Undermining Gender Stereotypes in The Hunger Games and Ship Breaker
In both young adult novels The Hunger Games and Ship Breaker, the authors undermine traditional gender stereotypes. Both novels contain roughly equal numbers of female and male characters. In The Hunger Games, author Suzanne Collins gives the female protagonist many characteristics associated with traditional male protagonists. She also makes the main male character dependent on the female protagonist for survival. In Ship Breaker, author Paolo Bacigalupi focuses on a male protagonist whose physical attributes do not correspond to the traditional gender stereotype of a powerful male. Bacigalupi also depicts female characters who possess physical strength and in some cases use violence to protect themselves and others, features not usually associated with traditional female stereotypes. Using these strategies to undermine gender stereotypes appeals to the target audiences of male and female adolescents because they present more realistic, multidimensional characters. The audience can relate to these characters more than they could relate to characters who fit traditional gender stereotypes.
To examine how the novels The Hunger Games and Ship Breaker undermine traditional gender stereotypes, it is necessary first to define what traditional gender stereotypes are. In an article on gender stereotypes, Taylor noted that until the 1990s, female characters were not present in as many numbers as male characters (7-8). Taylor also provided characteristics of traditional gender stereotypes, including female characters being passive, unintelligent, physically weak, and emotional, while male characters are typically assertive, intelligent, physically strong, and rational (Taylor 10). Unfortunately, gender stereotypes persist even in the 21st century, but The Hunger Games and Ship Breaker establish characters who do not fit into those stereotypes.
Given the preceding background, reviewing The Hunger Games and Ship Breaker offers some interesting information. In The Hunger Games, the first chapter introduces one character who does fit into the traditional gender stereotype. The mother of the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is portrayed in the first chapter of the book as weak and negligent as a parent. Katniss describes her mother by saying, “I try to remember that when all I can see is the woman who sat by, blank and unreachable, while her children turned to skin and bones” (Collins, 8). This lack of good parenting, however, sets up the contrast between the mother’s character and that of Katniss. Again in the first chapter, Katniss displays physical agility when she catches fish and gathers fruit (Collins 11) and shows intelligence and assertiveness in her dealings with the market and the mayor’s household (Collins 11-12). She demonstrates bravery when her younger sister’s name is drawn to be a tribute (a representative from each district, sent to compete in a physical endurance challenge that will end in the deaths of all but one competitor). When Katniss hears her sister’s name called, she immediately responds, “I volunteer…I volunteer as tribute” (Collins 22).
When it comes to the competition itself, Collins uses gender equity at least in the number of males and females. Each district is required to send one female and one male tribute, so there is an equal number of males and females in the game (Collins, 18). Other minor characters include more or less equal numbers of males and females. Katniss has one male advisor and one female advisor to give her information and strategies to use in the competition (Collins 22-24). Her stylist team includes women and the lead stylist is male, being shown in a nontraditional gender role (Collins 61-63).
Much of the undermining of traditional gender stereotypes occurs through the portrayal of the differences between Katniss and the main male character, Peeta, who is the male tribute from her district. When interviewed for television before the actual game begins, it is Peeta who reveals a romantic interest, when he says, “Well, there is this one girl. I’ve had a crush on her ever since I can remember. But I’m pretty sure she didn’t know I was alive until the reaping” (Collins 130). In contrast, Katniss focuses on her promise to her sister; she says, “She asked me to try really hard to win…I swore I would” (Collins 129). The training period also reveals that Katniss has a better survival skill set than Peeta does: District 12 comes up last, as usual. Peeta pulls an eight, so at least a couple of the Gamemakers must have been watching him. I dig my fingernails into my palms as my face comes up, expecting the worst. Then they’re flashing the number eleven on the screen. (Collins 108)
Once the game begins, Katniss displays intelligence by leaving the killing ground of the Cornucopia quickly, then looking for water and a place to take shelter (Collins 148-156). She reveals her through process in choosing what she took away from the Cornucopia and where to shelter, when she thinks, “This sleeping bag, radiating back and preserving my body heat, will be invaluable” (Collins 156). She then realizes that many other competitors will suffer from the cold, while she can get some sleep in the tree, having tied herself so she will not accidentally fall out of the tree (Collins 156). Later in the competition, Katniss finds Peeta severely injured and takes him to a safe hiding place. Realizing that he needs medicine to treat an infected wound, she makes a conscious decision to treat him as a love and sex object. She thinks, “If I want to keep Peeta alive, I’ve got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers…Romance” (Collins 261) Knowing that hidden cameras are transmitting their actions and conversation to the audience, who can choose to send supplies to them, Katniss flirts with Peeta and kisses him. Whereas Peeta is the one who expressed love for her, Katniss at this point regards expressing romantic feelings as something she can use to manipulate the audience into providing needed medicine and food. This rational decision on her part, especially in the context of a boy who has declared his love for her, undermines the gender stereotype of the female being the person obsessed with love and emotions, while the male focuses on logical thinking and attaining results. For the rest of the novel, Katniss continues to protect Peeta from harm. In the ending moments of the game, she outwits the game’s controllers so that both she and Peeta can win the game and stay alive. Although Peeta is never presented as stupid or physically weak, throughout the novel Katniss repeatedly comes across as intelligent, physically adept, and able to outthink and outmaneuver her opponents. She is the antithesis of the damsel in distress. Collins manages to undermine the traditional gender stereotypes without making the female characters abrasive or unrealistically all-powerful, while also using male characters with positive attributes.
Bacigalupi takes a somewhat different approach in his novel Ship Breaker. The main character is male, but he does not fit many of the traditional gender stereotypes for a male character. Nailer, the character, is described as small enough to climb into the ducts and narrow spaces in a ship. Nor are his prospects good for ever being physically imposing; as stated in the first chapter, “If his father was any indication, Nailer would never be huge. Fast, maybe, but never big” (Bacigalupi 12). Nailer’s father also does not fit the traditional gender stereotype of a solid, reliable provider for his son. On the contrary, his father exhibits mostly negative characteristics, including violence and drug addiction: Silence stretched between them. “Lost it, huh?” was all his father said, but Nailer could tell that dangerous gears were turning now, fueled by the rattle of drugs and anger and whatever madness caused his father’s bouts of frenzied work and brutality. Underneath the man’s tattooed features a storm was brewing, full of undertows and crashing surf and water spouts, the deadly weather that buffeted Nailer every day as he tried to navigate the coastline of his father’s moods. Richard Lopez was thinking. And now Nailer needed to know what— or he’d never escape the shack without a beating. (Bacigalupi, 56-57).
Similar to The Hunger Games, the novel Ship Breaker contains a fairly even split of male and female characters. The female characters in Ship Breaker show a range of characteristics. Initially, one female character seems to fit the damsel in distress stereotype. When Nailer and his female friend Pima are searching a wrecked yacht for scavenge, Nailer finds a survivor. Bacigalupi states, “Her eyes searched the cabin, widened in fear, terrified by something only she could see. Her gaze locked on Nailer again, desperate, pleading” (95). However, this survivor quickly asserts her strength, revealing herself to be wealthy and from a powerful family. She shows bravery when Nailer and his friend Pima insist she swear a blood oath to them. As described in the novel, “Nailer slashed her palm. Blood welled and the girl’s hand spasmed, fingers trembling at the gash. He was surprised she didn’t scream” (Bacigalupi 115-116). With this combination of characteristics, the character becomes more than just a damsel in distress; she shows herself capable of incurring physical pain if necessary. Later in the novel, she demonstrates physical agility by being able to jump onto a running train (Bacigalupi 185-186).
The two other major female characters are Pima and her mother, Sadna. The mother does display some traditional feminine characteristics; she nurtures Nailer after he receives injuries while scavenging. But later when Nailer, Pima, and the survivor Nita are held captive, Sadna saves Nailer from additional injury. Bacigalupi says, “In the moonlight, Nailer could make out his savior: Pima’s mother, grappling with Blue Eyes for the machete. Sadna slammed a fist into Blue Eyes’s face” (170). By portraying Sadna as both nurturing and a fierce fighter, Bacigalupi avoids the maternal stereotype and gives her character more dimensions. He uses a similar technique with Pima’s character. Pima is larger than Nailer, and also capable of violence, as indicated by her willingness to have Nailer kill Nita if he wanted to do so. But once Nailer decides he wants Nita alive, Pima protects Nita when Nailer is physically unable to defend her. At the point Nailer’s father plans to harm Nita, “Out of nowhere Pima lunged, her knife flashing. Nailer tried to cry out, to warn her, but his father beat him to it” (Bacigalupi 140). Although Nailer expects Pima to accompany him and Nita when they are planning to leave the area, Pima instead responds, “No. I’m not doing it…I’m not leaving my mom” (Bacigalupi 177). Pima refuses to accompany Nailer not because she fears attempting to escape, but because she has loyalty for her mother and chooses to stay with her. Once again, Bacigalupi creates a multi-dimensional female character instead of using a traditional gender stereotype.
Undermining gender stereotypes would appeal to the novels’ target demographics for several reasons. For The Hunger Games, the anticipated audience is adolescents. These adolescents have grown up watching men and women in real life and in fiction, whether books, television, or movies, who do not conform to old-fashioned gender stereotypes. They see females who work outside the home, who win gold medals at the Olympics, who are assertive and intelligent. They see men who are not always intelligent and who can be emotional. Katniss appeals to the target audience because she is independent and takes care of herself, while also taking care of her family. She shows courage when facing danger and thinks things through for herself, instead of depending on everyone else to take care of her. For adolescents, Katniss serves as a role model of what they could be if the circumstances demanded it. Ship Breaker also has a target demographic of adolescents. In this case, Nailer would appeal to male and female adolescents as a more realistic character than if he were a physically imposing tough guy. He is small but also shows courage and determination when facing danger. Adolescents would also find him appealing because he does have moments of selfishness and doubt, for example when he wonders if he should just kill Nita and take her gold. Adolescents can relate to his indecision when facing a tough moral choice, and then feel good because he chooses to let the girl live. The audiences for both novels would likely not have responded well if most of the characters had fit gender stereotypes. They would not want to read about characters who would seem to them to be very old-fashioned and unbelievable.
When comparing the two novels, both avoid using very many traditional gender stereotypes. In The Hunger Games, Collins accomplishes this goal by using a very intelligent, very assertive female protagonist who ultimately saves her male companion. If the games themselves represent the traditional male patriarchy, then the character of Katniss succeeds in disrupting the patriarchal control of herself and her companion. For Bacigalupi, his undermining of gender stereotypes works effectively by presenting characters who share a mixture of traditional male and female stereotypes. Ultimately, both Collins and Bacigalupi successfully created novels that break away from traditional gender stereotypes and give their audiences more interesting and engaging characters who seem real instead of one-dimensional stock characters.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. Ship Breaker. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print. Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, Inc., 2008. Print. Taylor, Frank. “Content Analysis and Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Books.” Sociological Viewpoints 25.(2009): 5-22. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Nov. 2012.