Life in a Glasshouse: Five YA Pet Peeves Part 5.2

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I'm immortally interested in cultural/literary deconstructions, feminism, anti-racism, South Korea, Supernatural, Sherlock Holmes, Hayao Miyazaki, Diana Wynne Jones, food (including but not limited to maple butter, tomatoes, and toast), fairy tales, parentheses, paper airplanes, films and books.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Five YA Pet Peeves Part 5.2

The Mary Winchester Trope
In which I discuss the Hunger Games trilogy and Supernatural
(Spoilers for HG won't be whited out)

(Note: feel free to correct any mistakes. I'm going on excerpts and ebook skimmings.)

Named after Supernatural's most influential plot device, the Mary Winchester trope is one bizarrely common to YA. Though orphans and absentee parents are wildly popular (Disappearing Parent Syndrome, or DPS), I'm singling out single absentee parents for this post. In particular, the fact that the majority of YA protagonist don't have a mother or mother figure in their lives. If they do, they're often sidelined or treated like villains.

When Mary Winchester (I don't consider this a spoiler - it's the opening of Supernatural's pilot) is killed by a demon, it kicks off a television show that despite its relatively small audience is on its way to its eighth season. Mary's death is the show. Without it, the characters who drive the plot forward wouldn't even be the same people with the same values being badass on screen. Now unlike the most of YA fiction in which parents are actively present, Mary does not remain simply a plot device. Her role and identity are explored further in the show's fourth and fifth season. I have personal opinions of her, but I can't say that the only thing she is a plot device. (Spoilers for both seasons ahead) While it's stated that her love for John was "fated" to happen simply to create the vessels for Lucifer and Michael, her decisions were clearly driven by what she wanted. The deal she made might have been for John, but John was a representation of her own desires for a normal family. I don't remember her being shamed for her actions, despite the minor backlash from the fandom, but outside of comparisons, the Mary Winchester trope is only used in referrence to the earlier seasons, before her role was expanded, when she was still the plot device. This brings me to my next topic, the Hunger Games.

My previous post circled around female relationships and representations in Twilight, or the lack thereof. Here I will discuss the main three relationships Katniss had throughout the series.

Exhibit A: Katniss's mother

Let me just get this out of the way right now: Katniss's mother will be referred to as Paula (as her actress is named) from here on out because she has no name. No, really. Check out the imdb cast page. Google "katniss's mother". In no way do we ever find out or do we ever meet anyone who knows Paula's name. Katniss's father is the same position, but as he is dead, venerated by Katniss and didn't seem to have as many established friends as Paula, he doesn't count. Also, Gale's mother has a name. Just not Katniss's.

Katniss's father (deemed Phillip after his actor) died in a mining accident when Katniss was eleven, leaving Paula a widow living in poverty with two children to feed. When Paula fell to depression, leaving her kids to fend for themselves, Katniss found a way to keep them going, but said that she had never been able to forgive her since. In Catching Fire, Katniss says that she's trying to mend their relationship. However, she says she's doing this by allowing her mother to do things for her. Although, yes, Katniss is a pragmatist - it seems rather odd that she'd assume that this is what a mother-daughter relationship means. We don't see an effort in speaking to each other past the odd instruction.

This is arguably the most difficult relationship of Katniss's to categorize. We are told that both Paula and Prim help Katniss with her rebellion against the Capitol, but we are never shown Katniss explicitly confiding or giving into her mother, except when she's needed to be complicit with Katniss's deception. Katniss's characterization could take the blame as well, though, as she only values the strong. She sees Peeta at first, as weak until he demonstrates his own skills, and she respects Hazelle for what she's done for her family. Even her relationship with Gale rests on the fact that they both shared their skills.

If I could say anything against the way Katniss treated her mother, it's that it is never called out in the narrative that Katniss uses everyone. Sure, she's a survivalist, but there's no acknowledgement that this can actually harm relationships outside those of your romantic leads.

There are times when Katniss inadvertently tells us that she would actually really, really like to have her mother pay proper attention to her. With lines like "But clearly I am not her priority" after Gale's brought in, and speaking of Prim and her closeness to Paula. Unfortunately, like most female relationships in HG, none of this is admitted in the narrative itself. It's a lost opportunity for real drama and for the characters to expand outside their set archetypes, and all to humanize Katniss in a way that doesn't truly do so.

Exhibit B: Rue and Prim

Arguably the most liked characters in the Hunger Games, they are also the least developed. Prim is a Mother Theresa and Rue is near one. While I could go on and on about the implications of Katniss only helping and feeling pity sympathy for the very black Rue because she reminded her of her sister, I want to focus on the odd relationship she shares with both. Although Katniss's relationship with Rue is tenuous because of their position, there seems to be a modicum more of respect on Katniss's part. This is inevitable, seeing as how I've established that Katniss respects strength and skill and Rue has managed to keep herself alive all this time. (In fact, she might not have been killed at all had she kept away from Katniss.) However, it's still one of protection. Even in the movie, they're closest bonding moment is Katniss killing and sharing something with her. It might be that had Rue not reminded Katniss at all of Prim, this automatic impulse to protect her might not have risen at all.

As for Prim, Katniss holds her on pedestal. That much is obvious. Unfortunately, unlike Katniss's depiction of Paula, Prim has no life outside the narrative. She is always sweet, innocent, helpful and caring. There is no text that supports she has other feelings outside of these. I'm sure there are plenty of siblings who are good and kind to one another, but would living, being raised and supported by Katniss, the queen of stimulating conversation, have honestly made Prim Mother Theresa? Do they ever fight over anything other than Buttercup? Unlike with Rue with whom Katniss bonded as do individuals in such circumstances, I've no idea what kind of relationship she and Prim have outside of this two-sided hero worship. What's worse is that this is also never called out or brought to attention in the books. Instead, we're supposed to, as the Capitol does, see it as Awesome and Wonderful and Loving.

But no. I refuse to see Prim and Katniss's relationship as anything other than utterly dysfunctional. After all, Katniss pretty much loses the will to live in Mockingjay. I could imagine Prim doing the same after the way she was completely and utterly crushed when Katniss volunteered, but then again, that was the actress doing her job. I honestly don't know what Prim would have done because I don't feel like I know her, and that is really, really odd when you factor that the entire rebellion started because of Katniss's love for her. Then again, that really is all Prim is, even in Mockingjay.

Exhibit C: Johanna Mason

This is the first female relationship, outside the rather shallow ones Katniss had with Madge and Effie, where Katniss did not have the upper hand. It is also the most complex and yet still manages to remain uncomplicated. The reason? Because Johanna is here to show us that Katniss is smart enough to get along with even those that hate her and that Katniss is Pure.

The first time Katniss meets Johanna, the woman strikes up a conversation that probably strikes a chord with anyone who can identify with awkward-around-girl-talk Katniss. Girl talk is what Katniss specifically says in the narrative in regards to talking about clothes, makeup and hair - as opposed to, you know, normal talk about clothes, makeup and hair. What Katniss is really talking about is the way young women size each other when pitted against another through veiled words. So unlike Finnick and the others, Johanna's very first move when speaking to Katniss is gendered and also placed as bad. It's worse than a twenty three year old making sexual advances (serious or no). Before they part ways, Johanna strips down completely, leaving only her slippers, and Peeta remarks that that action and the ones of Finnick and others were all done to rile her up. He also says that they do this because she - Katniss - is "pure".

I remember having to stop when I first read that line. It made me realize a number of things on a broader scope. One, that even in this dystopian world where there is supposedly no sexism, girls are forced to compete against one another when they're not reluctantly allying up. Two, that Katniss is only pure in terms of that her hands are clean; the narrative justifies every (mercy) killing she did. Lastly, that Johanna and Katniss would not get along. Why? Because Johanna was clearly placed in the camp of the sexual experienced and Katniss was deemed as "pure"**.

I think this is one of the relationships that I would have liked under different circumstances. Circumstances that did not revolve around her being shamed for disliking Katniss. The revelations I had about Katniss made me more comfortable with Johanna, but less with Katniss. The narrative continuously suggested that I hate her for not liking Katniss, even though she helped her. I don't understand why, because the whole point of Johanna really is superfluous. It was clear that given the choice to help Katniss or not, Johanna would rather take a bath in salt water with open wounds. Why would you trust someone like that with the "leaders" of your rebellion? Or better yet, if Johanna is smart enough to win a HG, why didn't she just pretend to like her? HG does like its logic inconsistencies, yet Johanna's flummox me even more than the world-building. But the worst offender was when Katniss compared Johanna's intense loathing to that of an older sister's.

Now, logic aside, this is telling on a number of levels. It explains that Katniss cannot imagine anyone hating her and that she has thought of Prim hating her before. There are probably more comparisons to be made**, but the one that stands out the most is that while she seems to relate to Johanna more compassionately than the other does to her, she tells us how easily it would be to kill her. Not just for Peeta's survival, but to shut her up. Now, obviously, the threat itself can't be taken seriously from someone who has never killed anyone out of cold blood. As I said before, Katniss's killings were all of either mercy or vengeance, however it is disturbing that she can compare Johanna to an older sister and then think "Yeah, uh huh, I'd kill her like that for Peeta/for silence". Though, we weren't presented with anything that tells us Johanna chatters on and on. In fact, Katniss seemed to enjoy their sentry talk. Again, inconsistencies.

Still, I'm not sure what is worse, Katniss's pondering of killing an aggressive, confident woman who dislikes her for the guy she likes or killing her for really, no reason at all. Or that she only bonds with her once she has basically become a Broken Bird and all hatred of Katniss is gone.

To throw in the last two women who interacted with Katniss longer than a sentence, both Effie and Madge just didn't have that much of an impact. You would think that the person who gave Katniss the pin would be, but it's telling that they were able to cut it from the movie and still have it make sense. This disappointed me as Madge seemed like the kind of character just waiting to be explored. After the mockingjay exchange, it was meant to be taken that they bonded with on Katniss's return from the Hunger Games, but all we're Told is that Katniss showed her how to hunt and Madge tried and failed to teach Katniss how to play the piano. Effie, on the other hand, I feel is a more cutout character. She has about one fleeting moment where Katniss connects to her, and is then pretty much forgotten until she's released from prison.

So why talk about pre-later seaons Mary Winchester in relation to these female characters? I'd say that for one of the biggest plot devices in television history, she certainly has more character to her than Paula, Prim and Rue put together. If she was pitted against Johanna, I'd bet hands down on Mary***. Johanna, for all her awesome aggressive and confident self, doesn't really have anything to her outside of that. While Finnick gets a beautiful back story, she gets a short don't-got-no-one-left and no philosophizing with Katniss until after she's tortured. (Ouch, Unfortunate Implications much?) Supernatural, even longer before Mary's deeper characterization, had her appearances enthused with fire (though that could simply be Samantha Smith's acting talking). At one point, she even makes an appearance to rescue her sons by sacrificing herself again! Perhaps I should chalk it up to never seeing Prim's devotion manifest itself. How can we believe Katniss's love**** of Prim if we're never shown it or Prim's back?

Reading Hunger Games at a more distant level made these problems clearer to me, as well as the growing trend of puddle-shallow female relationships. What makes it even more troubling is that these books are/have become incredibly popular with its expanded franchise, just like Twilight. I wonder what it says about us when our favorite books have us prioritizing male relationships or demonizing female ones.

(Continued in the following post)

*Honestly, I find it hard to believe that Katniss wouldn't have tried it on Gale when she had the chance just so she could be prepared once she married (had it been Gale or not). Just because Katniss doesn't have sex on the brain does not mean she's "pure". In fact, the argument could be made that she is asexual. Either way, that "pure" line is BS.
**I'll talk more about Sues in general in my next post.
***I'm not saying that Supernatural is the end all, be all of mediums. It does have its own share of problematic tropes, but I'm going to save that for another discussion.
****I'm still skeptical as to the level of healthy love Katniss has for her sister, though talking about healthy love alongside Supernatural is just a tiny bit ironic.

1 comment:

  1. This is a fantastic post! Totally blew me away when I realized her mother has no name.

    New follower!