“Protective Tomboyism” in The Hunger Games
By Kelsey Breen
The use of the “tomboy” has been found in literature as early as the nineteenth century, and while it has brought up many conflicting views, its definition hasn’t changed. A “tomboy” is a character who refuses to conform to the conventional forms of femininity (Foster and Simmons, 97). While the past purpose of the tomboy in adolescent literature was to question gender identity and stray from stereotypical female roles, such as Jo in Alcott’s Little Women, new adolescent literature puts the “tomboy” in the role of the hero, allowing female characters to cross the boundaries of gender roles in order to dissolve the masculine/feminine binary. This character trait has recently been seen in Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Thrown into a situation where the survival of herself and her family depends on her ability to provide for them, Katniss enacts a tomboy, taking on skills she learned from her father and male friend in order to survive.
At the age of eleven, Katniss is thrust into the role of providing for her family after her father is killed in an explosion and her mother becomes ill. The government of Panam provides little nourishment, and without the extra meat that Katniss hunts, her family would starve. As Katniss lies starving in the street, she sees a dandelion that reminds her of her father. The image of a delicate dandelion providing the instinct to hunt is one that carries throughout the novel. It is in this instance she understands that survival is in their grasp, if she can provide for her family like her father did. She begins to hunt and trade, activities that her father had done, and by doing so, begins to enact the tomboy.
In a new study into tomboyism titled “Tomboy as Protective Identity”, Traci Craig and Jessica LaCroix explore psychological reasons while females may feel the need to take on the role of a tomboy. Their study draws attention to the idea that “tomboys, as a gendered social identity also provides temporary ‘protections’ to girls and women…[enabling them to gain] limited privilege to spaces which masculinity is an unspoken requirement(450). By taking on the role of provider and protector for her family, Katniss uses her typically masculine skills to survive. She also gains acceptance into a typical male gendered world, as shown by her relationship with Gale. Their friendship, at least in Katniss’s view, is purely platonic, and based on their shared skills and beliefs. But she does show her feminine instincts when thinking of Gale as “husband” material as she describes her feelings when the other girls around District 12 notice him, “Gale won’t have any trouble finding a wife. He’s good looking, he’s strong enough to handle the work in the mines, and he can hunt. You can tell by the way the girls whisper about him when he walks by in school that they want him. It makes me jealous but not for the reason people would think. Good hunting partners are hard to find” (10). Throughout the novel, Collins portrays Katniss as a “tomboy,” while allowing her to express stereotypical female traits as well. Katniss is allowed all the tools she needs to succeed in the Huger Games of Panem, despite their gender connotations. She uses her skill with the bow along with her beauty and relationship with Peeta to further her success and chance for survival. By not allowing her skills to outweigh her compassion, Katniss becomes a true action figure by fighting and beating those who are physically stronger than her and by doing so, dissolves gender stereotypes. Through her experiences in the arena, Katniss discovers new traits, such as compassion for others outside her social circle, and an in the end, evolves as a person, rather than a “gender” alone.
In the novel, Katniss’s use of “protective tomboyism” is based on her skill as an athlete rather than her appearance. “You’ve got to get your hands on a bow. That’s your best chance,” advises Gale (39). Mainly it is her talent in archery that tips survival in her favor, but also her compassion and skills in identifying plants, traditionally female activities, that add to her success. The Hunger Games provide an arena where all her survival skills are seen by the reader, and highlighted without gender bias. Katniss’s determination to win the Games is portrayed equally as she blows up the supplies held by the Careers’ and as she plays Peeta’a girlfriend. Throughout the novel she crosses gender lines in order to survive. Collins created gender balance in her hero character allowing her an athletic ability that causes the Careers’ believe her to be a threat in the games, which makes her an early target, while putting her in the role of girlfriend and sister. Once again, her history of enacting the tomboy allows her access into the male dominated group of Games winners; but her compassion and sensitivity appeals to the friendship of a young girl, who admires her for who she is.
Collins also challenges the idea typical “tomboy” appearance. In studies as current as 2007, both children and adults believe that tomboys were girls who took on the appearance of boys (Paechter and Clark 349). This ideology dates back as far as Alcott’s Little Women when Jo cuts her hair to add to the family finances (Foster and Simmons 96). The depiction of one sister who is considered a tomboy as the only one with short hair adds to the imagery of the tomboy resembling an actual boy.
The descriptions in the first chapters of the fragility of Katniss’s other female family members begins to show a contrast between Katniss and other females, however these descriptions are not based only on outward appearances. Like their mother, Katniss’ sister Prim is delicate in looks and in personality. She is described as being “as lovely as the primrose for which she was named” (3). However, neither of these other women is able to provide for the family in the same ways that Katniss is able to. Katniss describes trying to teach her sister to hunt as “disastrous” (35). The first person narrative used in the novel causes the reader to rely on other characters view of Katniss’s physical appearance. As Peeta states to Haymitch, “She has no idea. The effect she can have” (91).
Katniss appears as the stereotypical tomboy of the past throughout the novel. As Craig and La Croix state in their study, tomboys are more apt to dress in a more masculine way due to “function rather than form,” and this is true for Katniss (451). At the beginning of the novel, this is the case, as Katniss wears clothing that helps her blend into the woods, and her hair pulled back in a braid. Both of which help her gain access into the “male” world of “tomboyism”. However, in both the reaping and the first parade she maintains a classic appearance in hair and make-up, similar to her appearance in everyday life, so that she looks like herself, but dresses in a way that shows her femininity. The impression the text gives through the other characters is that she is beautiful in a classical womanly way, even though she chooses to dress in masculine attire on an everyday basis. On the day of the first parade where the goal is to impress the audience, Katniss describes the look that her make-over team gives her, “My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of high-lighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style” (67). There is little need to adjust her hair or make-up to gain acceptance into the female public. She is also in her everyday hunting attire when the males in her life show interest in her. Gale broaches the idea of family and running away while they are hunting in the woods, and Peeta fall more in love with her during their time in the Games. Ironically, Katniss doesn’t show displeasure while getting dressed for the first parade. She is more in awe of the actions women of the Capitol do to their bodies then showing displeasure in it happening to her (63-64). This contrast is explained in Craig and La Croix’s theory as requiring the tomboy to “‘play’ femininity in order to conform to a normative gender role in specific situations so that in other situations the tomboy identity will be supported or allowed” (459). Katniss comes to realize that “the Hunger Games aren’t a beauty contest, but the best-looking tributes always seem to pull more sponsors” (58).
Collins continues to portray gender as a natural construct of an individual’s environment when Katniss succumbs to the idea of portraying her and Peeta’s relationship as more than friends. Haymitch instructs them to continue to let the audience see their vulnerable side while fighting for their lives. Katniss admits that being vulnerable is not natural for her; she has been the survivor and provider for years. Stepping into the role of “girlfriend” helps to humanize Katniss’s behavior by having her conform to a more acceptable role. This change brings more acceptances from the Capitol public, while allowing the audience to be comfortable with her athletic attributes, once again dissolving the masculine/feminine binary that upholds gender standards. Her relationship with Rue provides the same type of bridge between gender expectations, as Rue’s death and Katniss’s reaction to it, which results in sponsors from District 11, is portrayed directly after the scene where she blows up the Careers’ stock supply. The side by side comparison of these scenes detail the destabilization of gender found in Katniss’s character while showing that she can rise to the environmental and societal conditions relying on her own personal skills and personality to see her through.
Suzanne Collins use of the tomboys identity for her heroine allows Katniss to access talents and character traits that she learned from her father to survive in an extreme environment and provide for her family. Katniss’s character allows both male and female readership to identify with her story making. Her ability to achieve likability in both her role as a young women, and as a tomboy show the adaptability of gender roles while maintain her statues as female. Collins use of tomboyism as a temporary protective identity allows Katniss accesses to tools that would have otherwise remained outside her reach, and in the process, dissolves the masculine/feminine binary throughout the novel.
Craig, Traci, and Jessica LaCroix. “Tomboy as Protective Identity.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 15.4 (2011): 450-65. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. 2009. Print.
Foster, Shirley, and Judy Simons. “Feminist Re-Readings of ‘Classic’ Stories for Girls.” What Katy Read : 85-105. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.
Paechter, Carrie, and Sheryl Clark. “Who are tomboys and how do we recognise them?” Woman’s Studies International Forum 30 (2007): 342-54. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.