The Hunger Games: Heroic Whiteness and Femininity
The 2012 filmThe Hunger Games is the adaptation of the first book of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling trilogy about a post-apocalyptic world and its 16-year-old white hero, Katniss Everdeen. The filmis set in the fictional "Panem,” where the government forces its citizens to participate in “the Hunger Games,” a televised competition in which children battle to the death. The Games film participants 24 hours a day in a regulated context, calling to mind contemporary reality television (RTV) shows. We ask how surveillance (having a camera film one’s every move) is used to confirm Katniss’s naturalized white and heterosexual feminine identity, verifying her as the deserving hero.
In RTV, good cast members appear to behave naturally (as they would in “real” life) under surveillance. Authentic RTV participants (exhibiting unpremeditated and non-performative behavior) are contrasted with those who are framed as not being their true selves. Scripted film perfects the use of surveillance in RTV since it can represent life without surveillance cameras. InThe Hunger Games, we see Katniss behave consistently and authentically (not performing) across different contexts: at home with her family and friends, in the Capitol, then in The Games (under surveillance). Surveillance verifies an individual’s authenticity, and in the film this is linked to strategies of whiteness and femininity: Katniss’s natural whiteness and femininity are what make her the obvious hero.
The film presents a post-racial (we are beyond race and racism) setting, so race appears irrelevant. The Capitol is a grossly rich place that feeds off the labor of the districts and enforces oppressive policies. However, race does not factor into questions of equality: white and black people are likewise disenfranchised or privileged. Despite the apparent insignificance of race, the film centers whiteness. For example, in the book, Katniss is described as having olive skin, gray eyes, and black hair, so the actor cast to play her could be mixed race, Latina, or Middle Eastern (to name a few possibilities). The actor chosen to play Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence, appears to be white with blue/green eyes and auburn hair, placing whiteness at the center of the film.
Part of Katniss’s heroism relies on the ease with which she is able to look like a conventionally attractive white girl: Even in the harshest of circumstances, Katniss’s skin is free of blemishes, her lips naturally red and slightly bee-stung, hair lustrous and shiny, and teeth white and straight. Although Katniss is presented as wearing no makeup, she has a natural-seeming radiant, healthy appearance (despite living in extreme poverty and being in life-threatening situations). In fact, there are several instances where Katniss actually glows. On the train to the Capitol, Katniss sits by the window, the sunlight making her skin, cheekbones, and temples appear radiant.
In The Hunger Games, poor whites (like Katniss) are the only characters presented as embodying authentic and natural whiteness, and are therefore good and heroic, in contrast to the whiteness of the rich people in the Capitol who are framed as wealthy, privileged, and excessive, and, as a result, unnatural and artificial. This is emphasized through dress and appearance: As opposed to Katniss’s natural-seeming beauty, the faces of the residents of the Capitol are heavily made up with ghostly white foundation, many appearing as if they have had plastic surgery (eyebrows high on the forehead, overly plump lips), and sporting artificial hairstyles (bright pink or blue, hair puffed out or standing straight up). When The Games start, images of the people in the Capitol, heavily adorned, cheering loudly, are contrasted with images of residents in the poorer districts in threadbare clothing, deathly silent. The folks in the Capitol are framed as deviant, the opposite of the authentic, humane, and civilized whiteness Katniss and the residents of the districts exemplify.
In the same way Katniss’s authentic whiteness is shown to be a necessary component of her heroic identity, Katniss epitomizes conventional standards of heterosexual femininity. She is framed as naturally feminine, in part because she expresses disinterest in the rituals attached to femininity while effortlessly (almost against her will) appearing this way. For instance, during a makeover prior to The Games, she is waxed and exfoliated while she lies naked on her back, looking uncomfortable and awkward. Katniss also is presented as unaware of her remarkable beauty, which is clear to everyone else. She manages the impossible task of heterosexual attractiveness without effort or vanity. Despite herself, Katniss is always already beautiful.
Notably, many of Katniss’s character traits are explicitly not feminine, but she is affirmed as an ideal woman because of her unwitting conventional femininity. Katniss is not expressive of her feelings, is decidedly uncomfortable with romance, and has little interest in physical intimacy or in having children. However, she is instinctively and naturally maternal, qualities presented as essential to her role as the film’s hero. In fact, her caring for others inspires her bravest moments in the film. Katniss is uninterested in love and children, but nonetheless shown as innately having the qualities to be the perfect wife and mother—characteristics that emerge regardless of Katniss’s stated desire not to be a wife and mother.
In a contemporary media landscape, the role of surveillance is particularly important, given how central it is to popular forms of media and in contested practices put in place by the U.S. government (the activities of the National Security Agency, for instance). Surveillance plays a key role in The Hunger Games, confirming narrowly defined gendered and racialized identities as authentic. New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis call Katniss “one of the most radical female characters to appear in American movies,” implying the film breaks gender norms by presenting a feminist hero shattering conventions of feminine behavior. However, we find her heroism decidedly not feminist or radical: it relies on surveillance to affirm her authentic whiteness, her naturalized heterosexual femininity, and her effortless abilities as a potential future wife and mother. Even in the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, troubling age-old racialized and gendered patterns endure.