‘The Hunger Games’ and Compulsory Heterosexuality

By Jo Reid | February 18, 2021

“He made me look weak.”

“He made you look desirable.” 

— Katniss Everdeen and Haymitch Abernathy, The Hunger Games

It’s been nine years since The Hunger Games (2012) was released, kicking off the love triangle dominated dystopian YA adaption craze that ruled the 2010s. The Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part One and Two, remain the strongest of the trend, using its premise of the televised child death-match to explore how media and violence intertwine to uphold oppressive regimes. While its sharp politics have been celebrated, its love triangle – where no-nonsense revolutionary heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to choose between childhood friend Gale Hawthorn (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – has been much derided. Neither boy are distinct enough to be memorable, and unlike the intensely emotional and romantic love rivals of The Twilight Saga’s Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), Katniss doesn’t seem that conflicted over where her true feelings lie; she doesn’t seem to care about romance at all.

Rewatching The Hunger Games as a queer adult, I was struck by how Katniss’ apathetic and confused relationship to romance parallels that of young queer women like myself, figuring out their own sexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is the political and social institution that expects and encourages the formation of heterosexual relationships. First defined by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, this concept is particularly influential among young lesbians today who relate to the experience of being encouraged to be interested in, and form romantic attachments to men, regardless of whether they are truly attracted to them. Navigating romantic feelings is complicated and difficult, as it is tough to discover where the line is drawn between being attracted to men, or to the idea of being attracted to men. This distinction is fluid and constantly shifting, particularly in a homophobic society where heterosexuality is presented as normal, natural, and desirable. Performing heterosexuality, unconsciously or not, is often a method of survival. 

Katniss kisses Peeta during The Hunger Games to receive medicine. Lionsgate.

While Peeta and Katniss’ relationship is developed throughout The Hunger Games series, it is never clear what Katniss feels. Peeta is clearly and sincerely in love with her, but Katniss only shows explicit romantic attraction when on camera. She is thrust into the star-crossed lovers storyline by Peeta’s public confession of love, but must keep up this pretence during the games to please the Capitol audience. The first time she outwardly shows romantic affection to Peeta is when she needs medicine, and so she kisses him. The gentle chime of a parachute signals her reward. Performing romantic love is established as a necessary tool for survival. 

Katniss’ relationship with childhood friend Gale, is also ambiguous. She may love and care about Gale platonically, but whether she romantically loves him is unclear. Throughout, she utilises romantic displays of affection to make Gale feel better, rather than to express her own desires. In Catching Fire, Gale is publicly whipped by Capitol Peacekeepers and is comforted by Katniss. After she kisses him while healing his wounds, he bluntly states “I knew you’d do that […] I’m in pain. That’s the only way I can get your attention.” Like with Peeta, she shows romantic affection as a reward, or out of pity. 

The Capitol is an oppressive, all-encompassing system that is always monitoring its citizens. It is imperative Katniss performs her romantic attraction to Peeta believably, and any deviation could mean her death, and that of her family. In Catching Fire, even private moments are still caught on camera; President Snow threatens Katniss after witnessing a friendly kiss between Katniss and Gale on a surveillance camera. By showing video evidence to Katniss of her transgression and forcing her to continue the charade of being in love with Peeta, the implication is we are always watching you. We control you. Therefore, it is in all aspects of existence, not just when she is on screen, that Katniss must perform this heterosexual romance. 

Katniss and childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Lionsgate.

The Capitol’s surveillance state also demonstrates the blurred lines between genuine affection and performative romance. Katniss is unable to sort through her true feelings in private, without the threat of exposure dangling over her head. Like the Capitol, in a homophobic, heteronormative society, you always feel like you are being watched. 

Growing up queer, I felt an expectation to appear straight. At sleepovers, when I asked “who do I have a crush on,” I would choose the first boy I could think of. I dated the only guy who was interested in me for over a year and was secretly relieved when he eventually dumped me. When alone, I refused to fantasise or admit the possibility that I could have a romantically fulfilling relationship with a girl. I felt like it was important to conform, and it took a lot of self reflection to work out exactly why I was so afraid of letting the mask slip. Unlike Katniss, deviation may not have meant death, but the threat of exposure still hung over my head, scaring me away from seriously considering my own sexuality. Whether the threat was imagined or not, it felt like the cameras were always on.

By Mockingjay, Katniss has transitioned from childhood to adulthood while performing for more powerful forces than herself, denied agency or time to truly reflect on, or digest, her own experiences or feelings. It is an adolescence marked by outward performance, where being in love is another costume she must put on to make her palatable, relatable and inspiring. 

Compulsory heterosexuality governs everyone’s lives, regardless of their sexuality. Katniss may be queer – certainly fans have noticed this, and many have seen her as a lesbian or asexual – or she may not be, but she is governed by forces beyond her control. The Capitol forces her into a heterosexual relationship and asks her to perform it willingly under pain of death. It does not matter what her true feelings are, what matters is how she appears, whether she can convince the world that she is happy and in love. The Hunger Games is constantly aware of the power of the camera, and frames Katniss’ moments of affection in an ambiguous light, unsure of whether her true feelings are genuine love or acts of survival. 

In the end, Katniss is, finally free. She lives her life with Peeta, raising their children together while forever haunted by her past. The emotional scars may never heal, and Katniss may never fully process her true desires. But, in Mockingjay Part 2’s epilogue, she is settled, living a peaceful, heteronormative life with Peeta, but he is blurred and out of focus. Again, there is ambiguity as to whether she is satisfied with her life, or if she clings to Peeta as the only stable, consistent thing left in a transformed world. There is a melancholy air, suggesting that Katniss could never be truly happy, but perhaps this will do.

In a way, it doesn’t matter, as she has no choice. Katniss is a child, groomed by The Capitol and threatened with punishment if she deviates or fails to perform her role adequately. How can Katniss decipher her true feelings when they have been governed and shaped all her life to act as tools to keep her alive? 

Jo Reid is a Scottish writer from Glasgow. Recently graduated with a Masters in Film, Exhibition and Curation, you can find her obsessing over cheesy, tacky, and camp children’s films from the 00s on Twitter @_jomreid.

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