According to Lee Edwards in his book, Psyche as Hero (1984) “By the beginning of the twentieth century, novelists seem readier to abandon the project of entrapping the female heroic character and begin the task of inventing maneuvers whereby she can break out of familial, sexual, and social bondage into an altered and appropriate world” (16). Suzanne Collins’ “Girl on Fire” is a heroic alternative to limited female archetypes bound inextricably to traditionally assigned gender roles. Katniss is not tied to a matriarchal role, in fact, she cannot and will not bare children until social change is achieved in Panem. Readers encounter a love triangle of sorts, yet it is not central to the action. Katniss cannot settle into any role comfortably until she achieves social and spiritual growth and her journey is over. On her quest, the female hero must risk violating social norms regarding gender roles to fully realize her heroic qualities. Katniss must “incorporate change into [her] private life [and then] move with confidence into a newly constituted world” (Edwards 16).
As a tribute, Katniss is a symbol of political oppression in Panem. She and the other tributes from across the districts are forced to participate in the Hunger Games, a cultural phenomenon based on violence and tyranny. Katniss’ physical quest begins when she volunteers to take the place of her 12-year old sister, whose name is called up during the Reaping, a cultural display reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story, “The Lottery”. Still, Katniss’ spiritual quest starts when she is separated from childhood by her father’s death. She ventures outside of the fences surrounding her region to illegally hunt for game to help feed her family during a time when her mother is mentally unstable. Without the father, Katniss’ mother has no clear identity and she is unable to fulfill the responsibilities that his death has created. The female hero, as the traditional male hero, must break from the parent of the same sex during the departure stage in order to find fulfillment on her quest. Katniss becomes responsible for both her younger sister Prim and their mother while their mother is lost in a childlike state, leading to a fractured relationship with the mother and an idealized memory of the father. Katniss’ home life reflects the varied domestic situations of a post-modern society. The Everdeen sisters are raised by a single mother damaged by the death of her husband. Audiences can identify with Katniss, who is forced to act as mother and father and to make sacrifices which catapult her into adulthood. For 21st century readers, Katniss is a strong female protagonist with the ability to shift gender roles fluidly and believably while on a quest to understand herself and the world around her. To complete the journey, Collins’ “Girl on Fire” must endure a “fall from innocence into experience” that leads her to obtain the ability to bring about social change and eventually win what Campbell calls the “ultimate boon of inexhaustible life, joy, and wholeness” (Pearson and Pope 4).
In the Hunger Games trilogy, gender roles are not easily defined in either masculine or feminine terms. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss demonstrates that both sexes must balance “doing and knowing” and forego traditional gender stereotypes to survive. Peeta reveals Katniss’ strengths by displaying his own weaknesses. Katniss is faster, stronger and more adaptable to the natural environment but she is also abrasive and selfish. Peeta is skilled in communication and public relations and is able to show audiences, both within and without the text, our hero’s strengths are not solely her survival instincts, but also her loyal and kind heart. Pearson and Pope write, “as women move into the male sphere, they must develop positive qualities society has reserved for men (strength, self-reliance, independence, a commitment to theory), but without losing the nurturance and compassion that have been characteristic of women” (152). When Peeta is injured, Katniss becomes healer and storyteller, archetypal roles typically assigned to women, displaying qualities of consciousness and inner reflection. For the Girl on Fire, though, this is not enough. To fulfill her heroic destiny, Katniss must not only soothe Peeta but physically confront the other tributes in the Arena at the Cornucopia to retrieve the medicine that will heal him. Just as Katniss inhabits both feminine and masculine roles, Peeta reconciles his own position in the gender sphere, and in turn, helps Katniss complete the heroic model. By moving fluidly between the roles of nurturer and murderer, huntress and saviour, Katniss survives the Games, becomes integral to the rebellion and eventually succeeds in achieving social change in Panem. At the end of the heroic journey comes the “ultimate boon,” and for Katniss, it is a life of reflection and peace in a community which values inner development and social renewal. Peeta understands that Katniss has the ability to occupy ambiguous roles because he too must break gender stereotypes to remain relevant to audiences. By accepting not only his own flexible gender role but Katniss’ as well, Peeta also survives the Games and eventually the two create a life together, returning to the woods and raising a family in a community constructed on the values of social change and spiritual growth.
Happily Ever After
Katniss Everdeen, “The Girl on Fire”, is only an example, a sampling of the female archetypes found in popular culture. Audiences are given Sookie Stackhouse of the Charlaine Harris True Blood novels, who wears the shortest shorts you ever did see but still manages to kick supernatural butt in them while maintaining a killer tan.In film we see Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow of the Avengers, a spy who uses her “feminine wiles” to obtain information from men blinded by her sexuality. Each character archetype–the hero, the warrior, the damsel in distress–reveals perceptions about women that permeate our culture. That is the beauty and the bane of feminism in the 21st century. Collins has created in The Hunger Games an archetypal journey which is familiar yet revitalized, mythological but possible. Katniss lives in a not too far away future in which we deplete our planet and the powerful subjugate the weak. She becomes a hero because she will not be bound to any role or relationship that does not facilitate positive change in her life. Katniss is strong at times and weak during others. She is loyal but (along with readers) unsure of whether it is selfishness or selflessness that compels her. She is a hero with glaringly obvious faults, who readers relate to because 21st century audiences cannot be held to the polarities of gender, sexuality, race, morality. We are searching for heroes like Katniss Everdeen, who embody the ambiguities of the post-modern condition.
The Collectiva Diva