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[personal profile] farla
I darted around to check out what other people are saying and was interested to see how everyone but me was WRONG people tended to praise the book for exactly what I was complaining about. I know I read extremely antagonistically, but also people are sheep. People quite happily went with the Effie-is-privileged-and-evil thing, and I wonder how much that has an overlap with the way, when people are criticizing privileged groups, they seem to zero in on women. They're just so wonderfully convenient as a target - everyone knows they get special treatment!

(Of course, if HP analysis taught me anything, it's that a hell of a lot of literary commentary is just people arguing nonsense because somehow there's no wrong answer. I hit this gem, which I can't really examine yet because I don't want spoilers, but even the bit I skimmed was enough to tell it was idiotic.).

The story the book wants to tell is this:

Katniss, our hero, lives in poverty and oppression while the rich hang out being evil and ignoring her suffering and looking down on her. But actually, the poor are good people, and oppression is wrong.

Unfortunately, it's more like the Good People are poor: Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Rue, and even Thresh. The Bad People are wealthy: Effie, the Capital, the Career children. To be poor is to be disadvantaged (Katniss is hungry and thin) but it makes you superior (Katniss is able to handle adversity, while the Career children are a pack of angry dogs and Effie's an idiot who doesn't know what pearls are.) And "wealthy" is defined mostly as those who have something you don't. Oppression is wrong when it hits you, but hate everyone different than you are.

This is not actually a good message. What makes the rich bad are when they're rich at the expense of the poor - fetishizing poverty is just a different flavor of the old rural vs city thing, with the idea somehow living in the country makes you moral. It certainly doesn't suggest the solution is to improve people's lives. And it ignores the actual power. Effie is not in power. The other children are not in power. There are people actually in charge here, and a blanket condemnation based on who happens to have more stuff than you misses that. The people in the capital may or may not be in power, it's unclear if the population at large has any ability to do what they want, or if they're effectively the same as any other district but with more stuff. Envy should not be the core of your message.

And, like most books, it wants to eat its cake and still have it. Katniss is pretty, but she doesn't need makeup or any other actual treatment to look like that. She only needs a padded dress because she's lost a cup size from the games, because somehow she had a perfectly good chest before this. And it's wrong to think badly of people for not knowing how to act according to the upper class' standards, but of course Katniss knows how to and naturally does unless she's deliberately trying to gross someone out. (You know who's truly privileged? The person who can blithely dirty the tablecloth, because they're not the ones who have to wash it.)

Now, certainly the whole noble/villain thing has its issues, but I think a good argument can be made that at least in America, the roles are, as I said, rural/city. You aren't really challenging anything with the farmboy protagonist who opposes the evil city (that has such strange perversions as BOYS WEARING LIPSTICK), especially if you insist your protagonist gets all positive traits associated with the richer class (appearance, behavior, health, education) and is fawned over by the majority of them.

Worse, just as the rhetoric of rural/city ignores that they're both quite modern places, the book is happy to pretend the average person is just Katniss with a bit less evil government, rather than one of the capital people. This more than anything I think removes any good effect you could claim the message has - it's not simply that it's clumsily done, it's done in a way that's more about assuring the reader that of course, this isn't meant to be saying anything bad about them. Of course they aren't one of the better off happily oblivious to the suffering of people outside their limited sphere, and certainly not one of those voyeuristicly enjoying a sanitized version of their suffering for fun. And of course none of the other people around them are to blame either. And that's the exact opposite of a useful message.

I think I've covered the problems with female characters in general. Katniss in particular does a bit better, but not on the level it's deserving of praise.

Katniss is pretty much an honorary man, right down to the part where she's not actually as good as a real man. She performs a male role (not only providing for the family a male job, with both Gale and Katniss having working fathers and useless mothers, but she's explicitly taking on the role of her father in hunting and gathering) because of a female motivation (caring for her sister, the mothering role). She's skilled at it, yet also somehow inferior, and should take more pride in the idea people are fond of her and helping her out than that she was actually able to provide for herself, as if "I'm doing this because I find you so cute and vulnerable, not because I think you're truly qualified" is somehow a compliment.

She does, by virtue of being the main character, manage to be stronger than her love interest, or at least the main one (Gale is providing for a larger family and without the benefit of everyone looking out for him, so he's better than she is). But this is portrayed as completely unnatural - Peeta has to be handled carefully whenever she's better than he is, and the book keeps insisting he's a skilled combatant when that's impossible. In the interview she curls up in his lap because he's the big strong protector. She isn't supposed to be proud of being the stronger person in the relationship, and as soon as she can, she pretends she's weak.

Katniss does not contradict the idea there are male and female roles. Taking on male traits is at the expense of female ones - she has no understanding of emotions, even her own, and she's both scared of and incompetent at healing. (That this is a sharp divide is clear - her mother and sister are both feminine, healers, and even look the same.) Gale, again, provides a counterpoint - he's acting on his interest in her (in the terrible indirect way that characterizes all "romance" in this book) as well as generally more aware of things, so it's not simply that you can only have one or the other, it's that Katniss, by trying to be someone she isn't, ie, male, ends up an incomplete person. She's inferior to an actual man but completely incompetent as a woman.

As usual, there's people praising how the storyline is about her learning to accept emotions, because god knows there is such a lack of literature explaining that strong women are actually broken and need to be fixed so they can accept they secretly do want love and to have a strong boyfriend protect them. Because the only reason a girl would not have a boyfriend is that she's broken. The rest of the explanation is, as usual, that she's strong because she's a decent fighter, and otherwise things that, if she was a male character, no one would need to point out.

So - better than it could be, yes. She is the main character and she does have positive traits. But you know, we're a whole decade into the twenty-first century now, I think I'm allowed to ask for more from feminism.

Especially considering the romance.

God, the romance.

The romance means Peeta has no positive traits for Katniss to like - it's not "he's a kind person, and I like him for being kind to me", because his motivation was that he was already in love with her. In this light his actions seem self-serving, not caring. He doesn't allow her any chance to refuse him, either - he does things for her and it's hard to see it as out of selfless love when he keeps trying to get her to reciprocate. A person who acts like your friend then tells everyone else he loves you rather than being up front is a manipulative person.

Now, the fact that Peeta is a sixteen year old boy mitigates this somewhat, except that Peeta really is a great actor. Unless we're meant to view Peeta as being actually in love with the random crowds just as he's actually in love with her, Peeta doesn't have the excuse of being bad at this. By all appearances he's far more emotionally mature than she is. If he told her he was in love with her directly and she refused to believe it, this would be more excusable, but instead, when she reacted badly he let her keep thinking it was just a ploy rather than being honest and giving her the chance to say no.

Katniss being the stronger/protective side of the relationship should have helped this a bit, except she wasn't. Peeta saves her directly, while to save him she's forced into the role of healer. Her competence then becomes a point of contention between them. The book tries for some forced equality as well, with the two of them alternating decisions or arguing about them, despite the fact they aren't equal - Katniss knows what she's doing and he doesn't.

The rewrite solution here is easy - the romance should have been a fake from the start.

Peeta gave her the bread because he's a decent person. They don't want to kill each other because they're decent people. The romance thing is done because it'll make them stand out a bit and sponsors might give some gifts because they love a story like that. Peeta goes further because he's decided since he can't win, he at least wants Katniss (and by extension his district) to - and that's taken as romantic love because of what he said in the interview and because it's all anyone can ever think about. Katniss, then, continues the act when they join up again because she needs sponsors to save him, while Peeta thinks she really means it. Making this more clearly her choice would really help things. Then by the time Katniss realizes he's not acting, the games are almost over and she's starting to actually feel like she's in love with him, so she doesn't know what to do. And in the arena, Peeta does what she says and knows he's not going to win on his own, instead of ordering her around and insisting he can handle himself.

(Even rewritten, the romance should also be far less of a focus, because really, treating it as more important than the death of twenty-two kids is disgusting.)

Just on a technical level, this book is a pile of crap. The writing itself is terrible and the research is nonexistent - and I know that I use hyperbole a lot, so I want to be clear here, I don't think she did any research at all, on anything. At most, she may have looked up some plants to pick Katniss' oh-so-special name. The things I complain about here all involved the following highly technical investigation:

Read sentence.
Wonder if that was actually true.
Google.
Skim through first page of results.

These errors were almost all not plot points. Changing them would not have affected the story. The author was just that lazy.

I'm not going to make any points about this being a published book, because it doesn't matter. If I can do a couple minutes of research now just to check if she's wrong, she could have done the same thing when she was writing it. Anyone with internet access could.

And related to this is the author's viewpoint. There's no homosexuality in this. It's not simply that there are no gay characters, but there's no room for it to exist. In fact, there's no room for non-reproductive sex at all, and relationships that aren't based around sex. I would argue that this, too, is an error. The fact she very obviously doesn't like those things can't change that they exist, and that knowledge of them is no longer thoroughly suppressed. When she's writing a world full of people, it shouldn't be carefully designed around her prejudices.

This is easily the least of the errors, since they're ones of omission, but I think letting something like this pass just because the book did so many other things wrong as well is foolish.

So in sum: they're tolerable books if you read them fast and don't question what they say, though I feel even with that, some of the underlying messages are toxic (ie, the pigs is a factual error, Effie's treatment and the portrayal of the capital are not, as is the regressive treatment of relationships). And the complete lack of effort put in is inexcusable on the author's part.
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April 2011

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