Friday, March 23, 2012

The Friday Discussion: Katniss Everdeen: The Good Kind of Poor Person

This is a guest post. Tom Houseman was born white, straight, male, cis, and rich. He has done a lot of work unpacking and understanding his many forms of privilege. He is far from perfect, and still says wildly ignorant and inappropriate things on occasion, but he is learning. Mostly he just sits down, shuts up, and listens. He writes film reviews and analysis for

The Hunger Games is a great book, and its exploration of the impact of class, wealth, and status on the world, both socially and politically, is remarkably complex and mature for a work that targets a young adult audience. The ways in which the government dominates and subjugates the districts while placating the citizens of the capitol is fairly spot on as a allegory for modern society, although in The Hunger Games the government is the sole perpetrator of these wrongs, as there are no corporations in this communist dictatorship.

Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen, who lives squarely under the heel of the boot of the capitol. She is one of the poorest citizens in one of the poorest districts, and yet she is able to fight back against the oppressive government and help lead the rebellion. She is smart, clever, self-reliant and brave. She is, in fact, everything you could ask for in a poor person.

Several people have written about the idea of good poor people vs. bad poor people. Elizabitchez sums it up very well ( regarding the idea that we have about how a poor person is supposed to act to earn our sympathy and respect. This is an idea that is true of many marginalized communities, especially the overweight. One of Chris Rock's most famous standup bits perfectly articulates the idea of the good black person vs. the bad black person (Black People vs. N***as). Rich people and conservative politicians have so many ways of arguing that poor people deserve to be poor if they can't pull themselves out of poverty (without quality education or healthcare, of course), and if any poor person embodies any of these characteristics, they are written off. But Katniss manages to avoid all of these pitfalls, which is why we have no reason not to care about her and root for her. Here are some of the reasons why Katniss Everdeen is the perfect poor person.

1. She is Young and Pretty
Thereby obviously making her more worthy of our attention than a poor person who might not have been born with similar aesthetic qualities or who is too old to be worth caring about. In the movie they even make her whiter (her skin color is described as “olive” in the books) just to increase our sympathy for her.

2. She is Articulate and Well Mannered
Katniss is very well spoken, both in her dialogue and in her first-person narration in the book. I do not know if Suzanne Collins intended for Katniss to have an accent. It is never implied in the books that she does and she does not have one in either the audio recording of the book or in the movie, despite the fact that District 12 is located in the Appalachian Mountains. Certain kinds of accents (Southern, Cajun, Cockney) are often associated with people who are poor and uneducated, and these people tend to be mocked for their accents. Having a General American accent precludes Katniss from this kind of ridicule.

There is a scene in The Hunger Games when Katniss and Peeta are eating their first meal after being selected to compete in the Hunger Games. They are on the train with Effie Trinket, their chaperone, and Effie comments that she is thankful that both of them have table manners. She makes a derisive comment about previous tributes who ate with their hands. While this passage cements our impression of Effie as a snob, it is true that people are judged on their table manners. Katniss notes that she was taught table manners by her mother, but that when eating clover and scraps of meat her top concern was never making sure that she was using the correct fork. If we see a poor person eating sloppily or not using a napkin, we definitely judge them for such behavior, as if slurping soup is an indication that somebody deserves to be poor.

3. She Depends on Nobody but Herself
After her father died Katniss became the the primary source of livelihood for her family. Because of her skill with a bow and her knowledge of edible plants she is able to hunt and gather enough food to keep her family alive. Of course, she only has this knowledge and these skills because her father taught them to her. Had her father not imparted her with this information, she would not be able single-handedly support her family.

What would she have done then? And how would our impression of her change? What if, before Katniss was chosen to take part in the Hunger Games, she had been a beggar, relying on the charity of her community to keep her and her family alive? Would we still cheer for her, or would we call her lazy and pathetic. Instead of being called The Girl On Fire, Katniss would have a very different nickname: “Welfare Queen.” Our society respects poor people who are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the Ragged Dicks and Katniss Everdeens, and we despise poor people who cannot accomplish the same thing. Characters like Katniss make it easy to imagine that all poor people should be able to survive without welfare or food stamps, and that people who do rely on social services are simply not trying hard enough.

On a similar note, how would our impression of Katniss change if the only way she had found to support her family was through prostitution? Would a sex worker make as sympathetic a protagonist? Almost certainly not.

4.                  She is Able Bodied and Mentally Stable
Of course, it is not just her father's lessons that allow Katniss to keep her family alive. If Katniss were physically handicapped, either at birth or through an accident, what would we think of her? If she needed a wheel chair or crutches (as one of her competitors from District 10 does) she would not be able to hunt, or even to slide under the fence that divides district 12 from the woods. If her body were not as completely functional as it is she would be forced to either beg or starve.

Her brain gives her a similar privilege. Katniss suffers from no mental illnesses, which makes it much easier for her to provide for her family. The same is not true of two other characters in the novel, and we are meant to look down on them for it. After Katniss's father dies, her mother spirals into grief, unable to get out of bed, putting her children's health and safety in peril. Katniss has little pity for her mother, who may be suffering from depression, but of course could not afford therapy or medication even if were available. The way in which Katniss's mother is presented is not sympathetic at all.

The same is true of Haymitch, the mentor of Katniss and Peeta in the Hunger Games. Haymitch is the only living champion from District 12, and we learn that by surviving the Hunger Games he saw his best friend die and then had his entire family killed by the government. It is clear that Haymitch's alcoholism is an effect of PTSD, but we do not learn that until the second book of the series. Throughout the first book Haymitch is consistently presented as drunken and buffoonish, deserving of mockery but not respect. This is a very common perspective on poor people who suffer from alcoholism. They are seen as not worthy of help because they cannot help themselves.

5. She Only Breaks the Right Rules
Dan Waters wrote a piece for Womanist Musings about surviving poverty (, and a few of his tips involved stealing. The vitriol spewed at him in the comments section was overwhelming. People didn't understand that he was stealing not because he was evil and wanted to single-handedly destroy small businesses, but because the alternative was not eating. This is a common tactic among conservatives who love to attack poor people. When black survivors of Hurricane Katrina were scouring the city for food, everybody assumed they were looters, and they were attacked by both the media and politicians for illegally trying to keep themselves and their families alive.

Katniss is not a law-abiding citizen. She sneaks under the fence that is meant to keep citizens in District 12, and hunts in the forest, which is illegal. She also trades in the black market. These are all seen as “acceptable” forms of law breaking. Like Robin Hood and Aladdin, she is breaking the rules established by the rich, corrupt, bad guys, and so we root for her instead of accusing her of causing the downfall of society. And of course, it really helps that she is young, pretty, and light-skinned.

I am not trying to criticize Susanne Collins or Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is a great character and a complex protagonist who grows and develops throughout the Hunger Games trilogy. Compared to Harry Potter, who has mountains of privilege, Katniss's story of overcoming overwhelming hardship makes for a compelling story. But I believe that it is worth noting that Katniss seems designed to be the perfect poor person. Virtually every criticism our society has of poor people does not apply to Katniss, which is why it is okay for us to care about her.

We often hold up these atypical people who are exemplary of the model of what we wish all oppressed people would be, such as Daniela Pelaez, who was the valedictorian of her Miami high school and an undocumented immigrant. And if we cannot find one, we invent one, from the hypothetical overweight person who runs marathons and eats only salad to Katniss Everdeen. But by holding up these people, real or imagined, as examples of oppressed people who deserve to be treated with respect, we ignore the bigger issue, which is that all oppressed people deserve to be treated with respected. By only looking at the perfect anomalies we are supporting the idea that fat people who eat fast food, or black people who do drugs, or poor people who steal, deserve the treatment they get because they aren't perfect. By acknowledging that nobody is perfect, but that even imperfect people should not be treated like second-class citizens, we can focus on the real problems, both social and political, that our country so often ignores.

Tom Houseman was born white, straight, male, cis, and rich. He has done a lot of work unpacking and understanding his many forms of privilege. He is far from perfect, and still says wildly ignorant and inappropriate things on occasion, but he is learning. Mostly he just sits down, shuts up, and listens. He writes film reviews and analysis for