The Problem with Katniss

I finally read Hunger Games this weekend. I can see why everyone is fascinated. It’s a really compelling story.

The world creation, the plot, and the characters, are all well drawn and it took me a while to notice the problem with Katniss.

Don’t get me wrong, she’s a very interesting character. As a reader I care about her success and her struggle. I just wonder if anyone else thinks it’s odd that compared to almost every other person in the book she has no character at all, not of the moral kind that is.

Katniss is a very good portrayal of a girl who survives, who has lived through trauma, who does what she needs to do to get what she needs to get. She has only formed deep attachments with one or 2 other people in her life. She is so narcissistic that she can’t even see the possibility that someone else isn’t playing the game and has a goal other than winning or survival in mind. Noble ideals are foreign to her.

I’m sure this is deliberate on the part of the author, and it makes sense in light of Katniss’s back story. In literary terms Katniss is not what we call a hero, rather, she is an anti-hero.

Wikipedia defines an anti-hero thusly:

Unlike traditional heroes, antiheroes are not as fabulous as the traditional ones… They are not villains but not necessarily heroes. They may do bad things but are not evil. They usually fight villains, but not for the reason of justice. Their actions are motivated by their own personal desires, such as revenge. For example, an antihero may steal, vandalize, and perform other “bad” acts but may do so for a good cause.

Even the good things Katniss does are motivated out of self interest, rather than altruism. She cares for Peeta because it will make her look better to the audience, she tends to Rue because she wants to show her own rebellion.

In literary terms there is nothing wrong with a character like this and the other characters provide a good contrast to her consuming self interest.

However, the problem is this. Hunger Games is young adult fiction. Young girls are reading this book and idolizing a narcissistic self interested girl who’s bursts of emotionalism are almost always rewarded. Is this really the kind of role model we want our girls to be reading about?

What happened to the days when literature for young people called them to a higher standard, and led them to expect more of themselves, rather than less?

A quick survey of popular heroines in YA fiction turns up Bella, from the Twilight series, Hermione from Harry Potter, and Katniss.

Bella is self absorbed, lacks self control and is bent on self destruction that others have to save her from. Not to mention that her great love is abusive.

Katniss is narcissistic, self absorbed, and prone to emotional outbursts that are rewarded rather than censured, encouraging girls to disregard self control and trust their hormone charged feelings and perceptions.

Hermione shines in contrast as an example of a girl who works hard, does what is right even when it would be easier not to, and is a good friend and a person with moral fiber.

And that my friends, is why my girls will be reading the classics for many, many years before they get their hands on most modern fiction. Because imagine Laura Ingalls, or Anne of Green Gables, or Jo behaving in such ways and getting away with it. It just would not happen.

Who were your literary role models growing up?

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25 thoughts on “The Problem with Katniss

  1. I love this post! I had quite a few heroes growing up, some helpful some not so helpful.  A big one through the preteen years was Ellie, the main chararcter from an Australian series called Tomorrow When the War Began, brave and tough, did what she had to, and learnt from her lessons. Another was Anne of Green Gables, and also Trixie Belden. There were so many, they all seemed so important, but isn't it funny how I only recall a few now….

  2. I just finished reading the trilogy last night, and I'm still sorting out my feelings/opinions about it. While I thought that the story was really interesting, I found the way it was told to be frustrating, and generally void of values. I had the feeling that the author was trying to encourage her readers to come to their own conclusions this way, but to me, it just made the whole trilogy fall flat somehow. While there is sort of a resolution at the end of book 3, one that you could tentatively call a 'happy ending,' there's very little moral to the story.

    I definitely agree that Katniss is no Hermione, nor an Anne of Green Gables or Laura Ingalls. And frankly, the Hunger Games are not written well enough to ever truly be a classic.

  3. I'm in the middle of teaching this book right now, and today's class ended when we were about halfway through the "Is Katniss a sociopath" discussion.  We talked about her coldness, her self-absorption, her detachment from almost everyone.  Now I'm preparing to look at the other side of the argument for Thursday's class, because I do think that this view of her character is a distortion.  For one thing, I don't at all agree that Katniss is using Rue as a vehicle to make a political statement.  Only when Rue is dead does Katniss think about how to acknowledge that death in a way that does honour to who Rue was, and what Katniss wants to say to and about the Capitol as a result of her death.  The Rue storyline connects the Katniss we see in the arena to the girl who was capable of stepping forward and sacrificing herself to save her sister. 

    Collins is writing about a society that has forgotten how to engage in moral analysis, and so the characters themselves almost never acknowledge the moral dimensions of the story, but this is a novel that grounds our attachment to the protagonist not in her likeability, nor in her similarity to readers, but rather in our capacity to be deeply moved by an act of self-sacrifice.  The fact that Katniss is a deeply flawed character (almost, but not quite, an anti-hero) only makes it more imperative for readers to examine the moral questions that the characters themselves are not asking.

    The other key to Katniss's character, I think, is that we are reading Katniss's thoughts and self-perceptions, and Katniss is not an especially astute reader of character.  She misinterprets Peeta constantly, so as readers we are always required to construct our own understanding of who he is, looking past Katniss's misperceptions.  But I think Katniss is equally mistaken in her perceptions of her own character: she thinks she is a cold, cynical person, but her actions suggest otherwise.  Collins brings that out when Katniss tells the (somewhat boring) story about buying the goat.  She ends that story by saying she knew that goat would be a gold mine – and Peeta is the one to recognize the significance of the fact that one of Katniss's happiest memories involves giving a gift to someone else – the sister she loved so much she volunteered to come into the arena in her place.  In a novel that constantly juxtaposes outward appearance with inward reality, this is a very clever reversal: in some ways, those who look at Katniss's actions understand her kindness and generosity better than Katniss herself (or even we readers who judge her mostly by the way she thinks rather than the way she acts).

  4. Oh, I don't agree at all. She volunteered to go to the games to save her sister, whom she adores. And I don't know which books it gets into this but the animosity she feel toward her mother has a basis, even though it's sad. And she loved Rue and Peeta. I don't think anything with Rue was for show and I think she genuinely loves Peeta. I think she's a great character.

    But I know how you feel. I read the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books and I did not like or relate to the main female character. I felt like she was very unlikable and didn't agree with many things she did. It was hard to get too into the books when you don't like the main character.

    Keep reading the Hunger Games books; they are quite good. 🙂

  5. Thank-you for defending Katniss so well. I spent a lot of time this weekend looking for ways to defend her. However, in the interest of lively discussion…

    Katniss allies with Rue because Rue reminds her of Prim. I read this also as self interest, to a degree. Rue gives her something she wants, which is companionship. She does sing for Rue purely without self interest, and I think this saves her for me as a character.

    Your insight that she is a poor judge of character and so we see people as they really are around her and thus must see her as she really is through the people around her is fascinating, and my favorite new thought of the day. However, do you think it holds up? She knows she can trust Rue. She is quick to identify Cinna as someone she can trust, and who has more depth than most people in the capital. She know the president is angry at her. She reads every one in the game. She knows the announcer is on her side. So I'm not sure that we can really believe that she isn't good at reading people. She has a blind spot when it comes to Peeta because she is evaluating him based on what she would do in his position.

    I want to argue that her difficulty with feeling like she owes someone makes her less narcissistic because it's a decent feeling to have, but I think it actually makes her more so because obligation requires her to modify her behavior and not do what she wants and this is what bothers her
    about it. This comes out as she's trying to explain the stand off with
    Thresh to Peeta.

    Realizing that an amoral futuristic society may ask us questions that the
    characters fail to ask, how much of that do you think the average teenage
    girl is going to glean from her weekend read through? Will she really ask
    those questions, or will she simply identify herself with Katniss without
    any real discretion?

  6. What gets me is all the hype about Kony 2012 – children being stolen to kill, many times other children. People are outraged {rightly so}! Yet, Hunger Games is so wonderful! It is the same thing – children being stolen to kill other children. Yuck. 

  7.  I see such potential, having read the first book only for Katniss to lead a charge for justice. But from the little I hear about the next 2 books I have a feeling it's not going to go that direction, which I thnk will be disappointing.

    There are parts of this book that remind me very strongly of Solzeneitsen's a Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch because it's the story of one man's rebellion against captivity, most often by choosing to do what is right in spite of what is expected of him as a prisoner.

    Katniss has echoes of this but in a haunting sort of reversal. Her rebellion is not nearly as noble, but her rebellion is quiet and personal as well.

  8. hi Carrie,

    I like Katniss, I do. I just don't think she' a very good role model. There are lots of teenage girls that I like that I wouldn't leave alone with my kids for a few hours too. LIke doesn' have anything to do with it.

    I'm not saying she doesn't do good things either. I am examining her motives for doing them and finding that they are mostly self indulgent.

  9. That's a good point. It is institutionalized evil and retribution in a similar fashion.

    I think the draw is that we get to watch a character overcome and outsmart the institution, rather than the violence itself.

  10.  I agree that her feelings of obligation are of ambiguous moral value at best – it's better than what the Capitol has, which is a sense of entitlement that allows them to take from others and offer nothing in return, but it's grounded in a fear of attachment that ultimately Katniss will overcome.  (I just read a fascinating article about the ethics of obligation in the series, and it pointed out that this is one of the most significant ways that Katniss grows over the course of the series – she comes to accept rather than fear the bonds that come about through accepting favours).

    I spent my ride to work this morning thinking about Katniss's relationship with Rue, and precisely that question of whether it's simply a displacement of her feelings for Prim.  On the one hand, I don't know if it matters.  One thing that made motherhood profoundly transformative for me (as it does for many women, I think) is that my love for my own children makes me respond differently to stories about the suffering of other children.  I find myself transferring the protectiveness I feel towards my own children to other children in need.  I think that process is very human and very important as a motivator for compassion.  We all know that it's possible to have an intense love for one person (especially a family member) and still be an evil person.  The question is how we use that love to shape our responses to the rest of the world.  If we love our children, does that mean we promote their interests at the expense of others, and to the point of injustice?  Or do we make that love the basis for a recognition of the value of other children?  When Katniss befriends Rue, she is taking the second option.

    I think Rue's resemblance to Prim is foundational to Katniss's relationship with her, but it's only the starting point.  Katniss notes the ways in which Rue and Prim are different: Prim hates adventure, but  Rue embraces it.  At one point, Katniss recalls that she promised Prim she would try to win – but she concludes that her promise to Rue is even more important because Prim has other people to protect her, while "Rue has only me."  When she grieves for Rue, that grief comes from a genuine recognition and appreciation of who Rue is as an individual – and it's a political protest only because Katniss has responded to Rue as a human being, in an environment designed to dehumanize both of them.  The song she sings says, "Here is the place where I love you," and what makes it so powerful is that (a) the love is real, and (b) she's brought love into a place that was designed to exclude and deny it.

    As for how teenage readers are likely to respond – I'm teaching the book to 20-year-olds (rather than, say, 13-year-olds), but they are VERY alive to the novel's message against social injustice, and very interested in discussion the moral and ethical dimensions of the story.  I don't think anyone can read the story without at least considering the questions it raises about why people stand by and do nothing in the face of evil.

  11.  Definitely I'd say that Katniss' power is used (and frankly, abused) by others throughout the other two books. She never grows into a leadership role, at least not truly.
    I think it's partially due to her personality, but partially due to the nature of the society she lives in and the structure of the (already existing) rebellion.
    I think the whole trilogy has the undertone that even though you can fight oppression, you will never truly shake it off. It's much more dystopian that you realize in superficial reading, at least in my opinion.

  12.  Something you said in your first comment really rang true for me – I think Katniss is very clueless when it comes to interpreting why others are acting he way they are. This is something that frustrated me (a lot) in book two, but especially book three – clearly, Coin has motives other than freeing the people, and I think Katniss does realize that on some level, but what annoys me is that she does nothing to figure her out.
    I seriously go back and forth between being annoyed with how book 3 plays out and being impressed with the author for remaining steadfastly in her perspective inside Katniss' head (since it is, after all, told from her point of view).
    This series is not sitting right with me – it's a lot more complex and requires more thought & discussion than I expected. Those books are almost abrasive!

  13. My literary role models…Laura Ingalls, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Betsy-Tacy-Tib, the Melendy family (books by Elizabeth Enright), and I wanted to BE Heidi and toast cheese over the fire and go up the mountain with Peter and the goats. And there was this one book about Esther, the Biblical queen, that I loved and read over and over again.

    I have not read the Hunger Games books, because what I've heard about the violence in them makes me think they're really not my cup of tea. (Although, if Sonja could manage them, I probably could!) The trailer for the movie looks interesting, but I'm still not sure if I want to read the books.

  14. I think that Katniss does have a moral compass -she recognizes the injustice of the Games and the oppression of the people in the district.  She doesn't want to kill the other players and knows that it is completely different than killing animals.  

    On the other hand, she is shallow. So much of her life and personality are focused on pragmatism and ignoring the emotional world in favor of solving daily problems.  Despite recognizing the injustice of The Games she doesn't understand Peeta's insistence that he won't give the audience what it wants.  She accepts the world around her as just how things are without putting any thought into how they could be.  

    It's actually Rue's death that triggers a transformation in her.  It's then that she understands what Peeta meant and it is then that she decides to create a world (or a situation) that fits her vision rather than the reality of what is happening.  She buries Rue in flowers because she knows the people of The Capitol will have to see it, and that it will make them acknowledge that Rue was a person who deserves to be mourned and buried.  

    It is only after this act of defiance that Katniss begins to come into her own.  I have not yet read the other books, but I hope that her character grows throughout the next two novels.  If she remains as vapid in the others as in this book, I'll be very disappointed.

  15. If you have read the entire series, or Suzanne Collins' Overlander series, you will see that she creates self-absorbed characters that develop into characters who begin to look outside themselves.  Yes, Katniss is very self-absorbed in the first book.  In the 2nd book, she is starting to look outside herself, to think about the thoughts and feelings of those she cares about (besides Prim who she always cares about).  The finale in book three, shows that Katniss has begun to think on  a societal scale – what is best for her world, regardless of consequences to herself.  It just takes 3 books to get there.

  16. Don't lose hope Carrien! Read the other two books and suspend your judgement a it. I agree she's no saint, but sh does change and is less selfish as things go on …and yes I loved the movie! Get Aaron to take you…sure des show she is reluctant to kill anybody in cold blood …but that may just be how Collins wrote the screenplay with Hollywood:P

  17. I think you have convinced me to keep going to the end to see how Katniss develops. I do believe that her relationship with Rue is ultimately unselfish and I like how precisely you pinpoint what makes that scene so powerful, "she's brought love into a place that was designed to exclude and deny it."

    I do like the story. I even like Katniss. I still have a problem with how her emotionalism is rewarded. Of course, in contrast I am currently reading Goerge MacDonald's The Wise Woman to my kids, which is all about learning to govern oneself well, so Katniss looks particularly self indulgent in contrast.

  18.  I don't see Katniss as an emotional character at all – if anything, she is uncomfortably cold and detached from her emotions.  What she is, however, is almost entirely impulsive and unreflective.  She acts instinctively, and her actions are often in accordance with deep values that she is not even consciously aware of.  I've just started re-reading Catching Fire, and I'm noticing right away that Peeta is far better than Katniss at predicting Katniss's behaviour – he recognizes her fundamental values much better than she does, and he IS a reflective and analytical person, so he is often able to articulate those values for her.  The best example of that is the conversation they have on the rooftop before the Games: Peeta talks about wanting to make a statement against the Capitol, and Katniss doesn't even understand what he's saying – she understands it only later, when the opportunity for political expression presents itself.  So Katniss is someone who understands things by acting on them – her understanding follows rather than precedes her actions.

    What I'm trying to figure out is whether this type of personality really exists, or whether it's just a clever narrative perspective (in that we are left to do all the analyzing that Katniss herself never does).  I myself am (as you may have noticed) someone who analyzes everything (often at the expense of action), so I am not at all like Katniss, and my path toward virtue would be very different from hers, but it does seem possible that there are certain personalities that work the way hers does.

  19. It's incredibly telling that Katniss has no positive female relationships with anyone that isn't Rue or Prim. It's obvious within the first six chapters. She carries an animosity towards her mother over her grief and depression, instead of being empathetic; the only reason she doesn't hate her more than that is because her father didn't, and Katniss begrudgingly values her now-dead father's opinion. The mayor's daughter Madge was thought of as a snob for having an expensive gold pin until she gave it to Katniss as a metatextual apology for being wrong to her. There was the stylist woman who called her a "poor thing", who's talked about like she's not even a real person. Effie tries to get sponsors for Katniss and Peeta so that they don't die and is bashed by Katniss in the narrative before she does anything despicable, yet she thinks well of Cinna for making her look pretty and well of Haymitch for giving her basic advice at best. 

    After that, it's terrible opinions about Coin just for how she looks, Johanna Mason, Tigris, and in recounting the people she killed, she doesn't give a thought to Glimmer and the other female Career that died from the trackerjacker trap. The tiger woman is willing to help Katniss, but not only does Katniss not recognize the noble intention, in her mind, the tiger woman can never be as good as "self-sacrificing" Cinna. The apartment woman she kills is shown on tv and instead of having a tinge of remorse, Katniss comments that her make-up has been fixed.

    So not only are young girls potentially idolizing a narcissistic, self-interested girl, they're idolizing the extreme of the Tomboy that denies kindness and considers it being weak, and reading as the Tomboy compartmentalizes a narrow brand of "good" femininity in her sister Prim (pure, fair, innocent, etc.) while "bad" femininity is contained with the Capitol's behavior (wigs, makeup, colorful clothing, pretty clothing, different dialects and accents, frivolity or cheerfulness). 
    Meanwhile, she has relatively meaningful and positive relationships with men. Haymitch, Cinna, Peeta, her father, perhaps Gale if things didn't turn out the way they did. Point still stands.A woman with no meaningful relationships with other women is not one that girls of today should look up to. Relationships with BOTH sexes are necessary to function, and Katniss fails at that.

  20. Katniss certainly has many anti-hero qualities (she tries to drown a cat within the first couple pages of THG) but holding her up as an example of all things bad with YA literature is a disservice. An overarching theme of the series is how deeply traumatized Katniss was even before the Hunger Games. Within a very short period she saw her father die, her mother disappear into severe depression, and she and her sister nearly starve to death. She was an 11-year old girl with a family suddenly thrust on her shoulders and it made her grow up too fast (a very telling scene is when she meets with her mother after the reaping; a normal child would seek solace from a parent but Katniss gives her mother a stern lecture and tells her in no uncertain terms how the household is to be run when she's gone). It left Katniss emotionally disconnected which she struggles to come to terms with throughout the books.

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