The at-times fabricated nature of protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s behaviour throughout Suzanne Collins’ novel, The Hunger Games, is reflective of the self-surveillance required of girls in contemporary society. The performative essence of Katniss’ actions, as made evident through the disparity between her thoughts and subsequent actions, mimic the societal policing of girls in Eurocentric populations through expectations of conformity to heteronormative ideals (Jackson, 143).
The protagonist of the novel, sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen, a young girl living in one of the poorest districts of Panem, a totalitarian dystopian state, had been forced into both a caretaker and provider role at the young age of eleven due to the passing of her father and unwellness of her mother. Following in her father’s footsteps, Katniss refined her hunting and gathering skills, and learned to trade her excess meat for other resources not immediately available in order to properly provide for herself, her younger sister Primrose, and her mother. Although she describes seldom being able to find enough comfort to be her true self prior to the reaping, this rings especially true onwards from the moment she volunteers to take Prim’s place as District 12 tribute in the Hunger Games. This is displayed when Katniss is upset by Prim’s “hysterical” reaction to Katniss’ volunteering, but refuses to show any emotions, particularly in the form of tears, so that to not “be marked as an easy target” by the rest of the tributes (Collins 24).
Although she is more often than not being watched as a result of her celebrity for participation in the Hunger Games, Katniss’ tendency to filter her natural reactions for fear of others’ perceptions can be related to the Foucauldian concept of the panopticon. The panopticon, as explained by Foucault, is a symbolic rationalization of the ways in which civilians consciously conduct themselves in a societally acceptable manner not because their values exactly align with that of their societies, but rather out of fear of having a potential onlooker witness their acts of social nonconformity (Foucault 201-2). This idea of the panopticon, of acting in a particular manner that appeases the public eye, can too be applied to gender and gender presentation, as there strict expectations of these in accordance to heteronormativity (Duncan 48) (Jackson 143).
Heteronormativity, an ideology prevalent both in Panem as well contemporary Eurocentric societies such as that of our own, assumes heterosexuality and the corresponding male/female gender binary as the normative (Jackson 143). This socially constructed standard privileges the belief that there is a natural, dichotomous alignment of sex, gender, and sexuality, and is ultimately upheld through cultural practices and social structures (Jackson 143-4). In the case of ‘girlhood’ heteronormativity ultimately dictates that girls act in a manner that conforms to conventional femininity, which generally involves soft, feminine physical presentations, active displays of emotions, politeness, selflessness, and submissiveness.
From the very beginning of the novel, Collins makes it clear that Katniss is policing her speech and actions, saying that “even … in the middle of nowhere, [she worries] someone might overhear [her]” (Collins 6) as she talks about District 12. Because of this fear, she has “learned to hold [her] tongue and to turn [her] features into an indifferent mask so that no one [can] read [her] thoughts” (6). This is something girls and women are taught to do in contemporary society; that is, showing what is deemed unnecessary or excess emotion like anger or sadness is ‘bad’ and regulating emotion and showing only what is deemed appropriate is ‘good’. Silence and indifference is not Katniss’ natural state, just as the performative femininity expected of girls in heteronormative culture is not the natural state of all girls. Therefore, this behaviour modification is reflective of what young girls learn through societal grooming. It is made clear that this is a learned behaviour, as well, as Katniss mentions how “when [she] was younger, [she] scared [her] mother to death, the things [she] would blurt out … about the people who rule [their] country” (6) before she was trained to speak in different ways in order to survive in society.
Katniss seems to, inherently, exhibit more traditionally masculine traits than she does traditionally feminine. This is in part because she has been forced into more masculine roles by the death of her father and in part because she seems to view traditionally feminine traits as inferior, or weaker, which she exhibits in the way she perceives her sister. Prim is a young girl who exhibits more traditionally feminine traits; for example, she struggles with hunting, the more iconically masculine activity at which we see Katniss excelling, wanting, instead of killing the animals, to nurse the animals back to health once they have been wounded. However, despite Katniss’ inclination to more traditionally masculine traits, she often chooses to present a softer version of herself so as not to both increase her likeability as well as to not antagonize the Capitol as evident in her final interview with Caesar in which he asks what was going through her head when she pulled out the poison berries at the end of the games. She states,
I take a long pause before I answer, trying to collect my thoughts. This is the crucial moment where I either challenged the Capitol or went so crazy at the idea of losing Peeta that I can’t be held responsible for my actions. It seems to call for a big, dramatic speech, but all I get out is one almost inaudible sentence. “I don’t know, I just . . . couldn’t bear the thought of . . . being without him.” (362-3)
Later, Katniss looks to her mentor Haymitch for confirmation that she made the right choice in what she said, to which he replied that it was “perfect,” alluding to the calculated nature of her actions, and thus performative nature of Katniss’ Hunger Games persona (Collins 363).
Katniss Everdeen, through her filtered and premeditated actions and behaviours exemplifies the self-policing that young girls engage in in their everyday lives. Although perhaps as was true with Katniss, ‘ordinary’ girls may not have their every move projected to masses of people for judgement and entertainment, the mere potential of being caught by an onlooker in the acts of not living up to gendered expectations encourages them to be wary of presenting an unfiltered version of themselves. This fear of be witnessed, and thereafter judged and potentially labelled, works effectively as a mechanism of controlling the bodies of young girls into behaving a manner that would uphold standards of heteronormativity.
- Judith Butler’s theory of performativity argues that gender is an aspect of our identities that we subconsciously perform in order to attempt to live up to the unattainable gender ideals dictated by our societies and upheld by our social structures (Butler 177-82). To what extent do you think young girls actively choose to appear more conventionally feminine as Katniss did versus, as Butler suggests, subconsciously adhering to societal norms?
- Do you think Collins, specifically in relation to her creation of the characters Katniss and Peeta, works to subvert heteronormative gender ideals, or reinforce them? Explain.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “sex”. New York:
Routledge, 1993. Print. 177-82.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008. Print.
Duncan, Margaret Carlisle. “The politics of women’s body images and practices: Foucault,
Michel. The panopticon, and Shape magazine.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 18.1
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. Vintage, 1977.
Jackson, Stevi. “Gender, sexuality and heterosexuality: The complexity (and limits) of
heteronormativity.” Feminist theory 7.1 (2006): 105-121.