by Roxane Gay, originally published at The Rumpus, 12 April, 2012
I am always interested in the representations of strength in women, where that strength comes from, how it is called upon when it is needed most, and what it costs for a woman to be strong.
All too often, representations of a woman’s strength overlook that cost.
The Hunger Games, released in 2008, is the first book in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the next two books, were released in 2009 and 2010. The franchise was an instant success. More than 2.9 million copies of the books are in print. There are more than twenty foreign editions. The Hunger Games was on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks. There are special editions. There is merchandise including a Katniss Barbie, which Katniss would absolutely hate. In March 2012, the movie was released and thus far has earned nearly $460 million worldwide. I am part of the problem. I have seen the movie four times and have plans to see it again.
The series tells the story about a young woman, Katniss Everdeen, who doesn’t know her own strength until she is confronted by her need for that strength. She is a young woman who is forced to become stronger in circumstances that might otherwise break her. She is a young woman who has no choice but to fight for survival—for herself, her family, her people.
I have found myself inexplicably drawn to these books, the complex world Collins has created, and the people she has placed in that world.
I am not the kind of person who becomes so invested in a book or movie or television show that my interest becomes a hobby or intense obsession, one where I start to declare allegiances, or otherwise demonstrate a serious level of commitment to something fictional I had no hand in creating.
Or, I wasn’t that kind of person.
Let me be clear: Team Peeta. I cannot even fathom how one could be on any other team. Gale? I can barely acknowledge him. Peeta, on the other hand, is everything. He frosts things and bakes bread and is unconditional and unwavering in his love and also he is very, very strong. He can throw a sack of flour, is what I am saying. Peeta is a place of solace and hope and he is a good kisser. My devotion to Peeta is so strong, so serious, I have made a Venn diagram detailing his best qualities, which are many.
In December 2011, I didn’t really know much about The Hunger Games. Given my abiding interest in pop culture, I’m not sure how I missed the books.
I do most of my leisure reading at the gym. I hate exercise. Yes, it’s good for you and weight loss and whatever, but normally, I work out and want to die. I really do. I knew I was in love with The Hunger Games when I did not want to get off the treadmill. The book captivated me from the first page. I wanted to keep walking so I could stay in the world Collins created. More than that, The Hunger Games moved me. There was so much at stake, so much drama and it was all so intriguing, so hypnotizing, so intense and dark. I particularly appreciated what the books got right about strength and endurance, suffering and survival. I found myself gasping and hissing and even bursting into tears, more than once. I looked insane but I did not care. I was completely without shame.
After finishing The Hunger Games, I quickly read the next two books in the trilogy—my obsession, at this point, was raging and white hot. I was so invested in the books I couldn’t stop talking about them. I daydreamed about Katniss, Peeta and I suppose, sometimes, stupid Gale as well as the other compelling characters—Cinna, Rue, Thresh, Haymitch, Finnick, Annie. I wanted the best for all of them even when all seemed hopeless, was hopeless.
This obsession intensified well before I realized the first movie would be released in March. That development took things to a whole new level.
I started counting down to the movie well before opening day. I could hardly contain myself. I attended the midnight showing even though I had to teach the next (same) morning. I warned my gentleman friend that he couldn’t mock me for how I reacted during the movie because I knew I was going to get close to the rapture and didn’t want to be judged for it. I live in a small town so I expected that there wouldn’t be many people attending the midnight opening, but AMC screened The Hunger Games on all ten screens and every screening was nearly sold out. My friends and I joked that we were probably some of the oldest people in the auditorium. It was no small relief when we saw some silver-haired folk among us. As we waited, the teenagers and tweens chattered energetically about the books and the casting and whatever else young people talk about these days. Nearly all of them were staring at electronic devices. I thought, “Don’t they have school tomorrow?”
As the movie began, I held my breath. I had so many expectations and I didn’t want those expectations, those hopes, destroyed by Hollywood, a known killer of dreams.
As a fan of The Hunger Games, I was not disappointed. I had feelings throughout the movie, true, mad, deep feelings. Had I been alone, I would have embarrassed myself with vulgar displays of enthusiasm. At times I wanted to spontaneously break into applause just to celebrate the thrill of seeing the book I’ve read so many times, playing out, ten feet high. There was just so much to look at—the set design, the costumes, the glittery cast. The movie was almost cerebral and meticulously faithful to the book when it needed to be. The production values were impeccable with only a few missteps (whatever the hell was going on with Katniss’s flaming outfits, for example). The actors acquitted themselves well. I became even more fervently a member of Team Peeta. I left the movie thrilled with the overall experience of the movie.
As a critic, I recognize the significant flaws, I do, but The Hunger Games was not a movie I am able to watch as a critic. The story means too much to me.
The Hunger Games books are not perfect. While the writing is engaging and well paced, the quality of the prose weakens with each successive book. Many of the secondary characters aren’t well developed and at times the plot strains credulity. The third book is rather rushed and some of Collins’s choices felt almost gratuitous, particularly with regard to the characters she chose to kill off. The complete erasure of sexuality is problematic. Intimacy is conveyed through a great deal of kissing to the point that it becomes laughable. It is disturbing that within the world of The Hunger Games, it is perfectly acceptable for teenagers to kill one another and die or otherwise suffer in really violent ways but it is not at all acceptable for them to act on their sexuality.
As I read the trilogy, I was struck, consistently, by the sheer brutality, and yet, the undeniable heart of the story, of the characters, of my dearest Peeta and his devotion for Katniss and how toward the end, even when it seemed hopeless, they found their way to one another. The books’ imperfections are easily forgiven because the best parts of the books are the truest.
I am fascinated by strength in women.
People tend to think I’m strong. I’m not. And yet. I identify with Katniss because throughout the trilogy, the people around Katniss expected her to be strong and she did her best to meet those expectations, even when it cost her a great deal.
I come from a loving, tight-knit, imperfect but great family. My parents have always been involved in my life even when I pushed them away. I have wanted for little. One of my biggest weaknesses, one that has always shamed me, is that I have always been lonely. I’ve struggled to make friends because I can be socially awkward, because I’m weird, because I live in my head. When I was young, we moved around a lot so there was rarely any time to get to know a new place, let alone new people. Loneliness was the one familiar thing, making me this bottomless pit of need, open and gaping and desperate for anything to fill me up.
I should not be this way but I am.
When I was young—old enough to like a boy but young enough to have no clue what that meant—there was a boy who I thought was my boyfriend and who said he was my boyfriend but who also completely ignored me at school. It’s a sad, silly story that lots of girls like me know. It was fine because when we were together, he made me feel like he could fill that gaping void inside of me. He was terrible but he was also charming and persuasive. I was nerdy and friendless, all lanky limbs and crazy hair and he was beautiful and popular so I accepted the state of affairs between us.
When we were together, he’d tell me what he wanted to do to me. He wasn’t asking permission. I was not an unwilling participant. I was not a willing participant. I felt nothing one way or the other. I wanted him to love me. I wanted to make him happy. If doing things to my body made him happy, I would let him do anything to my body. My body was nothing to me. It was just meat and bones around that void he filled by touching me. Technically, we didn’t have sex but we did everything else. The more I gave, the more he took. At school, he continued looking right through me. I was dying but I was happy. I was happy because he was happy, because if I gave enough, he might love me. As an adult, I don’t understand how I allowed him to treat me like that. I don’t understand how he could be so terrible. I don’t understand how desperately I sacrificed myself. I was young.
I was always a good girl. I was a straight-A student, top of my class. I did as I was told. I was polite to my elders. I was good to my siblings. I went to church. It was very easy to hide how very bad I was becoming to my family, to everyone. Being good is the best way to be bad.
It never crossed my mind to say no or that I should say no, that I could say no. He started pressuring me to have sex with him. I didn’t say no but I didn’t say yes and I did not want to say yes. I wanted to say no but could not because then I would lose him and I would be nothing again.
One day we were riding our bikes in the woods. About a mile deep, there was an abandoned hunting cabin often used by teenagers to do the things teenagers do when they’re hiding out in the woods. It was disgusting—small, a dirt floor littered with empty beer cans and used condom wrappers and discarded cigarette packs. There was a small bench. The glass in the windows was broken, brown with age. Several of his friends from school were there. I didn’t know them well, had mostly seen them in the halls. They were all popular, handsome. They would never have reason to know a girl like me, quiet, shy, awkward.
I did not understand, not at first. I was very naïve despite all the things I thought I knew. Once I realized what was going on, I assumed that this boy wanted me to give his friends blowjobs. I did not want to do that, to share what I thought was private between this boy and I, but I would have. I could have, if only to make him happy. I told him I wanted us to leave, to continue on our bike ride. I did that. I did try to save myself. I did understand I was not safe. They were all so much bigger than me and I finally felt something. I felt fear but I didn’t know how to say no. I tried to leave, to run out of that cabin but they grabbed me just past the threshold. I screamed. I opened my mouth and I screamed and my voice echoed through the woods and no one came for me. Not one person heard me. We were too far deep.
The boy who I thought was my boyfriend pushed me to the ground. He took my clothes off and I lay there with no body to speak of, just a flat board of skin and girl bones. I tried to cover myself with my arms but I couldn’t, not really. The boys stared at me while they drank beer and laughed and said things I didn’t understand because I knew things but I knew nothing about what a group of boys could do to kill a girl.
I was a good girl who went to church. I had faith. I believed in God then so I prayed. I prayed for God to save me because I could not save me. I whispered Our Father because it was the only prayer I knew by heart. I went to church but spent most of my time daydreaming. I begged God to change those boys’ minds. He didn’t. And then I did say no, I found my voice, and it didn’t matter and I had wasted my first love, my first everything on a boy who thought so very little of me.
They kept me there for hours. It was as bad as you might expect. The repercussions linger. I walked home alone pushing my stupid bike, hating myself for ever thinking this boy loved me. I was a good girl so that’s what my parents saw when I came home a completely different person and went to my room and tried to pull myself together well enough to be the girl everyone knew me to be. I knew I had to hide what happened because I didn’t want to get in trouble, because my parents were strict, because you’re not allowed to have sex before marriage, because I was a good girl, so that’s what I did. I swallowed the truth, which only made that gaping void of need inside me yawn wider.
Just because you survive something does not mean you are strong.
The worst of it was going to school the next day. I didn’t want to but I had no choice. I was a good girl. I went to French class and sat in the second to last row. It was uncomfortable in every way you can imagine. Just as class was about to begin, the boy behind me grabbed my shoulder and I felt a surge of adrenaline and then terror. He stood and leaned into me. He said, “You’re a slut,” and everyone heard and they snickered. Everyone started calling me a slut. When the teacher came in and stood at the front of the room she looked at me differently. If she could have, she would have called me a slut too. I was mortified and trapped. I sat perfectly still and tried to concentrate but all I could hear was the hiss of the word slut. That shame was one of the worst things I have ever known. Slut was my name for the rest of the school year because those boys went and told a very different story about what happened in the woods.
In June 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote an article, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations. She wrote, “If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.” She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre, and the countless titles that aren’t grounded in damage, brutality, or loss. More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers.
The critical response to Gurdon’s article was swift and passionate from writers and readers alike. Sherman Alexie wrote, “…there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books—especially the dark and dangerous ones—will save them.”
I learned a long time ago that life often introduces young people to situations they are in no way prepared for, even good girls, lucky girls who want for nothing. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you become the girl in the woods. You lose your name because another one is forced on you. You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.
Perhaps I loved the Hunger Games trilogy because the books were, in their own way, a fairy tale and I am always, always in search of a fairy tale.
As I read The Hunger Games, I thought of Gurdon’s article, because I was struck, more than once, by the intensity of the traumas the characters were put through, the relentlessness of that trauma, and the visible effects. At times, I thought, “This is too much,” but I know something of the world now, and there are rarely limits to suffering. In these books, suffering has few limits, and suffering has consequences which, all too often, we forget when narratives neatly imply that everything turns out okay, when narratives imply that it gets better without demonstrating what it takes to get to better. In The Hunger Games, it takes everything.
My love for these books, at its purest, is not really about Peeta or anything silly (though, still). I love that a young woman character is fierce and strong but human in ways I find believable, relatable. Katniss was clearly a heroine, but a heroine with issues. She intrigued me because she never seemed to know her own strength. She wasn’t blandly insecure the way girls are often forced to be in fiction. She was brave but flawed. She was a heroine, but she was also a girl who loved two boys and couldn’t choose which boy she loved best. She was not sure she was up to the task of leading a revolution but she did her best, even when she doubted herself.
Throughout the books, Katniss endures the unendurable. She is damaged and it shows. At times, it might seem like her suffering is gratuitous but life often presents unendurable circumstances people manage to survive. Only the details differ. The Hunger Games trilogy is dark and brutal but in the end, the books also offer hope—for a better world and a better people and for one woman, a better life for herself—a life she can share with a man who understands her strength and doesn’t expect her to compromise that strength, a man who can hold her weak places and love her through the darkest of her memories, the worst of her damage. Of course I love these books. The trilogy offers the kind of tempered hope everyone who survives something unendurable hungers for.