(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review at the author's invitation.)
If you're a voracious reader of THG criticism, you might already be familiar with the work of Valerie Estelle Frankel: in addition to a short guide to THE HUNGER GAMES (KATNISS THE CATTAIL: AN UNAUTHORIZED GUIDE TO NAMES AND SYMBOLS IN SUZANNE COLLINS' THE HUNGER GAMES), Frankel also contributed an essay to the 2012 anthology, OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES: CRITICAL ESSAYS ON THE SUZANNE COLLINS TRILOGY ("Reflection in a Plastic Mirror"). I had the pleasure of reviewing each of these, as well as a study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it relates to Joseph Campbell's model of the Hero's Journey (BUFFY AND THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY: VAMPIRE SLAYER AS FEMININE CHOSEN ONE).
In this latest book, THE MANY FACES OF KATNISS EVERDEEN: EXPLORING THE HEROINE OF THE HUNGER GAMES, Frankel revisits and expands upon many of the ideas introduced in her previous guides and essays. In particular, Chapters 4 ("Katniss Lives the Roman Histories"), 5 ("Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games"), and 8 ("Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song") are an extension of KATNISS THE CATTAIL: a more in-depth look at the names (Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Prim, Claudius Templesmith, Plutarch Heavensbee, Presidents Snow and Coin, etc.) and symbols (bread, arrows, primroses, etc.) found in THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Likewise, Chapter 1 ("Katniss the Reality TV Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror") is reprinted from OF BREAD, BLOOD AND THE HUNGER GAMES.
But far from a rehashing of old ideas, THE MANY FACES OF KATNISS EVERDEEN is a fresh and insightful discussion of the major themes of the trilogy, from its criticism of our current obsession with reality television (which, coupled with our war fatigue, is especially insidious - we enjoy watching the suffering of others, but turn our backs when it happens en mass) to the execution of the film adaptation:
1 - "Katniss the Reality Star: Reflection in a Plastic Mirror" - No less enjoyable the second time around, the opening essay in this collection compares Panem to the modern-day US; The Hunger Games are an exaggerated version of our own reality television - our own bread and circuses, if you will. In this way, THE HUNGER GAMES isn't just a future dystopia - but a present one, as well.
2 - "Katniss the Revolutionary: A Look at Dystopian Literature" - If you don't already have a book pile a mile high, Chapter 2 will help get you there! Frankel offers a brief survey of dystopian literature that bears similarities to THE HUNGER GAMES (and in some cases, helped to inspire its author): 1984, THE LORD OF THE FLIES, ANIMAL FARM, and BATTLE ROYALE, to name but a few. Many of these stories feature children pitted against one another, either in the absence of adults or at their behest; other times, it is a malevolent government, exercising frightening control over the citizens it's supposed to protect. "Science fiction authors are our modern philosophers, asking the hard questions about how we conduct our lives." (page 23) What does THE HUNGER GAMES say to you?
3 - "Katniss the Classic Warrior Woman" - Artemis, Athena, and Brunhilde - and Buffy, Xena, and Eowyn: Katniss is one in a long line of warrior women. Masculine, virginal, asexual, masters of distance weapons such as the bow, and protectors of children - Frankel discusses the shared characteristics of so many warrior women (historical, mythical, literary). Especially noteworthy is a look at the evolution of Katniss's bow, which can be read as a reflection of her psychological state.
4 - "Katniss Lives the Roman Histories" - This chapter in particular mirrors the information found in KATNISS THE CATTAIL, but with added observations pertaining to the film. Many of the names found in THE HUNGER GAMES have origins in Roman history, in particular Shakespeare's Roman plays and Plutarch's Lives. Our hero Katniss is a modern-day Spartacus, while "wealthy first-world readers are meant to be the spoiled Roman audience cheering for gore and blood." (page 34)
5 - "Katniss the Hungry: Food in the Hunger Games" - In a trilogy called THE HUNGER GAMES, it should come as little surprise that food would arise as a central theme: food (or rather, the lack thereof) is used to control the masses; conversely, its waste is a symbol of social status and wealth; and it even fuels a revolution, in the form of Katniss's nightlock berries. In the Games themselves, "food becomes her [Katniss's] weapon and tool" - while a lifetime's worth of deprivation has taught Katniss (in direct contrast to the spoiled Careers) to live with little and off the land, she also turns the Careers' privilege against them, destroying their stockpiles with a single apple (page 51). From district to district, food nourishes the citizens' souls as well as their bodies: "food is tied up in who they are." (page 48)
6 - "Katniss and Bella: The Love Triangle and Modern Teen's Fantasy Men" - While Frankel is careful to stress the point that THE HUNGER GAMES isn't a romance - call it a war story, dystopian science fiction, action adventure, but never a romance! - she goes on to compare the "love triangles" present in each. As disturbingly rapey as it is, Frankel isn't nearly as hard on TWILIGHT as I'd like - but she does make some interesting comparisons between the different models of ideal masculinity presented in each.
7 - "Katniss, Protector of Children" - As with other YA series - DIVERGENT, THE UGLIES, WITHER, GONE, FEED, and Collins' own GREGOR THE OVERLANDER - THE HUNGER GAMES is one of many dystopias that depict adults as unsympathetic others: clueless dopes at best, but more often master manipulators and power-hungry warmongers. Even when they operate with the best of intentions, their morals are warped after years of post-apocalyptic living. Just a child herself, Katniss appoints herself a protector of those younger and more vulnerable than she: most notably Prim and Rue, but Katniss also tries to save the elderly Mags in the Quarter Quell, and sympathizes with the childlike Morphlings from District 6. Ultimately Katniss saves all of Panem from not one, but two bloodthirsty dictators. In the U.S., people under the age of 18 aren't allowed to vote - "but dystopian teens can change the world." (page 72)
8 - "Katniss the Mockingjay: The Power of Story and Song" - In the opening paragraphs, Frankel observes that "Panem is a world of stories and storytellers" (page 78): everything the government broadcasts is carefully scripted propaganda, from the daily "news" to the stories played out in the Games. (Their reality tv is no more "real" than our own.) Working within this flawed system, Katniss and Peeta become storytellers as well: in the first Games, they "sell" the story of the star-crossed lovers and, later, Katniss somewhat reluctantly assumes the role of the Mockingjay so that she may lead a revolution. Integral to this process are songs, which transmit feelings and emotions in addition to ideas and ideals; and Katniss is perhaps most likable, most human, when caught in the thrall of music.
9 - "Katniss the Teen Soldier" - In perhaps the most important chapter of THE MANY FACES OF KATNISS EVERDEEN, Frankel places Katniss the soldier in context: she's not just a soldier, but a child soldier, and one of (sadly) millions that exist, in modern day, around the world. In the United States kids can be drafted to fight and kill as young as 18 years of age. As in the Games, the poor are at a distinct disadvantage: those from lower socioeconomic classes are more like to volunteer due to limited employment options or a lack of funds to continue their education. Draft exceptions also favor the wealthy and aged, as they're more likely to have families, be enrolled in college, or able to secure a medical or psychological exemption from a doctor.
According to the stats presented by Frankel, "In three-fourths of combats today, child soldiers are fighting, sometimes as young as six. Eighty-four armed organizations in the world use children fifteen and younger in combat; 64 organizations use children twelve and under. Child soldiers are described as `programmed to kill' and `programmed to feel little revulsion for their actions and to think of war and only war.'" (pages 94-95) They are the Career tributes - they are real, and they are victims too.
10 - "Katniss as Good Girl, Katniss as Bad Girl" - Using Jungian psychology (particularly Clarissa Pinkola Estes' WOMEN WHO RUN WITH THE WOLVES) as a jumping-off point, Frankel explores Katniss's "shadow self." Often forced to repress her true feelings so as not to "rock the boat" and incur the wrath of those adults in power, Katniss often "snaps" at key points, such as when she's unable to save an innocent - and this is when her rebellious side breaks through.
11 - "Katniss the Chosen One and Theseus the Hero" - Just as Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, followed the classic Hero's Journey as described by Joseph Campbell, Katniss follows the Heroine's Journey, a feminine version of this quest laid out by Frankel in FROM GIRL TO GODDESS: THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY THROUGH MYTH AND LEGEND. (I'm marginally familiar with the idea from her earlier book, BUFFY AND THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY.) While interesting, I'm left with the same criticism of these models that I posited in my review of BUFFY AND THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY:
"This brings me to another issue with these models: they limit gender to two distinct polar opposites, thus erasing everyone who doesn't identify as one or the other. In reality, gender (and sexuality; both models assume heterosexuality) is much more fluid than this. Why have a hero/heroine's journey? Why not just one journey for everyone, one which recognizes that we all struggle with things like parents, adolescence, romantic relationships, finding one's place in the world, etc.?
"Likewise, many readers take issue with the deeply sexist nature of these models: for example, men are equated with science and rationality, while women are connected to the natural earth and the unexplainable magic found within. While identifying `Mother Nature' as a source of feminine power might seem feminist (yay girl power?), think again. What do we do with the earth: land, water, air? We colonize it. Exploit it. War over its resources. Pollute, waste, consume. Drill, mine, frack. We take and take until there's nothing left - and then we discard it and move on.
"By equating women - and, to a larger extent, nonhuman animals - with nature and the earth, we objectify them; position them as an object - an unsentient `it' - ripe for oppression and exploitation. The earth is not gendered; it's no more female than it is male. To claim otherwise is to do a disservice to women everywhere."
12 - "Katniss Onscreen" - From writing to casting, Frankel weighs the merits of the 2012 film adaptation. (At the time of this writing, CATCHING FIRE has yet to be released.) Particularly interesting (and amusing!) are her observations about the filmmakers' decision to expand the character of (fellow filmmaker) Seneca Crane (at the expense of Katniss, no less), transforming him from government stooge to stifled artist. Self-serving much?
Frankel gets props for going where so few authors have gone before (V. Arrow's THE PANEM COMPANION being a notable and happy-surprise exception) - namely, the whitewashing of the film and audience reaction to dark-skinned Rue and Thresh. Unfortunately, this discussion only takes up a few pages in the final chapter, "Katniss Onscreen," even though issues of race and class deserve a larger look - integral as they are to the story - and could easily fill an entire book. Certainly devoting a chapter to these topics wouldn't be out of line. (For a chapter heading, may I suggest "Katniss Is Olive-Skinned," after the tumblog of the same name?) Along these lines, it's rather silly to praise the film as "well-cast" and "diverse" when so many of the protagonists - nay, most of District 12! - were miscast as white.
As Frankel explains, "Katniss could represent any powerless teen from Iraq to Thailand, inspired by war coverage during the time of the writing. But if she's white, the metaphor of an oppressed young woman of color standing up to spoiled America's greed or defying dictatorships in her homeland vanishes." (page 137) And, shamefully, this is precisely what happens in the film.
Also problematic are discussions of Katniss's "decision" to bear Peeta's children: "It took five, ten, fifteen years for me to agree. But Peeta wanted them so badly. When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself. Only the joy of holding her in my arms could tame it. Carrying him was a little easier, but not much." (MOCKINGJAY, page 389) Outside of a few social justice blogs on tumblr, I've yet to see a THG critic call this scene what it is: reproductive abuse. (Or coercion, at the very least.)
Throughout the story - and whether due to her lack of resources, the warring circumstances in which she (and most of Panem) finds herself, or her contentious relationship with her own mother - Katniss continually and loudly voices her intention to never have children of her own. She might willingly and fiercely "mother" those more vulnerable than herself, but this is a far cry from choosing to carry and birth a child in a post-war society. Even in the best of circumstances, pregnancy carries with it many complications: anemia, urinary tract infections, depression, hypertension, gestational diabetes, nausea and vomiting, even the risk of death. Politically and socially, pregnancy - even the potential thereof - has been used as a tool to control and punish women: you can see this today, for example, in right-wing attempts to prosecute women who miscarry for murder.
Conditions in District 12 were dire after the Dark Days - in many ways, it represented a developing nation - and the district was decimated during the second civil war, leveled as it was by Snow's bombs. While it's true that the Capitol was technologically advanced, it too suffered great damages during the conflict. Fifteen years later, it's unlikely that Katniss's home town has been transformed into a contemporary metropolis teeming with highly trained doctors and state-of-the-art medical facilities. More likely, she'd be giving birth in less-than-ideal conditions; should she suffer a breach birth, it's doubtful that Peeta could rush her to the nearest hospital for care. Given these circumstances alone, Katniss's disinterest in carrying and birthing babies is hardly surprising - growing up, it probably represented a death sentence for so many of her neighbors. (Remember too that, pre-Games, Mrs. Everdeen served as the medical caregiver for District 12. How many women do you think died in childbirth on Katniss's kitchen table?)
By the epilogue's account, this resistance to having children was a stance Katniss held for at least fifteen years - until her early 30s. Only after a decade and a half of nagging on Peeta's part did she relent - she "agreed," as though her bodily agency was up for negotiation. Yet Frankel - and other authors - laud this as a courageous choice, rather something that was at least partially thrust upon her by Peeta and Collins:
"Following the war, Katniss resists having her own children, even with no more Hunger Games. She knows that the most vulnerable will always be at risk. But she finally agrees to have them, to choose life in a world of death. She retires from the public gaze to be a mother, the greatest adventure of all. `Transitioning to motherhood is a brave decision, both on Katniss's part and Suzanne Collins's," comments Ned Vizzini in `Reality Hunger: Authenticity, Heroism, and Media in the Hunger Games' (97). She can follow her own path, not the one society has forced on her, and find healing." (page 77)
Except that this path - motherhood - is not wholly her own; furthermore, it's the socially acceptable path, one that most women are expected to walk, and eagerly. (And why is fatherhood not similarly described as "the greatest adventure of all" for men?) I'm by no means knocking motherhood here - it's just not for all women. Perhaps Collins truly meant for this passage to represent hope - Katniss choosing life over death - but if this is the case, it was rather unartfully written. It reads less as an affirmation of life and more like an insidious disrespect for women's agency and bodily autonomy.
There are other issues at play as well (for example, a lack of respect for others doesn't exactly jibe with Peeta's gentle nature) which suggest to me that Collins failed to fully consider the implications of these closing sentences. At the very least, she exercised little regard for how childfree women - those of us who have been told all our lives that "you'll change your mind" - and other feminist-minded readers might interpret them. Unfortunately, there's not enough space to delve into them all here. Suffice it to say that Katniss's decision to have children deserves a much more critical look than it's received to date.
(To be clear: my gripe isn't with Katniss's decision to have children per se, but how it was written into the story. She "agreed." Capitulated. Allowed her will to be worn down after years of harassment, at the hands of a man who supposedly loves and respects her. Furthermore, this reversal reinforces pernicious gender stereotypes about women and motherhood, justifying the social pressures faced by women who do choose a different path, in the here and now. Not cool.)
Of course, these criticisms are not unique to THE MANY FACES OF KATNISS EVERDEEN; many of the guides I've read previously tend to be similarly problematic. That said, in her latest book, Frankel offers fresh and sometimes unique observations on Suzanne Collins's trilogy - no small feat considering that much of this ground has already been covered, and thoroughly so. Fans of THE HUNGER GAMES will find plenty to savor here.