The romantic subplot of The Hunger Games can make it seem like a Twilight clone: a young woman torn between two men who are driven to protect her, yet can’t seem to help endangering her. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find that heroine Katniss is quite the opposite of pallid, passive, lovesick Bella, and she’s got a lot to teach us about the current culture wars. In fact, it’s hard not to think of President Snow’s creepy obsession with controlling Katniss' love life without being reminded of the Republican Party's similar fixation on controlling our ladyparts. When Katniss manages to destabilize and ultimately upend a government hell-bent on manipulating her to its nefarious ends, she offers a blueprint for how to not only survive, but win, the war on women. Here's what we should learn:
The rules are set up to ensure we fail.
Don’t want to have sex with Rush Limbaugh? You’re a humorless feminazi. Want to use contraception while having sex? You’re a filthy slut. Have sex without contraception and find yourself pregnant? You’re an idiot. Need an abortion? You’re a murderer. (If someone raped you causing you to need that abortion, you're a liar, too.) Decide to keep the baby and raise it yourself? You’re a child abuser. The conservatives waging this war against your body are doing it on purpose. If we accept their terms, we will always lose in the end.
Katniss doesn't start out a revolutionary, just a girl who loves her family and her friends and is determined to help them all survive. For fully half the series, she mostly accepts the Capitol's rules and plays to win, believing she has no other choice. She's good at it a lot of the time. She manages to keep herself and her friend Peeta alive until the end so they can survive together. She plays the silly, harmless lovesick girl so well on their Victory Tour that she even begins to convince herself. But every time she starts to succeed at their game they change the rules on her. It's when she realizes that her very presence is a violation of the rules that she's truly able to claim control over her fierce heart, strong body, and determination to live a life with freedom and dignity, and becomes a real threat to the Capitol.
When the government tries to control women’s sexuality, men get hurt too.
Not only do Katniss' male friends Peeta and Gale suffer the side effects of the self-alienation born of her oppression, the emotional wounds they inflict on each other while trying to navigate a fundamentally unjust system teaches them exactly the lesson Snow wants them to learn: to distrust each other. (Poor, long-suffering Peeta gets this memo in the most brutal fashion.) Though they’re sometimes framed that way, neither the story nor the current culture battle are really a war between the sexes: when women can't acquire contraception and our sexuality is policed, men lose out too. When we forget that, we’re distracted from the reality of what we’re really up against.
Like The Hunger Games, this is actually war between the haves and have nots, with women's bodies as a battlefield. The war on women is funded by a handful of exceedingly wealthy white men whose daughters and wives will never have to worry about having the resources to access comprehensive health care. This war is disproportionally a war on poor women and women of color (let's not let the whitewashed Hollywood casting distract us from how powerfully Katniss embodies both of those realities in the books)—and the people who love them. Which should be all of us.
Forcing a sexual agenda on girls is damaging and dangerous.
With all the “Team Peeta” vs. “Team Gale” squealing, it's easy to forget that when the story begins, Katniss doesn’t seem to be sexually interested in anyone. It’s only when a romance with Peeta is forced on her that she becomes confused about her relationship with Gale.
One of the remarkable things about Katniss is her unshakable sense of self. The more other people focus on her love life, the more resistant she becomes to having one. Many girls face worse fates. When we communicate to girls that the most important thing about them is what they do or don’t do with their sexuality—especially before they've had a chance to define that sexuality for themselves—we put them at greater risk for depression and eating disorders, and make them more vulnerable to manipulation.
Even well-intentioned paternalism can hurt us.
When Peeta declares his feelings for Katniss in front of the entire nation, he’s ostensibly doing it to “save” her—to make her more sympathetic to the crowd so more people will want to help her. And he does it without consulting her, believing he knows better than she does what's good for her. It works in the short term, but things go awry pretty quickly.
So beware so-called allies who tell us we're overreacting, or that the battle for our bodies shouldn't be a priority. And remember that President Obama telling us that teen girls can't be trusted to use Plan B appropriately is no different from Republican legislators claiming they know what information a woman needs before she decides to terminate a pregnancy. Whatever their intentions, they're all contributing to a world in which our bodies aren't ours.
Ultimately, the sexual message of The Hunger Games is that Katniss can't fully inhabit her own sexual and romantic desires until she's free of others’ agendas for her body. The same is true for all of us.. We've got a long fight ahead of us, but we can prevail by focusing not only on who we're fighting, but on why we fight. May the odds be ever in our favor.