The XX Factor

Peeta May Be the Perfect Movie Girlfriend, but Katniss Still Wants a Hero

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta in The Hunger Games.

Photo credit: Murray Close

There is no universe in which Katniss Everdeen cares at all what the Internet thinks of her. But if she did, she might be happy to see so many posts and pieces in praise of her toughness and ferocity. I’m not sure if Peeta Mellark would be secretly wounded or warmed by the judgments of the Web, but support for him runs strong as well: He’s kind, brave, emotionally available, selfless, and giving. Over at NPR, Linda Holmes builds a great case for Peeta as the traditional movie girlfriend

“Peeta is Pepper Potts and Gwen Stacy, helping and helping and helping until the very end, when it’s time for the stakes, and the stakes are: NEEDS RESCUE,” she writes.

“He’s better than she is, but softer. He’s less knowing than she is. He’s less cynical than she is. He’s just as tough and as brave as he can possibly be with the skill set he has, and she’s responsible for mopping up when that’s not enough.”

I could keep quoting from this article forever, because it is so perceptive about exactly the ways the movie girlfriend wins our sympathies/proves herself worthy of the hero without ever being on the same playing field. The girlfriend props up and deepens her man’s mystery, all the while being utterly finite and knowable. And the Hunger Games franchise does a remarkable job unstitching this narrative role from gender: Peeta, the guy, is 1) very pretty and appealing and 2) eternally devoted to a fiercely competent woman warrior whose inner life remains out of reach.

In the Atlantic, Ashley Fetters asserts another reason to love the Hunger Games movies’ handling of gender. It’s kind of imperceptible at first, she says, but also kind of a big deal. Katniss is taller than Peeta. “Women who are taller than their male relationship partners are empirically a rare find—and it’s not entirely because women are shorter than men overall,” she writes. In fact, when researchers pulled height data from the bank-account applications of 720 straight couples in 1980, they found only one pair in which the lady had some inches on her beau. So by teaming 5’10’’ Jennifer Lawrence with 5’6’’ Josh Hutcherson, the Hunger Games producers challenged a pervasive physical norm—one so prevalent that scientists call it “a cardinal principle of date selection.” They refused to let Katniss stand in Peeta’s shadow.

The only problem with all this celebrating of the rule-breaking Katniss/Peeta relationship—she’s the tall one! He’s the nurturing one!—is that Katniss and Peeta aren’t romantically involved. Or at least, Peeta loves Katniss while Katniss pines for a hunky, broody, flinty miner named Gale. So while the Hunger Games does show us a stubborn, athletic female lead alongside a gentler male lead, it holds back from making that final leap. (Though maybe the films deserve some credit for allowing the two heroes to stay platonic?) Of course, Katniss is the one who rejects Peeta as a willing romantic partner, falling instead for a man with serious alpha tendencies and altitude to spare. Sadly, this syncs up with another research finding mentioned in Fetters’ article: 

“It’s women who are more concerned about enforcing the male-taller norm,” we’re told. “A 2008 study of 382 undergrads in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that 23 percent of straight men said they wouldn’t mind being the shorter party in a relationship. Only 4 percent of women surveyed said they’d be OK as the taller one.”

To me, this speaks to the ongoing devaluation of feminine traits, and to a persistent pressure on men and women that guys should always have the upper hand, regardless of how they and their partners’ strengths and weaknesses are actually distributed. Peeta may happily play the role of the movie girlfriend, but Katniss doesn’t want to be the traditional boyfriend. I suspect that’s because, as a society, we still believe that a man who isn’t as tall, strong, or tough as his leading lady doesn’t deserve her.