The Hunger Games, Interstellar, and the Necessity of “Female Stuff”

This holiday season, movies like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 and Interstellar are adding an interesting view on "female stuff."

***This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Interstellar.

A few weeks ago, in discussing the sequel to the wildly successful The Lego Movie, co-director Chris Miller announced that the next film would include “more female characters and more female stuff.” Exciting news, until you read the rest of Miller’s quote about how their decision was prompted in part by Frozen’s success and a sort of universal surprise that female-centric stories are compelling.

A recent op-ed from The Dissolve took exception (rightly so) with the dismissive-sounding qualifier of “more female stuff,” warning against “‘womaning up’ mainstream projects, in hopes of riding a cool new wave of female empowerment.” We already have token female characters; those are the characters who get iced in order to properly motivate their brother’s/father’s/lover’s to revenge.

Similarly, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 star Natalie Dormer told The Daily Beast, “What we’re aiming for in the industry is not to go, ‘Girl power! Wave the flag!’ We want to get to a place where the gender is irrelevant, because then it’s about the personality, and about the story.”

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I’m with Dormer, except for the part about gender being irrelevant. While I clearly don’t advocate for “womaning up” a story without good reason, on the flipside, we also cannot totally ignore gender as it relates to characterization and action. Female vs. male and especially female vs. female dynamics are fascinating because of the position from which the women operate—either needing to overcome inequality or (more interesting to me) the constant tug-of-war between female competition and camaraderie.

While Mockingjay’s male characters are at the center of the action as soldiers (Gale and Boggs rescuing Peeta in the Capitol) or plotters (Beetee and Plutarch jamming the Capitol’s signal from home base), it’s the female dynamics that are truly front-and-center in the story.

The prior two Hunger Games installments saw Katniss grappling with other young women her own age to ensnare the Capitol’s attention even before the Games began: she needed to be prettier and more approachable than Glimmer, but not as crazy and bitter as Johanna. But Mockingjay is the first time that we really see Katniss—who, let’s not forget, is supposed to be 17-years-old—interacting with older women.

However subtly, director Francis Lawrence draws constant comparison between Katniss and District 13’s leader President Alma Coin. As the latter, Julianne Moore wears Coin’s signature gray hair and employs her cheekbones to express an almost skeletal gauntness. Similarly, the first time we see Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), she has been stripped of her youth-giving makeup, poofy outfits, and distracting accessories. She actually looks her age. By contrast, Katniss’ youth is emphasized more than once: after the first disastrous propo taping, one of the men comments that (paraphrased) “she’s a girl, but with all that makeup, she looks like she’s 35.”

When they decide to tape the propos in the field, Katniss meets Cressida (Natalie Dormer), who acts as a hybrid of older sister and mentor. She’s old enough to have been a professional director in the Capitol before she escaped to District 13, but she sports the youthful qualifiers of a partially shaved head and a wicked scalp tattoo.

A major theme in Mockingjay is rebranding, especially of the female characters. It’s something with which Katniss is painfully familiar, as Effie and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) have complained about mitigating her prickliness since her first pre-Games interview. In this case, “rebranding” Katniss means stripping her down to her actual self: Put her out in the field, rile her up, and get her to yell and cry at the camera. “There’s your Mockingjay,” Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) proudly tells Coin.

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But Katniss isn’t the only one whose image has to be massaged. Plutarch also helps Coin change from stiff, concise, and distant to giving impassioned speeches—you see him literally mouthing the words he’s put in her mouth—that inspire District 13 to follow her into war.

And yes, Peeta too becomes a mouthpiece, albeit for the Capitol. But his rebranding comes via torture and brainwashing, whereas Katniss and Coin accept their image makeovers as necessary.

Sometimes Katniss acts as the mentor, as well; in this movie, she spends the most time with her little sister Prim that we’ve seen so far in The Hunger Games films. They share a bunk and often a bed, plagued as Katniss is by nightmares; they share secrets out of earshot; Prim proudly shares her promotion within the hospital and her increasing work as a nurse (The Everdeens’ mother remains, as before, useless, though Katniss appears to resent her less).

Sometimes Katniss acts as the mentor: In this movie, she spends the most time with her little sister Prim that we’ve seen in the series. They share a bunk and often a bed, plagued as Katniss is by nightmares; they share secrets out of earshot; Prim proudly announces her promotion within the hospital and her increasing work as a nurse (the Everdeens’ mother remains, as before, useless, though Katniss appears to resent her less). But even with her new and more mature responsibilities, Prim is still a child: She risks her life saving her cat Buttercup during the bombing. Katniss barely drags her down to the shelter in time, yelling at her little sister for such stupidity during wartime. It’s the reason Prim never could have hacked it in the Games, and how all of this started; more than once, Haymitch and Effie refer to Katniss’ selfless volunteering in place of Prim as her greatest act.

For all of their differences in temperament and adaptability, they’re still blood. Katniss volunteered for Prim without hesitation, because she knew that she was the only one who stood the slimmest chance of surviving. Katniss and Prim bonding in Mockingjay is the necessary follow-through of her action, as we see the ripple effect on Prim’s maturity. Prim took her sister’s sacrifice to heart; in the year or so since that Reaping, she has molded herself into someone deserving of Katniss’ sacrifice. She has always looked up to Katniss, but this is the first time that she can attain peer status with her older sister.

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Sisters are peers, sometimes competitors, mirrors constantly reflecting back and forth on one another. Like in The Hunger GamesFrozen hinges on an act of sibling sacrifice—true love greater than even the most romantic kiss. If Elsa and Anna had been brothers, or a brother and sister, you wouldn’t have the same movie.

Consider the events that shaped the princesses’ childhood: Elsa’s powers lead to an accident that almost kills Anna, so Elsa’s parents alter the girls’ memories and force their elder daughter to hide her abilities from her best friend. Even though the troll king says he’ll remove the magic, “but leave the fun,” he still cuts a chunk out of the girls’ relationship.

Removing Anna’s memories of magic dilutes the memories, makes them normal; the sisters are bonded by nothing more special than any other children. Add that to the fact that Elsa is now paralyzed with fear that her changing body will somehow hurt her sister, and abruptly withdraws from all interactions. Sisterhood is about bonding over the things we have in common, but there is no opportunity even for that.

Then their parents die in a shipwreck. At the key moment in which the girls should be united, their bonds are too fragile to do so. When Elsa doesn’t even leave her room for the funeral, Anna knows she’s lost her sister as well. Which brings us to the movie’s present, where both princesses are complete basket cases. Elsa is too scared to even open the gates of Arendelle, effectively isolating them from their own kingdom. Then there’s Anna, who is so starved for love that she talks to the paintings on the wall (cute) and leaps into an engagement with a handsome prince she has only just met (not so cute).

Not to draw too large of a generalization, but you wouldn’t see these neuroses in young men. At least, not all of them—not this fear of one’s own body and this yearning (and, we later find out, dangerous) desire for someone to find her worthy. And that’s okay for the characters’ personality traits to be more obviously female. As we see more and more female characters in movies, these fictional women are allowed to be more fucked up now.

In talking about gender, Dormer also told The Daily Beast, “What I love about Mockingjay – Part 1 is that President Coin or Cressida could have easily been played by a man, and if you look at Interstellar, the Anne Hathaway or Jessica Chastain roles would have been men years ago.”

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She’s not wrong in her assessment, but making these four characters female have led to much better dynamics. If Coin and Cressida were male, Katniss would find less in common (or in stark opposition) to them. She’s already got Gale and President Snow as comrade and nemesis; her relationships with Coin and Cressida must be more nuanced. And yes, if Interstellar had come out closer to the time of the original screenplay, we may indeed have seen Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper interacting with his son Murphy. But where’s the fun in that?

Murph’s bond with Cooper is more powerful because she’s his daughter. Even though his son Tom is following in his dad’s footsteps as a farmer, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is the one who is truly Coop’s shadow. That makes her bitterness at being left behind on Earth all the more difficult to watch—but these scenes are also necessary. If anything, Coop’s adult children swap gender roles: Tom (Casey Affleck) is stalwart and keeps his head down while Murph (Chastain) rages and rebels against their absent father and dying planet.

Making Murph female also strengthens the significance of her losing a father when Coop goes on his mission, but gaining a father figure in the form of Professor Brand (Michael Caine). This goes both ways: the professor knows—more than anyone—that he’s sent his daughter away from Earth forever, but in the 28 years that they’re gone, he still gets to pass on knowledge, hope, and the painful truth to a surrogate daughter.

Then you have Amelia waxing poetic about love up in space. Although Anne Hathaway’s speech is one of the movie’s most polarizing moments, it can’t have been a mistake that she is the one to introduce the notion of love as “transcend[ing] dimensions of time and space.” Not only Coop, but also most of the audience, dismisses her speech as that of a lovesick woman abandoning all rational thought for her selfish happiness. But she turns out to be very, very right. Even though it’s Coop who later puts everything into motion, he validates Amelia’s theory.

Frozen, Mockingjay, and Interstellar are centered on female vs. female dynamics, and they’re better for it. In subverting the expected character tropes and not shying away from making their women damaged, they encompass the whole female experience. We should certainly continue to move toward a place where maleness is not the baseline for a compelling character, but we would be badly served to swing to the other extreme and eradicate gender entirely.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!