Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 3: agency

I’m on the Hunger Games again today. Again, spoilers for the trilogy – please go read the books first, then come back.

When the Hunger Games film was released, much was made of Katniss as a female lead. Some people praised this strong female role model, drawing comparisons with the way Hollywood normally treats women. Others were more critical, challenging whether she actually has any control over her life, or is just a victim with more action. These are interesting points, but for me they point at something deeper, highlighting how Suzanne Collins treats individual agency in these books.

First, a point of terminology. Agency, a term I first came across in an undergrad social science module, refers to a person’s level of free will and control over their own life. It’s contrasted with structure, where our actions are defined by the existing forms of society and the world. So, when a criminal burgles a house you could ask how far this was his choice (agency) and how far it was the result of his limited learning opportunities and poverty (structure).

How does this related to Katniss? She’s flung into a life-threatening struggle by a brutal society and historic circumstances (structure), combined with her own choice to protect her sister (agency). Within the game, she is severely constricted by the nature of the game (structure), and by the plottings of others (structure, or at least not her agency). But she deals with this using her own skills and force of will (agency). Her actions are seldom a matter just of free choice or constraint. The final act of defiance with the berries is one of desperation, a startling free choice that goes against all the norms (agency) but is still constricted by the circumstances of the game (structure). In the world of the Hunger Games, as in real life, structure and agency are not separate but intertwine in a complex fashion. Freedom is a matter of compromise and interpretation.

This exploration of agency goes further in the later books, as Katniss is drawn, sometimes without realising, into the politics of Panem. Agency becomes much more complicated, with people acting as groups. As the resistance led by District 13 make harsh decisions, it becomes harder to tell how far any of the characters are following a path they would choose, or how far they are being driven by circumstances. Even as they make collective decisions, does this give them agency as part of a powerful group, or restrict that agency through the structures of the group.

Looking inward, Katniss’s own agency becomes questionable. As she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, how far are her decisions really a matter of free will (agency), and how far are they defined by the disorders from which she suffers (structure)?

Many stories simplify these issues, presenting characters as in control of their lives, or breaking free of the structures that bind them. Much like The Prisoner, their tales cry out ‘I am a free man!’ The Hunger Games takes a much more nuanced approach, and it is this that makes it so difficult to define Katniss’s place as a female lead. This is a strength of the books, not a weakness.

So, if you’ve read this far, what do you think? Did you see the same things in the books as I have? What do you think of Katniss as a lead character?