Before I started this blog, I made a list of possible topics that I wanted to write about. Near the top of the list was “Why We Need Katniss.” As I sat down to watch my new copy of The Hunger Games on DVD Saturday night, I realized that the reason I hadn’t written this post yet was because the question it poses is one I had yet to answer.
Why do we need Katniss Everdeen?
As a writer, I see the world in terms of the stories we all have to tell. And it worries me to see the many ways that we – especially we as women – hand over our stories to other people, other forces. Our sense of personal authorship becomes diminished whenever we let other people tell us how to feel about ourselves; whenever we judge our actions, our appearance, our worth, and our value as human beings by society’s ever-changing and arbitrary standards.
So what does this have to do with Katniss?
Even when it seems like the Capitol has total control over her, Katniss fights for her right to live her own life on her terms. To make her own decisions. To tell her own story.
And what is Katniss’s story? Her story is the journey from isolation to community, from suspicion to trust, from detachment to love.
Katniss’s story is the story of how one young woman can inspire change simply by striving to be, as Peeta says, “more than just a piece in their games.”
It all begins at the reaping.
The reaping is the method by which the Capitol exerts its control over those in the Districts, reminding them that they are essentially powerless, unable to stop those with the upper hand from killing their children as they watch. However, there is a huge chink in the Capitol’s armor when it comes to the reaping: the ability for one child to volunteer in the place of another.
Katniss’s first major statement of autonomy in The Hunger Games comes when she volunteers to go into the arena to save her younger sister, Prim. It’s Katniss—not the Capitol and their twisted lottery—who controls the situation. She may be walking towards certain death, but she chooses that path without regret out of love for her sister; the Capitol doesn’t get to choose either of their fates.
Katniss doesn’t volunteer with the arrogance, pride, and fanfare of the volunteer Careers in Districts 1 and 2. The Capitol wants its Tributes to believe that they have the potential to bring honor to their district, but Katniss sees no honor in the Games and does not pretend otherwise at the reaping. Her refusal to play into the Capitol’s propaganda starts the first stirrings of opposition in District 12:
So instead of acknowledging applause, I stand there unmoving while they take part in the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong.
At the reaping, Katniss refuses to follow the “every man for himself” philosophy that the Hunger Games rely on. However, she initially believes she must follow that philosophy in the arena in order to get home to Prim. She thinks she has to turn herself into a piece in their games in order to make it out alive, which is exactly what the Capitol wants her to think. Success is defined in the arena on their terms. But Peeta has a different idea of success, and it’s an idea that stays with Katniss through the rest of the trilogy:
I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not…I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don’t own me.
The Hunger Games work because they inherently dehumanize the children that take part in them every year. They make them over, train them to kill, and effectively take away any trace of the child that existed before the arena. The Tributes do become monsters, but Peeta knows he’s worth more than that. And he wants Katniss to know she’s worth more than that, too.
Part of Katniss’s journey through The Hunger Games is to come to terms with what Peeta says to her that night on the roof, to decide that fighting to stay herself in a world explicitly designed to change her is even more important than fighting to stay alive.
Alliances in the arena are built on strategy rather than emotion; trust is something that the Tributes cannot afford to do. In an environment where genuine love is not supposed to exist, Katniss loves Rue. She loves her like the little sister she left behind in District 12. Rue’s death changes Katniss in a fundamental way. Instead of driving her to seek vengeance by killing as many Careers as possible, Rue’s death allows Katniss to rediscover her own humanity:
I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.
With that thought, Katniss decorates Rue’s body with flowers, giving her the proper goodbye that these children are denied in the arena. She knows she is directly defying the Capitol with this act of love and humanity, and that’s exactly what she wants to do. The Capitol can’t control her grief; they don’t get to write the story of Rue’s death or Katniss’s reaction to it. After Rue, Katniss comes to see that she doesn’t have to be a monster just because she wants to make it back home. She still has some autonomy, some sense of self that she will never give up to the Capitol.
The biggest challenge to Katniss’s sense of autonomy is her relationship with Peeta. On the surface, it might look to some as if Katniss gives up a huge part of her self in acting romantically with Peeta for the sponsors (and later for President Snow). It might seem as if her choice of who to love is decided for her. However, there is a depth to Katniss’s feelings for Peeta that she hides from everyone; she doesn’t bring up the moment Peeta gave her bread when she was starving because that is not for the audience. She trusts Peeta, and that trust is not created for the cameras and the Capitol, that trust comes from the innocence of childhood, a deep connection with and respect for the boy with the bread, her last hope.
Katniss risks her life for Peeta on more than one occasion, which is a kind of humanity rarely shown in the arena. Peeta’s innocence and love keep her from losing herself; his innate goodness helps her discover her own. When faced with the ultimate test—kill Peeta or be killed by Peeta—Katniss knows that she can’t do what the Capitol wants her to do. She trusts Peeta enough to know that he would never kill her, but she can’t take advantage of his trust because she loves him. She may not know how deep that love is yet, but she knows that she would once again risk her life to keep him alive. Because so much of Katniss’s humanity is wrapped up in Peeta, she can’t lose him or else she will completely lose herself. Allowing Peeta to die—doing what the Capitol wants—would destroy any sense of her true self that Katniss has left:
“You’re not leaving me here alone,” I say. Because if he dies, I’ll never go home, not really. I’ll spend the rest of my life in this arena trying to think my way out.
If Peeta dies because of Katniss, she will forever be trapped in the arena; she will forever be a victim of the Capitol’s controlling mind games that destroy even the most celebrated victors.
As such, Katniss decides to trust—both in herself and in Peeta. She makes a choice that is entirely her own. Just like at the reaping, Katniss decides how this story is going to be written—not the Capitol. With nightlock in her hand and Peeta by her side, she chooses once again to be her own woman rather than the woman the Capitol wants her to be. She is Katniss Everdeen, a woman who is not going to let anyone choose her fate for her, a woman who defies the most powerful people in the Capitol by refusing to live on their terms.
In the end, The Hunger Games isn’t just a story about Katniss Everdeen. It’s Katniss Everdeen’s story. And that is a distinction that matters immensely.
We need Katniss because we are all Katniss, struggling to hold on to our sense of self in a society that is continually trying to take it from us. Magazines, television, movies, best friends, parents, boyfriends, and countless other forces try to tell us how to look, how to act, and—most frighteningly—how to feel about ourselves. When we let society define who we are, we forfeit our chance to write our own story.
We all should strive to be more than just a piece in someone’s game, a character in someone else’s story. And that’s why Katniss’s story matters—because all of our stories matter.