My favorite scene in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is somewhat ancillary to the main plot, which follows a moody, traumatized heroine vacillating between love interests as the repressive society around her descends into civil war. The scene I have in mind is a rare twinkle of levity. Julianne Moore’s icy-but-kind (we hope) dictator Alma Coin has just given a speech, and her adviser Plutarch Heavensbee, played with sly, bemused understatement by Philip Seymour Hoffman, joins her on the balcony afterward to offer an unasked-for critique. Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks’ newly poignant diva-flibbertigibbet, stands off to the side. As Plutarch instructs the rebel president—who has been capably leading District 13 in secret for years—about “salesmanship,” Effie and Alma share a look. Listen to this guy sounding off, the look says. Plutarch is oblivious. “Of course, you don’t want to suck all the air out of the room,” Alma finally replies, in a mild voice. Titters (male and female) rippled through my showing. Mansplaining jokes have reached Hollywood blockbusters.
It’s not surprising to see the Hunger Games franchise hit this milestone. Grim as it is, the vision of the future offered by the books and movies has one inspiring feature: Women are pretty much running the show. A partial list of vital characters who happen to be women: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the all-important Mockingjay, around whom not only the rebel movement but the entire series rotates; Alma Coin, the underground president; Commander Paylor (Patina Miller), the leader of the guerrilla forces guarding the hospital in District 8; Cressida (Natalie Dormer, whose incredible hair-tattoo style deserves its own mention), the leader and director of Katniss’ film crew; Katniss’ mother (Paula Malcomson), who is the head of her nuclear family; and her sister, Prim (Willow Shields), the heroine’s emotional rock. In the corrupt and degraded Capitol, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is male, but his lead counselor Egeria (Sarita Choudhury) is a woman and his bloodline survives in daughters, not sons. (One of them braids her hair like Katniss.) Not only are most of the characters who occupy explicit positions of power female, the issues that preoccupy Panem’s inhabitants have a subtle second-sex slant.
I’m not just talking about the love triangle in which Lawrence’s gruff action heroine dithers between two passive, moony suitors. Panem is organized around image management and presentation. Before the revolution can get under way, Katniss must film a series of “propo” videos to convert others to the insurrectionist cause. She needs a costume, lines to say, flattering lighting and production, a catchy four-note motif. When she bridles against these actorly demands, her pure, unforced responses are themselves fed into the media machine. Critics have glancingly noted an analogy between Katniss and Lawrence here, as if the host of pressures hemming in our fantasy protagonist are cousin to those that a lot of women (especially famous ones) face. Katniss’ problem—which, in a feminist turn, becomes her uniqueness and her asset—is a lack of finesse. (The same has been said for J. Law.)
What allows the themes of revolution, individuality, and authenticity to converge so resonantly in The Hunger Games is something (obvious) that women have been saying for a while: The obsession with appearance objectifies people—literally, it turns humans into symbolic objects. And this threat envelops everyone in the gaudy Capitol and overworked districts, though we see it most clearly with Katniss and Peeta. In Mockingjay, both characters are converted into figureheads for larger causes, stripped of autonomy, used as bargaining chips. They become the faces of their respective political sides, with personal lives that matter to no one but them. Katniss’ fight for freedom will inevitably force her to reject the “salesmanship” that Plutarch tries to impose on Alma in that early scene—and I’m not sure viewers would be wrong to read that as a veiled feminist triumph.
Interestingly, the villains of Mockingjay employ traditionally “feminine” means to accomplish their ends. Governments rise and fall by the delicate wiliness of their messaging, and by their advisers, who are conniving and canny. Anyone who studied Romeo and Juliet in high school can expound on the gendered significance of poison as President Snow’s murder weapon of choice: Unlike a showy, penetrating blade (or an arrow), toxins are stealthy, rarely revealing themselves until it’s too late. Katniss’ appeal, meanwhile, lies in her straightforward, no-frills pragmatism and, of course, her physical prowess. So maybe, in addition to riveting entertainment, The Hunger Games represents a revolt against outdated ideas about how women should be. And it does so without sucking all the air out of the room.