Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Subversive Games.

The Subversive Games: What Katniss Everdeen Can Tell Us About the State of Feminism in a Media-Driven Capitalist Culture
by James Bezerra

The novel Mockingjay - the third in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy - begins with its heroine Katniss Everdeen returning home. By this point in the series her home is gone. It has been been firebombed by the ruling powers, just one attack of many in an ongoing civil war. This home which has been so important in shaping the identity of Katniss has been irrevocably altered, but that does not mean it is without importance or that it can’t be rebuilt. As a simple matter of fact, once it is rebuilt, it will likely look and feel differently than it did before. This is a fact worth remembering as I unpack Mockingjay - and to some extent the Hunger Games series and resulting cultural phenomenon - to discover what it is saying about the state of contemporary feminism and what advice, if any, it is offering about the future of that movement. Neither the character of Katniss nor the books themselves commit to a single style or version of feminism but both are in constant dialogue with various forms of it. Neither Katniss nor, by extension, her audience of millions of Young Adult (YA) fans seem willing to commit to any hegemonic type of feminism, instead opting for an aggressive hybridization of movements within feminism. It is exactly through this rejection of hegemony and its calcifying characteristics that the values of feminism will be able to thrive and remain vital in the future.  
Katniss has entered the cultural zeitgeist at an important and complicated moment for feminism, one which seems to be dominated by an ambivalence which Angela McRobbie has referred to as “post-feminism” (McRobbie 11). She explains the so-called backlash against feminism, first described by Susan Faludi, as “a process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 1980s are actively and relentlessly undermined” (McRobbie 11).  She argues that the success of that undermining has created a sense that “equality is achieved” (McRobbie 12) and that feminism is now “a spent force” (McRobbie 12). One could be forgiven for finding more than a little nihilism in McRobbie’s assessment. Here it would be useful to explain that I believe there are fundamentally two ‘feminisms’ in the current moment and that conflation of the two represents one of the major stumbling blocks for feminism in the 21st century: there is Feminism (capital ‘F’) which refers to the specific 20th century sociopolitical movement and then there are the values of female equality which we’ll refer to simply as feminism (little ‘f’). Much of the current social discourse on feminism is actually, and unknowingly, about Feminism. Reviewing the film version of The Hunger Games for The Nation, Katha Pollitt writes, “The element that is most striking to me, though, is Katniss, portrayed in the film by the splendid Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss has qualities usually given to boys” (Pollitt). She goes on to explain about Katniss, “she is not about her looks, her clothes, her weight, her popularity, gossip, drama or boys” (Pollitt). This might be a helpful commentary if the film existed in a cultural vacuum, however she does not. What might Pollitt make of the “Hunger Games Katniss Doll” produced by Mattel? “Hunger Games Katniss doll wears a hooded jacket, top, and military-style pants inspired by the costume Katniss wore in the film. Included are bow, arrows, and quiver. Completing her look is the iconic mockingjay pin” ("Hunger Games Katniss Doll"). Surely the very existence of this doll must complicate Pollitt’s feelings about Katniss. Pollitt seems to be working from the oversimple binaries which seem to have plagued Feminism. In the journal Hypatia, Victoria Browne explains that - since Faludi - Feminism has tended toward, “a simplistic, dualist model of power relations - feminism versus antifeminism” (Browne 909). This partisan and dualistic thinking could not have come at a worse time for Feminism because, as Christina Hoff Sommers explains in her book Who Stole Feminism?, it has resulted in a schism. Pointing to the academia in the 1990s, she writes that “gender feminist” (Sommers 17) demanded that young women become zealots for the cause, “All indicators are that the new crop of young feminist ideologues coming out of our nation’s colleges are even angrier, more resentful, and more indifferent to the truth than their mentors” (Sommers 18). She goes on to explain the devastating effect this had, “The large majority of women, including the majority of college women, are distancing themselves from this anger and resentfulness. Unfortunately, they associate these attitudes with feminism, and so they conclude that they not really feminists” (Sommers 18).
Toril Moi offered an expanded understanding of the schism. She points to two important factors. First, “the success of the conservative campaign against feminism in the 1990s” (Moi 1736). Second, to a - largely academic - sort of intellectual cannibalism which befell Feminism, “In the 1990s an array of books promoted various “new” or “reformed” kinds of feminism - “equity feminism,” “power feminism’” “tough cookie feminism” - and they all appeared to assume that it was necessary to start by attacking feminism in general” (Moi 1737). In fact, a careful reading of the preface of Sommer’s book, which was published in 1995, will uncover a statement that seems to confirm Moi’s implication of infighting. Sommer’s provides a justification for her book by explaining that, “American women owe an incalculable debt to the classically liberal feminists” (Sommers 17) and that, “Exposing the hypocrisy of the gender feminists will not jeopardize those achievements” (Sommers 17).
Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong with a social movement having an introspective moment, however that moment was taking place within the walled garden of academia leaving no one to defend Feminism on the cultural stage while it was under ferocious, ugly, and constant attack by America’s socially conservative Right during the culture wars of the 1990s. The so-called ‘activists’, as described by Sommers, had largely stayed within the cloister of academia, while the women actually participating in the culture had largely rejected the banner of Feminism in the way Sommers explained. This proved to be disastrous because, as Moi writes, “in America the divide between academia and the general culture is particularly deep and difficult to cross” (Moi 1739).
What resulted was the Conservative hijacking of the Feminist narrative by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson. (It is worth noting - though it is largely tangential - that Feminism, and Hillary Clinton in particular, were only the first victims of the well-oiled media/marketing/message machine that Big Conservatism would later deploy against its enemies, John Kerry, global climate change, and Barack Obama being only a few of them). Is it any wonder then that by 2009 McRobbie is taking stock of the firebombed homestead of Feminism and feeling less than optimistic? She attempts to mine contemporary popular culture in order to discern the state of Feminism. She focuses on Bridget Jones’s Diary and to a lesser degree Sex and the City and Ally McBeal when she writes, “These new young women are confident enough to declare their anxieties about possible failure in regard to finding a husband, they avoid any aggressive or overly traditional men, and they brazenly enjoy their sexuality, without fear of the sexual double standard” (McRobbie 21). It might be difficult to tell from that summary, which seems as though it might accurately describe some of the truths about actual contemporary womanhood, but McRobbie is displeased with what she has found here. “It is as though this is the vengeance of the younger generation who had to put up with being chided by feminist teachers and academics at university for wanting the wrong things” (McRobbie 21). Certainly that is what Sommers described. Kay Hymowitz also did an interesting mining of popular culture in her 2011 article “The New Girl Order” but where McRobbie concentrated on the intellectual aspects, Hymowitz was savvy enough to pick up on the fact that there was an element of Capitalism in all of this, “Marketers quickly saw what was happening and gave the new zeitgeist a name. They called it girl power.” (Hymowitz 5). She goes on to introduce to the conversation something new: very young women, “Marketing gurus began speaking of a new demographic: the tween. Female tweens were especially appealing to fashion and cosmetics companies who appreciated the commercial possibilities of girl empowerment, including, to many parents’ horror, thongs and other kinds of “stripper wear” for eleven-year-olds” (Hymowitz 5).
Here it is useful to take note that the unprecedented explosion of popularity of YA literature occurred after those marketing gurus discovered the tweens. The Hunger Games is part and parcel of a larger cultural phenomenon. Re-enter now the “Hunger Games Katniss Doll”. Not only are there Katniss Barbies, but Mattel produces a line called “I Can Be …” ("Barbie® I Can Be…™ President B Party™ Doll (Caucasian)") which offers options such as the “President B Party” doll (in a variety of ethnicities, all of which wear a pink skirt and jacket outfit with red, white, and blue trim. Ironically the “President B” dolls are no longer available.). There are a variety of other careers, helpfully divided into the following categories: Professional, Artsy, Nurturing, Sporty ("Barbie I can be ... careers"). It is important to note that men are treated similarly, “The Twilight Saga: New Moon Jacob” ("The Twilight Saga: New Moon Jacob") does not even come with a shirt, just a shoulder tattoo and denim shorts. This is the manner in which Capitalism functions and this is the way in which contemporary media culture works. All of this is important because the YA target audience of tweens is the first generation in the world to have grown up completely immersed in such a fast and synergistic consumerist culture.
Now re-enter the character of Katniss Everdeen. At various points within The Hunger Games she inhabits subject positions of proxy mother, emotionally orphaned daughter, girl, hunter, warrior, icon, pawn, woman, and killer. It is exactly this dynamic nature that makes her important at this present feminist moment. Her changeability is performative in that it reflects something essential to the tween experience: the resistance to be identified by a single label. It is also prescriptive in that it consistently rejects the hegemonic expectations placed on Katniss. The constant movement between roles and identities is not indicative of waywardness or hypocrisy on the part of Katniss, rather - as her YA audience will understand - it is her attempt to define herself on her own terms while under a constant barrage of expectations. While Katniss is generally only under the thumb of either The Capitol or the District 13 militants, the YA reader is under pressure from a pervasive consumer culture which is committed to reformulating identity as a set of brands and commodities to be purchased. The tweens and the Millenial Generation of which they are a part, are incredibly savvy to this marketing and while they understand The Hunger Games to be yet another commodity (books, movies, Barbie dolls, etc.), I believe that on some level Katniss is a didactic icon for them precisely because of what she chooses to reject rather than what she embraces. Choosing the commodities one does or does not consume is understood as a way of defining identity in the tween culture.
What is important here to realize, and what McRobbie and Hymowitz missed when analysing pop culture, is that in a Capitalist society, values and beliefs are asserted by what consumers choose to support, or not support, with their money. This is surely a distasteful assertion to make in an academic context, however to ignore it would render any discussion about the contemporary state of feminism entirely meaningless. In her book The One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power writes, “Clearly if something is to be salvaged of the ‘fight for equality’, the meaning of feminism must be clear. It must also recognize the way in which it has been colonized not only by warmongers, but also by consumerism” (Power 13). In her critique of ‘girl power’ Hymowitz points to a cosmetics firm called Bonne Bell which, “advertised its lip gloss with the words “I know I will succeed” next to a photo of a pretty young thing” (Hymowitz 5). By highlighting this she is attempting to indict the marketers for the manner in which they have co-opted the language of empowerment in order to sell lip gloss. She is absolutely correct in her examination of their tactics. However, what she has missed is the fact that a generation of young women grew up using that lip gloss and by apparent accident, do actually believe they will succeed. Just as a good jingle can find a way to stay in the mind long after the ad campaign has ended, elements of that post-backlash ‘girl power’ sentiment took hold in the Millennials and tweens to whom it was sold as a fundamental truth. Similarly McRobbie’s view of the ‘post-feminist’ age is flawed because when she went looking for Feminism, she went looking for the sort she would recognize and agree with.
Just as no modern advocate of racial equality in America would describe themselves as an ‘abolitionist’, neither would any young person who believes in gender equality bother to describe themselves as a ‘Feminist’. For better or worse, an entire generation of young women have grown up using Bonne Bell lip gloss and wearing “thongs and other kinds of “stripper wear” for eleven-year-olds” (Hymowitz 5) and as much as they may have been misled by the well-oiled media/marketing/message machine that Big Conservatism set loose on the Feminist movement, the fact of the matter is that they do believe in the fundamental values of feminism, in the same way that an unprecedented 66% of them support gay marriage (Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage). Which is to say that, for them, equality is simply understood to be a given.
Their rejection of capital F Feminism is not a rejection of that value system, but rather of the identity that the Conservative movement was so successfully able write onto the body of Feminism. The ship of Feminism suffered a crippling torpedo in its side during the culture wars, but just as the loss of a ship need not mean the loss of a war, the goals and values of feminism haven’t been sunk, just the brand. Any good marketer will tell you that brand loyalty is everything. To clarify, the intent here is not to be flippant or reductive, but rather to assert that twenty and thirty year-old modes of Feminist thought are not going to be effective in engaging with a generation which is digital, wired, fast-moving, already aware of its own inherent worth as human beings, and which has already not bought into the Feminist brand.
Power writes of the label ‘feminism’, “we may simply need to abandon the term, or at the very least, restrict its usage to those situations in which we make quite certain we explain what we mean by it” (Power 8). As an experiment, if we do for a moment abandon the term and the specific lens which it has been saddled with we might be able to turn back to McRobbie’s exploration of Sex and the City and rather than challenging its bona fides, recognize that it was a wildly successful product. Its importance then would not be that its content played a game of tag with various forms of Feminism, but rather that it was a television show with four female leads, which dealt almost exclusively in the realm of what once might have been termed ‘women’s issues’, that it ran for six seasons, won seven Emmy awards, and spawned two feature length films and a spin off series ("Sex and the City"). Absent any litmus test of institutional Feminism and understanding that we live in a Capitalist culture, Sex and the City was unique in that it put on display the power female consumers could wield. Each subsequent and similar success should be considered a step forward. The Hunger Games is just one more such step. This assertion will no doubt cause some handwringing on the part of academia and of the old guard of Feminist hegemony, but - for better or worse - it is the obvious truth of this particular sociopolitical moment.
By exercising their capital, those tweens who are currently being shaped by Katniss will eventually be able to perform a sort of queering of the media products and thereby the cultural identities available to them. Their inherent belief in fundamental equality will become manifest in the commodities marketers make available for them to buy. As an example of this queering, the success of the AMC television program Mad Men has been at least partially due to the fascination it inspires with its utter backwardness and misogyny. Viewers are not endorsing the misogyny, but rather they are transfixed by it like a car crash. That self-conscious wrongness is understood by both the show and its viewers. In this way, those who believe in the values of feminism without endorsing the brand of Feminism, will exert their influence on the culture by controlling the media which had previously been trying to control them.
If we can re-enter the character of Katniss Everdeen here, she is important because - as Mockingjay ultimately makes clear - she is not a revolutionary. Although she participates in the revolution both as a symbol and as a soldier, that is not her role and her YA fans understand that. She is not a revolutionary, rather she is a subversive. She does not truely align herself with hegemonic power structures and hers is never a political conflict, it is always a personal one. The book and her readers understand Katniss to be an individual, but not in the reductive way that McRobbie explains it when she states, “The individual is compelled to be the kind of subject who can make the right choices” (McRobbie 19) because that suggests the choice has already been made for her. Rather Katniss seeks her own independence from ideology, but she also seeks that independence for others. In this way she is suggesting an opting out of any hegemony. Near the end of Mockingjay, the media overlord Plutarch offers Katniss the opportunity to be a contestant on “a new signing program” (Collins 379). Here the reader understands that Plutarch is organizing a reality TV show similar to American Idol which itself is a televised competition of the sort which inspired Suzanne Collins to write The Hunger Games. It is a complicated intertextual moment which bends toward metafiction and tips its hat to the reader, as if to point out that it is making a point. The text of Mockingjay doesn’t even bother to record Katniss’s response, because she doesn’t make one, but the reader knows Katniss and knows she isn’t going to appear on American Idol. She is opting out of the hegemony.
That is a dangerous idea both for Feminism and for Capitalism because both require the participation of their adherents in order to thrive. Late in Mockingjay, Katniss comments, “The truth is, no one quite knows what to do with me now that the war’s over” (Collins 378) and I am reminded of McRobbie asking, “Why do young women recoil in horror at the very idea of the feminist?” (McRobbie 16). It is almost as if McRobbie doesn’t quite know what to do with a Katniss who doesn’t want to join her team.
There is, of course, some danger to the cultural successes of those “classically liberal feminists” who were invoked by Sommer (Sommers 17) because the risk exists that if a generation of young women grow up rejecting the brand of Feminism as a political mode, they may lose perspective of the values of feminism and forget that the choices they have had to be fought for by previous generations. However this is a constant risk in any free society and it is not just a risk to the rights of women, but to the rights of all.
Perhaps it might have been safer if an army of committed, intelligent, capable, and relatable women had carried the torch of feminism forward into an idyllic and utopian future of equality, but the inability of Feminism to mount a defense against the culture war onslaught of the conservative Right made that impossible. However that may be just as well. Political and social movements thus far in the 21st century have tended toward non-traditional and non-hegemonic structures. The slow progress of Egypt toward democracy and the spontaneous Occupy sit-ins of 2011 and 2012, not to mention the uncontrollable manner in which the Tea Party organizations have paralyzed the Republican party, are just a few examples of subversion at work against hegemony.
Within the Hunger Games books, Katniss is a symbol of revolution, but by the end of Mockingjay she has become a symbol outside of the books and that symbol is of subversion. Those who buy the books and see the movies do so because they choose to, not because they are compelled to. Their power is in the exercise of that choice and in that way feminism lives on. Should they choose to buy the Katniss Barbie, then feminism lives on in that too. How subversive.

Works Cited

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Browne, Victoria. "Backlash, Repetition, Untimeliness: The Temporal Dynamics of Feminist Politics." Hypatia. 28.4 (2013): 905-920. Print.

Changing Attitudes on Gay Marriage. 2013. Chart. PewResearchWeb. 12 Dec 2013. <>.

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic, 2010. Print.

Hymowitz, Kay. "The New Girl Order." Tufts Magazine. 2011.Fall (2011): 1-8. Print.

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McRobbie, Angela. The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage, 2009. Print.

Moi, Toril. ""I Am Not a Feminist, But ..." How Feminism Became the F-Word." PMLA. 121.5. (2006): 1735-1741. Print.

Pollitt, Katha. "The Hunger Games’ Feral Feminism."Nation. 23 Apr 2012: n. page. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <

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