Suzanne Collins, provides teens with some really interesting models for gender, such as that of Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of The Hunger Games. Many scholars have argued that Katniss’s androgyny can productively be read as queer, which, in today’s gender theory, doesn’t always have to mean gay; it can mean making deliberate choices about gender identity that go beyond heteronormative society.
Katniss’s androgyny is pretty clear from the beginning since she exhibits in about equal measures qualities what her society—and ours—would consider masculine and feminine.
She is first introduced as a hunter, and a pretty masculine one; not only does she hunt illegally and then successfully navigate the black market with her huntings and trappings, but she also does so in order to take over the role of man of the house after her father is killed in a mining accident and she must provide for her mother and sister.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Katniss’s identity: From Androgynous to Queer
Her best friend is Gale, an androgynously named boy who is a couple years older than Katniss and is clearly in love with her, which suggests that she’s a physically attractive girl.
Katniss’s identity goes from androgynous to queer when she becomes a tribute in the 74th Hunger Games. She is selected to represent District 12 along with Peeta Mellark, a young man whose family owns the town bakery, and who is thus much more connected to the domestic than not only Gale, the other love interest, but also Katniss herself.
A Teen Love Triangle
Katniss is thus caught up in a pretty typical teen love triangle, with two young men to choose from. You have Gale, the classic alpha male with his mining and hunting skills, and Peeta, the classic beta male, who can not only bake bread—sustenance—but also decorate cakes— aesthetic talent.
We get inklings of Katniss’s complex gender identity right from the start. She doesn’t do what other young women faced with such a triangle have done, like Bella from Twilight, the major teen phenomenon right before The Hunger Games.
A Version of Chastity
Katniss does not deliberate between the two young men and eventually choose one. Instead, she states boldly and honestly—and we get a first-person narrative, so we know she isn’t lying—that she isn’t interested in boys.
Not because she’s gay and not because she isn’t ready. Because she recognizes that she lives in a dystopian society and she recognizes that erotic relationships lead to children and she absolutely knows that she cannot bring a child into a world structured by the power imbalances that characterize the Capital and the Districts.
Is that really queer, though? Isn’t that just a version of chastity, a life choice that has a long history of conservative philosophies and applications. How is choosing not to procreate a queer or subversive choice?
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A Waxed, Coiffed Beauty
Katniss becomes visibly queer when she and Peeta go to the Capital for the Hunger Games. Surrounded by stylists and media specialists, Katniss is transformed and beautified. But this is a not the kind of makeover where the wallflower becomes the belle of the ball.
As we know from the first-person narrator, Katniss hates her transformation into a waxed and coiffed beauty. In her practice interviews, her scorn for the Games, for the Capital, and for the worship of beauty comes through loud and clear.
It is Haymitch—brilliantly played by Woody Harrelson in the movie version—who tells Katniss the hard truth about her attitude, if she adopts the mantle of beauty without performing it, she will not stand a chance in the Games. She will die.
So Katniss performs her gender, performs her sexuality. For most of the rest of the trilogy, Katniss takes on exactly the kind of performance that is valued by queer theorists, performance that draws attention to difference, that undercuts the politics of power.
An Act of Rebellion
And here’s why the queer approach is so attractive to readers. On a simple level, it’s an act of rebellion, of subversion, that sends the message that teens can be powerful, that teens can take on roles that are forced upon them and make them meaningful.
Katniss, after all, would never dream of the kinds of dresses that come to define her as the Girl on Fire and as the Mockingjay—extreme fashion statements that showcase her native beauty as well as her potential for subversion.
It’s the wedding dress that’s most powerful. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta must return for the 75th Hunger Games, which will feature past victors. Katniss pretends to be pregnant to gain sponsorship, putting on a queer performance.
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She appears in a wedding dress that catches on fire. That performance—the woman pretending to be pregnant wearing a wedding dress for a pretend relationship in a reality game show—is a clear slash at the Capital and the power inequities it represents.
Shouldn’t a nice girl from the districts, a victor of the Hunger Games no less, be allowed to pursue her heteronormative life in peace rather than being reaped again to the Capital?
It’s a multi-layered and deeply gendered performance, and the reason it’s so powerful for readers and viewers is that we are aware of the performance in a way the other characters aren’t. Katniss’s performance in her destroyed wedding dress and later as the Mockingjay are clearly legible to the fictional crowds in the fictional world as subversive.
However, we know much more than they do. We know she isn’t pregnant. We know she isn’t at all sure she loves Peeta. We know she doesn’t believe in marriage. This is a performance of a performance, and that is incredibly satisfying to a postmodern reader.
Common Questions about The Hunger Games and Katniss’s Androgyny
In the series, The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is selected to represent District 12 along with Peeta Mellark, a young man whose family owns the town bakery.
Katniss Everdeen is first introduced as a hunter, and a pretty masculine one. She hunts illegally and successfully navigates the black market with her huntings and trappings.
Katniss Everdeen does not deliberate between her two young suitors and eventually choose one. Instead, she states boldly and honestly that she isn’t interested in boys.