And Another Thing That Bothers Me…

So I read The Hunger Games finally. I thought I would like it. And I was engaged for sure. I was staying home sick and it was in many ways a perfect companion. I had it in the house because I couldn't go on being a self-respecting kid's book blogger without reading it. But it frustrated me, in a few different ways. I'll start with the unimportant ones first:

1) Chestnut's teacher was out of her mind thinking this was an appropriate book for a 4th grade class. There are millions of books that would be great for 4th grade—but not this. They don't need to read about kids killing each other, first and foremost. They don't need to question our culture's reality television ethos. They don't need to read about kissing quite this much, nor participate in what is clearly a teenage dilemma of falsehood and romance. And they DEFINITELY don't need to do any of this in the very public environment of the classroom, where all will be noted by their peers. Note: none of these are the book's fault at all, but jeez, I wish I had been a bit more on top of this last year.

2) I understand that a novel about children killing each other for voyeuristic sport is interrogating itself—because it, too, is offering the torture of children by one another as voyeuristic entertainment for the reader. But the doubling doesn't erase the problem for me.

3) TOO MUCH KISSING. We have already established that I am a prude. But if there's going to be kissing, un-heartfelt kissing seems to me the very worst kind.

4) I suppose at some basic deep level it did not speak to me. Katniss never came alive as a human being, and there you go, that's all there is. Once she wasn't real to me, I didn't believe that she was blind to the baker's crush, to his plans, to the outcome, etc.

But none of these are quite as troubling to me as this one:

The cool tough girl thing.

It gets to me. There seems to be some sort of privileged place in our literary culture, especially kid lit, for a paragon of tough girl, girls who are lean and tough—tougher than boys, tougher than men, so so tough &c &c.

I feel these characters are often presented in the unseen context of "Isn't it refreshing that this girl isn't a girly-girl? She's real and tough and tomboyish and…" But to me the tough girl is just as confining a trope.

It's probably because I'm not tough. I mean, I get why the idea of being tough is appealing. And I wish I were tough. But I feel accused by it somehow. And on some level it seems to me that the idea is that these qualities are supposed to be unusual for a girl, and they are more valued for that—because they are associated with boys. So the idea becomes: She's great, because she's not like a girl. This does not help the cause of girls, or boys, or humans in general, I feel.

I don't mean to be too hard on The Hunger Games. People love it, it brings them joy, no doubt the author is working on her own difficult journey. But this is just something that gets to me.

Do you know what I mean?

19 thoughts on “And Another Thing That Bothers Me…

  1. I haven’t read the Hunger Games yet, but I hear you on the lack of judgement by a teacher. My daughter’s second grade teacher read the HG during silent reading and then would tell the kids about it in class when they would share about their reading. Really?! Seven-year-olds??
    I agree completely about the tough girl trope, too. (I am especially annoyed by the Alanna series right now. I had high hopes and boy those books fail in so many ways IMO.)

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  2. I know there are comparable girl characters in literature, but when reading your critique of tough girls what immediately came to my mind were the heroines of another medium…
    The reason I love Miyazaki’s anime girls so much is that they are tough (resourceful, competent, brave) without seeming like not-girls. I so wish their type were more prevalent in our cultural landscape.

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  3. I do hope I’m not coming across as anti-strong girl. It’s just that when it feels like that’s the only thing, or when it feels like that is what is valued and by the same token somehow undervalues other strengths–I don’t know. The thing that bothers me feels both real and elusive, like sand in your eye that you can’t quite find when you look.

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  4. I think what you’re pointing to is a real difference between strength and this preconceived notion of ‘toughness’ AS strength, as if the only way for both males and females to prove that they are strong people is to beat the heck out of other people, or be emotionally unavailable, or get tattoos without flinching, whatever. Kk’s comment about Miyazaki’s characters is right on. I think that there is a quiet kind of strength, which is more complex by virtue of its being quiet, which perhaps makes it harder to build on or adequately describe. Or maybe too many authors are just content to deal in convention. Right now I’m thinking of the books Kiki’s Delivery Service, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Tuck Everlasting – they all have strong female characters (and it’s no wonder Miyazaki chose two of them to adapt!). Maybe also The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin? It’s been years since I read it but I seem to remember the main character being a strong female.

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  5. I have nothing to offer on the tough girls front (not having read Hunger Games, although I wasn’t crazy about the Stieg Larsson books, possibly for the same reasons), but I can’t believe the poor judgment that teachers and–yes, librarians–sometimes show. The librarian at my daughter’s school started to read Hatchet aloud last year. To a group of 2nd and 3rd graders.
    Luckily, my sensitive child raised her hand FAST when the pilot was having a heart attack and said it was too scary for her, so he switched to Shiloh (not without its problems, but better).
    I actually hadn’t heard of it, but looked it up and was shocked to see it rated firmly as YA–basically, to 12-16 yr olds. I mentioned it to a friend of mine who’s also a children’s librarian (and had an older child at the school) and she just about hit the ceiling.

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  6. I guess as a fan of this type of post-apocalyptic scifi-y stuff, it very much spoke to me. Not in spite of things you mentioned, but because of them. It’s not just about the horror of a world where kids kill each other for entertainment, but also the horror of finding yourself, your wants and desires and dreams in a place where they are really not permitted. To me, Katniss is a product of her situation, a girl who grew up too fast, and she’s never just allowed to be. She has to be girly, because of the sponsors and is never fully allowed to be her tough self, but yet, the tough self is the whole reason she’s in the public eye to begin with. The world wants nothing of reality, only entertainment.
    Also, yes, completely inappropriate for a fourth grade class.
    And sorry for the novel about a novel.

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  7. TOTALLY inappropriate for fourth graders. Yeesh.
    I know Katniss is the protagonist, but at the same time I do feel like it’s made pretty clear throughout just how damaged a person she is, especially once you get to the end of the series. Her toughness is valued in a very harsh world, but she herself rates her sister’s temperament and accomplishments above her own. (Again, this is based on reading the whole series; the first book itself doesn’t have all those shadings.)

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  8. Fourth grade?!
    I recently read (and loved) the Hunger Games trilogy and felt like it was a good contemporary dystopian novel for, oh, high school. Even college English classes, which often read 1984, could benefit by looking at the themes addressed in the work. But 4th grade? Come on.
    I think what really annoys me is that when you give kids books meant for young adults, they a) miss all the shading/political commentary/allusion because at that age- aren’t they’re really just reading for plot and maybe some character development and b) what are you now supposed to give 14-year-olds who are starting to doubt if the world really has their best interests at heart and they’re confronting all of the very real problems that come from living in a simulacral society. The Hunger Games books benefit from Baudrillard, not a steady diet of Hannah Montana.

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  9. What a great post and conversation. I read the whole series this summer, and thought the whole thing was disturbing, but I couldn’t put it down. I was engrossed. I did identify with Katniss, because she was struggling so much with her own survival and doing what was right, as well as her own identity. Her love for Peeta, I believe, was real even if she was conflicted about it. She had real feelings for Gale but the backdrop of her own death blocks that relationship as a possibility. And I agree about the whole “tough girl” thing. When I first began the book I thought she was a boy. But there was some intangible something that made her feminine as I got to know her better. Was it how she cared for her sister? And eventually cared for Rue? I never could tell if she was playing the part with Peeta, or if she was showing true emotions. I don’t know if she knew from one moment to the next. It was such a disturbing premise…yet there I was lapping it up.
    And for the record: FOURTH GRADE??? NO. Even sharing about it to the second graders. NO. This is a book for Young Adults. NO QUESTION. Come on teachers you should know better!

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  10. Another one in the category of NO WAY for elementary school kids. I enjoyed the trilogy as my summer reading, but I’m 42. And it was hard for me. I cannot imagine trying to process this at such a young age. And it’s being suggested to rising 5th graders here too. Ugh ugh ugh.

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  11. So excited for this discussion! Please forgive what I know will become a novel-length comment. Hopefully we’ll get to talk about this more in person soon (hooray!), but I just can’t help myself.
    First, I cannot believe a teacher picked this for fourth grade? Seriously? Um. no. Middle school maybe, but 9 and 10 year olds? Whatever happened to reading Charlotte’s Web in fourth grade? Oy.
    Second, Electriclady is spot on re: the first book. Her flaws simmer just below the surface, and aren’t fleshed out until much farther along in the series. The Katniss of the second two books is the one I love. The one I relate to. Not the steely Katniss of the arena, with her bow and arrow and skills I could never hope to possess. (I am not tough nor particularly skilled in the coordination department either.)
    Third, I am also the sort of feminist who believes,”tough girls” are as offensive a stereotype as “girly girls,” and to villianize either one is ultimately demeaning to women. Which is why I ended up loving the Hunger Games, but found the Steig Larson books really, and truly offensive. Collins is very careful not to villianize women on the opposite end of the spectrum or turn them into victims of male agression. Her sister, and even Effie, are just two examples.
    I think you’re right in feeling that Katniss is cold and not particularly likable. In those ways, she fits the stereotype perfectly. But I believe the author IS trying to differentiate between recklessness/fiercely loyalty and true strength of character. Most readers are quick to assume that Katniss is strong, but Collins is forever poking holes in that theory. If toughness were strength, than Katniss and Gale would just blow up all the bad guys, run off, and live happily ever after. Thankfully, the series doesn’t take that approach.
    Lastly (because I should really should shut-up now)… as popular as the books are, I try not to assume that everyone will love them. I’ve met plenty of kids (and adults!) who were put off, or just don’t go in for the characters, etc. And that’s okay! BUT, I do think they are important. And that they have a lot more to say about gender roles (and media, obvs) than meets the eye. There are boys and girls who will relate to her. A lot. And the fact that she grows and changes as a person throughout the series? Icing on the cake.
    Okay. Really. I’m shutting up now. If you’ve read this far, you are a saint. Can’t wait to hear more thoughts on the topic!

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  12. My commenters (gee I wish that were a real word, or that there were a better word for what you are) are the absolute best. And of course I read till the end! But does this mean I am supposed to read the whole trilogy now to make sense of it? At some point I must take issue with the series-ization of every damn thing.

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  13. I really liked The Hunger Games and I see a lot of things in it… I could go on, but I won’t. The book has plenty of defenders. I did want to say though that I think in many ways Collins’ other series – Gregor the Overlander, is a lot more nuanced. While they’re very different series (with different audiences), they cover many of the same themes.
    The thing I really wanted to say was that I’m appalled that anyone would give that book to a 4th grader as assigned reading. If a 4th grader had it I wouldn’t take it away (a whole other deal there), but it’s not the right book for a 4th grader at all. I find this seems to be the case for many “big” books. People give their 5 yos copies of Diary of a Wimpy Kid to read. Someone I knew had given a 6 yo The Strange Case of the Origami Yoga – great book, but it’s about getting up the courage to ask out girls! And, of course, there’s all the people who think 2nd graders ought to be reading Harry Potter. It’s not so much that these books are inappropriate (The Hunger Games is a bit, obviously) but more that if a book becomes trendy adults suddenly think it’s the right hook into reading for every kid and they don’t stop to really think about it. That really bothers me.

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  14. My smart friend Liz (lizunderthebridge.typepad.com) says that people do a double infantalizing/inappopriate-growing-up thing with kids, both wanting them to read/watch/listen to super sexy, or just too old to make sense things, but won’t let them walk to the store by themselves. These books are so great, but they can be pushed in and take the place and time of things that 6-year-olds (or whatever age it is) really love and understand.

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  15. yes yes yes to all of you. And I’ll just continue for a mere moment my gender rant of the previous post – if the “tough girl” trope ends up meaning that boys are better than girls, somehow… well, that’s hard enough on girls, but what about the effect on not-tough-boys? Automatic “demotion.”

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  16. I haven’t read The Hunger Games so not going there, but this post reminded me that we read The Catcher in the Rye in fifth grade. We had to get permission slips signed and everyone but one girl was allowed to participate. I remember loving it, but now have to laugh, because god knows 87.3% of it had to have sailed over our heads. I don’t know what that teacher was thinking either… (but the phonies are bad message surely appealed to me.)

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