Panem: A Land Without Sexism?

Extremely few spoilers — really, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’re gonna be fine.

Have you seen the latest installment in the Hunger Games film adaptation?

I caught it on Sunday, and hot damn, was it worth getting out of bed even while I was sick! It was exciting, it was thrilling, it was poignant, it had great action sequences and acting, and the special effects were top-notch.

But what I think is most important about “Catching Fire” is what it’s missing.

I’ll explain in a moment.

First, an explanation for those of you who aren’t familiar with the series:

In Panem, a post-nuclear-apocalyptic rearrangement of North America, a dystopian society reigns. The land was divided into 13 districts and the Capitol, and 75 years ago the districts rebelled against their government. After regaining control, the Capitol instituted an annual competition to remind the districts of the price of the peace they now “enjoy”; each year 24 teenage tributes (a boy and girl from each remaining district) must fight each other to the death. Only one is supposed to win, but in the first installment Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from coal-mining, poverty-stricken District 12 outwitted the Game Master and managed to win the Hunger Games together, by play-acting a sympathetic love story.

The residents of the Capitol, extraordinarily decadent and oblivious to the despair and poverty most of the districts live with, consider the pair their darlings, and they are forced to act out their romance even after the Games end, much to the chagrin of Katniss’s childhood companion Gale, who harbors his own romantic feelings for the heroine. The people of the districts, however, don’t buy the love story and see their defiance of the Hunger Games as inspiration for a rebellion against the capitol — the manipulative President Snow then must try to turn the pair, and all other previous winners of the games, into a warning instead of a symbol of hope.

(On the same page, now? Great!)


Gender-Neutral War

On the surface, this series could be very similar to a lot of action movies with female leads. We’ve got a love triangle. We’ve got an oppressive government trying to keep whole sections of the populace down. And we’ve got a woman warrior.

But in “Catching Fire”, there’s a notable absence that distinguishes it from many of these “Strong Female Character” films:

Katniss’ gender is not one of the film’s fixations.

“Catching Fire”, therefore, becomes refreshing in one of the same ways that “Parks & Recreation” is: yes, Katniss is very different from most female characters (even protagonists) we see today, so it’s a big deal to us. But her casting-off of feminine stereotypes (and the complementary peeling away of men’s as well) is not an issue within the film itself at all.

It is not startling to anyone in Panem that she is a female who behaves this way. She does not have to prove to people that she deserves to be taken seriously (as a hunter, as a warrior, or as a rebel) despite her gender. She is not held up against a bar of femininity that she must either measure up to or karate-chop out of the way.

Yes, the people in the Capitol want to mold her into something she isn’t, but the mold is based on classist perspectives, not gender stereotypes.

It’s nice to see that even Gale, the brawny, more traditionally masculine type in the film, doesn’t expect Katniss to do anything especially feminine (by our standards). Nor does he try to change her to be so. He never begs her to stop getting herself into trouble, nor is he frustrated that she won’t let him protect her from the harsh world (ahem, Twilight).

Pleasantly, the inverse is also true: men in Panem don’t seem to be held to any traditionally masculine standard of physical strength, aloofness, or anger.

Gale does not express any embarrassment at being physically rescued by Katniss. No one mocks Peeta as being “soft” or “girly” because he’s a mediocre fighter, bakes shortbread cookies, and is essentially Katniss’s movie girlfriend.


I’ll take a pass on saucy wenches, thank you.

Not even the slimy, nefarious types like the career tributes, President Snow, or Game Maker Plutarch make any easy jabs at Katniss’s femininity or stereotypes of women or men.

And this is what makes “Catching Fire” stand out — it would have been so. friggin’. easy. to just follow that tradition. A script hatched in the more traditional bowels of Hollywood would’ve taken many more cliché opportunities:

Career tributes could have made some snarky comment to Peeta about being protected by “his girl”, and then we could’ve spent part of the film worrying that it was going to bother him and that he was going to do something foolish in an attempt to prove his masculinity. (Bo-ring).

Or we could’ve seen President Snow, in the scene where he taunts Katniss in her own home, say with a sinister smirk, “You’ll be much more content as a happy wife and homemaker back here instead of stirring up trouble.” He could’ve tried to put her in her place not only as poor person from District 12, but as a woman, too.

Of course, then Katniss could’ve made some saucy retort… which would have gotten laughs, but would be trite and insipid compared to what the absence of such an exchange signifies.


What a b****?

The absence of cheap sexist pandering is carried even farther in a notable absence in the villains’ treatment of Katniss:

No one ever calls Katniss a “bitch”.

It would even have been easy for people to disregard this gender-based slur if it had been in the dialogue. Had the writers tossed it in, I doubt many people would have commented on it, and those who did would have been quickly shut down: “Of course they called her a bitch; they want to kill her! That’s the least of her problems.”

But the decision not to use it means so much more than its presence would have meant.

“Catching Fire” makes the choice to pass on the opportunity to drop this word, in even the villains’ speech. To use it would have been a cheap way to convey their hatred to the audience, and implied that her gender inspires part of their hate. No one, not even President Snow, considers her gender when evaluating her, whether as a threat or a hero.


A sexism immunity incubator?

But even if someone did try to hurl “bitch” at Katniss, I don’t think it could have carried the weight it usually does.

Because, in order for such an insult to wound, there must be a fear within the victim that it might be true.

Calling a female character a “bitch” can be a harsh, wounding thing to say in most stories — because the women in them have learned to harbor fears that they really are nothing more than “some bitch”. This fear is often deeply-ingrained in both fictional and real women, and it’s this fear that makes us vulnerable to that word’s power to do harm.

Yet, Katniss harbors no such fear or self-doubt. Katniss has such a sense of self-worth, of identity, and of strength that she could not be stricken by such a ridiculous attempt to hurt her. There are of course other things that can hurt her, or make her doubt herself, but it takes much more than sexism to do it.


Catching on?

By never even considering how her behavior, decisions, or actions would be viewed through a sexism-supporting paradigm, I think Katniss does much more for women’s self-esteem and confidence in their individual identity than a character who constantly brings up how stereotype-defying she is. As in “Parks and Recreation,” it’s the absence of sexism that makes the loudest statement.

(And the men in the film do much for this goal as well, though as secondary characters this absence cannot be as strongly felt).

Katniss is a character that’s invulnerable to sexism. Not because she had to choose to fight it, but because what it entails is so absurd to her that she could never be vulnerable to it. Even the villains treat her as an individual, rather than as a tired stereotype. There is no part of her that could worry that sexist critics (if they existed) would be right about her or about her value as a human being.

This lack of sexism, both internal and external, is perhaps the only redeeming quality of the dystopic Panem society, which otherwise turns a magnifying glass on the rest of our own society’s flaws: extreme wealth disparities, a lack of resources for the mentally ill, willed ignorance, consumerism, gluttony, and the inescapable cycle of poverty.

So while people are out and about getting excited about Catching Fire-themed makeup selections (ugh), the part of Panem I think we should really apply in our own world is the characters’ invulnerability to the pressures — and sometime cruelty — of sexism and gender stereotypes.

And who knows, maybe one day Hollywood can actually make money off that.

(Oh wait, it did).


For further reading:

NPR: “What Really Makes Katniss Stand Out? Peeta, Her Movie Girlfriend.” review of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

Ms. Magazine blog: “‘Catching Fire’: Positive Fuel for the Feminist Flame”

Reel Girl: “‘Catching Fire’ torches Hollywood’s gender stereotypes”

(BTW — don’t read the comments. They’re dumb).


The hidden feminists of Pawnee, Indiana

Watching Parks & Recreation is kind of like going to a women’s college.

Unfortunately, most men (the exception, for now, being transmen) will never get to experience the absolutely kick-ass, convention-busting, powerful support of a women’s college.

Which means men have to work way harder to bust those conventions. (They’re usually about what women vs. men should do or should want to do or are allowed to do. A lot of stuff about ambition & sexual agency, ya know).

But, for you awesome guys out there, there’s an easier way to be a chill, assured feminist man than to read Jezebel and bell hooks and Feministing all the time.

And that way is to watch Parks & Recreation.

Are you familiar with the show? A brief explanation (yes, minor SPOILER ALERTS):

Amy Poehler’s main character, Leslie Knope, is the deputy director of the Parks & Recreation dept. of a small town in Indiana – and also the town’s first-ever city councilwoman (beginning in season 5). She eats waffles constantly & reads political biographies; she has photos of Madeleine Albright, Barbara Boxer, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton & more lining her walls. Her mustachioed boss (Ron Swanson) is a libertarian who works for local government. Her best friend is a nurse, her husband is a campaign strategist/accountant/financial adviser, and she only needs to sleep about 4 hours a night.

“Well what makes the show so like a women’s college?”

Well, first off, the main character is a woman, and she’s in a position of power.

But more importantly: it’s No Big Deal. It just seems natural and obvious because, duh, she’s extremely motivated and endearing and talented and brings a ton of energy to her work. So it’s only right that she can carry a show by herself and excel at her bitchin’ job.

So, the show has a strong female lead (who is a politician). That’s obviously media-paradigm-breaking feminism, but it’s the quieter, more subversive feminist elements that make this show shine.

I think that the real game-changers in the feminism of this show are the men.

Yep, the men.

Let’s start with Leslie’s assistant, Tom Haverford.

Tom (played by Aziz Ansari) is unapologetically metrosexual. He’s famous among the characters for his Bumble & Bumble hair care products, his cheese plates, his chenille throws, his cashmere sweaters, his fear of grass stains on his summer linens, and his sweet sweet mixed drinks.

And while he might be a critique of the extremes of consumer society…

… The characters on the show do not emasculate him. He may be annoying, but it’s because he’s a hyperconsumer, not because he’s a man who acts like a woman. And thereby an opportunity to mark traditionally feminine behaviors as annoying, embarrassing, and inferior to traditionally male behaviors is skipped.


And, honestly, I get the impression that if a character did try to make Tom feel inferior by using derogatory female insults… he probably wouldn’t care. He likes how he lives his life and the fact that lots of women enjoy it too wouldn’t ever make him consider rejecting it.

Proceed on to Jerry Gergich.

Jerry’s both a schlemiel and schlemazel on the show. But one of the show’s big paradoxes is that his wife and daughters are smokin’ hot. His wife is played by Christie Brinkley, actually.

When the show’s very fit, very enthusiastic, very positive Chris Traeger (played to the hilt by Rob Lowe) starts dating Jerry’s lithe blonde daughter Millicent (basically the cliché of the tempting young thing in need of protection from… well… temptation), he offers to keep Jerry apprised of their goings-on and to keep everything PG for a while.

Jerry, instead of being the blustering, protective father who is enraged by the idea of his daughter as a sexual being, firmly declines Chris’s offer.

“Millie’s a grown woman,” he says, and he trusts her to date whoever she wants and do whatever she wants. It’s really none of his business, he says.

Thank you, sir – can I have another?

Seriously, I wish more TV dads were like this. (And more real dads).

Jerry doesn’t for one second think that he has anything to do with his daughter’s sex life, nor that she should be expected to desire or do anything different from what Chris desires and does.

Right on, Señor Gergich. Right on.

Andy Dwyer:

Andy is a goofball, who may veer into the Doofy Husbands Trope, however something about his character makes me feel like he evades that cliché. My best guess why? His doofyness comes from not taking himself seriously; not from failing to perform basic tasks and incurring the eye-rolling of a much-put-upon wife.

He isn’t ashamed to be excited and enthusiastic about anything, and while it’s played up for comedic effect, it’s never scorned. (It’s also part of a great dichotomy when paired with his surly, cynical wife, April).

For Andy, it would never occur to him to believe in or even absorb stereotypes.

He’s got the innocence of a child, but shows viewers how you can still be an adult… and somehow still have a child-like lack of jerkiness.

Plus, he takes a women’s studies class at the community college and LOVES it. And again, it’s really No Big Deal. It’s just an awesome class and he thinks his professor rocks and he’s just so excited about the cool women they’re studying because he is equally excited about everyone.

And finally, the cherry on top of our character cake: the ineffable Ron Swanson.

Nick Offerman’s mustachioed character is a complex and paradoxical man. He’s often viewed as a traditional Man’s Man – he’s a carpenter; lives in a cabin; consumes only steak, bacon, eggs, and whiskey; hates “feelings talk”; and is constantly annoyed by Leslie’s enthusiasm and verve for government work. (He’s “a staunch libertarian,” you see).

But his sometime distaste for Leslie’s political beliefs never crosses into a disrespect for her as a person.

He never suggests that she has less of a right to disagree with him because she’s a woman, and his “traditional” political ideas never bleed into support for traditional gender roles.

In one episode, Andy tells his women’s studies prof that Ron is a feminist role model for him. Ron notes, “I don’t really consider myself an anything -ist, but my life has been shaped by strong women.”

(While generally denials of being a feminist induce eye-rolling from me because “feminism” shouldn’t be a dirty word, this makes perfect sense in the context of Ron’s no-nonsense, secretive, allegiance-shirking, libertarian ways).

And, to seal the deal, he even starts dating sexy, powerful, no-nonsense Diane in season 5 – played by none other than Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS.

The choice to have Xena play the role of Ron’s significant other was no coincidence, I am sure. It’s an obvious nod to the fact that Ron respects, and indeed is only attracted to, strong and powerful women, and has absolutely no compunctions about it.

The ferocity of and power wielded by his two ex-wives (Tammy I, a brilliantly brutal IRS auditor, and Tammy II, a sexually ravenous and manipulative librarian) only underscores this fact. While it’s clear that they’re crazy b****es, they didn’t gain b**** status because they lost their ladylike politeness/demureness/goodness when they took on these traditionally masculine traits of ambition and power.

No one’s got a problem with them being so power-hungry. Rather, they’re b****es because they literally try to ruin Ron’s life and steal the gold he has buried around his property. Not an exclusively feminine trait.

I’ll throw a nod in here to Ben Wyatt, Leslie’s admirable husband, for while I think his character’s deep vein of geekiness is an untapped opportunity to make a commentary on female geek culture, he at the very least constantly shows that his wife’s ambition is pretty much the sexiest thing about her. His character’s political and career redemption is only achieved through her political and career achievements, and later he is the one who takes a step back from his career to support hers.

• • •

OK, so did you notice a lot of negative words in those feminist bios?

A lot of “isn’t” and “no big deal” or “don’t”?

Well, that’s kind of the point.

We could be watching a show that’s constantly, directly discussing feminism and women’s empowerment and undermining traditional gender roles…

But we’re not.

Instead, we’re watching a show that simply doesn’t have misogyny in it.

And what are you left with when you simply don’t include misogyny?

You’ve only got feminist ideas.

So you don’t have to make a big deal about it. It’s just there. It fills the vacuum left by douchey guys and sexist jokes and clichéd women’s storylines with a laid-back, authentic, subtly empowering story that just happens to be feminist.

And that brings me back to my point about P&R being like a women’s college.

Women’s colleges are not a place to foster hatred of men or put them down or constantly duke it out with misogynistic ideas. They’re simply places where misogyny is largely absent. (This does not mean that all men bring misogyny with them, but it’s a lot harder for it to sneak in when it props up no one within the student body).

And when it’s absent, it becomes natural to not second-guess yourself or other women, to not avoid taking on leadership roles, to not compare yourself to gender stereotypes.

That’s what Parks & Rec does. It doesn’t have to make a big deal of actively doing or saying feminist stuff. They just make a point to not do or say un-feminist stuff.

That’s what feminism actually is – the absence of misogyny.

(Rather than the presence of bra-burning, or whatever other stereotype is popular today).

So, thank you Parks & Rec. Thank you, Amy Poehler. Thank you, Ron and Jerry and Tom and Andy and Ben and Chris.

Keep up the good work, and stay cool.