On the screen, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are kissing. I’m watching with my 11-year-old triplet sons and there’s some squirming in the room. Leo says, “This is Ace’s favorite bit.”
Ace snorts, “No, it’s not. My favorite part is where everybody dies.” Luke laughs.
We’re watching a scene from “Catching Fire” on TV because they’ve been bugging me to show them a piece of the "Hunger Games” film franchise, even though their mom and I agree they’re too young to go with me to the premiere of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” later that day.
We did let our kids read the books, which they devoured, sometimes getting into arguments about who had claimed the rights over who had dibs on “Catching Fire” or “Mockingjay.”
After that, the archery set that had been in the garage for months re-emerged and arrows started flying through our backyard.
There’s been plenty of ink and pixels devoted to Katniss’ influence on girls, book sales, the sport of archery and even Jennifer Lawrence herself. I think it’s time to talk about her value to another demographic – boys.
First, I claim no objectivity about “The Hunger Games” saga. It had me at “This is the day of the reaping.” Hell, these books reaped me. I’m a 44-year-old man whose normal reading pace is a page or two per night before bed. (People worry that George R.R. Martin might not live long enough to finish “A Song of Ice and Fire” – I’m not sure I will, either.)
I read all 1,174 pages of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy in about four days. I did no work. Minimal chores. When my wife wasn’t home, the triplets lived their own version of the Hunger Games in our kitchen because I’d stopped preparing food.
“The Hunger Games” books thrilled, fascinated, worried and wounded me; they left me exhausted, dazed and grateful.
I wanted my sons to read them in part to share the experience, but also because I feel like maybe they needed it. Unlike too many boys, these guys read. Outside of Japanese manga and a book written by their own grandmother, they tend to read stories about other members of their own demographic. That’s easy to do. According to one study of children’s literature, male characters are featured “nearly twice as often in titles and 1.6 times as often as central characters.” (Among feature films popular with kids, the ratio is even worse.)
In addition, my sons (like me) have no sisters, and I’m not aware of any female friends with whom they seem terribly close. I don’t want the interior life of girls to be as entirely foreign to them as it once felt to me.
Annette Wannamaker teaches young adult literature at Eastern Michigan University and writes about boys and media. “‘The Hunger Games’ is a great text for boys and girls to read because Katniss is a non-stereotypical girl and because Peeta is a non-stereotypical boy,” she told me. “Peeta is heroic as well, but in a way that is not stereotypically masculine: He is brave and strong, but he is also nurturing.”
She added that the idea that boys won’t connect with a story about a girl is just wrong. “There's a myth that books need to have characters young readers can 'identify with,' but the exact opposite is true: literature gives us a chance to view the world through another person's eyes, to consider a perspective that is different from our own. This is vital because it teaches empathy.”
Children’s author Shannon Hale wrote in her blog, “…the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don't have to read about girls, that boys aren't expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world....this belief directly leads to rape culture. To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn't matter how the girl feels, what she wants.”
Hale describes author visits in which the school only invited girl students to her assemblies. In one case, “I did the presentation. But I felt sick to my stomach. Later I asked what other authors had visited. They'd had a male writer. For his assembly, both boys and girls had been invited.”
I appear to be the only unaccompanied man who’s come to this particular theater for the debut of “Mockingjay: Part 2” here in Jennifer Lawrence’s hometown of Louisville. The house is about three-quarters full (which I guess portends the supposedly disappointing opening weekend draw of “only” $247 million worldwide).
I’m here in part to complete my own “Hunger Games” experience and also to find some male fans who don’t live in my house.
The movie itself is satisfying, riveting and tense, though many scenes feel relentless, grim and gray. Still, it hits all the marks I need it to, particularly at the very end, when the girl from District 12 becomes her own woman, not exactly at peace, but no longer on fire.
In between setpieces, I watch with this question in mind: How would these scenes play if (à la “Twilight Reimagined”) Katniss were a boy and Peeta and Gale were girls?
Peeta’s emotional intelligence would feel familiar; Gale’s ruthlessness as a military tactician would be more interesting. But Katniss’ interactions with either of them would somehow look much creepier, manipulative, even callous. Imagine a male Katniss threatening to kill a deranged female Peeta, saying, “I’ll put (her) down like a Capitol mutt.”
In the lobby, I approach a few teenagers who appear to be either leaving the movie or in line for the next show.
Fifteen year-old Greg doesn’t like the concept of a male-centered "Hunger Games." “It’d be boring. It’d be just like every other movie.”
Good point. I ask 14-year-old Brycen what he likes about Katniss.
OK, thank you.
Anthony is a 19-year-old university student who says his favorite “Hunger Games” character is Haymitch. Now, Haymitch kicks ass – both on the page and as rendered by Woody Harrelson – but this is a pattern among the handful of male fans I’ve unscientifically surveyed: None of them claim Katniss as their favorite series character. (My kids’ favorite: Finnick.)
Anthony likes the action sequences more than the romance, but says, “Katniss is a cool character. She’s strong, independent.” He thinks it’s good that more women – real and fictional – are reaching prominence and asserting themselves. “Like Ronda Rousey,” he says.
Anthony and I – and lots of guys, really – understand that there’s value for girls in the stories of characters like Katniss, but only in a very abstract way.
Hayley, a 21-year-old psych major, spells it out for me between screenings: “Katniss is important for us because she’s a healthy, strong woman who’s vulnerable, but her vulnerability isn’t a flaw. And the truth is it’s hard for girls to be strong. It’s hard for girls to be powerful. Katniss isn’t told she’s bossy. She’s not talked over. And boys need to understand that’s not how it is in real life.”
I recount this exchange to my wife – my authority on all things feminine -- and say something like, “Does that really happen, even now? Getting talked over by men?”
Gabrielle’s silent response combines affection with exasperation and makes it clear that she has forgiven me many times for committing the very sin whose existence I’ve just questioned.
Hmm. If I did that, it wasn’t on purpose. So why would I? It feels like at some point, boys – including me – pick up this notion that when it comes to male-female interaction, strength, power and status are often a zero-sum proposition. This leads us to interpret displays of ability or authority in women as signs of weakness in ourselves -- gender relations as its own kind of Hunger Games.
Earlier this month, @MTVceleb put out this call on Twitter: Are you a female #HungerGames fan? Send us your story of just why Katniss inspires you…
MTV.com (whose target audience is teen girls) compiled the responses, some of which were quite touching. But some fans, seemingly both male and female, took offense to the solicitation, offering comments like:
“why can't Katniss inspire men?”
“…Katniss not only resonates with girls but boys as well.”
I reached out to one of those male fans -- @muttmellark, an 18-year-old from Ireland. He tweeted, “She shows that a someone picked from a crowd can have an hugely important role in society regardless of where they come from.”
With her final movie completed, Katniss Everdeen is history now, ascending from Panem to the pantheon of fiction’s great heroines, along with -- who, exactly? Artemis? Buffy? Nancy Drew?
Although, really, why segregate humanity’s heroic hall of fame? I think Katniss has proven she can stand alongside anyone from Odysseus to Harry Potter.
Every Christmas, my sons expect books in their stockings. This year, they might find something like “Howl's Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones or “Dragonflight” by Anne McCaffrey. I won’t make a big deal out of it, won’t say, “Even though it’s about a girl…” or “Since you liked Katniss, maybe you’ll like this, too.”
My hope is that reading stories like these will help my sons understand that women can be strong without making men feel weak.
As Katniss and Peeta discover in the climactic scene from “The Hunger Games,” even if the odds aren’t in your favor, it should be possible for both boy and girl to find a way to win.