The Sunday Salon: The Hunger Games, Merchandise, and Androcentrism

So I’ve finally decided to go and see The Hunger Games on opening weekend. I would have seen the film eventually for the Capitol citizens’ costuming, but I wasn’t in any rush. I didn’t care for the first novel enough to finish the series. But the more I watch the trailer, the more I want to see it. But regardless of my interest in the upcoming film, I’ve been starting to be a bit perturbed by the conversation surrounding the merchandising around The Hunger Games, especially a vein of awkward and unquestioned anti-femme androcentrism.

As the reigning young adult franchise, The Hunger Games has been inspiring all kinds of merchandise, from journals to pins to strategy games. It’s a path that’s been well-trod by Harry Potter and Twilight. But I started feeling uneasy when China Glaze announced a The Hunger Games-inspired nail polish collection. No, that’s not quite true—I started feeling uneasy when I started reading the reactions to that nail polish collection. Kathey Rich at Cinema Blend wrote about her disgust for the idea, as did Emily Asher-Perrin over at Tor.com. Jay Kristoff compared it to “a range of Wehrmacht-inspired apparel to coincide with the release of Schindler’s List”. To be fair, most of Kristoff’s ire is aimed at the fact the collection is named after the villainous Capitol citizens. The collection originally sported names like “Cinna-mon”, “Catnip”, and “Heat of the Moment”, but some controversy over whether or not the deal China Glaze made with Lionsgate was actually inked or not and the negative reactions to the collection nipped that in the bud. All of the posts I have linked argue that it is inappropriate to have a nail polish collection for a story whose protagonist is deeply impoverished. I didn’t think so myself, but I felt it was a perfectly legitimate reason.

But then on Monday, a listing for a Katniss Barbie was unearthed on Entertainment Earth, and my vague unease became specific frustration. Tor.com’s coverage of the upcoming doll asked, “Is this reducing Katniss to a mindless walking clothes hanger or will this be a subversion of what Barbie dolls are commonly known for?” Jezebel found it “kind of upsetting, really”, with one commentator saying that “the real Katniss would put a fucking arrow in that doll’s head from 50 paces”. And then it all clicked for me.

:D

(Pictured above: a mindless walking clothes hanger.)

Let’s back up and compare these products—the cosmetics and the dolls—to products produced for the previous young adult cash cow franchise, Twilight. Makeup company DuWop offers a massive line of Twilight-inspired cosmetics, and Laura Mercier’s first nail polish in years was inspired by Breaking Dawn. Mattel sells a whole line of Twilight Saga dolls, and you can even buy a Jane doll that comes with a lipgloss. All of this merchandise passed by with very little and generally positive attention. True, Twilight is about sparkly vampires in love instead of taking down a vicious dystopia that forces teenagers to fight to death to keep people in line. But also?

Twilight is for girls. Y’know, girly girls, with the sparkles and the romance and the weddings. It’s okay for Twilight to have its name slapped on these girly products, but not The Hunger Games.

Luna Twilight

Most media coverage of The Hunger Games frames it as the anti-Twilight or at least puts the franchises in direct competition. When presale tickets for the film adaptation shattered a record previously set by Twilight: Eclipse, the story was framed as The Hunger Games beating Twilight. (One commentator said this restored her faith in humanity.) E! Online has a twee poll that asks readers to vote “Team Twilight” or “Team Hunger”. Even my beloved Laura Miller got in on the action, when she wrote a thoughtful piece about female empowerment in both series entitled “The Hunger Games vs. Twilight”. Within this narrative of competition, one impression reigns supreme, especially in the mainstream and especially for The Hunger Games’ fandom. Katniss is better than Bella. And you know what? She probably is. But what I’m hearing is that part of the reason she’s better is because she’s a tomboy who puts “romance and beauty on the backburner” instead of positive traits. And I am having none of that.

Look, everyone is entitled to their opinions. I, for one, am not trying to defend a series that brought us the specter of institutionalized werewolf pedophilia (bring it, search terms!), or denigrate a series I haven’t even finished. This conversation about what merchandise is appropriate for a certain text once the Hollywood machine gets its paws on it is one that we definitely should be having. For instance, the conversation about whether or not that Katniss Barbie is appropriate for little kids given the violence of the source material is exactly what we should be talking about!

What I’m objecting to here is the androcentrism and general anti-femme vibe I’m picking up from reactions to femme products coming out of The Hunger Games merchandising machine. It’s right and fine for Twilight to have licensed makeup and dolls, those playgrounds of the femme; but for The Hunger Games? Ew, that’s girl stuff, Katniss would never be caught dead in or doing “stupid wussy idiotic female stuff” unless she was forced to, and that’s why she’s so strong and so much better than Bella. Wrong. Katniss may be better than Bella—okay, she’s totally better than Bella—but not because her gender performance is slightly more masculine (but, of course, not too masculine! Can’t be too butch!) and she rejects (or is read as rejecting; again, I’ve not finished the series) the traditional feminine roles that Bella flings herself at like it’s going out of style. Katniss is better than Bella for tons of other reasons—she’s capable, focused, loves her family, and is able to game the game. The fact that she’s praised as superior to Bella solely because of her gender performance really gets under my skin and bugs me. There’s a way to have this conversation without androcentrism coloring the conversation and denigrating femininity, because I hear that in every other conversation. I shouldn’t have to hear it when we’re talking about successful young adult franchises written by women about women.

My week hasn’t been too exciting; I finished up Textual Poachers last Sunday (which was BRILLIANT), and I’ve been working my way through Black Ships all week. I’m also due to finish Pamela for class this weekend, so that review should go up soon. I attended Nerd Prom on Friday night, always one of the highlights of the spring semester for me—there were some people there to party hard than dance and have fun than usual, but they subsided and I still danced my feet off. And I placed second in the costume contest as a Jedi! God bless you, Salvation Army next to my school, you had the perfect dress to use as robes.

The Mary Sue is giving away several geeky prizes and books until an unspecified date. Tor/Forge is giving away five sets of Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series away until Tuesday. Tor/Forge is giving away David Weber’s Safehold series until Friday; you have to sign up for their newsletter. Red House Books is giving away your choice of one of Jaclyn Dolamore’s books until the 20th. Tor/Forge is giving away a prize pack of eight of their spring releases until April 6; you have to sign up for their newsletter. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What do you make of this—the merchandising and the attitudes towards it?

19 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Hunger Games, Merchandise, and Androcentrism

  1. It aggravates me, frankly, especially when I notice it in fanfic. Is the Hunger Games superior to Twilight and Katniss better than Bella. Yes, but denigrating traditionally feminine women for choosing to enact their gender that way is also regressive and ridiculous.

  2. Oh for pity’s sake, is this really a controversy?

    Katniss isn’t the first feminist action heroine to receive the Barbie treatment, and she won’t be the last. Did people kick up a fuss when we got Barbies of DC and Marvel superheroines like Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Elektra, or Elizabeth I, or Lt Uhura? Barbie’s career even includes things like US Air Force pilot, firefighter, coastguard, mountie and presidential candidate: was that somehow offensive or insulting to real life heroes? Did anyone say “a real female soldier would shoot this Barbie in the head?” No, I’d dare say they’d welcome the increasingly broad work experience of Barbie including historically male-only occupations.

    In any case, we’re getting Hunger Games action figures from NECA, so anyone worried about this preventing getting a “real” Katniss toy needn’t worry.

  3. “Katniss would never be caught dead in or doing “stupid wussy idiotic female stuff” unless she was forced to, and that’s why she’s so strong and so much better than Bella. Wrong. ”

    YES. This is such a great post. And it perfectly ties in with questions that have already been on my mind, about how “strong female character” has come to mean “as unfeminine as possible” in many people’s minds. Not helpful, people. Not helpful.

  4. I have a problem with the Hunger Games merchandise but not for these reasons, though I had to stop and reflect on that when I read your post.

    I guess I just feel like the commercial aspect of it buries the interesting ideas in the book and almost works against them. My position is of course snobby and impractical but I can’t help that I feel that way, I can’t even really put my finger on what exactly bothers me about it.

    Then again, you know, I’m annoyed by all the Twilight merchandise but not in the same way because Twilight isn’t a book about about starving people forced to kill each other. I guess something just feels tasteless about all THG merchandise to me.

  5. I really enjoyed your thoughts on the anti-femme vibe that surrounds the Katniss-mania. Even though I’m the one that claimed I loved Katniss for putting “romance and beauty on the back burner,” I have long wrestled with what it meant that I identify so readily with “tough” female characters whose toughness seems predicated on the assumption of stereotypically “male” personality traits. I wrote about it specifically in my reactions to the anti-Twilight fervor that relied heavily on a critique of Bella’s femininity. (http://girlslikegiants.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/996/). I think it’s important for us to question these competitive pairings that always denigrate “femininity” and laud other franchises by pointing out they are less-feminine (I feel the same rhetoric showed up in the Twilight vs. Harry Potter stuff that I saw, or in comparisons between Twi-hards and Trekkies), so I’m glad you’re writing about it!

  6. I have a similar reaction to the merchandising as Amy. I understand how this business works. Merchandising is going to happen for something popular. I can’t stop it, no matter how much I don’t like it, and I’m not opposed to merchandising in general, but the merchandise is so at odds with the things that are wrong with the Capital. Unchecked vanity and commercialism at the price of the poor.

    That being said, the more I think about the Hunger Games Barbie, especially in light of this post, the more I’m actually all for it. A lot of girls look to Barbie for play. I had tons of Barbies as a kid and I loved them. I played with them all the time. Having a Katniss Barbie probably would have been something I would have loved. But then again, I’m not sure I would have read The Hunger Games at the age I was still playing with Barbies. So then the question of violence comes up and I’m questioning it all over again.

    There is no good answer about merchandising, but saying it’s wrong just because it’s feminine is absolutely the wrong answer.

    • There is an interesting, thoughtful, and complex conversation to be had here, but an androcentric one ain’t it.

      And Barbie is a site of creativity for little girls. Very few Barbie dolls are played with exactly as what their box says they are.

  7. Excellent post! You make such good points about the performance of gender — there’s definitely a lot of ideas about what kinds of gender performance in fiction are good for women or bad for women. It’s irritating as hell, and I say that as someone who totally despises all the Twilight books and pretty much everything about them.

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  10. Pingback: My Two Cents On The Hunger Games | Lynley Stace

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