No stranger would it be…

You’ll be the best dressed rebel in history…everyone will want to kiss you, kill you, or be you.

Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), stripped of her aesthetic appeal and alienated from the only identity and power she’s known in her adult life, is revived by the possibility of vicariously experiencing beauty again through Katniss Everdeen’s reluctant revolutionary efforts. This line appears relatively early on in the astonishingly insipid Mockingjay – Part I, after Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convinces Trinket to dress Katniss up for their propoganda campaign against the Capitol.

This effort to mythologize Katniss within the Panem world has a curious effect on the film; it isolates us, the audience, from her as well. Instead of humanizing her, we symbolize her, and so she becomes lost to a cause that we don’t quite identify with. We are made to care about Katniss and the other characters in the first two films, but in this one, we’re thrust into an ideological battle that blandly parallels America’s “districts” and distances us from the individuals buried beneath the warfare.

To be sure, this is an interesting reception to unpack, but it doesn’t excuse the film’s sloppy construction and curious concession to a melodrama that betrays Katniss’ former power. We end up watching a bunch of pawns move blithely about with no one really caring enough to act. I only read the first book, so I’m not sure how the other two progress, but perhaps the film is a victim of Suzanne Collins – or rather, her marketing team – following demographic demands. The espoused expectations for the young adult market are pathetic, so it’s not surprising that Katniss’ heroic journey devolves into sudden, unmitigated dependence on a boy, Peeta Mellark. The film ends with him, in his indoctrinated violent craze, as Katniss’ reflection. When she introspects, Peeta is screaming back at her. This is a worse representation of female-male dependency than the mirror in Snow White. I’m not criticizing her possible genuine love for Peeta, nor necessarily the film promoting it as paramount to Katniss; it’s the numbing way in which it consumes her entire self-projection.

Unfortunately, besides a few moments of Katniss expressing strength independent of men, her narrative is dominated by emotional and physical paralysis; she is forced to become a symbol, as well as a bystander to her own self-destruction, which parallels the destruction of Panem. Of course, she’s most concerned about Peeta’s degradation and how it all might be her fault, as if a girl taking action is a threat to the thing she’s supposed to want most in the end: a boy. Apparently, that should be and is Katniss’ prevailing appetite.

As Gale, her other boy interest – who is characterized so poorly and unevenly that it’s not fair to call him a distinct character – points out, she attends only to pain. (It’s interesting that he is the first volunteer to bring Peeta back for Katniss; it’s more interesting that Katniss desires little more than to be with Peeta. Save Panem? Nope. The boy will do.) Other characters praise her improvisational leadership, the way she translates her emotional frustration into powerful action. And yet most of the film is spent pushing her away from that power and into an isolation with pain that she can do nothing about. To be fair, Katniss is never judged for her emotions (as a girl or a character), but she’s also not doing much with them. When she’s not choosing to hide, she’s being told to improvise her leadership. Other characters have faith in her, insofar as she abides by their contrivances.

It should be clear that there was something unsettling about this film to me. It could just be that it was a poorly designed movie and not a failed Feminist opportunity. But knowing that Katniss Everdeen is a rallying figure, indeed a mythological symbol, in our culture for girls (and boys), I hoped for more.

Yes, it’s silly to expect a fictional character to carry the weight of societal progress on his/her shoulders, but that seems to be how we’ve always operated. When has a symbolic figure not been the vanguard of social movement?


Note: I just watched the film two nights ago, hence my very late assessment of it relative to its release.

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