In Greek myth, Artemis served as goddess of both the hunt and childbirth. Katniss Everdeen, the young hero of our modern myth, Hunger Games, combines within herself the nurturing for which women have traditionally been known, with the assertiveness and competence that have been the touchstone of women’s evolving identity. She takes care of the inner world of emotions, as she grows proficient in the world of action. Solicitous to those most in need of solace, yet entirely capable of the hunter/warrior’s resolve, Katniss’ character suggests a renewal for our society’s ailing spirit.
(With the finale of the Hunger Games movies, I re-post this musing on the Katniss character)
Drawing on my own family’s story, I took an early liking to Katniss, the coal miner’s daughter. Her father has been stolen from her by an underground explosion amidst primitive conditions; the mine where he dug coal becomes his tomb. Yet, her bond with him endures. Memories of her father return to Katniss in her dreams, often as nightmares of his violent death–but we are sure, also as a well from which she draws her inner strength.
Her mother has been plunged into depression by the wrenching loss of her husband, and merely walking through life is her daily struggle. She often falters. Despite her trauma, Katniss’ mother retains her gift as a healer for the ill and the injured, practicing natural cures. This, too, blends into Katniss’ identity.
Growing up in want and on the margins of starvation, far from the safe harbor of a middle class life, Katniss’ empathy for the oppressed comes naturally to her. Admirable emotions, though, will not ward off the gaunt wolf of hunger, constantly prowling the coal mining district. In the face of threatened sanctions from authority, she steadily learns the hunter’s craft to provide for her mother and younger sister. At the worst of times, she is the most resourceful.
Given her sympathies and her spirit, we are not surprised when Katniss descends into the vicious combat of the Hunger Games reality show–not through fate, but by choice. The Capitol’s impersonal lottery, designed to intimidate the working class population of the Districts, marks her fragile younger sister, Prim, for a brutal death in the arena. Rather than passively accept the destruction of her sister, Katniss steps forward to take Prim’s place. In the movie, trepidation is etched on her face–she is not a steely action hero. Knowing the odds against her, she chooses to act as a defender of the defenseless. I was reminded of Martin Luther’s declaration: “Here I stand; I can do no other.” Fear is not banished, but conquered through resolution. At this point, the haughty lords of the Capitol have met their match, though they are still blissful in their ignorance.
Katniss preserves her identity, and acts upon it, in the face of the relentlessly dehumanizing Hunger Games. In her search for allies in the arena, she picks the most unlikely of combatants, the slight and vulnerable Rue, who reminds Katniss of her sister. Unable to prevent Rue’s death, she dispatches the executioner with a well-placed arrow. Then, in a touching and understated act of defiance of the Capitol, she covers Rue’s body with flowers. She openly weeps over the loss of her friend, and over what she has forever lost in having to kill another human being. With her floral tribute, she retains as much of her integrity as she can, and still survive the Hunger Games. Katniss uses beauty as a protest against her abhorrent situation.
Skeptics might scoff that reading social import into the Hunger Games is a stretch, as it is merely a work of fiction. Myths, however, often crystallize a society’s truths. In seeking to discern the course of underlying social change, we are often as sleuths sifting through clues. The Hunger Games novels and movies have received a tremendous reception. This is a fact which we can grasp, and to which attention should be paid. Could one really believe that the novels and movie would have been embraced in the same manner, particularly by young women, if the hero had been a Justin or a Michael, or a female action figure strutting in a purely macho style? It strikes me as no coincidence that a young woman with Katniss’ character has fulfilled this role in our culture at this time. Her personality, her inclusion of her mother’s nurturing gift with her father’s steady courage and willingness to face a dangerous task, these qualities draw the audience to Katniss in 2014. When the spirit in politics has ossified, and the political conversation becomes utterly predictable in its myopia, we might better explore the arts as a palette for an alternative, creative vision.