tender, funny, and quietly rebellious – the perfect antidote for all the dross that we subject ourselves to when we read Elle or Vogue or any number of magazines and books that continue to require its readers to conform to unrealistic and ridiculous standards of female beauty.

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