Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Last Psychiatrist on "Hunger Games:" feminist or not?

[Hunger Games movie SPOILERS!]

After I wrote about Hunger Games blogstress Ariel (who totally knows I love to spew opinions) asked me what I thought of The Last Psychiatrist's take on Hunger Games. TLP makes the case that while HG is (apparently) being hailed as a great feminist movie it is in fact anti-feminist in that the plot happens to the female protagonist rather than her taking actions (i.e. kills) and making decisions (i.e. kills), which takes away her agency. TLP likens HG to Cinderella in the sense that it is a fairy tale in which a passive girl is chosen as princess. Mentioning the recent outrage on feminist and anti-racist sites that many hardcore HG fans had reacted negatively when black actors were cast as Thrush and Rue, TLP calls this issue a sideshow meant to distract from the larger problem of Katniss' lack of agency. In closing:

That's why The Hunger Games is such a diabolical head fake.  [...]  It has managed to convince everyone that a passive character whose main strength is that she thinks a lot of thoughts and feels a lot of feelings, but who ultimately lets every decision be made by someone else-- that is a female hero, a winner. [...] in order to allow you to like an anti-feminist story, it is necessary to brand it as a vampire story or a female Running Man.   Regardless of how you phrase it, the purpose is to get you to like this kind of a story. It wants you to think this is the next step in female protagonists.  But it's a trick: nothing has changed since the royal ball. 

That these "adolescent girl" stories-- Twilight and THG-- have women who are essentially lead by men, circumstance, and fate-- whose main executive decision is "do I love this guy or that guy"-- is a window on our culture worth discussing.  [...]  That Jezebel is distracted by the racial angle here strikes me as an unconsciously deliberate avoidance of the larger issue.  Oh, the audience is racist, that's the problem.

This is the kind of criticism that steps back and dispassionately surveys a phenomenon-- my favorite kind. But the big glaring problem with this post is that TLP didn't step back far enough. Again, I saw the movie but didn't read the books; but since TLP's post is mostly about the movie, which stands on its own, I'm going to respond, focusing on how the movie portrayed things.

Many HG fans have already beat me to it in TLP's comment section pointing out that Katniss did in fact make kills: cutting down the wasp's nest while her would-be killers slept below, shooting Rue's killer through the heart, and shooting Cato (depicted as a mercy killing) as he is devoured by mutant dogs. TLP waves these kills aside as not pro-active, as well as waving aside her decisions-- volunteering for the games, suicide berries, affecting love for Peeta so they can both win-- as not really hers to make since the god-like author and Hunger Games officials whisk away consequences for the last two.

I actually accept TLP's argument waving aside these kills-- the movie did portray them as non-proactive which is status quo dramatic female protagonist behavior (see my criticism of the American Dragon Tatoo's plot twist [SPOILER] where Lisbeth pulls out a gun to shoot the baddie in the end but-- whoopsie-- the car bursts into flame on its own. Such killing-but-not-really tactics remind me of boobs with the nipples blurred out: they are now somehow different and acceptable cause they're not technically explicit... but we still get to see boobs, or as per the analogy, violent revenge). But pro-active killing is MURDER. Is that what TLP would prefer? Would that make the movie more feminist? A major goal of feminism is that we're able to lead our lives apart from the see-saw of coercive domestic / institutional violence and our reactions to it.

Another major goal of feminism is to treat women not as pseudo-children or pawns in the game of Men, but as a vast assortment of autonomous people whose decisions to each live as she sees fit are unremarkable to the rest of society. But unfortunately every decision a woman makes in the public eye is seen as an invitation for scrutiny-- a much higher level of scrutiny than for (white) men. From tabloids to cliques, from churches to offices, women are subjected to a special public opinion poll-- should she have done/said/worn that? Would you have done it differently? What did she do wrong? How could you improve her? How does her behavior serve others? Not only is this directed at women from men, but also from other women-- known as "internalized misogyny." It can be a problem even among groups of Feminists. Leaving aside legitimate complaints of failures to include marginalized groups of women from within the movement, feminists tend to hold each other and their allies to an extremely high level of expectation of perfection. Even while Rush Limbaugh and other outsiders call women who use contraception "sluts," special ire is reserved for those within the movement. But because there are as many ways of being a woman as there are women and thus many ways of interpreting and advancing feminism, each feminist (or ally) tends to have his or her own idea of what other feminists should be doing. So the goal posts are always changing, the flame wars are raging and women are picked apart-- just like in the rest of society. Considering that people and their ideas are flawed this is bad news for celebrating feminist icons, organizing, blogging, and legislating. This isn't intended as a take-down of feminism, which has been pretty damn effective in its time, but rather a critique of how internalized misogyny can play out within the movement. And therein lies the problem with the post: TLP didn't step back far enough to consider this.

Rather, the possibility of imperfect feminist activity seems to raise a flag and pique TLP's inner critic; they have done it wrong. HG has depicted a teenaged girl surviving, something that has clearly rung true for thousands of teens who actually don't have that much agency, a tactic employed by centuries of oppressed wives, prostitutes, daughters, workers, slaves and moms. But to TLP that is the wrong way to do womanhood. HG has chosen to examine oppression, coercion and lack of agency, to present a girl as a complicated character who sometimes fails, -- but for TLP it is not feminist unless we see a perfect woman in a choice-y utopia. HG offers Katniss a chance to use traditionally feminine skills-- networking, empathy, childcare, physical endurance and beautification-- while remaining mainly androgynous, to subvert an arena valuing brute strength, competition and violence, and bring it to a grinding halt (as opposed to using her feminine wiles and skills to achieve dominance or approval within the Patriarchy *cough-LegallyBlonde-Evita-GentlemenPreferBlondes-cough*). Despite the starkly coercive nature of the rules of the Hunger Games rendering both the decisions to kill and to flee as void of agency, TLP would have preferred Katniss succeed on masculine terms of the arena-- on TLP's terms.

Consider the reactions if the film weren't associated with women. Harry Potter similarly "lacks agency" by being acted upon and saved, constantly.  Likewise conscientious objectors have been depicted historically as having made that decision, with draft-dodging being a choice. The Shining was about a man lacking agency (being sort of possessed). Good Will Hunting featured a guy buoyed by fate and outside pressure, his only decision being to fall in love. No one asked, "What is Will teaching boys?" Because "girls" en masse are the ones in danger of being narrowly pigeon-holed by negative media messages. And because of this they must be shown only a narrowly prescriptive version of themselves on-screen. Wait, huh?

While these criticisms of HG could have broadened the discussion if they'd come from a place of respect toward other women and feminists, TLP's critique is not an empathetic one for the feminists at Jezebel, the young HG fans or, tellingly, women in general:

That's the system, it wants you to participate in your own marginalization so you don't dare unplug.  It's exhausting being a chick.  I mean girl--  woman.  Jesus. (5)

Though this is an example of the feminist agency problem, you should note carefully that the "society" that forces this false choice on women is actually other women, not men, and it starts with the overly invested way mothers reproach their daughters to "dress like a lady."   Certainly the original energy for this madness comes from men, from "the patriarchy", but if every man was executed tonight nothing would change tomorrow.  It's on autopilot.  Case in point: this story of a girl robbed of agency was written by a woman.

Of course, if this racism was attached to a Transformers movie you can be sure that Jezebel would pronounce all of the Transformers audience racist.  But in this case, it's only some of the audience who are racist, because progressive Jezebel likes The Hunger Games, and they're not racist.  How can they be?  They're post-feminists, i.e.  the racism for Jezebel is merely an opportunity to criticize the bridge trolls who live in Central Time, just in time for the elections.
[...] What's interesting is how Jezebel seized on the racial controversy, but completely avoided the one bludgeoning them in the face for two hours: this is a book for females, written by a female, with femalist themes, gigantically popular among females, yet is more sexist than a rap video.*
The "feminist/antifeminist" either/or trap is a tricky one when critiquing movies or fiction. What is a feminist movie, anyway? If the filmmakers break silence to present women facing realistic difficulties this can be immensely valuable to many women. But for others the film is antifeminist because it punishes the female characters for their actions. Or a film could present a female character as a fully realized character who is interesting because of her own struggles rather than her relevance to men. But such a flawed character is often critiqued as a poor role model. And a perfect role model is often critiqued as a flat stereotype. Or a character could be a kick-ass superhero-- but she'd be thoughtlessly written as a "man with boobs." (This last category is supposedly about positive "kick-ass" role models for girls but I don't see how aspiring to prosecutable violence and impossible superhuman abilities is any more realistic than aspiring to be a princess. Fun, yes. Useful, no.) A film could manage to walk the line perfectly-- but it features only straight white people.

Sure, when people claim some absurd thing is feminist because it's "empowering," you've gotta raise your eyebrows and raise your voice. When feminism is co-opted by the status quo it's galling. Feminism allows people to make choices but not all choices are feminist, it's true. However TLP's view of what is feminist is so narrow that it crosses the line into authoritarian.

*I find it pretty short sighted of TLP to imply that the racism is a minor disingenuous distraction to the real problem of the movie not catering to TLP's idea of feminism. Both issues seem to be on the same level of slap-in-the-face-but-not-the-end-of-the-world, so why would the racism not be a real issue for feminists of color? Or every feminist? It's not like women of color don't care about racism until it can be used to throw wrenches into the works of mainstream feminism.

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