Friday 20 April 2012

Six Reasons The Hunger Games is not Twilight and One Reason It Matters

Posted by Carlotta

Many people have compared The Hunger Games to Twilight.

In fact, several have written almost exactly this article, refuting the claim that they are the same. In most comparisons, THG seems to come out on top. In fact, the HuffPo found that over 90% of the people who answered their poll thought that Katniss was a stronger character than Bella.

Yet here I am writing pretty much the same article again. I’ll save you the suspense - I do not think the two series are the same, and I think that THG is a more complex, interesting novel which fails significantly less than Twilight. I outline my case below, for those who are interested. But first, let me talk about the more important issue: Why It Matters.

This is a queer feminist blog, as a general rule we care about queer feminist issues. I personally wrote a Twilight parody song that we are rehearsing at the moment, despite having enjoyed reading the books. Why? Because I am excellent at circumlegation, and can often enjoy media that fails to live up to my feminist ideals. Twilight certainly doesn't - the heroine lacks agency, she is treated like a prize by men, and those men are praised as romantic for their retrogressive attitudes.

I will not be writing a parody of The Hunger Games. While it shares many tropes (including the prominent love triangle, probably the most visible similarity), it features a heroine with personality and self-determination. It paints a complex world that challenges the reader to think about society, utilitarianism, freedom and tyranny.

So why does it matter that they are not the same? Because painting them as the same is never done in a positive light, it is dismissing them both as frivolous.

These are both books with young female leads and female authors. They are both aimed at Young People and therefore of course can be dismissed twice over, since everyone knows that young people are lazy, stupid and uninterested in the world, right? Surely books aimed at them can’t actually feature anything of substance.

I do also think it’s telling that, whilst comparisons with Harry Potter have been made, people do not seem to be in quite such a hurry to say that the two are "the same." Many of the comparisons are to do with how lucrative their are as franchises, rather than comparing content. Call me a paranoid feminazi, but I think that’s because Harry Potter is a boy, so while you might get called childish for enjoying his story, it’s ok because you will not get called “a girl.”

Of course, it could be because his story is so completely different, with it’s two-boys-and-a-girl core cast, it’s exploration of teenage angst and young people having to fight evil adults and... oh, no, wait a second...

Honestly, there are similarities between THG, and Twilight, and Harry Potter, and, ya know, pretty much every story every written. That’s why we can talk about tropes, and themes in the first place. Because there are no new stories.

But similar isn’t the same. And saying that Twilight and The Hunger Games are the same reminds me of that awful phrase “chick lit” - the idea that there are books, and then there are books for women. Silly, insubstantial books of course, for easy-confused overly-sentimental ladybrains. It is to bracket together works that feature female leads simply because they have female leads, implying that all such books are “for girls” and therefore not to be taken seriously.

Let’s not divide literature into books for girls and books for people. Let’s say, instead, that there are good books and bad books and then - as usual - various shades in between.

With the actual point over, and with my tongue somewhere in the region of my cheek, if you have read the books or seen the movies and are not too bored for another comparison, here are my Six Reasons Why The Hunger Games is not Twilight.
[includes SPOILERS for all books in both series]

1. Bella is... Well, it's actually pretty hard to define. Bella has so little personality of her own she is hard to pin down. She is defined almost entirely by her love for Edward and Jacob. And sometimes the fact that she's pretty fond of her dad.

Katniss cares about her little sister more than anyone, and she likes to hunt and she has a best friend and claustrophobia and her favourite colour is green and she is proud and self-reliant. One of the first things you learn about her is that - far from singing a happy working song - she and the family cat loathe each other. Katniss has *characteristics*. The reader still identifies with her, of course, but not because she is a blank everywoman vacuum of a person.

She also alienates people right, left and centre - she is not a "nice" character, she does not have the interpersonal skills or the motivation to make friends easily. She lacks the emotional intelligence that we're supposed to believe all young women have - to the extent that she is frustratingly, obviously wrong about other people's feelings. Yet her awkwardness is genuine and we are left sympathising with her (no matter how much we want to shake her sometimes). Galatea likens her to pre-goblet of fire Hermione. To me, she has something of the Snape about her, a nudge to the reader that nice is different than good.

2. Twilight is about... Again this is hard to pin down. I guess it's about love. And vampires.

THG is not, as my housemate thinks, about playing some games while you're a bit peckish... It is about the nature of freedom and the fight of good vs evil and how murky it can be trying to ensure you're fighting on the right side. It's about the fetishisation of control and violence, about schadenfreude and reality television and oppression and survival. THG is politically engaged and beautifully exemplifies how confusing the world is when you are young and idealistic and you just want to stand up for what is right but you can't quite be sure what that is or how to fight for it. It reminds me of being seventeen myself and almost wishing that there really were demons, like in Buffy, because then at least evil would be a tangible thing one could vanquish, rather than a nebulous nothing that cannot be staked or stabbed or even easily identified.

3. Bella, like totally can't choose between two hot guys. Katniss has a similar problem. However, Bella mopes a bit and then picks one and angsts a lot. Katniss tries (fairly unsuccessfully) to explain to the boys that, actually, she just doesn't have time for all their "feelings" right now, and she'll maybe consider loving one of them when all the oppression and war is sorted out. Maybe. Or maybe she'll just go home with her mother and sister and they'll have to get over it. Because Katniss may have two hot guys fighting over her, but that is not The Whole Plot.

Thinking about it, Katniss actually doesn’t apologise for caring about two boys at once either, although she does angst somewhat over times when she has misled or mistreated them. It might be a little too much circumlegation to call THG poly-positive but it at least doesn’t paint loving two people at once as a terrible crime than denigrates the One-True-Love-ness of your primary relationship.

4. Edward and Jacob save, or try and save Bella from danger. Katniss, Peeta and Gale save each other, multiple different times and ways. Gale and Katniss are seen as equals in their ability for violence. Peeta never shows any particular affinity for violence, and protects Katniss with his people skills, his ability to talk people round. Astonishingly, he does so without being effeminate, even though we all know people skills are For Girls and boys don't like to talk about their feelings.

5. Bella is the only one Edward could ever dream of being with. So he creeps into her bedroom while she's sleeping and watches her. So he abandons her "for her own safety" then attempts suicide when he thinks she's done the same from the anguish of being without him. Then he blackmails her into marrying him by promising to kill her once they are man and wife. Except then he breaks his promise because he values their unborn child over her. Then he bites it out of her abdomen and kills her.

Katniss is the only one Peeta could ever dream of being with. So he resolves to help her survive the Hunger Games, even though it must cost his life. He comforts her during nightmares and encourages her when she is exhausted. He tries to persuade her not to put herself in danger, but he does not does not order her about. When he thinks that she doesn't want to be with him, he accepts that she knows her own mind and lets her get on with her life.

(Slight tangent: this is one place where the movie disappointed me - Peeta came across as more Stalky Man With Saviour Complex in the movie than I read him in the book. Mainly because they left out the dandelion so it just looks like he rescued her, rather than inspiring her to rescue herself.)

6. Jacob is Bella's super-hot best friend. He's really hot. And has super-magical native American tribal werewolf powers.

Gale is Katniss's super-hot best friend. He's politically minded, and challenges Katniss to think about the world more broadly than her own life. He takes care of her family while she's away and agrees to rescue Peeta when he is captured because Gale and Peeta's relationship is not reduced to "men want same girl therefore must fight."

As an added bonus - Three Other Cool Things About The Hunger Games That Didn't Fit Neatly In A Comparison But I Thought Were Worth Mentioning:

1. Katniss talks about her weight several times. This is not in order to consider her appearance. She talks about it in reference to the other tributes, how they are heavier than her and may therefore have an advantage in a fight. She talks about losing weight because she has been starving due to poverty and later deprivation in the arena. She approaches her body and its weight in terms of how it affects her ability to function and survive.

2. Some of the characters are people of colour. We know this because they are described as having dark skin, but no other mention of it is given. Because they just *are* and it's not a big deal.

3. THG doesn't comment explicitly on gender norms - but it is set in a future where Katniss's violence and awkwardness around expressing emotion are not noteworthy, nor is Peeta’s emotional sensitivity and love of decorating cakes. Watching the movie it struck me that Katniss goes off to hunt while Peeta gathers berries, quite literally inverting the "evolutionary" gender roles. This is not a great and significant challenge to the staus quo, it’s just what they do. Because they don’t have the same status quo that we do.


  1. Here is a fun fact for anyone reading this: Normally, we get at least 2 Lashers to proofread each blog post before it goes up, in order to guard against errors and inadvertent fail. This time around, it was really difficult to get 2 people together to do the proofing -- because such a large proportion of Lashings is currently in the process of reading The Hunger Games, and didn't want to be spoilered!

    This is a great post, and I really like it. I am currently having All The Thoughts on the cultural devaluing of Stuff Teenage Girls Like, and how inhibiting and disheartening this can be when you actually *are* a teenage girl. I can't be the only person who spent a significant chunk of the 90s listening to Pearl Jam and White Zombie and desperately hoping that nobody found out I was actually into Courtney Love...

    I was also recently subjected by one of my non-Lashings friends to a whole lot of those YouTube videos around the theme of 'So-and-So Reads Twilight So You Don't Have To'. Examples here:

    I was really struck by the privilege on display in some of them. The second ('Charlie Reads Twilight'), in particular, seems to wilfully take the books out of context, mocking elements of the plot that are no sillier than anything you'd find in a Stephen King novel (yes, Carlyle can hear Bella's heart beating from across the room... that's because he's a fucking vampires!). One of them also makes fun of the male Twilight characters by feminising them (calling Carlyle 'Carly' and using female pronouns for him, etc). I found it rather telling.

    I'm certainly not a defender of Twilight, especially since, as you point out, there are so many things for which it really does deserve to be laughed at/criticised... but I am awfully tired of the meme that 'teenage girls like it' = 'it's stupid'.

    1. I didn't know 'So-and-So Reads Twilight So You Don't Have To' was a thing! I've been trying to persuade Carlotta to record something like this - hearing her recount the plot of Twilight was one of the most entertaining ten minutes I've ever spent.

    2. I suspect that 'Carlotta Reads Twilight' would be significantly less failsauce! I'd quite like to see it too, actually.

  2. Hunger games = (battle royale + handmaid's tale)?