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How “The Hunger Games” Challenges Old Hollywood Expectations About Gender Roles

Peeta Mellark, damsel in distress.

Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 Murray Close/Lionsgate

The Hunger Games has a love interest who’s tall, dark, and handsome. He’s brooding and rugged and good at hunting. He plants a kiss on Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) without asking or apologizing (“I had to do that — at least once”), and helps provide for her family while she’s off at the Games. His name is Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and it’s been clear pretty much from the beginning that he’s not going to end up with Katniss, despite checking off all sorts of standard expectations about the kind of guy who could sweep a girl off her feet.

That’s not something Katniss is looking for — she’d prefer to keep both feet on the ground, thanks. And while she cares for Gale, she’s unsure if her feelings for him are romantic, with more pressing matters like basic survival having taken up a lot of her schedule. The Hunger Games series, like many YA franchises, constructs a love triangle for its protagonist, leaving her hesitating between two attractive prospects who are both head over heels for her. But in doing so, it also manages to undercut the idea of romance always being the foremost concern in a young woman’s life.

After all, Gale and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are both more certain of their feelings about Katniss than she is of even wanting a relationship — “I can’t think about anyone that way right now,” she tells Gale in Catching Fire. “The only thing that I can think about every day, every waking moment since the Reaping, is how afraid I am. There’s no room for anything else.” It’s a sentiment that actually seems eminently reasonable in a world where you’re worried your fascist government may at any moment have you disappeared even after you survived a televised fight to the death. Katniss hasn’t had time to fall in love. She hasn’t had time for much of anything beyond protecting the few people in her life that she values.

Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Murray Close/Lionsgate

And so there’s Peeta, with whom Katniss is made to spend time, courtesy of their both being chosen as District 12’s tributes — Peeta, who has loved Katniss since he was a kid, but who never spoke to her until the Reaping. If Katniss is a deliberate departure from the classic romantic heroine, happier carving up a deer in the forest than being on display in a ballgown on stage, Peeta also seems carefully calibrated to subvert assumptions about how a male love interest should look and behave. Katniss is the hunter while Peeta is the baker — she’s the skilled archer where his skills lie in camouflage. Katniss rushes into action while Peeta is better with strategy and PR.

Katniss is the action hero, and Peeta, in Mockingjay — Part 1 more than ever, is the damsel in distress.

There are other ways in which the stereotypical gender traits and roles are swapped for Katniss and Peeta. In the first film, Peeta admits that even his mother sees Katniss as stronger than he is. Peeta’s camo gifts come from his experience with cake decorating, and he plays forager in the arena while she goes in search of meat. He’s emotional and expressive while she’s sullen and closed off — “I’m not good at ‘saying something,’” she tells him in The Hunger Games at the start of what she understands to be a pretend romance, but which he believes is real. He’s the more fragile one, getting seriously wounded by one of the Careers in the first film, and almost dying again in the second, courtesy of an encounter with a force field. In casting Hutcherson as Peeta, the films have also paired Lawrence with an actor who she’s actually taller than, a height difference most evident when the stars are lined up at premieres. Despite that he’s strong, Peeta sure doesn’t look likely to swoop Katniss up in his arms.

Mockingjay — Part 1 “propa” teaser Lionsgate

Peeta spends most of Mockingjay — Part 1 as a hostage of the Capitol, seen only in propaganda videos in which he’s interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). He looks gaunt and distressed, but also perfectly put together in his white suit, like a tiny bridegroom ready to be placed on top of a cake (Katniss, in contrast, is fitted out in stern black). It’s no Leia metal bikini, but he’s just as much a trophy, trying to pretend that he’s relaxed as he says whatever he’s been instructed to, as Katniss looks on in anguish and everyone else in District 13 boos. Peeta has become leverage against Katniss, a weakness, someone who leads her to make a deal in hopes she can secure his freedom.

There’s nothing macho about Peeta, which is one of The Hunger Games’ more provocative points — he’s a total beta male, and Katniss loves him anyway, because he’s kind, loyal, smart, and stalwart. Peeta is good. The Hunger Games is centered on a female character who’s gratifyingly used to doing everything for herself — it’s such a dominant trait that it’s also a weakness, in how bewildered she initially is by the idea that she has to make viewers of the Games like her and want to help her. What kind of pairing would someone like that deserve?

Rather than have Katniss easily gravitate to the obvious choice — Gale, who’s just like her, only bigger, burlier, and more capable of ruthlessness — The Hunger Games is doing something genuinely interesting in having her learn to appreciate Peeta’s softer qualities, and having those traits not be a sign that he’s doomed to be a friend but never a lover. Peeta may require the occasional rescuing, but Katniss is more than capable of figuring that out, and in flipping these roles, The Hunger Games has become a YA adaptation that shakes up the way we think about action, and — maybe more importantly — about romance.

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